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The Philadelphia Inquirer (US)
Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Counting the pieces of Tori Amos' world

By David Hiltbrand
Inquirer Staff Writer

Tori Amos, pop's most numinous star, inspires fierce loyalty among her fans. So much so that the last time she came through town, bands of women wafted through the crowd at the Tweeter like cult priestesses in gauzy gowns, their hair dyed vivid hues of red.

"If their hair color is good, could they give me the recipe?" asks Amos, on the phone from her recording studio near her home in Cornwall, England. The North Carolina native also has residences in Florida and Ireland. "I'm always looking for a better shade of red."

She certainly understands the impulse to emulate a singing idol. When she was 11, Amos went to a Led Zeppelin concert dressed like Robert Plant.

She was just a little too anatomically correct.

"I didn't understand the whole sock-and-trouser thing," she says. "People gave me such odd looks when they saw the bulge in my pants."

Because her fans are so devoted, Amos, 41, feels impelled to give them extra value. So not only is she putting out her new CD, The Beekeeper, today, but Broadway Books has published a 348-page companion to it, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece.

The book, a collaboration with veteran music journalist Ann Powers, was designed to document the making of The Beekeeper. But as Powers e-mailed questions across the Atlantic, the scope of Piece by Piece grew more ambitious.

"I would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning before Tash got up," Amos says, referring to her 4-year-old daughter, Natashya. "That's when I could write the book. Any other time it was too studied and it was cutting into my music time. I usually don't feel like playing the piano at 4 in the morning. But I was able to pad down the stairs and cuddle up with a cup of tea and start writing by hand."

The book contains a fair amount of autobiography. Amos writes at length about spiritual insights imparted by her part-Cherokee grandfather, about her pregnancy difficulties, and about her bitter battles with her previous label, Atlantic. (Though not about her rape, which was memorialized in her song "Me and a Gun.")

But Piece by Piece is neither linear nor literal enough to be accounted a memoir. Amos, who seems to live with one foot in the misty realm of myth, fills page after page celebrating her psychic links to goddesses Egyptian (Sekhmet), Roman (Venus), and pagan (Corn Mother).

"Because I use archetypes a lot in my work," Amos says, "and Ann has researched this, it became a meeting point, sort of like a centerpiece. She could go off into her corridors and I would go into mine. But we could come back to the centerpiece to talk symbolically and archetypally."

Powers enters into the text's lofty mystical tone with abandon. Explaining the title, for instance, she writes: "Amos has scrutinized and renewed herself, piece by piece... . She has been that feline queen, that graceful dancer, that sorrowful matriarch."

One practical element of Piece by Piece is the "Song Canvas," passages in which Amos delineates her inspiration for each of The Beekeeper's 19 songs. Some are clear ("Parasol" is based on a Seurat painting). Others follow an interior logic (Of "Ireland," she writes, "I figured if [it] was referring to James Joyce, then it needed to have nuns, and if it had nuns, then it needed to have white-collar sadomasochists from Wall Street, and if it had that, then it needed to have Vikings...").

Amos considers herself a channel for songs rather than their creator. She says on the phone, for instance, that "Jamaica Inn" (the title taken from a Daphne DuMaurier novel) literally came to her as she was parked by a foggy Cornwall cliff. "The song," she says, "waltzed into my passenger seat and as she sat down, she began to weave a tale of a modern love triangle."

The music on The Beekeeper is a bit of a departure for Amos, as she plays a Hammond B-3 organ in addition to her beloved Bsendorfer piano. It creates a sound that in her estimation is more masculine and soulful.

"Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were like a left hand for me. And Al Green, of course," she says. "I knew I wanted to bring in a gospel chorus because I was using Christian and gnostic traditions and the beekeeping culture. It was spiritual and yet very sensual to sing with those women and some of those men. I felt like I was at a revival meeting where all the goddesses were present."

The deities will be her only accompaniment when she comes over for a solo tour in the spring. She's particularly looking forward to her show at the Kimmel Center, scheduled for April 11.

"I've always loved playing Philadelphia because I see it as this kind of sister ship to New York and D.C.," she says. "And Philly is the friendly sister. The set list is usually much freer and more spontaneous because I don't feel I have to guard myself."

As usual, her husband (sound engineer Mark Hawley) and daughter will travel with her. But Natashya won't be joining Mom on stage anytime soon. "There are parts of my show I don't allow her to see," Amos explains. "It's too overtly sexual, and I don't think young children should be exposed to that."

Of course it's virtually impossible to shield a child from all baleful influences when you're out on the road. "Sometimes after a show Tasha will say something and I'll realize, 'Uh-oh, she's been hanging out on the crew bus again.'"

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com


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