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June 1, 2007 (Summer 2007)
For her ninth album, we're invited to meet a posse of personalities, each one representing an element of the female psyche.
By Gina Pantone
Photography by Blaise Reutersward
Tori Amos should be on Neptune. The audacious singer-songwriter has been an extraterrestrial force - oftentimes sailing in a completely different universe. Her lyrics are controversially bizarre, her fashion is bold, and her demeanor perplexing.
For nearly two decades, the redheaded preacher's daughter has broken gender barriers, as well as stereotypes that go along with expected female behavior. Her 1992 debut, the wildly expression Little Earthquakes, openly described her adolescent sexual curiosities, the power of wearing leather, and her own rape. 1996 brought Boys for Pele. A more orchestrated work with cover art displaying Amos breastfeeding a pig. 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel developed a more electronic compositional touch, darkly expressing her despair from a miscarriage.
As the millennium passed, she took on a new musical approach: the concept album. Scarlet's Walk (2002) provided the soundtrack to Amos rediscovering her America in a post-9/11 paranoia. It wasn't until her last record, 2005's The Beekeeper that Amos really started to elaborate her many forms - not only as a rare personality, but as a woman.
While feminine bewilderment may be frustrating to some, it fuels Amos. Her latest full-length album, American Doll Posse, explores the many avenues in her inner psyche - drawing from the stronger role models to represent her diverse sides. She used Greek Goddesses as guardian angels for her five characters: Pip, Clyde, Santa, Isabel, and Tori.
All these women are given distinctly different personalities by Amos - including vivid histories, political beliefs and songwriting style.
Isabel, who is based on Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, is the rebel and Amos' personal favorite. Isabel is the righteous political voice that sings American Doll's dissatisfied bookends "Yo George" and "Dark Side of the Sun."
Clyde is inspired by Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld - is non-judgmental, empathetic, and the sensitive caregiver. She shoes her self-deprecated self in "Girl Disappearing" and "Roosterspur Bridge."
Pip, a warrior based on the Goddess Athena, is the fiery one - the wild card. She rages through "Body and Soul" (a duet with Santa) and "Teenage Hustling."
Santa is inspired by Aphrodite and is the seductive side. Her impeccable clothing and vicious personality come out to play in "Secret Spell," "You Can Bring Your Dog," and "Programmable Soda."
Finally, there is the goddess herself - Tori, who is reminiscent of Demeter and Dionysus. "Big Wheel" and "Digital Ghost" are attributed to her, though all of these caricatures represent pieces of Amos - the multiple personalities that lie in every female psyche.
Amos talks here about the complexities of this concept, the world at large, and, of course, female empowerment.
American Doll Posse. I'm assuming this is some sort of play on the popular American Girl dolls and their stamp on developing young females...
I already had the name in my head for all kinds of reasons. But I have a 6-year-old, you see, so it was a strange little paradox. I have no beef with that - there are so many other issues to go after in life. If she's happy, that's great.
You started to play with the idea of multiple personas with the photography on your 2001 album Strange Little Girls. When did you decide to fully develop this concept?
I explored and left that [idea] within portraiture - I though that was quite an undertaking at the time. I first got the hint when the music started to come and immediately I recognized that the styles were varied. Usually when I do work, there is a thread or a musical theme that runs though it as far as I am concerned as a composer. It wasn't just one theme occurring, therefore, it seemed as if the flowers were coming from different female voices. Not just one voice could be applied to she who is known as Tori. That was the beginning - then I really has to understand what was happening.
It seems like a lot of work to go through all of those characters, the costuming, etc. Did you have help with this?
Because it came through the audio form first, I was able to use the audio as a road map, and then I chose to base the five women's voices on the character types from ancient Greece mythology. I chose to use this pantheon because I though people would know it more than, say, the Irish, Welsh, Moor, or many others. I was also really drawn to this one because before the monotheistic god came in and oppressed all the women, these women were mother-gods. One reason that I wanted to develop them this way was that the Right Wing in America is so strong and so incredibly organized. Something that just drives them mad into distraction is the idea of a powerful mother-god force equal to the monotheistic father-god. She exists! I'm a minister's daughter and I believe that.
