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Hot Press (Ireland)
November 20, 2002
"Red Letter Day" with Tori
by Stephen Robinson
The first thing you notice upon meeting Tori Amos is how petite she is. Beautiful, and petite. She's a waif. The dress she's wearing looks as though it might be fashioned from gossamer and her trademark unmanageable crimson coiffure adds to the ethereal, elfin image.
The second thing you notice about Ms Amos, and within a millisecond, is that this woman is a rock star. Since her breakthrough with 1991's "Little Earthquakes" she's released six albums, sold millions of records, gained a reputation as one of the most impassioned live performers of her time and established a huge and ultra-loyal fan base many of whom quite simply adore her. She also has a reputation as an outspoken commentater both in her music and in her public utterances on subjects such as male violence and rape.
Today, I am the last in a long line of interviewers and Tori Amos fixes on me with a pleasant yet unnervingly forensic gaze. I've listened to her new album just once, only hours before this meeting and I'm still quite overwhelmed . I've also heard the rumours that suggest she doesn't take kindly to journalists who are unable or unwilling to treat her work with the gravitas she believes it deserves. A tad nervously, I decide to open the proceedings with an observation about Scarlet's Walk.
"The abum's about relationships, and God, and America," I venture... She nods non-committally awaiting furthur analysis. "The snag is," I hesitate before continuing, "I can't work out which song is about which thing..."
Tori Amos throws back her head and squeals with laughter while clapping her hands. "How about I tell you a little bit about it," she smiles, "and I'll trust that when you write it you won't make me sound too stupid. And you'll make me sound funny..."
"When I was pregnant," she begins, "songs started to come, but in segments, eight bars, 16 bars at a time. And then they would stop, like a thread would break. And I usually find the melody first, but often married to a word or phrase in such a way that you can't seperate them. And these words and melodies are like cornerstones that you work around. You know when it's right because you can feel it, like touching something hot. And I didn't know what relationship these ideas had to each other , these pieces of songs. I thought, "I don't know what this is yet." And then I found myself in New York City on September 11 and I felt an opening, or a question."
"People were saying that the planes were the biblical Scarlet Thread [from Joshua 2:18 which symbolises both Christ's blood sacrifice and also faith in God's ability to deliver us in the face of adversity]. George Bush had used the analogy in one of his speaches some years before, bless 'im. But I watched the masks go down and the make-up come off as people struggled to relate to this object that had been America, but was now a friend that had been attacked, a mother. She became alive in her hour of near death and people began feeling her for the first time. I know it's different for each individual but I'm talking on a mass level. And I was there and I felt that."
As shocked as anyone else by those momentous events, Tori Amos felt an instinctual desire to connect with her audience and tour.
"I didn't want to make anybody feel worse," she explains, "but I felt the need to congregate and play music or bake cookies and just be at one. At a concert in New Orleans a Native American woman came back afterward, and it's hard to get back there, I've a baby back there, you know!? But she sat down and with tears running down her face she told me that it was time. Time that those who had taken the land must take more. They must take the spirit of the land and know it. They must take the stories of the land and understand them. And it wasn't about Native American people or a modern people it was about discovering the soul of this being that we call America. In that moment the album was born."
The 18 songs on Scarlets Walk veer from the intensely personal to the universal. Indeed, it seems that the songwriter has identified two Americas. One is a place of spirituality, people, love and memories, the other a land of coldness, ignorance and image-over-substence. "And greed," she adds. "We are at a crossroads in America. The stock market is in crisis and ordinary people can't afford to pay their rent. Because some people are taking and taking and taking, even now. On the other side of that there's the dream that a lot of people, a lot of women, have about becoming famous. I want to be a dancer, I want to become famous, I want to get known."
"It's what I'm talking about in Amber Waves, where this porn-star woman looks around after years of her life and realises that she can't get back the pieces of herself she's sacrificed to become who she is. There's a line in that song that says, "there's not a lot of me left anymore..." I think as a nation, America might be in a similiar position."
"You know, once I was talking to one of those woman over coffee and she used to do that stuff. And she'd come to an understanding with herself, it was a light conversation. But she told me that even as she was talking to me, somewhere, in someone else's room she was committing the most despicable acts on video. And she can't ever take those moments back."
The same might be true of an artist like Tori herself, whose writing is hugely personal. Once she's committed these personal feelings to a recording studio she can never take them back. "I understand what you mean," she considers, "of course some things are personal but hopefully you're a good songwriter and hopefully you don't name names. There are some things I've kept for myself, like who it is with or about."
A Sorta Fairytale is perhaps one of the most personal songs on the album, as the protagonist remembers an incident within a (lost?) relationship. Half-forgotten memories, ghosts and unexplainable thoughts are articulated perfectly, as if in a dream.
"[Laughs]Well that's why its called A Sorta Fairytale, you know? And people will identify with the song whatever way they will. But you also play against type sometimes. The music for me is where the secrets lie, the lyric can only tell part of the story. The music has never been just a backdrop for me. Different instruments take on different characters. In Crazy for example the guitar becomes the character at one point and the music tells you his secrets."
The intense sense of spirituality pervading Scarlet's Walk prompts me to ask if she believes in God.
"I believe that..." she pauses. "This is a complicated conversation. If a Christian is sitting here right now and believes in somebody they're calling God then I believe that's God for them. And I believe in the Christian God in that he exists mythologically, and he's here right now. But the divine spirit, the Great Spirit of the Native Americans, encompasses all these Gods that people have. But this concept of 'my god's better than your god' or this is THE god, a Christian God or an Islamic God or the Jewish God... I believe they all exist in the pantheon, all part of the Divine Spirit. And I respect the faith of other people."
As Scarlet's quest draws to a close over the course of the album does she find a resolution, an answer to her questions?
"She crosses the land and her feelings become personifed, like temptation in Crazy and the madness in Carbon. They come into her life and she has relationships with them and at a certain point in Your Cloud you have this couple, or one of them anyway decides that 'we need to break apart, we need to divide this up.' But then you're thinking, parts of me are now you. I'm a different person because of you, I carry you in me. It's like the land, you can't keep cutting it up and dividing it up. There is a thread that ties all of us together and you can't segregate that. And the massacres, the brutality, the births and the sacrifices are all a part of her. And the same is true of governments."
"In Scarlet's Walk the Europeans arrive hundreds of years ago but not to visit or to scare but to take everything. And in Virginia, the nation personified in that song as a woman loses her identity and even forgets her own name. That's Scarlet's realization, it's time for her to give back. And she also realises that we all have a choice as to who we let into our lives."
Has having her daughter Natasha led to a sense of calm and completeness in her own life?
"[Laughs] I'm guessing you dont have children right? My daughter thinks it's ok to swing from towel rails, that's not very calming! But having people in your life that you love is all important. And then there is that sense of fear in that people can be taken away from you, like my friend the beautiful Kevyn Aucoin who photographed me when I was pregnant and feeling like a beached whale. Kevyn was a gay man, he dined on men but he loved women and he showed me the beauty of giving up my body for another person. And those photographs are still there for myself and my husband. He appears on the album on Taxi Ride and I know I can't talk to him now but I know I have his love. And that's what really keeps us going I think, simply love and the wonderment of it all."
Will she be visiting Ireland during her tour in support of the new album?
"Yes, we will come by Ireland. It'll be very simple, I'm thinking that Matt who did the drums, Jon who did the bass and keyboards. I want to keep it simple, not like a rock band. I'm drawing the map right now."
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