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The Irish Times (Ireland)
November 2, 2002

Soul searching

As passionate and provocative as she is sensual and cerebral, Tori Amos is back with a 18-track song cycle searching for the soul of America. "Don't call it a concept album," she tells Brian Boyd.

A mysterious man in black arrives and solemnly hands over a CD player containing the new Tori Amos album, Scarlet's Walk - an ambitious 18-track song-cycle. The CD player is hermetically sealed, all you can do is operate the play and stop buttons, nothing else. After a period of time, the man in black comes back to reclaim the player.

Gosh, Tori, it's all a bit Mission Impossible, isn't it? "Oh look, sorry about that," she says, "a while back I handed out an unmixed promotional copy of the album containing just six songs to the media and within 24 hours, the songs were up on the Internet. I was really pissed off, because this is a song-cycle album, you have to hear the whole thing and anyway the songs weren't mixed. We came up with this weird glue stuff which sealed the CD players so people could only listen to the album and not take it out and make copies of it. Everyone was told: 'Don't try and open the CD player, it's dangerous', but one press guy did, he actually rang me from the hospital and said: 'I don't know what I feel worse telling you - that I'm in the hospital or I that I tried to open the CD player'. He's OK now, though he had to get stitches in his hand . . . I hope you didn't try to open it." No, not really. The received wisdom about Tori Amos is that she's stranger than a tree full of sheep. Her stark lyrics and distinctly 1970s musical approach complete with a haunting vocal delivery and her trademark spine-tingling piano playing distinguish her from the common or garden singer/songwriter pack.

As passionate and provocative as she is sensual and cerebral, she doesn't do the short-change thing when it comes to creative advancement. Her last work, the covers album, Strange Little Girls, saw her interpreting songs written and performed by men (Eminem, Lou Reed etc;) to give them a female perspective; on Scarlet's Walk, she has created an alter ego who she takes on a metaphorical road-trip around the US.

Written about the nation's reaction to 9/11, Scarlet goes on a "misty mountain hop" that takes her from sacred Native American territories to porn-star lap dancing clubs. Like Paul Simon climbing aboard a Greyhound Bus or Bruce Springsteen burning up the Turnpike, Amos has gone looking for America.

"Make sure you don't say it's a concept album, I hate that word, it's so . . . perjorative," she says in her chirpy yet confessional, conversational style. "The idea is that I take on the character of Scarlet who goes out on this walk and meets her friend, who is a fading porn star called Amber Waves, who is sort of America personified. It's about what America is and how it should be understood - that it shouldn't be seen as this country that's being pimped out by our leaders. It's a look at America as a person and who exactly she is."

The idea for the album took shape when, directly after 9/11, many musicians in the US cancelled tours, but not Amos. "Those shows were so strange, I think I found people with their guard down and I was hearing all these stories about how people were having their relationship with the country changed, there was stuff I heard being talked about, about the country, that I had never heard before. I wanted to write this song-cycle about the country that would somehow make the place seem real and human, and not like this political entity, or not about who the political leaders are and what policies they are engaged in.

"I suppose it's an attempt to understand why the country is perceived the way it is abroad, those ideas Europeans would have about it - just this sense of making it flesh and blood . . . and, you know, I was in New York when the attacks happened and it was just that horrible smell of burning and that big gaping wound, and of the people and the land and the ideology being in deep pain."

Her part Celtic, part Cherokee background informed the narrative drive. "It's like on this walk Scarlet is taking, she's following a crossword puzzle and the clues are in the songs themselves. It really began with the etymology of the word 'Scarlet', because it is in fact a thread, and before it was a colour, and a fabric. So back then someone called Elizabeth Scarlet would be a weaver and I love this idea that 'Scarlet O'Hara' comes from this tradition of Irish weavers, and then there's also the 'Red Rope', which symbolizes the Native American spiritual walk. So, with the songs, I started pulling all these treads. At first, I was making a political record, then I knew I was on a road trip and my quest was to know this person named Scarlet and first I had to learn about America.

"In Native American culture, America has always been a person, and they were her caretakers. So when it became clear how violated people felt after we had been attacked, I began to think about the violation of the Native Americans. They were, in a sense, invaded too. A way of life was taken away from them, a lot of treaties were broken, it's similar to the Aboriginal experience in Australia.

"So you have to take it historically, the transgressions that happened and the wisdom you get if you own up to those transgressions - so try applying that to what's happening today."

Not quite Britney Spears territory then. Similar in style, if not content, to artists such as Polly Harvey and Bjork, Amos brings a rare mystic/socio-political consciousness to the female songwriter party. Born Myra Ellen Amos, the 39-year-old Maryland native is the daughter of a Methodist preacher with a Cherokee grandfather on her mother's side. An early classical musical education bit the dust once she discovered the rock 'n' roll glory of Led Zeppelin and despite a few false starts in the music industry (she once fronted a pop-metal band and brought out an album called Y Kant Tori Read), albums such as Little Earthquakes, Boys For Pele and Strange Little Girls established her as as one of the most innovative women in rock.

Living now in Cornwall, where she records and produces her own work, such is her passion for the weighty historical and political themes contained in Scarlet's Walk that she's bringing out a DVD to accompany the album that will elaborate on and elucidate the lyrics. "There'll be a Scarlet's Web that goes with the album which will contain maps about the places I've written about and photo galleries and all sorts of information; sound-check music and B-sides and everything."

Given the nature of the album, she's expecting some criticism from within the US, due to the prevailing political climate. "Anybody who is asking questions or throwing out different ideas is suspect. There's a sort of a McCarthyism at play all over again. But again, don't misunderstand that - what I found when I was touring around the country just after the attacks was that each place I visited, depending on how the place was made up, saw the attacks differently.

"This is the thing about the country, it's so vast and wherever you are is affected by the culture there and the people who have settled there. Is such and such a place a left-wing city or a right-wing city? I found that people's stories and reactions changed so much throughout the country. And it wasn't just the attacks; I look at people like my parents, not them necessarily, but people who lost everything by trusting an American financial system. So there's that also internally; and externally the fact that the country is seen as being a bully. But now, I hope, seeds are being planted. But I hope for Scarlet, and for me, and for the country, change will come."

Scarlet's Walk is on the Epic label.

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