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Tori Amos' New American Journey

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 ½; 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 information."

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 the clues."

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 said.

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." — Brian Orloff [Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002]

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