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The Improper Bostonian (US)
a free bi-weekly arts and entertainment magazine in Boston, MA
August 13, 2003

Scarlet's Web

Tori Amos finds new wisdom and maturity through an American travelogue that grew into her latest album.

by Paul Robicheau

When Tori Amos pulls into the FleetBoston Pavilion Aug. 24, she'll be two days past her 40th birthday. And although the singer-pianist has always been more of a sophisticated pop eccentric than an MTV cornflake girl, she clearly has the milestone in mind when she considers her long-term career.

"For a while, we've been caught up in worshipping the youth culture, which is very dangerous, because you lose all that wisdom from the women in the tribe," says Amos, who has been making tremors since her 1992 solo debut, Little Earthquakes, wrapping piano filigrees around ethereal soprano musings.

"So many people want to be 24 when they're almost 40, but more people at 24 should want to be more like 40, especially when they open their mouth," Amos says from a California tour stop. "Sometimes I think the women's magazines have done us a disservice, because they've devalued what it takes to gain wisdom, and what it takes to carry grace, and that's about experience. You can't go to the gym and get that."

Amos' experience thus far includes seven albums, eight Grammy nominations and countless tours. The songs on her latest CD, Scarlet's Walk, came out of Amos' reflections on the American experience as she traveled across the U.S. in the fall of 2001.

"The feeling that if you asked questions, you were betraying your country was something that I found was troubling people," she says of that tour in the wake of 9/11. "The work was changing as I saw how people were questioning their relationship with America as a soul. A lot of America has not been about the soul of the land. It's about the forefathers who control the land."

For the CD's narrative, however, Amos departed from her past writing style to convey the songs through a character named Scarlet, whose travels paralleled her own journey in some ways, but not all. "I needed people to see themselves in Scarlet," she says. "I might be in Scarlet, but she was her own persona--and she changed me. She had four lovers in the story. When I was writing it, I wasn't having four lovers. My husband has asked me this question!"

Songs range from romantic encounters to the haunting 9/11-shaded confusion of "I Can't See New York" to "Gold Dust," in which Scarlet gives birth to a child--as Amos did in September, 2000. Several songs also contemplate the plight of Native Americans, as subject that strikes a personal chord with Amos, who used to listen to stories told by her part-Cherokee maternal grandfather.

"His belief was that until the land could be seen as sovereign and autonomous, and as a spiritual mother, we as European-Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans--the whole ball of wax--are not caretakers for the country," she says. "We're just takers. We are not nurturing and leaving anything for several generations from now. He said to me, a generation must rise--to redefine generation, it's not an age, it's a consciousness. And that has really stayed with me, the idea of redefining power."

Given that Amos' fans rank among the most fanatical in pop music, such adulation could provide its own sense of empowerment. But she says, "You can't get drawn into that. You really have to see yourself as a space. You hold a space for people to come and claim their own sovereignty."

Growing up, Amos claimed her musical sovereignty from a broad pool. A piano prodigy, she studied at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory from age 5, but rebelled against the classical regimen and was expelled at age 11. She shifted her focus to musicians like Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin over the years to follow.

"People have impressions of the piano that I don't have," Amos says. "My kind of orientation as a keyboard player has been Jimi Hendrix." Now, after spending most of her career performing in a dramatic solo context, she tours in a trio format with bassist Jon Evans and drummer Matt Chamberlain. And in addition to her trusty Bosendorfer grand piano, Amos takes turns on Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. The Wurlitzer was used by Country Joe and the Fish at the original Woodstock. Now it's painted with a Cherokee flag.

Amos' current tour ends just in time for her daughter Nataysha's third birthday. "Ballet class starts in September, so the clock's ticking," says Amos. "We made a deal that I'm going to be off the road by her birthday. The last show is September 4th and her birthday's September 5th. I wouldn't say I don't cut it close, but I only sort of make it before I turn into a pumpkin."


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