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The Tribune (US)
San Luis Obispo, California, newspaper
April 11, 2003

Tori Amos combines childhood memories and research to tell the American Indian experience on her latest CD, 'Scarlet's Walk'

By Jessica Yadegaran

The spirits have always spoken to Tori Amos. This time, they came in person. It was shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The singer-songwriter was touring through the emotionally ravaged country when American Indian leaders began appearing at her shows. They didn't come for her seductive piano rock. They came to deliver messages.

News had reached the tribes that Amos, one of the most innovative female artists of the past decade, was working on an album about America and its sins against native peoples, including Amos' Cherokee ancestors.

One soothsayer - a mysterious woman in her 50s - still haunts Amos: "If you are going to speak about American history," she warned, "then you need to tell 'herstory', not just history. The ancestors will support you if you do this, and you will do this. It is decided. However you need to be clear. Times will become more strained and more difficult."

This message and other real-life experiences sparked "Scarlet's Walk," Amos' seventh and arguably most imaginative album. More a sonic novel than a collection of songs, Amos employs fiction techniques to tell the tragedies that have befallen America and the consequences of her own broken moral compass. The album was self-produced and recorded with Amos' engineer husband, Mark Hawley, in their Cornwall, England, studio.

Using songs as chapters, we follow Amos' alter-ego, Scarlet, as she zig-zags on a road trip across the country, meeting the different women who personify America:

"Amber Waves," a porn star from Los Angeles; a mystical Apache woman in "Wampum Prayer"; and a manic-depressive named 'Carbon," with whom she travels to Wounded Knee.

The more people Scarlet meets, the more she begins to believe that, sadly Sept. 11 was one of the first times many Americans felt their country's soul. "A collective memory is ignited because of Sept. 11," Amos said in a recent phone interview. "Scarlet begins to see that it's a world teaching, it affects everybody in different ways, and it's an opportunity for questions to be asked."

Sandwiched between her Bosendorfer pianos, Amos will play her emotional, thought-provoking songs in an intimate concert Tuesday at the Performing Arts Center. This is her first appearance in San Luis Obispo. Since her 1992 debut, "Little Earthquakes," went platinum, Amos has earned a reputation for mixing sensual live performances -straddling her bench and tossing back her mane of red hair- with subtle, spiritual songs that match her guttural voice.

Shortly after Amos' encounter with the American Indian woman, the songwriter called upon researchers at Haskell University to help her accurately depict the American Indian experience on "Scarlet's Walk." "I realized I was walking into something that was sacred I had to do the research, and I couldn't do it alone. I needed a support system," said Amos, who has been nominated for eight Grammys.

She filled in the blanks with memories from her childhood porch in North Carolina, where her Cherokee grandfather shared nightly tales of his people. "He would smoke his pipe and tell stories, and we would gather around. The women would snap the beans, and he would have a way of pulling together the things that no one wanted to talk about," Amos said.

The singer attributes her gift of storytelling to her grandfather. From him, she learned how to use symbology and wordplay to blend fact and fiction, resulting in otherworldly songs tinged with magical realism. She uses her grandfather's techniques on "Scarlet's Walk" to examine how the history of American imperialism resonates today While working on the album, Amos met with numerous American Indians who explained how, in their eyes, early decisions such as the segregation of native people has resulted in our current political climate.

"They knew there would be a consequence, and we're dealing with it today," Amos said. "It's part of our genetic makeup, why we feel it's OK to go and take. Whether it's the Native American lands or why it's OK to go into the Middle East and take."

By the end of her journey, Scarlet gives birth to a daughter. Two years ago, Amos did the same. And though she has sold millions of albums and influenced scores of female singers, these days Amos is more excited about vocal warm-ups to "Ring Around the Rosey" with little Natashya.

The singer believes her position on the American Indian medicine wheel shifted with the birth of her daughter. It's something she discussed that day with the female soothsayer.

"When you become a mother, you begin to serve the tribe," Amos said. "You serve the children. You put others first. You become more of a lighthouse than a wild ship out in the middle of the ocean throwing your hair about."


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