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by Tom Lanham
There's a distinct thematic thread weaving through The Beekeeper, the latest opulent project from visionary keyboardist/vocalist Tori Amos. If only the scattered songstress could make up her mind exactly what it is. To begin with, she opens a rambling hourlong chat with a humble apology--all morning long, she's been working furiously in her home studio, a 300-year-old barn on an estate in rural Cornwall, England. "Sometimes it takes me a minute to refocus, to gather my thoughts," she explains. "Just so you know that and you don't end up thinking, 'Will she hurry up and talk?' I've been mastering the record, and since November 2 [of last year], the album has taken a different turn, mainly because there were a couple of life-changing things that happened to me."
Ask anyone who's ever met the green-eyed, delicate-framed, flame-haired singer--Amos, 41, comes across as one of the sweetest, most environmentally concerned people on the planet. Sometimes awkwardly so. In 2002, when discussing her last effort Scarlet's Walk--which explored her part-Cherokee heritage--she frequently broke into tears recalling all the Earth-revering Native American lessons our country has forgotten in two short centuries. The mother of a four-year-old daughter, Natashya, Amos cares so much it often hurts. So it's no surprise when she gets choked up again over her recent painful epiphanies: "One was that we all had to face the reality of the next four years, and the choice. And then I lost my brother in a tragic car accident a couple of weeks ago."
Bush's re-election, Amos says, forced her hand, politically. She hastily added two new indictments to Beekeeper--"General Joy," which references "a soldier girl and a willing coalition"; And a duet with Damien Rice, "The Power Of Orange Knickers," which she intended as a statement "that violence isn't the answer to everything, and using the idea of terrorism to get what you want--whoever you are--should be a thing of the past."
Her sibling's sudden passing at 50 hammered home the sheer brevity of life. "The idea of somebody being here one minute and gone the next is a reality to me right now, in a big way," Amos murmurs. "So it could be a reality that all of us aren't here one minute--as many past civilizations have come and gone, we could too. We all know the ice caps are melting. We all know the climate changes and these things that are happening."
So is this the focus of the ambitious, 19-track Beekeeper? Well, not really. The mincing minuet "Jamaica Inn" invokes local U.K. pirate lore in the tale of a ship lured to its rocky doom by lantern-flashing smugglers. The Far Eastern-filigreed "Goodbye Pisces" sketches a turbulent moment in Amos' marriage when, she confesses, "plates will definitely fly--if it weren't such a passionate relationship, I guess we'd just be pen pals." "Parasol," with its bongo backbeat and gossamer chorus, is based on French pointilist Georges Seurat's masterpiece "A Sunday On La Grand Jatte," and the implied idea "that if a woman was thrown out of the house in Victorian days, all she could do was walk the streets and be a prostitute." And the funky, reggae-tinged "Ireland" concerns, well, Ireland.
Naturally, Amos employed the concept of "beekeeper" as a much grander metaphor. "There's a great tradition in Britain of beekeeping," says the artist, who also maintains a residence in Florida (and yes, she flew home on Nov. 2 specifically to vote). "And whatever civilization is going on, right wing or left wing, the bees have got to pollinate. And this tradition has sustained through different religious wars and ideologies, which really affected me because it's so intertwined with nature."
Puzzled by the current U.S. "culture war," and the simultaneous popularity of Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ and Dan Brown's diametrically opposed The Da Vinci Code, Amos--also fuelled by Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels--set out to explore Christianity on Beekeeper, as well. The child of a Methodist minister, she used Old Testament language in songs like the Magdalene-honoring "Marys Of The Sea" and "Original Sinsuality."
Amos isn't pleased with Gibson's passive portrayal of women in his film. But she understands its appeal. "Think about how people are reacting to the terrorists that are so committed to their religion," she notes. "People [in America] were terrified by these people, and they needed something that felt like, 'Well, this is our banner, and it's older than yours!' When you've been invaded, physically, psychologically, then you reach for what you can ... it doesn't have to make sense. So this time, as a daughter of the Church, I needed to ... you know that saying, 'If it's too loud, turn it up?' I needed to walk into the Christian ideology that's controlling the country, where people are holding up Bibles and making decisions based on them."
More career achievements from this singer who rose to multi-platinum prominence in 1992 with Little Earthquakes--an album that dealt unflinchingly with rape (Amos would go on to create anti-sexual-assault organization RAINN)--are mapped out in her new autobiography, Tori Amos--Piece By Piece, co-penned with Village Voice scribe Ann Powers. But sitting down at her trusty Bosendorfer piano, Amos swears, "is the only way I can really combat what's going on, combat these turbulent times. By playing these pieces on my piano, I actually find peace."
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