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The Times-Picayune (US)
New Orleans newspaper
Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Tori, Tori, Tori

A sold-out Orpheum Theatre is about to see the many faces of singer, songwriter and self-proclaimed 'warrior mother' Tori Amos, whose 'Strange Little Girls' CD reinterprets 12 story-songs from the perspectives of 12 different female characters.

by Keith Spera
Music writer/The Times-Picayune

During her recent three-night stand at New York City's Beacon Theater, Tori Amos sensed a palpable shift in the tone and tenor of her Big Apple audience.

"Playing for them, they're looking you in the eye," Amos said during a phone interview the morning after her second show. "They're very direct. There's no walking on eggshells with them. They're not waiting for the other shoe to drop, because both shoes fell. Some people are scared of their own shadow, but for a lot of the people, the masks are off. It's not like you sidestep the emotional stuff with these people."

Amos, performing a sold-out solo show tonight at the Orpheum Theatre, is not known for sidestepping the emotional stuff. The pianist, vocalist and composer has sold several million albums and amassed a fiercely devoted core of fans by writing songs that traffic in raw emotion and frank meditations on religion, sex and femininity. Her first album, 1991's "Little Earthquakes," included "Me and A Gun," which she based on her own experience with sexual assault. As Amos herself notes, "I'm not somebody that gets played a lot at parties and weddings."

That likely won't change with her current album, "Strange Little Girls." On it, Amos recreates 12 songs written by male artists featuring female characters. They include the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," the Velvet Underground-era Lou Reed composition "New Age" and the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." She also takes a stab at Eminem's much-maligned " '97 Bonnie & Clyde" -- in which the protagonist explains to his daughter why he has killed her mother and stuffed her in the trunk of his car -- and death-metal band Slayer's "Raining Blood." To drive home the point that Amos was telling each of these story-songs from the perspective of a different female character, the album's cover and CD booklet feature portraits of her costumed as the various characters.

Amos has recorded outside material before, including a stark piano and voice reading of Nirvana's anthemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but never an entire album's worth. Her own compositions resonate deeply with fans; to connect on a similar level with a collection of other artists' material requires her considerable powers of interpretation and presentation.

Amos manages to make these dozen songs her own, rethinking them in ways their composers likely never imagined. Most are full-on band arrangements, with Amos presiding over an array of keyboard tones and textures. But it is her remarkable voice, with its operatic range and precision control, that enables these songs to find their new voices. Her take on Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" is even more unsettling than the original. Amos speaks in measured tones in a near whisper, explaining to the protagonist's young daughter that it isn't blood all over mommy, just ketchup, and they are dumping her in the lake so she can clean up.

The inspiration for "Strange Little Girls" sprang indirectly from Amos' new role as a mother. At the end of her previous tour, she spent 18 months away from music to focus on having a child with husband and sound engineer Mark Hawley. "I went and sat on my egg, like (the Dr. Seuss character) Horton," she said. "I'd had a few miscarriages, so I just needed to try and do this thing that I hadn't been able to do."

Some of her male associates were fascinated by her pregnancy, by what it meant to hold a new life inside. "They seemed to recognize that to be a house on heels, to be a hearth, to be a place where somebody curls up inside . . . some of them were really able to recognize what that was," she said. "I thought some of these men would be really good mothers; they'd be good host organisms.

"So that was a sweet thought. I started thinking of a place where men are mothers. Being a song mommy now for a long time and a human mommy for a short time, they are quite similar. So I thought of men as the male mothers of songs. I liked that idea."

After the birth of her daughter, Amos asked friends to bring her up to speed on what she'd missed in the music world. Apparently she missed the entire Limp Bizkit rap-rock explosion, with its misogynistic overtones. She discerned "a male rage different from the grunge era, different from just male rage expressing itself, as female rage can express itself. This was a male rage that had malice toward women and gay men."

What struck her even more profoundly were the attempts by some of these artists to gloss over their lyrics. "You say what you want -- that's what I say," Amos said. "But if somebody wants to talk to you about it and your response is, 'Look, it's only words,' then I said, 'OK, I'm going to show the men how powerful their words are.'"

By recording the likes of "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," she holds those lyrics up to the light for closer examination. "Some writers are tapping into a mass conscience rage, even if it's their own," she said. "Some writers get a real rush when they put their hand on that 220-voltage. Sometimes you don't think about the repercussions of it, because you're tapping into something that isn't you.

"Words can wound, and words can heal. Even the wounding words, in doing them and showing them from a different perspective, there's healing in that, because you hear the other side."

So it was with Eminem's song. Amos found it "irresistible" to attempt " '97 Bonnie & Clyde" and give voice to the song's victim, Bonnie. "I felt her presence," Amos said. "It's almost as if, when I heard it, she reached that hand out of that trunk and pulled me in and said, 'You need to hear this how I'm hearing it. What he's saying to our little girl is the last thing I'm hearing before I'm dead.'"

To best channel that voice, Amos relied on a studio variation of Method acting. Studio engineers built a confined, claustrophobic space for the singer to occupy while she recorded. She is so close to the microphone that her voice nearly distorts. "I was in this space for a while," Amos said, "trying to let her kind of use me."

Her method for each song was different. "There was no set pattern that I applied to every one. For 'Bonnie & Clyde,' (the character) came first. On some of them, I saw little bits of the character at a time. Like (Joe Jackson's) 'Real Men.' Once I had the music on tape I began to know who was singing it, what she was like. 'Real Men' was very much about articulating every word, a woman talking about where the real men are."

She alternated songs that she found admirable -- "what a passionate piece of music," she says of Lou Reed's "New Age" -- with selections that, on their face at least, might be considered reprehensible.

"But even if they're reprehensible, with each work I had a relationship not with the male mother songwriter, but with their song children," Amos said. "I went into this knowing that there are some things you only tell your mother. I really believe that. So I had a respect for the songs' relationship to their writers. However, there are some things you never tell your mother."

Those were the sorts of emotional shadings she looked and listened for. In "I Don't Like Mondays," she assumes the character not of the schoolgirl who goes on a rampage and "shoots the whole day down," but of the female police officer who shoots the girl.

"I didn't want to investigate the girl that had shot everybody that day, because I couldn't hold that essence," Amos said. "But I was drawn to the idea that those of us that are sanctioned to kill, it's (still) a question. I don't think everybody's OK with it, even though they're allowed to do it. Especially in this situation, where it's a young kid who wasn't a bad seed."

Amos said she was driven to record "I Don't Like Mondays" and "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" because of comments made by members of the gun lobby in the wake of last year's school shootings, comments that she felt did not address the role that easy access to firearms played in the shootings. She made "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" even more overtly political by prefacing it with sound bites from gun lobbyists and news reports about the handgun murder of the song's composer, John Lennon. "What a song," she said, "written by a man who had no idea he was going to be taken down by one."

But Amos allows that motherhood has unleashed a heretofore unknown maternal instinct, one that has led to conflicted views about the idea of justifiable force.

"If you believe that violence isn't the way to solve things, it doesn't mean that you would never resort to it if you had to defend those you love," she said. "On the one hand, it's not the way that you want to resolve things as your first choice. On the other hand, since Sept. 11, you realize, 'I've become a warrior mother. I've become a lioness.'

"To hold these two things is a tightrope walk of ideas. Because on the one level you can say you're a pacifist and everything, but I'm a pacifist until you cross that line with my cub. And if somebody crosses that line, their throat is going to be in her jaws. I won't even look back. It wouldn't be an eye-blink for me."

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