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"I don't usually talk about what the songs are about, because they're about many, many things," says Tori Amos. Indeed, she treats songs as beings in their own right, each with its own identity, personality and agenda.
With her ninth album, The Beekeeper, there's an urgency to the songs, a need to rouse and move that's part warning siren and part sentinel lamp. "The storm is on the horizon," says Amos. "It's coming, this massive force. It can be emotional or physical — or all those things."
The Beekeeper is an allegory about that coming storm, and one woman's journey through it. It's not strictly an autobiography, although as Amos admits, "If I didn't relate to it in some way, I wouldn't be able to sing it." It is, however, very much about these times, and about the struggle to find a bedrock of truth beneath the tangle of lies, mythology, casual assumptions and political manipulation that have formed the cultural landscape of the U.S.A. today. For Amos, the problems facing America have less to do with the simplistic duality of "red" and "blue" states than with the ways in which power, faith and relationships have been misunderstood and abused.
"I approached the last record [Scarlet's Walk] from the Native American part of my bloodline," she says. For this album, she realized that "the only way to address the severing that was happening in America itself was to go into myself as a Christian woman. If Jesus' teachings are being hijacked and manipulated by politicians, then I must therefore go back as a daughter of the Christian church into that system and that symbolism and those allegories."
Amos certainly has the background. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she quite literally grew up in the church, and she talks about her childhood and relationship with religion at length in the book Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, which she wrote with the great music journalist Ann Powers. But in preparing The Beekeeper, Amos began to research the earliest days of Christianity, moving beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to investigate the various gnostic gospels of the Nag Hammadi Library that were discovered in Egypt in 1945.
Beginning with Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels, Amos found herself wondering, "What if we're all being led a merry dance away from the truth and sincere Christ consciousness" She was particularly intrigued by the notion that Jesus' teachings had been edited down to favor the church fathers over the church mothers, diminishing the role of women and almost writing Mary Magdalene out of the story altogether. "The more I researched it, the more I realized that there were women prophets, women writing their own works," she says. "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was attributed to her, meaning her point of view, whoever the scribe was.
"But what fascinated me was that there were people of the time no different than we have today, like an FCC deciding what gospels we would hear and not hear. So the majority in America hasn't been exposed to this information, because people 1700 years ago didn't think that women should be talking. Jesus didn't know these people." She laughs. "It's like somebody coming in and messing with Jimi Hendrix's catalog — 'Let's take all the guitars off.'"
"I'm not writing The DaVinci Code," she adds. Indeed, years of learning and research have gone into weaving the broad, rich tapestry presented here. "There are a lot of mythic archetypes that I'm playing with within The Beekeeper," she says. "Different queen bees of different mythologies, whether it's Sekhmet or Kuan-Yin or Freya or Queen Maeve."
No surprise, then, that the story within The Beekeeper has to do with bringing together disparate pieces and attaining wholeness without deferring to hierarchies or power structures. It's a multifaceted series of parables, dealing with themes as disparate as the balance between male and female (a theme echoed musically by Amos' use of both piano, which is considered a feminine instrument, and organ, traditionally deemed male), or the question of why death comes and whether it can be avoided. Guiding Amos' protagonist is a beekeeper, who helps her negotiate the album's six gardens.
Amos has long been interested in bees (remember "Honey" from the Hey Jupiter EP?), and learned more about beekeeping from Simon Buxton's The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters. In it, Buxton describes initiation rituals that were used to guide aspiring beekeepers. "He began to understand the balance between nature itself, and that the bees were holding this sacred space of sexuality, procreation that goes on in the garden. Reading the bee master's account, I began to see the beekeeper as this creative force, this neutral force in our story." Not a force to be worshiped or obeyed, mind, but one whose guidance is meant only to illuminate, to inform, to recognize the interlocking importance of all the players in the cycle of life.
The Beekeeper starts, as did another famous garden allegory, with the heroine confronted by a piece of fruit. But inspired by The Secret Book of John, Amos doesn't have a stern father commanding Thou Shalt Not; instead, a wise woman named Sophia urges her to eat. "By eating from the tree of knowledge, our female character starts to experience all these things: Passion. Betrayal. All the emotions you could possibly feel in a relationship. Some I've put more emphasis on than others, but they're all covered. And we developed the six gardens, number 6 being a reflection of the hexagon shape of the cells in the Beehive and of course the 6 days that it took the God in Genesis to create the world. Biblical mythology and the ancient feminine mysteries are joined together. As I began to realize that the gardens personified the different relationships a woman could have, the songs started coming and coming. At a certain point I was taking dictation" says Amos. "I had to stand back and let them show me the shape they were creating."
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