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Omaha World Herald (US)
Omaha, Nebraska, newspaper
Thursday, March 20, 2003

Finding that uncomfort zone

by Christine Laue

Tori Amos has just visited Niagara Falls with her 2-year-old, Natashya, after plowing through a Michigan snowstorm in a tour bus. The wintry weather has created an icy wonderland for Natashya's imagination to run as wild as that of her storytelling mother.

"She's convinced the ice mermaids are there telling her secrets," Amos said.

"Of course they are," Amos replied. "What are they telling you?"

"That I want some candy."

The whimsical moment between mother and daughter contrasts with the time Amos spends on stage with her audience every night addressing more solemn matters - the kidnapping of America from its native people, the pornography industry, a midair plane crash, abandonment by lovers and near suicide.

"I don't leave any stone unturned," Amos said about her live performances, which will include a Monday tour stop at Omaha's Orpheum. "It might be uncomfortable for some people, but then those people shouldn't be coming to my shows."

Amos has been making people uncomfortable for years. A child prodigy on classical piano, Amos insisted on playing her original pop compositions at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore and found herself without a scholarship. She has sung about her own rape - in "Me and a Gun" from her solo debut, 1992's "Little Earthquakes" - and let a piglet suckle her breast in a picture for her 1996 album, "Boys for Pele."

Through her provocative and intimate songwriting, Amos has garnered a cultlike following that has pushed her to the forefront of the singer-songwriter genre. She has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide and has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards.

Her latest album, "Scarlet's Walk," released last October, has been hailed by some critics as her best and made it onto many of last year's best-of lists. For an artist who has been known let her artistic goals occasionally prevail over consumer-friendly albums, "Scarlet's Walk" has proved to be both a commercial and critical success.

Amos, speaking from Buffalo, N.Y., shied away from commenting on whether it was her best album.

"Some albums are just a reflection of where you are at that time; they are a collection of songs, and some of the songs are stronger than others," she said. "I think there are a couple that I've done that are complete works. And Scarlet's Walk is one that seems to be a complete work."

Amos describes "Scarlet's Walk" as a "sonic novel," in which she uses the character of Scarlet and other women to weave a story about Scarlet's travels across America, with each song representing a stop along the way. The highly personal and political album examines America's identity crisis and challenges the history Americans are taught.

Amos, daughter of a Methodist minister and a homemaker mother of Cherokee heritage, said the album was inspired by a mysterious visit by a Native-American medicine woman to a concert stop on her 2001 tour. The singer had started research for the album but hadn't even told her husband. But the woman, who didn't know Amos from Cher, arrived at the show and insisted on telling her story so that Amos could address Native-American issues properly.

"Somehow they knew I was doing this," Amos said, her voice lowering to a whisper. "I don't ask questions when it comes to that stuff."

The woman spoke for 45 minutes about the soul of the country, explaining that the white brother only owns the land but is not the protector. She was not angry.

"Humble," Amos said, her voice nearly cracking. "But powerful."

"It's core for them, the relation with the earth," Amos said. "They can't be bought, and they can't be manipulated in that way. And they see through the people who have their agendas."

Amos' examination of the white man's power over the indigenous people is a constant theme in the album, in obvious ways, such as the song titled "wampum prayer," and in subtle ways, with single lines scattered throughout the album's other songs, such as "A Sorta Fairytale," in which she sings: "we're just impostors in this country."

"The research on this was really intriguing," Amos said. "I had no idea when I started what I wanted the work to be, but as I got more and more drawn into it, I began to see that America was a character and that she was being personified by the women. That's how I was getting to know the soul of this country, by meeting these women."

Scarlet starts her journey on the West Coast, where she visits "Amber Waves," a phrase found in "America, the Beautiful," and the name of a porn star in the movie "Boogie Nights." She visits some of the last stands of the Native Americans, confronts an old flame in Las Vegas and struggles with whether she can join a Latino revolutionary to kill for a cause. In the end, she can't load the gun.

Scarlet also witnesses a midair plane crash in "I Can't See New York." Amos, who was in the city on Sept. 11, 2001, said that while the song has obvious echoes of that day, the album's explorations of America's identity and role in international politics were not triggered by the terrorist attacks.

"America was coming to a crossroads before that," Amos said. "Sept. 11 was the explosion ... People are beginning to see that a lot of our beliefs, what we believe in, what we think we are is not what is being enacted in our name, and it's quite heartbreaking. So I think I was being driven to look in the shadows. And as you know, it's not in the shadows anymore - the idea that we are the benevolent ones. Right now, we are the malevolent ones."

Whether Amos is challenging listeners to question the looming war or American history, concertgoers won't hear her preaching on stage. She scoffed at the idea.

"You talk in songs," she said.

Amos started using songs as her megaphone when she was the age her daughter is today, tinkering on a piano at 21/2 years old. Today, at 39, after giving birth to her daughter and a highly personal and passionate project, she said she can't even imagine what is next for her. For now, she is concentrating on Natashya and Scarlet, who like Amos, gives birth to a daughter at the end of her journey.

"I'm spent. I'm holding a torch for this," she said. "It's about going from town to town and bringing the fire to each town and seeing other people's stories. Scarlet's walk is one thing, and I had to be Tori walking it."

Concert stop
Where:
Orpheum, 409 S. 16th St.
How much: $ 37.50
Information: 422-1212


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