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Thursday, November 7, 2002
Tori Amos' New American Journey
by Brian Orloff
Tori Amos' sixth album, Scarlet's Walk, released last week, finds the
pensive singer/songwriter taking a journey of discovery across America.
It's an epistemological journey, one that explores human nature and
historical accountability through the lens of a fictional heroine, Scarlet.
Amos describes the album as a "sonic novel," modeled after classic Beat
Generation literature such as Kerouac's "On the Road," and classic '70s
albums such as Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Neil Young's Harvest. Speaking
on the cell phone from a truck in New York City this week, Amos discussed
her pending tour plans (her tour starts in Tampa, Fla. on Thursday, Nov. 7)
and her album's thematic strands.
"You can't be crossing America at this time without deep, troubling
political questions coming up," Amos said. "As [Scarlet] goes to visit the
Native Americans, they [raise these issues]: Are you going be a taker of
your true mother who we call America, or are you going to be a caretaker?
And is she really in safe hands? And, by not doing anything, you're doing
something. By doing nothing, you're not protecting her."
Political considerations, especially memories of the maltreatment of Native
Americans, imbue the lyrics with moral queries, questioning past
transgressions. The album also addresses the need for America to heal from
the devastation of Sept. 11. In the title track, Amos makes her boldest,
most overt political statement, charging, "What do you plan to do with all
your freedom?" As Scarlet travels, unsettling political and personal
questions arise, Amos said.
"Scarlet meets a lot of people on this trip that she had no idea she was
taking," Amos explained. "It's not like she said 'Oh, OK, I'm going to take
this classic road trip.' It didn't happen like that. She got a call from a
friend who was in trouble, Amber Waves, a porn star at a crossroads. And
from there, her life changes. She thinks she's found her soul mate in the
second song and that's going be pretty much it, and then she realizes that
she was not his fantasy. She can't be his fantasy. She's a real woman with
a heavy heart. She gets pulled and she walks. And then really the story
sort of opens up, and she's free to meet people. She's not tied to anyone
and she starts beginning to listen to how other people take in information,
how they see the world. So, that's really how she begins to find out what
it is she believes in."
Amos, who was born in North Carolina in 1963, began playing piano when she
was 2 =; she attended Baltimore's Peabody Institute as a 5-year-old
prodigy. She released her first recording, on her own label, when she was
17, but it wasn't until her first solo album, 1992's Little Earthquakes,
that she achieved both critical and commercial success. Her
sometimes-ethereal pop songs have been compared to artists ranging from
Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell.
In addition to recording her latest album, Amos has been involved in the
creation of a Web site -- Scarlet's Web. "The CD is a key, and you put it in
your computer and it will take you to Scarlet's Web," Amos said. "Scarlet's
Web will be running through the whole tour. The maps will come alive in
detail on Scarlet's Web. So, you'll be able to pinpoint places [where
Scarlet travels]. It will be in installments -- three songs at a time. So,
within a few weeks, you'll have the whole record in detailed map form."
Curious listeners can select points of interest, interacting with
technology to learn more about Scarlet, Amos' tour, and the American
history which underscores the album's narrative. "You'll be able to say, 'I
want to know more about Wounded Knee,' and this will connect you to the
Native American layer," she said. "Haskell University is assisting us in
choosing the Web sites that they feel really represent the tribes and the
The Web site will parallel the tour's itinerary and provide fans access to
unique content. "There's a tour documents person," Amos said. "She's out
there, finding different things, hidden things in the city. People will be
sending us messages, linking us up to other ways of thought. There will be
sights and sounds. We'll be visiting people. And you're going to kind of
see us stumble and fall along the way [laughs], but it's really about life
following art, I guess."
As Scarlet's journey traverses geographic boundaries, the album's sound
changes. For instance, the archaic Southern melody of "Virginia" feels
haunted by ghostly tropes, hearkening back to early settlements and tense
racial relations. "Scarlet's Walk" is gauzed in swirling organs, meticulous
rhythms and understated anger.
Amos notes the shape-shifting tempos of the album, attributing it to
geography and culture. "I feel like this record is very much about the
voice and the rhythm," she said. "The drums sort of represented the soul of
the land, and Matt [Chamberlain] and I worked very closely about the
cultures that were in each particular geographic setup. So, we would look
and, for instance, in Texas, you have a huge Latino, even Cuban influence,
so we want to bring in the low rider, sinister, he's a Mexican
Revolutionary, the guy in 'Sweet Sangria.' And how do we translate that
into sound? 'Don't Make Me Come to Vegas' is sort of a Cuban lounge, with
blazing saddles and a high heel. So we were trying to go to the land for
On tour, Amos says she plans to keep the shows "very organic, because I
want it to be a sonic experience." Accompanying herself on piano, she'll be
backed by two musicians, Jon Evans on bass and Chamberlain on drums. She
sees her tours as bringing together the fan community that has formed
around her music. "This is more of a campfire gathering, the tours; this is
where people gather and exchange news, like you did in the old days," Amos
She feels hopeful that further parallels between herself and Scarlet -- the
classic relationship between authors and the fictional characters they
invent -- will be become clear as her tour progresses. This album and this
tour, Amos said, are truly about forging a firm identity.
"I'm Tori taking Scarlet's walk, and you're [the listener] doing your own
discovery, and we're all making our own body maps," she said. "But I like
the idea that the story doesn't stop for me as a person. Scarlet's story
stops. But I can now have my own."
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