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The News & Observer (US)
Raleigh, NC, newspaper
Friday, August 12, 2005

Tori's story

Amos, performing this weekend in Cary, draws roots and family close in 'Beekeeper'

By David Menconi, Staff Writer

When Tori Amos plays Saturday night in Cary, the Newton-born singer/pianist will draw a crowd of relatives from across the state, including cousins from the vicinity of Charlotte and a nephew who lives near Raleigh.

But one conspicuous absence will be her older brother from Southern Pines, Michael Amos. The last time Tori saw Michael was last year, when they were with their mother, who barely survived a grave illness. The family was still catching its collective breath from that crisis when Michael died from injuries in a one-car accident in November back home in Southern Pines -- a wreck that was, Amos says, "just one of those freak things."

Tori's brother is very much a presence on her latest album, "The Beekeeper" (Epic Records), starting with a special dedication in the credits: "Special Thank You To Michael Amos who is now dancing with the Ancestors." He's also the primary subject of the title track, and not just because of the lyric "Take this message to Michael." Amos originally began writing "The Beekeeper" about her mother's cardiac arrest and shifted focus after her brother's death.

"It was about the idea of losing a mother -- both physical and the earth, or our great mother," Amos says, speaking by phone from her home in Florida. "So it was tied in with spirituality, the mythological idea of losing the great mother and one's own personal mother. Half of 'The Beekeeper' hadn't been finished. It wasn't ready, and I can't tell you why. Then my mother came back from flatlining, and Michael had his accident in North Carolina. I finished 'The Beekeeper' within two days, because it clearly wasn't the mother who died. If we go back to Christian mythology, it was the son who died."

Amos continues, "It sounds crazy, but he walks with me still through music. Michael really gave me popular music when spiritual music was being drummed into my head. My dad wanted me to compose Christian music -- and in a way, I think I do, but in my own way. But he wanted me to just do it in a very gnostic Christian way, which is just a small piece of the whole pie and leaves out a lot of other mythologies and cultures.

"My brother was bringing in the Doors, the Beatles, the Stones, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and all that, Carole King. Stevie Wonder, he was a huge influence, let me see what I could do with my left hand. That was my brother's role in my life. I wouldn't be involved in popular music if he hadn't been there, so it's good that he was."


Amos' ninth album, "The Beekeeper" has an elaborate thematic structure as a song cycle about "Original Sinsuality." Amos grouped the songs together in six "Gardens" ("Desert Garden," "Rock Garden," "Roses and Thorns," "Greenhouse," "Orchard" and "Elixirs and Herbs"), each representing one side of a hexagonal honeycomb. The structure even extends to the compact disc booklet, which folds into a six-sided honeycomb shape.

Such attention to detail is typical for Amos, who tends to make high-concept albums rather than simple collections of songs. Her last album, 2002's "Scarlet's Walk," traced a 3,000-mile road trip across America that Amos took after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Even her 2001 covers album, "Strange Little Girls," had a concept -- covers of songs by men, but recast from the woman's point of view.

"I'm a fan of architecture," she says of her compositional method. "I can't understand it, but I apply it to sonic architecture, which I do understand. My process has always been like this, a lot of research on the subject matter as the music is coming. And the music is constant, it usually comes everyday. I walk around with this ridiculous tape recorder -- and my husband is always saying, 'When are you going to join the digital world? But don't do it today because you'll lose a song!'

"So I'm still walking around with my cassette recorder, which is silly. But I take it in the shower, in the car, it just goes with me. I really don't know when it will happen, and my daughter and husband understand those, 'Whoops, excuse me' moments. I'm watching a movie and it just comes, and I have to go. Not all of it gets put into the work. But that's how it's always been. The music visits, and then it goes away. Sometimes it's just a phrase, sometimes a full idea. Usually, words do not come with it."


Looking at her roots

For "The Beekeeper," Amos was delving into the roots of her own strict Christian upbringing as the daughter of a Methodist minister, with whom she often clashed while growing up. The union of the sacred and the sensual has been a persistent theme throughout Amos' work. While she was working on "The Beekeeper," that impulse collided with both larger and more personal events.

"I was starting to research early Christianity with 'The Beekeeper,' mainly seeing how it was being used to harness the masses to agree to a political agenda," she says. "The minister's daughter in me can't accept that. I don't believe Jesus' teachings should be highjacked. So I took the gnostic gospel and started to weave a tale of ancient feminine mysteries. I began to see the bee representing sacred sexuality, which the gnostics honored. But then once the church fathers harnessed Jesus' teachings and turned that into the Catholic church, women were circumcised out of the process and subjugated.

"I went back to Sophia, God's mother and her teachings, which were found in some of the gnostic gospels discovered in 1945 in Egypt. I began to see myself going to Sophia and saying, 'Clearly, we're not getting this right. So what do you want me to do, as a mother and a friend and a woman in the 21st century?' And Sophia said, 'You must eat of the forbidden fruit, Tori. It's the only way.' So I began to see things in my own life to look at, not just global but inside. There were invaders in my personal life, friends I couldn't say no to who were taking advantage of me; and other people I was taking advantage of. The hexagonal shape of myself and of the honeycomb emerged. Now with the live show, the B3 organ represents the male, the piano the female, and the show is about the male and female joining within you and within me.

"It's not about sex, but joining your spirituality and sexuality, becoming a whole being who is not divided."


Obviously, that's a lot to try and get your head around if you're not on Amos' rather idiosyncratic wavelength. But even if you don't buy the underlying theory, there's no denying her music.

"The Beekeeper" skillfully ranges from solitary piano balladry to atmospheric pop, with grooving pop-soul a new flavor. Amos is an arresting vocal and instrumental presence, displaying absolute confidence in her abilities as well as her vision. If you've never seen her perform live, Amos displays a casual virtuosity that can be stunning to watch -- playing a piano with one hand and a keyboard with the other behind her back while singing in perfect pitch, never missing a note.

"It's a part of my life, but I'm not going to pretend that music is not a discipline," she says. "And I welcome that. If you don't have that side of it down, you don't walk out in front of people and then decide you're going to learn a piece. It has to be imprinted, a map tattooed under your skin. An MRI couldn't make it out, it's so interconnected with yourself. That's how you have to hold it. Songs do come out during shows, though, songs I've never heard before and never will again. But for me to honestly ever play them again, I have to sit and study and learn them. It's formal, but it's spontaneous.

"If you tell a story and allow the architecture to come, sometimes songs will deviate from what you thought the story was for the night as we sit around the metaphorical campfire and tell the news of the day, personal and social and political,"
she says.

"I can't tell you what the show there will be, only that it will be different from the show in West Palm Beach. It just will."


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