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St. Petersburg Times (US)
Thursday, March 31, 2005
Musings of a Musical Maverick
By Brian Orloff
When Tori Amos titled her 2003 "best of" album Tales of a Librarian, it wasn't just an eggheaded quirk, or an excuse to be photographed in a leather wingback chair, librarian style.
Amos, 41, has exhibited a fascination with mythology, archetypes and literature throughout her 13-year career. In fact, the songwriter and piano maven entered the literary world in earnest this year with her autobiography, co-authored with music critic Ann Powers and styled as a series of conversations and vignettes, Piece By Piece. As Amos dubbed it in a recent conversation, the book offers "a backstage pass into the artistic process." It delves into the mythology, much of it religiously based, that has informed her songwriting and colors her latest album, The Beekeeper. That 19-track, 80-minute affair is particularly concerned with relationships, personal and political, and their religious intersections.
The daughter of a North Carolina minister, Amos has never shied away from musically coming to terms with her religious upbringing. Her oeuvre contains songs like the transgressive "God", which asks, "God sometimes you just don't come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?" and "Muhammad My Friend", from 1996's blistering Boys for Pele, which imagines Jesus as a woman ("we both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem").
And in her book, Amos discusses her personal struggle to fuse her sexual urges and the chaste, feminine ideals prescribed by the church. She refers to this process as uniting the two Marys: the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Amos will launch her Original Sinsuality world tour at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday night. The trek will find Amos performing solo, with just her Bosendorfer piano, keyboards and vintage organs. Musically, The Beekeeper is informed by the marriage of piano and funky organ - a new addition to Amos' sonic library - and a percussive groove established with her longtime band.
Over the course of two phone conversations - one from her home in Cornwall, England, before The Beekeeper's release, and the second from Boston while on a book tour in mid March - Amos, warm and ever-engaging, discussed how she will reinvent the songs in a solo setting, her curiosity about the religious issues fueling discussions of terrorism and moral values and, like a good librarian, the necessity of good research.
So much of your album is fueled by the piano and the organ and the groove you and your band have built. How are these songs going to translate solo?
It's hard to answer that sitting from a hotel room in Boston before a book signing, but I think because both of the instruments are going to be out, then part of it is about improv. And I enjoy that side of performing. I'm always open to kind of co-creating as I go along.
This is a real intimate tour for you. How are you conceiving of the show thematically?
It comes in waves. There are moments when I see clear pictures and because I've been playing for so long, maybe there is a trust that I have with the instruments themselves . . . When you're out there on your own, it's very much about a musical conversation between you and the audience. So all the songs have to be rearranged. The material has been written so they can handle many different arrangements because I know where they originated. Some of them started in the shower before there was any percussion on them. I know where they came from, and I know what they can hold.
All songs are born naked. I know that, and because of that, that doesn't mean that anything will look right on it. There are certain songs that you just are like, "Oh, please no! No kazoos!" (Laughs.) And so you hope that I have the good sense not to do that. And I hope that I do too. So I hope that I don't disappoint. (Laughs.)
But the whole theme of this tour is Original Sinsuality, and I love that idea. I love the idea of a time where some people are nervous about the religious influences that have taken over the world. On this tour, the piano just crosses her legs, puts on a high heel and says, "(Moans) Oh, I'm just loving this!"
The idea of "original sinsuality" seems to be the centerpiece of the album. Talk to me about that concept.
Well, let's put it this way. On my T-shirts the little snake has a pair of glasses on (laughs) and that kind of shows you, in a very simple visual, where I'm taking this. Sometimes humor brings clarity to things. I'm trying to create in the show a place for there to be an opportunity to have a variation on the theme every night depending on what's happening in the world, and what's happening in that particular city that night.
That overlap between religion and politics is pretty clear on "The Power of Orange Knickers" with the lyric "can somebody tell me/who is this terrorist?" But you're talking about a romantic relationship.
I was curious about how people were defining what a terrorist was. It seemed to me that people were using it to get the masses to agree with their agendas on whether you're religious or political. I decided to undress the word "terrorist" and really crawl inside the definition of it.
As I started to observe people, I realized you can be invaded on the playground. The effect of that is not something that should be marginalized because we have a picture of a terrorist with a gun in their hand. That is a picture. But there are other pictures, too, that affect people's lives. That can be a little pill that you're addicted to, or a person, and it goes on and on. And sometimes it's another woman for another woman.
That's traced through many of the songs, I think. How does that weave throughout the record?
This album is exploring relationships. In the garden of "Original Sinsuality," because Sofia has insisted that my character eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge - as opposed to the god in Genesis that it exiles you if you eat from it - in our garden, the character has to eat. Because she eats from it, she experiences all the different possibilities within relationships.
You discuss the role of archetypes and mythology and your songwriting in Piece By Piece. It seems to me that your songs can almost be footnoted.
I love that idea that you experience music through your senses. You experience it through the music itself and you experience a feeling and a meaning. . . . I enjoy that about songwriting. What I think, though, is one of my favorite things is if somebody wants to connect the dots, they do exist for people that like a good caper. If you like cross-referencing, which I sort of love to do, then it exists.
But if you don't enjoy doing that, the songs can work on a purely emotional level, with just relationships. I enjoy that also. "Jamaica Inn" can be about a guy and a girl. And if you don't know anything about Daphne du Maurier's (novel) Jamaica Inn, if you don't know anything about the wreckers that existed in north Cornwall and the history, you can still experience the song itself as a man and a woman falling out. I like to write on both levels.
Speaking of books, what few books are essentials for you in any library?
A really good dictionary. You know that book Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Well, I have Eats, Shites & Leaves, which is a British, sarcastic commentary. . . . And of course The Gnostic Gospels because it's a good thing to be armed with right now if people are going to be throwing Christianity at you, you need to know this book. This is an important book to know. Whether you agree with it or not is not the point. The point is that it was written by a scholar, Elaine Pagels, and we need information at this point.
When my father read my book he said, "I love you, Tori Ellen, but I don't have to agree with you." And my horns just rose up from my head and I said, "Well, Dad, for good or ill, I'm a daughter of the Christian church and that means you can't control how I view the system itself." I grew up in it, and I was exposed to it. It means I might have an opinion on it, and my opinion is that one should research the subject and not just take on board what everybody tells you to believe in - especially when they haven't done the research.
Tori Amos performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Matt Nathanson opens. The show is sold out. (727) 791-7400.
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