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Florida Today (US)
Friday, November 8, 2002

Amos takes listeners on aural American odyssey

by Alan Sculley

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., last September, Tori Amos went on tour to support her CD of cover songs called "Strange Little Girls." She noticed some fundamental changes in people she encountered, either in person or through letters.

"People were maybe relating to each other in ways they normally wouldn't. Barriers were dropped that normally wouldn't be dropped," Amos said. "The masks were down. So I think that maybe time seemed to be accelerated and it seemed to be almost as if you could go back in time and go forward in time, because people had pictures of things that were permanent, mainly because if something like the twin towers isn't permanent, if that can shatter, then what is permanent? I think people were questioning that. So what became permanent were pictures, moments in time that were emblazoned on peoples' hearts. That's what people brought with them." In essence, Amos said, fans were reflecting on the people, the events and places that were most meaningful in their lives. They were also re-evaluating their relationship with their country and what it meant to be an American.

These ideas had a special resonance to Amos. As a part Cherokee Indian herself, Amos had long been familiar with the native American concept of body maps -- collections of experiences that are ingrained in people and provide a guide to each person's life and inner soul.

Amos was also familiar with another fundamental belief of native Americans -- the need to respect and nurture their homeland. In the wake of Sept. 11, Amos said she saw many Americans starting to adopt a similar outlook toward their country.

"People (started) feeling like America was a live being that had been attacked, not just America, but she was lying burning and wounded, as a mother, or a friend, like the native Americans used to look upon her, as a mother," Amos said. "And maybe there was a stirring there in that thread that America isn't just an object, wasn't just an object for people anymore, where we're just entitled to do stuff and we own the land, but there's more of a caretaker feeling instead of just being a taker."

The idea of a person possessing their own personal body map and America as a land to be loved and nurtured both became key themes of "Scarlet's Walk," the CD Amos made following her tour last year.

But looking back, Amos said she thinks the concept behind "Scarlet's Walk" was already bubbling up before she went on tour last fall and before the tragedy of 9-11.

"When I was pregnant with Natashya, I think I started getting seeds coming, but only in segments, so maybe eight-bar phrases," Amos said, mentioning her daughter, who is now 2. "And I didn't know why in the world there were references to America, but there were. Sometimes subtly, sometimes there seemed to be a reference to a woman, and I could sense her. But I didn't know (the full story) at the time. So not until I was on tour and going across the world myself, through the night, through the day, through different climates, (with) different people coming to the shows telling their stories, not until then did it all start to come together."

The "Scarlet's Walk" CD works on several levels. For one thing, it can be taken as a strict narrative account of one woman's travels, the people she meets along the way and the events that occur.

The story begins with Amos' main character, Scarlet. She travels to Los Angeles after receiving a call from a longtime friend, Amber Waves, a fading porn star who has reached a crisis in her life.

After helping her friend through this difficult period, Scarlet meets what she thinks is the man of her dreams, and the song "A Sorta Fairytale" describes their travels and Scarlet's eventual realization that they weren't really a perfect couple after all.

By now Scarlet is clearly on a journey, and her travels bring her together with other lovers, prompt her to explore her native American roots and to make stops in cities in every region of the United States

Taken together on a strict story-telling level, the songs and stories on Scarlet's journey form a colorful travelogue that provide insights into Scarlet's character and how the people and events she encounters along the way reshape her life.

On a deeper level, though, "Scarlet's Walk" also offers commentary on the state of America, and how the choices we make affect our lives and the people and the world around us.

"This is a woman who is questioning and she is discovering things," Amos said of Scarlet. "She loves, she gets disappointed. There's death and there's birth, and there's sinister and she walks hand in hand with it all. And sometimes they drop her and she lands harshly. And sometimes they drop her and wings seem to catch her, whether it's the eagles or the angels, or just a little kid that has funny wings on, that's waving to her.

"And I think that a lot of us love America deeply and a lot of us feel that these are troubled times,"
she said. "And she (America) is at a crossroads, and we have many questions to ask where we need to go and hold her hand. So the album is really about those questions. Can Scarlet find the right questions?"

If that sounds like a deep concept, it is. And it's just the kind of multi-layered, highly emotional and personal work one would expect from Amos, given her past music.

A classically trained pianist who began playing at age two and was kicked out of the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore at age 11 for improvising too much on the classics, Amos first made a name for herself in the 1980s thrash metal band Y Kant Tori Read?

Amos has long since distanced herself from that episode. Instead, her true musical vision didn't come into focus until 1992 when she emerged as a solo artist with the CD, "Little Earthquakes."

Immediately, Amos established herself as an artist with a unique vision and sound. With piano forming the backdrop for music that stylistically echoed everything from classical to pop to opera, "Little Earthquakes" found Amos confronting remarkably personal subject matter. Nowhere was this more evident than in the song "Me and a Gun," where Amos chillingly retold the true story of her being raped.

Subsequent CDs haven't always been as harrowing as that song, but they have frequently found Amos exploring emotionally complex and deep subject matter ranging from Amos' conflicting feelings and expectations for men (on the 1996 CD "Boys for Pele") to self empowerment and overcoming a victim mentality (on 1994's "Under the Pink") to reflecting on the emotional effects of her miscarriage during her first pregnancy on the 1998 CD "From the Choirgirl Hotel."

Lyrically, "Scarlet's Walk" is among Amos' most ambitious concepts. And if Amos' typically cryptic lyrics sometimes make it difficult to divine a clear message from some of her songs, on a musical level, the new CD is one of her most accessible works yet.

Utilizing a full band on most tracks, Amos offers inviting and enticing pop on "A Sorta Fairytale" and "Amber Waves." On "Crazy," the melodic mood turns more sensual, while "Pancake" deals in spookier textures. "Gold Dust," a song that doesn't include a full band, is a dramatic ballad built around Amos' ornate piano playing and strings.

As for just how much the places, people and events of "Scarlet's Walk" reflect Amos' own life her body map, if you will the singer-songwriter isn't about to get too specific.

"It's a story based on real people and real events," Amos said. "Sometimes as a story teller you have to tell it in ways that maybe protect a few people. I don't even know if the people that it's about even know that it is they."

And while Amos will admit that she identifies strongly with the Scarlet character, she stopped short of saying she was writing about herself throughout the CD.

"I kind of got wrapped up in Scarlet," she said. "At first I used to say she seems to wear my shoe size, but I think I wear her shoe size."

At a glance

Who: Tori Amos with Howie Day
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: King Center for the Performing Arts, 3865 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne
Tickets: $40
Call: (321) 242-2219

File photo caption

A musical 'Walk': Singer-songwriter Tori Amos said she thinks the concept behind her latest release, "Scarlet's Walk" was already bubbling up before she went on tour last fall and before the tragedy of 9-11.

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