You chose very political bookends for this record - starting with "Yo George" and ending with "Dark Side of the Sun." Why was it important to you to incorporate these messages?
I feel that we are at such a pivotal time in history, and the woman known as Isabel is the one that sings these two songs. Depending on what we can do as a force - we're just citizens of this country called America, but also as a force of women - will determine how people look back at us in 200 years. There was a time when Germany was the most powerful force in the world, and that was not that long ago. There was a time that Russia was one of the most powerful forces. There was a time when Napoleon was marching and invading country after country. He made a wrong move by invading Russia, but what if he hadn't done that? Who knows what the world would look like - the list goes on - especially when you think of Rome and that empire. The American empire is a fragile thing, and it seems to me that we have the most powerful coalition of women in the world. If they would just unmuzzle themselves and pull their heads out of their navels, no matter how cute it is, and really understand that we are being distracted - willingly distracted - from challenging the most destructive power that our country has faced in a long time. That would be the power of the Right Wing and the arm that reaches into the leaders and that are in their puppets.
Is it more interesting to you, living in England - sort of watching from the outside?
I live in America part of the time and in England part of the time, so I have my ear to the ground in both countries. I think it's important to do that, especially for me as writer because I've always written from the prospective of an American woman. I'm not an Anglophile - I just happen to shag one. It's a truly different thing. The Brits are fine, and I think that they're the best when everything is at their worst, that is their gift. There are things that I really miss when I'm not in the States. But there are things I do value when I'm out, and the one thing I value is the media exposure you get to issues. You really get a sense with the BBC that there isn't that level of propaganda and agenda, and you can see what's going on in the world from a more objective vantage point. When you're in the States, you begin to see how the masses can be emotionally blackmailed and how they get coerced, and sometimes I get so frustrated with what they get told it seems to me that there comes a time when you are moved to stand and speak. I wrong "Silent All These Years" over 15 years ago, and I have to stand by that message.
You have always been very unabashed about your femininity, but have preached your love for man at the same time. With American Doll Posse, men seem a bit more villanized - more oppressive. Can you explain the increased aggression?
It isn't us women that have created this war. It isn't us women on the whole that are in the powerful positions - overtly anyway. I think we should be - I think we need to permeate all institutions of power, and it's time what we are active. There was once black on black, and now there is bitch on cunt, and that's very disturbing. I address that, too, within the record, whether that's from teenage hustling or a girl disappearing. I do believe that during the Vietnam War, students became a force to be reckoned with along with women. The women were unstoppable. Sometimes I wondered what happened with women, and so I decided to come and just observe the average American women - which I did for a year and a half, coming out of the tour for The Beekeeper, just observing. Then I continued while I was writing in order to pick up the gauntlet and make this response, this call to my fellow sisters that we have to unmuzzle ourselves before we don't have a choice.
Which character - Pip, Clyde, Isabel, Santa or Tori - do you most identify with?
It depends on which minute you get me. I don't necessarily always identify with Tori - there has to be a Tori: otherwise, the construction of this work wouldn't poetically sear as it needs to. If we are going to have a dismembered feminine, then my name has to be there. I recognize that. It could have gone to any one of them. I chose to do it with the "red hat" because it seemed to be an easier visual acceptance. People identify that as Tori, and so I decided to be close to reality and what we know as the Actual. There are days when I look to Isabel's voice quite a bit. She is neutral and tries not to get drawn into people's emotional madness. I'm not like that: I wish I were. I like stepping into her perspective; she's incredibly calming. I takes pressure off of trying to choose sides all the time. She is a wild one though - when I say "wild", I don't mean girls night out. Her past, because she is historical, she has had a lot of experiences and holds Artemis. She does relate to me more. She's not an exhibitionist at all, she's had relationships with men as well as women -- that's been intriguing for me. That's something I had to respect, because I haven't.
However, Santa's wardrobe is to die for - it's a little bit sexy, it's delicious, wait until you see it!
[scans by Sakre Heinze]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos