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Democrat and Chronicle (US)
Rochester, New York, newspaper
Thursday, August 14, 2003
Transendental, mystical thoughts move through Tori Amos' music, life experiences
by Jeff Spevak
Democrat and Chronicle
Cosmic experiences appear to happen to Tori Amos as often as you or I take a trip to the grocery store.
A couple of years ago, the quirky piano muse says she noticed an upswing in Native Americans appearing backstage at her shows, bearing messages of concern about the state of their ancient land. "They told me, 'This is your homeland. . . . You need to protect her,'" Amos says.
In the past, Amos has often spoken of faeries as a real presence. Earlier in this telephone conversation, Amos had made a reference to bringing her wine cellar along on this tour, which stops Sunday at Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center with your sommelier of ironic piano pop, Ben Folds. So it seems quite natural to wonder whether this was a metaphorical encounter, or maybe it was a half-empty bottle of $49.95 1995 Drouhin-Laroze Chambertin Clos de Beze red Burgundy sitting in front of her.
"No!" she says, defending the realness of her encounter. "This was sacred tobacco, the whole thing, people coming backstage saying, 'We have a message for the singer.' What do you say, 'Piss off?' They don't show up every day, but they showed up a few times. And these people walk the walk.
"These people held my feet to the fire. They talked about instilling a love for our land and our history and our spirit."
That spirit appears to have been distilled into Scarlet's Walk, her 2002 release that, in only the most subtle way, could be described as Amos' response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Amos was calling last week from her tour stop in Phoenix, where she was enjoying "the most wonderful heat. I just love being an iguana." She laughs when it's suggested that a chameleon might be the better Tori lizard.
The daughter of a Methodist preacher and a part-Cherokee mother, Amos was a piano prodigy. She began studying at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory at 5, but was dismissed by the time she was 11 because she insisted on playing by ear. Even at that early age, she was taking on the colors of a rock and roll rebel.
She tried on the skin of a big-haired bimbo chick fronting a froth-metal band called Y Kant Tori Read, which played a single live show before being signed to a record deal by the same guy who discovered Twisted Sister. Y Kant Tori Read released one album, then died a quick death (Unfortunately, Twisted Sister did not). But the ghost haunts Amos to this day; fans and critics still ask her about the album.
Armed with a new vision that sounded a lot like Kate Bush but with more blood, Amos began anew in 1991 and recorded Little Earthquakes , featuring songs that sounded like personal diary entries. The most startling was "Me and a Gun," the true story of how Amos was sexually assaulted in Washington, D.C. The experience later fueled her founding of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which aids victims of such assaults. The songs of Little Earthquakes, which burned like blisters on Amos' fair skin, touched off an intense artist-fan relationship that brings to mind a mass stalking.
Scarlet's Walk is a different road. She's since married an English sound engineer named Mark Hawley, with whom she's had a daughter, Natashya. They have homes in Florida and Cornwall, England, "this big, old barn that's 350 years old, something like that, really old, in the middle of farming country," she says. "There's a dairy farmer on one side, a chicken farm on the other, not too far from the coast."
On the recommendation of Peter Gabriel, Amos says, the old barn has been updated with a number of recording studios and a large control room. Because an artist needs control of his or her work, Gabriel explained. Amos likes to be in control. "Like that guy in Star Trek," she says. "What's the bald guy?"
(We checked later with a casual Trekkie: That bald guy would be Star Trek: The Next Generation commander Jean-Luc Picard, played by the bald Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart.)
Control is an issue with Amos today. Her bi-oceanic address gives her two perspectives on what's happening in the world since Sept. 11. She's particularly struck by one lesson.
"It's a big one, and very disturbing," Amos says. "It's about our access to information. We believe that we have access to information when we're here, until you go outside of the United States and see how other people are being questioned, how their administrations are being held to the fire. Whatever you say about the BBC, their reporters are able to do a basic thing, report. Reporters are able to ask questions and not be threatened. . . . I was always taught you could ask a question and not be shamed, and be booed out of the room.
"And that's what I've found here, a question of civil rights, and how emotional blackmail was being used to control the masses. Because of what I do, I run into a lot of journalists whose hands are tied."
Amos describes Scarlet's Walk as a 21st-century version of The Red Branch Tales, a collection of 30 Irish stories from the 12th century. "I kind of thought of the old days, when troubadours set up camp and spread the news," she says. "I wanted Scarlet's Walk to be a space for people to come and network and trade ideas."
Scarlet's Walk offers very little obvious comment on the world since Sept. 11, but each song is a story in which a central character, Scarlett, encounters an idea of what America stands for since the twin towers fell.
"I was in Europe, and people were burning American flags, singing 'Abraham, Martin and John,'" Amos says. I talked with service guys, and they said, 'We love our country, but a lot of us are torn, because we don't know who the good guys are.'"
That, Amos says, was the spiritual message of the Native Americans who felt our country's leaders were "pimping her out."
"There has to be a commitment to a caretaking idea," Amos says. "I think that was born the day we were attacked on the 11th. With the attack and the death, there was an idea born.
"Just because you hold office doesn't mean you are acting in the best interest of the country: Scarlet can be what that is. This is a work based on real people and real events. It is a sonic novel. Scarlett is a real person who didn't accept what she was being told."
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