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Chicago Innerview (US)
Enigmatic Piano Prodigy Tangles With a Dangerous Insect Story
by Gine Pantone
There is something incredibly seductive about the bee - its ability to pollinate a flower with the gentlest contact, perfectly conjoined with its carefully selected partner. It never questions its natural instincts and never hesitates to seek out a connection so concrete, so symbolic - it has to be genuine in order to survive.
Singer/Songwriter Tori Amos has gained inspiration from the insect's existence while creating her eighth studio album, The Beekeeper. After 13 years of innovative composition, feminist worship and countless triumphs and tribulations, the enigmatic redhead from North Carolina is quite happy in her own skin. The Beekeeper emphasizes a piecemeal Amos, divvied up into six "gardens" that pleasantly guide the listener through her realms of thought. As the singer prepares to embark on a hefty U.S. tour, Amos phoned Chicago Innerview from Boston to discuss her idiosyncratic, and bee-like, processes.
Amos doesn't like to waste words. Most questions are answered with a long pause, a deep and sensual breath followed by a concise response. It is unclear whether she is about to unleash a poignant speech about mysticism and biblical flaws or just trailing off enjoying the wintry view from her New England hotel room. Either way, she is lost in thought. "Is it snowy there?" she asked with a childlike curiousity. "No, but I'm sure it will be soon, it's always cold here," I responded. "Oh, it was snowy when I left home," Amos said, fondly remembering the landscape of her Cornwall, England residence. The singer decided to leave her native U.S. years ago and now resides with her husband (recording engineer Mark Hawley) and their 4-year-old daughter, Natashya.
Presently, things couldn't be more at ease for the idyllic artist - characterized for heavily metaphoric lyrics that offer fans a direct link into her personal psyche, as well as virtuosi piano arrangements that often encase her records with a skill frequently overlooked with today's singer/songwriters: authentic musical ability.
"It needs to be your style," Amos said, clarifying her figurative lyrical processes. "I'm not trying to be necessarily elusive. I like to work with word association and I like to get people to think about what these words conjure up inside them, so it's not just about 'can I stump you today?' because I don't think that necessarily works. Anybody can do that. I think it [writing in heavy metaphor] works, and as a result it may seem elusive when you're using symbology, allegory, metaphor - and of course there is a mystery around all of that stuff. It's [usage of figurative language] lasted for a long, long time."
Throughout the years, Tori Amos has been known to be unabashadely sexual and fearlessly emotional in her songwriting. Songs like "Me and a Gun," a chilling a capella recollection of her rape, and "God," a cynical letter to a higher power, put her on the map of female empowerment. There is nothing timid or submissive about her, which has gained the respect of millions of feminists - yet she remains highly approachable to people of both sexes and ideologies. Her controversial words and album photographs (her 1996 Boys For Pele liner notes displayed a pig suckling her right breast) are enough to invoke intrigue.
She has spoken quite a bit about finding that perfect harmony between gender identity and pride versus a more militant female superiority complex that some people confuse as female empowerment. According to Amos, being a modern feminist doesn't have too much of an effect on her career. "I don't get invited to a lot of right-wing Republican bashes. I didn't say it was a bad thing (laughs). I don't mind, it is what it is.
"Anything can be a stigma if you think about it, it depends on who's presenting it," Amos said, elaborating on negative labels within the feminism movement. "For a while, what seemed to be happening was that certain women were dissing other women because of their choices. Now, you expect that sometimes of the closed-minded. I wasn't brought up thinking that a feminist would be closed-minded. I thought that a feminist would be supportive of another woman's choices, and if that means that she wants to stay home and get married and now work, then you support that."
The Beekeeper is highly conceptual, with all of the 19 tracks grouped into different paths. Some include "desert garden," a soundtrack to the current political principles dominating the country, and "the greenhouse," thoughts on today's struggling women featuring "The Power of Orange Knickers" with guest vocalist Damien Rice. "I heard this voice and it made sense that that voice would understand the dynamic of the song - plus the idea of a guy saying the words 'the power of orange knickers' was completely irresistible," Amos clarified.
The instrumentation of the album consists of piano, the feminine, and the organ, the masculine. Amos tends to stick with a particular set of keys per work (harpsichord for Boys For Pele or dual electric keyboards for 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel), solidifying the thematic structure and making the track-by-track transitions smoother. Amos admits this artistic choice can be more spiritual than deliberate.
"As a player, I have to be willing to be disciplined with the instruments," she carefully illustrated. "I have to be drawn to them in such a way that I can spend time rearranging the songs and, if I'm playing an instrument for hours a day, you've got to figure that it will probably work out better than if I'm having to talk myself into it. Therefore if I had been told, 'you have to bring this instrument in because a producer wants you to' - that doesn't ever work for me. I have to be drawn to an instrument organically, and I think creation comes out of it."
Her live performance is a completely different experience. Amos, a piano prodigy from the age of four, treats her piano not as a set of 88 notes, but as an extension of her own body and soul. Amos' songs are rearranged to fit the mood of her current state, allowing room for constant interpretation and improvisation. "I think that they [the songs] deserve those different perspectives. That's why I do it, because I think that the compositions themselves don't necessarily want to be forever frozen into one arrangement." Her legs are often open - one foot on the pedals and one stepping toward the crowd to emphasize her comfort onstage. Her setup varies from full band to partial accompaniment (usually bass and drums) to her trademark lonesome. For The Beekeeper, Amos has decided to keep it simple and tour solo for the first time since 2001.
From nursing pigs to bee charming, Amos remains a mystery. Coinciding with The Beekeeper is the release of her memoir (co-written with music journalist Ann Powers) entitled Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, an intimate look at the singer's innermost thoughts and stories behind her craft. This is opening up a new frontier for an artist accustomed to concealing feelings behind musical notes and complex poetic language.
"I like blatant if it's good," Amos said, defending her occasional realistic departures. "Just like anything, metaphor can be a 'nause'... it just makes you want to puke if it's bad. Blatant can just make you giggle and say 'all fuckin' right, that's good.' Either can work, you just need to be able to make it work. It's just gotta be good."
Tori Amos : Auditorium Theatre : April 15
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