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Unlikely Icon Tori Amos Talks About Her New Album, and the Other Woman In Her Life.
by Eric Andersson
Tori Amos has fiery hair, soft eyes and a speaking voice that is just above a whisper. When we meet, she is sitting in the living room of her New York City hotel suite; her petite frame is almost enveloped by the plush velvet sofa. It is quite a different pose than the one most Amos fans have seen her in, perched on a piano bench, thrashing around, completely hypnotized by the music she is playing, prompting one writer to comment, "She plays the piano like she's having sex." And anyone who has seen her perform has to admit that it's not far from the truth. But here, dressed in form-fitting jeans and a loose red blouse with one long turquoise earring dangling from her right ear, the 39-year-old singer looks more like someone's cool, offbeat sister than the artist we thought we knew.
"You assume that somebody who's reaching so deep in her soul to pull out this music has to be somewhat tragic and afflicted," says Ceci Kurzman, Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Epic Records. Kurzman worked closely with Amos on the construction of her newest offering, Scarlet's Walk. "But you know what? She's a lot of fun. Someone you'd love to hang out and have a glass of wine with."
Amos is in the midst of a world tour for Scarlet's Walk, an album with a concept just as studied and rich as her previous efforts. "It's a sonic novel," the eight-time Grammy nominee says quietly. "It's a road trip that a woman takes to find out what she believes in and to get a relationship with this place called America."
Amos is definitely in the mood to talk. Perhaps it is because I'm the umpteenth journalist she has talked to using the term "sonic novel," during her whirlwind, worldwide press promotion, but Amos seems more animated and enthusiastic when we're not talking about the album. "I love this," she says warmly, repositioning herself on the sofa, as she chats about other things: her 2-year-old daughter, Natashya; her husband, Mark, who is also her sound engineer; her home in Cornwall, England, where she recorded this and previous albums; and her age. On the cusp of 40, Amos is quite comfortable. Scarlet's Walk is an extension of that comfort. Amos has never conformed to the cookie cutters in which record executives have stuffed many of today's artists. "There are women that have been redefining the forties, and that's given me a lot of inspiration. There's a place when you move to the next space, where you pass the torch," she says, but adds quickly with a chuckle, "It doesn't't mean I don't have a lighter in my back pocket."
She may have passed the torch, but she still has the fire. Walk is passionate and multilayered - at once deeply personal and politically charged. As Scarlet, the album's narrator, traverses the nation over the course of 18 songs, she learns about who she is and gets to know the country that "she thinks is being pimped out by our leaders." She also travels through time and meets a colorful cast of characters along the way. Scarlet begins her journey with a visit to porn star Amber Waves in the first track that sets the tone for the whole album. "When I was starting out in L.A.," Amos says, speaking of her inspiration for the song, "I saw it from the bottom up. Women would come to town and they thought they'd be actresses. One thing leads to another and before they know it, some of them are involved pretty deeply in porn. I'm talking about women that allowed things to be done to them that they're questioning now. So I really liked the idea that Amber Waves is America personified, that she's teetering; she's involved in stuff that she knows isn't great for her soul anymore and I felt America's spirit like that. By the album's end, many things have happened. Scarlet has to find out how she's going to walk her walk. She realizes that she's talked about it, but she hasn't yet walked it." In signature Amos style, her vocals run the gamut: lush acappella, airy whispers and forceful wails abound. The result is something that is musically more mainstream than her other offerings, but still distinctly Tori: the cryptic lyrics, the requisite religious references and an overall introspective theme are still quite prevalent.
Walk was inspired partly by the 2001 concert tour for her previous album, Strange Little Girls, which was launched right after the September 11 attacks. "I was really exposed to people talking about their feelings for the country and their fears," she says. But take note - this is not a 9/11 themed album, as it's sometimes been hyped in the media. "[But] there's all this sensationalism because there is a song about a plane exploding in the sky above New York City, and yes, it's based on real events."
This isn't exactly standard fare for a gay icon - but Amos has never delivered standard fare. Not content with remixes or power ballads, she touched a generation of fans with some of the most inspired lyrics and beautifully composed music of the 1990s, beginning with her breakout Little Earthquakes in 1992. Unbeknownst to Amos, her themes of keeping secrets and enduring abuse struck a chord with many gays and lesbians on songs like "Crucify" and "Silent All These Years." And with fare like "Tear in Your Hand," she hit the universal theme everyone could relate to, regardless of sexuality: breaking up. "Her music is so rich and so deep and very emotional," agreed Kurzman. "A lot of those records got people through some hard moments."
Born Myra Ellen Amos in 1963 to a Methodist minister and his wife (Tori came from 'notorious' for wearing red leather pants to her father's church), Tori Amos was a child prodigy. By the time she was three, she could play Beethoven on the piano by ear. At five, she was enrolled in the prestigious Peabody Conservatory. By 11, she was kicked out for playing rock-n-roll classics instead of the traditional masters. And at 13, she informally began her professional career: playing piano in gay bars, while the Reverend chaperoned.
She gained local fame, at 17, in the Washington D.C. area, where she grew up and performed. After studying music at Baltimore College, she was signed to Atlantic Records at 23 and released her first album in 1988, Y Kant Tori Read, a forgettable foray into 80s pop that doesn't sound like anything she has produced since.
When she reemerged in 1992, the music was simpler: Tori and her piano. Little Earthquakes was well received by the public, even if critics didn't quite know what to make of her intimate, oblique lyrics.
I suggest that her honesty about sexuality is something that initially attracted gays. "What the fuck do I know?" she laughs. "The songs know who they are." But she wasn't aware she had a gay following until a friend said something. "Kevyn [told] me that." Amos says. Kevyn is Kevyn Aucoin, the makeup artist who passed away last May of a brain tumor. "I'm a different person because he was in my life."
The conversation slips away from the album again. As we talk about relationships, Amos mentions that her family takes top priority, and notes that this will be her last big tour for a while. "Mark and I made a commitment. We said we could do the tour this time, but Natashya starts school at four. At a point, we have to do just the summer seasons." And that's just fine with Amos. "I stay away from clubs. I'm more comfortable with gatherings with friends. If I'm going to let my hair down, I really like to do it with people I trust. The whole celebrity circle preys on you like a bloodsucker. You start to have an opinion of yourself that's formed not on a real moment, but what you're invited to and who you're with. It can be the loneliest place on Earth. I've been to the Grammys and that's not where the party's at," she says with finality. "I've had better parties with people just on the dock, kickin' our feet up. I wouldn't want to be anyplace else than in Cornwall with our local friends having a laugh."
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