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The Mercury News (US)
April 11, 2003
Tori Amos echoes voices of America
by Jaan Uhelszki
Special to the Mercury News
Like Walt Whitman, Tori Amos heard America singing.
Only the songs she heard were laments of pain and outrage from a country scarred by the tragic happenings of Sept. 11, 2001. When the country was in emotional tatters after the terrorist attacks, and rock stars were packing up their instruments and canceling dates in droves, Amos, who happened to be in New York on the day of the attacks, resolved to dust off her trademark Bosendorfer piano and embark on a U.S. tour.
"After the 11th, I began to see people relating to America as an alive thing," she says. "A lot of people would speak about it in ways that they don't normally speak -- like America was a mother, or a friend or something alive. She wasn't an object anymore; she was something that we needed to protect."
It was these voices that she remembered throughout the next few months while she continued on her sojourn, writing songs along the way. That protracted tour, which took her to all 50 states, became the genesis of her latest album, "Scarlet's Walk."
She says, "This is a woman's road trip across the country trying to find out what she believes in and trying to find her relationship with the country that she loves, and questioning whether our leaders are protecting the soul of the country that we love, or not."
Fans can follow Amos' trajectory, because "Scarlet's Walk" comes with a map that traces her wanderings and geographically pinpoints where she wrote each of the album's 18 songs. For the record, the flame-haired chanteuse penned "a sorta fairy tale" when she traveled through our neck of the woods.
But Sept. 11 wasn't the only inspiration for Amos' seventh album. Instead, its beginnings were rooted in the fertile North Carolina soil, where a younger Tori listened to stories told by her maternal grandfather, who was part Cherokee Indian. He regaled the prodigy -- she began playing piano at 2 -- with the tales of her ancestors, stories of the four winds, as well as the tragic story of the U.S. Army's 1838 removal of 15,000 Cherokee Indians on foot from their ancestral homelands in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to the Indian Territory more than 1,000 miles away in what is now Oklahoma.
"My grandfather told me before he died that one day I should travel America and follow the 500 Nations map," says Amos, who performs tonight and Saturday at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. And while it might be hard to imagine the diminutive, high-heeled musician carrying the torch of author Jack Kerouac, folklorist Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie, that's what she did, searching for America's true heart, using the Native American migration as her template.
"The song 'Scarlet's Walk' goes through South Carolina, Georgia and into North Carolina, and it's really the Trail of Tears story mixed with Scarlett O'Hara," Amos says. Amos insists that her heroine, Scarlet, is not based on herself.
"As a writer, you may think you're writing fiction and then realize that it's real," she says. "Then you have to go and do your research. You may change the characters' names, but it really all happened," Amos says. "I named her Scarlet because the origins of the word go back to scarlet being a thread before it was a color. I liked the way it signified I was weaving and pulling on Native American history, their past and their spiritual walk."
Amos researched all the locations and verified her grandfather's stories with the help of the faculty at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. "I brought a research team together, and we called Haskell University once the project was written. I'd known Manny King from there for a quite a while, and he became part of the team who's helping with the Native American aspects of 'Scarlet's Walk.'"
Scarlet crisscrosses the country meeting other women -- a porno queen named Amber Waves, a manic-depressive named Carbon -- who personify the United States, before becoming ensnared in the lives of four men, learning an important lesson from each. The travelogue is punctuated by moving songs such as "Taxi Ride," which Amos wrote for her friend Kevyn Aucoin, a makeup artist who died last year, and "I Can't See New York," written from the perspective of someone in one of those hijacked planes on Sept. 11.
"I think Poppa's stories started to come back to me when I had a child" -- Natashya Lorien, now 2. "I tried everything to get her to go to sleep. I mean, I got desperate. I tried playing AC/DC to her. I tried lullabies. They didn't work. I was reading all those books about what to expect during the first year and ready to jump out the window from lack of sleep. That's when his stories started coming back to me. It's something you don't even plan. You just start talking.
"So I would start telling his stories, and finally she would calm down. Maybe I just used a different tone of voice. I don't know. But the important thing was I started to remember. In some odd way, the seeds of the record were planted when I was pregnant with her -- just tiny bits and pieces, six-bar phrases. And like the child, it began to expand slowly. But all in all, it took about three years to write."
In addition to the CD, Amos created a Web site ( www.toriamos.com/scarletsweb ) that allows fans to take a virtual journey with Scarlet along the trail, listen to bonus tracks not included on the album, trace the Native American movement across the country and read pages of the singer's continually updated diary.
Despite the time and effort Amos put into this concept album, which she prefers to call "a sonic novel," she is not performing it onstage like a modern-day "Tommy." With the help of drummer Matt Chamberlain (Fiona Apple, David Bowie) accompanied by Jon Evans on bass, Amos weaves tapestries of new and old songs into what she calls "a different fairy tale every night."
"What I did before I began the tour was to make a decision whether I was on Tori or Scarlet's Walk. So every night we begin with 'Wampum Prayer,' but the set changes every night, depending on what's happening in the world, because I have to be Tori now. As soon as I finished Scarlet, I realized if I tried to hang on, then I would start trying to steal her fire. So instead, I tap into my own map, and the songs from the last 15 years come up every night and are a part of the show. They stand along with the threads from Scarlet."
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