home / interviews
Philadelphia City Paper (US)
April 7-13, 2005
Tori Amos gets organized
by M.J. Fine
If you're distracted by the way Tori Amos humps her piano bench, you need to shift your gaze. Let your ears guide you; her mightiest moves are the swivel and the straddle. Switching instruments midsong is impressive enough, but it's downright awe-inspiring to watch her play two at once, her left hand caressing her beloved Bosendorfer piano, her right hand pounding at one of the secondary organs: Rhodes, Wurlitzer or Hammond.
"When nobody's looking, you know, when the doors are closed, I guess people get into all sorts of antics. But me, I'm trying to play another keyboard with another hand," she says. "If I could play them with my feet, I would."
On the phone from Clearwater, Florida, Amos is heading to the first rehearsal for her tour. She's pumped, but she's still working out new arrangements. Over the years, she's learned to balance improvised songs and intricately plotted set lists, intimacy and collaboration. On a tour's first leg, she gives solo performances in theaters; on the second, bassist Jon Evans and drummer Matt Chamberlain add heft to carry the sound through larger venues. When she comes to the Kimmel Center on Monday, she'll be alone with the piano and the B3 Hammond. She's excited by the potential ways they can work together.
"For me to play, for example, Mrs. Jesus, and when we open into the chorus for the first time, it's gonna be on the Hammond," she says. "Now, I've never done this before. I just thought about it yesterday. And I was thinking about it, when we come into that chorus with that B section: 'Your walking-on-the-water bit / By far my favorite one.' I just heard the low-end rumble of that Hammond in my mind, and I just melted. And I thought, 'Yes, the songs want to be in different dresses.' They like the dresses they've been in on the catwalk. They enjoyed all that, and now they want to try different ones on, and I don't blame them."
In recent years, Amos' projects have been getting more conceptual. To Venus and Back paired an album's worth of new songs with a disc of live favorites, while Welcome to Sunny Florida packaged a concert DVD with an EP of unreleased tracks. On Strange Little Girls, Amos took songs written by men -- including Eminem, Depeche Mode and Slayer -- and invented 13 characters to interpret them. Scarlet's Walk followed one character on a journey through all 50 states, informed by the Cherokee part of Amos' heritage. Even her greatest hits CD followed its own rules; Tales of a Librarian remixed older songs and classified them according to the Dewey decimal system.
The Beekeeper also takes an unorthodox approach to organization: The 20 songs (19 from the album proper, plus "Garlands" from a limited-edition DVD) are grouped into six gardens. Six for the sides of a beehive's cells; the gardens come from Eden. As the daughter of a Methodist minister, Amos has always addressed the ways in which religion has done women wrong. Since she began studying Gnostic texts two years ago, that thread has surfaced more directly in her lyrics.
"A lot of women are referenced even if I don't reference them by name. Energetically, they are there. I would say every culture is represented," she says. "I don't say Shesmetet, Hathor. I don't say Kali, I don't mention Freya, but I am alluding to the archetype that they hold and carry through their myth. And it's not necessary if I mention their names. I think it's more important to mention the properties that they carry, because other people are gravitating to the fragmentations of woman that have been circumcised through the teachings of religion." But though many female archetypes surface on The Beekeeper, none are more venerated than Mary Magdalene, Amos' longtime muse, and Sophia, God's mother in the Gnostic tradition.
On The Beekeeper's title track, Amos, 41, begs Sophia to save her ailing mother: "You want my queen / Anything but this / Can you use me instead?" In the background, a ghostly voice murmurs, "Take this message to Michael." The Hammond-based meditation is hushed but incredibly intense, and it'll spook you even if you don't know the backstory: Amos' mother recovered from cardiac arrest last autumn, but her brother, Michael, died in a car accident soon afterward.
The Beekeeper is more straightforward than much of her previous work, but its titular symbol is classic Amos. The image first surfaced in 1992's "Sugar": "Bobby's collecting bees / and hammers, he used one on me." Like much of Amos' writing, the reference is both specific and inscrutable, but the power dynamic is undeniable. Whoever holds the honey -- from 1994's "Honey" to 2002's "A Sorta Fairytale" -- has control.
"Clearly, there's something in my archetype that is drawn to the Melissae," Amos says. "And where that is in my memory, I don't know. I wasn't brought up with it. But the bee represents sacred sexuality." Some might find it unseemly that the same symbol represents sex and spirituality, but Amos's intention is to reconcile the two.
"That is where The Beekeeper is, at its core, bringing these fragments of the divided woman into wholeness," she says. "That's really what it's doing at its core, by going to God's mother, Sophia, and going to her for wisdom, and basically she tells Tori, 'You've got to eat of the forbidden fruit, because my son, clearly, his idea isn't working too well, is it?'"
One song that fits The Beekeeper's symbology, if not its soundscape, is "Datura," from 1999's To Venus and Back. It begins with three-and-a-half blissful minutes of Amos whispering exotic plant names, then goes into a five-minute incantation: "Dividing Canaan / piece by piece." Despite bringing together most of her major themes -- ecology, romantic jealousy, religion, politics -- and providing the title of her recent memoir, Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, "Datura" remains the only pre-Beekeeper album track she's never performed live. (Not counting a few covers from Strange Little Girls.) Its time is coming.
"I think she's going to show up in the summer with Matt and Jon because I wrote it as a very complicated piece. It's one of those things that I think works in that arrangement, and yes, I'm going to do it," she says. "However, no different than I wouldn't give "Winter' a dance mix -- I would just never allow those masters out, it's never gonna happen, because it just does not want to be that. I don't think 'Datura' wants to be taken into just a keyboard form. The producer in me knows I need to produce it correctly live. And to do that, I need my brothers up there and technology helping me so I can do it."
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos