This article appeared in the New York Daily News on October 18, 2002. It was posted online at nydailynews.com on October 20, 2002. (The online version has a small Tori photo.) Thanks to Dianne Shattuck, Jason Edds, and Tim for sending me the article.
An American odyssey
Tori Amos tells a story-in-songs culled from
the people she met on the road after 9/11
By ISAAC GUZMAN
Tori Amos would prefer that her latest release, "Scarlet's Walk," not be referred to as a "concept" album. But it's hard to get around such labels when a record comes with its own color-coded map and offers links to a Web site filled with American history and explanations of the album's fictional characters.
Amos has crafted "Scarlet's Walk" around a meandering journey through America, although the casual listener would be unlikely to glean the plot from a single spin of the album. Her title character travels from Anchorage to Sioux Falls, S.D., Chattanooga, Tenn., and New York City. Along the way, she runs into spiritual charlatans, wanna-be revolutionaries and, most significantly, an adult-film star named Amber Waves, who is a few years past her prime.
Amos, 39, nicked the name from Julianne Moore's character in "Boogie Nights." But where Paul Thomas Anderson's film has Amber embodying the spirit of the '70s, Amos thinks she's emblematic of America in an age of disarray.
"She's getting pimped out," Amos says. "Also, the word 'fading' porn star in this song, it's not as if she's exactly fresh meat. She's made certain choices that she has to come to terms with. They're haunting her now, so it seemed to me that that's very much where America is at today."
Amos conceived the record's theme as she trekked across the U.S. during a concert tour last fall. The nation was still in the throes of post-9/11 anxiety, and Amos says she got a chance to talk to people on an unusually intimate level.
"Conversations I normally wouldn't have had were going to all these deep places," she says. "Relationships were formed at a much quicker pace. Things were amped, so feelings weren't tucked in like shirts."
In covering everything from shattered romances to atrocities against Native Americans, "Scarlet" has Amos is in a typically ambitious mode. Her last album, "Strange Little Girls," was also built around an idea, as Amos sought to put a feminist twist on songs written by men. While much of the record seemed muddled, her breathy take on Eminem's " '97 Bonnie and Clyde" was a psychologically wrenching depiction of violence against women.
It recalled the song with which Amos broke into the pop world. In 1991, she released "Me and a Gun," an autobiographical, a cappella track in which she described being raped. That challenging stance instantly made her a polarizing figure, leading some critics to deride her as shrill even as she inspired rabid devotion in her fans.
"A lot of fans are drawn to her music because she dares to go into these taboo subjects in a real in-your-face style," says Dianne Spoto Shattuck, an associate editor at Women Who Rock magazine. "Her subject matter deals so much with conflicts that have to do with sexuality and religion, feminist issues and her own experience with rape. There aren't too many artists who delve into those areas."
While Amos modeled much of her sound and sensibility on '80s art-rocker Kate Bush, she herself became a major influence on a generation of women singer-songwriters.
Piano-based anthems such as "God" and "Cornflake Girl" clearly resonated with artists such as Paula Cole, Fiona Apple and, most recently, Vanessa Carlton.
"She's like the godmother of the entire '90s singer-songwriter movement," says Jim Kaminski, rock buyer for Tower Records in Greenwich Village. "Her records selling was what made labels go out and sign other female singer-songwriters."
For years, Amos was rankled by being compared with other female artists, especially those on the Lilith Tour. But she says that when she became a mother two years ago she and husband Mark Hawley, a studio engineer, are the parents of Natashya she began to feel more comfortable with her role as an icon for women rockers.
"It's about becoming more of a nurturing force," she says. "Now I have a lot of time for the young ones coming up, and I can be thrilled for other people. The only thing that was hard about it was being pitted against each other in the media."
Members of the press again annoyed Amos last summer when despite distribution to only a handful of journalists advance tracks for "Scarlet" wound up on the Internet. So, like many artists, Amos took extreme measures in trying to foil pirates before the official release date.
"Those were my babies those weren't even finished mixes," she says. "So I went to my guys and said, 'Do what you have to, because trust has been broken.' "
SEALING THE DEAL
The solution of Amos' label, Epic, was to loan copies of the record to music journalists in a portable CD player with the lid sealed shut and a pair of jumbo headphones glued into the only output jack. The whole affair made Amos even more adamant about protecting her work from bootlegging one of the music business' most pressing issues.
"I believe in wine-tasting, but if you put a bottle of it in your bag, what you're saying is that you don't respect the people who made it," she says. "If you need to take the music, take the music. But at some point you just become a taker. You're a parasite."
Even if some fans download her songs, Epic and retailers expect "Scarlet" to be her best-selling album since 1998's platinum "From the Choirgirl Hotel." For Amos, however, the greatest success is weaving a tale with a unified theme, something she's wanted to do for years.
"To have a story work from top to tail with one character moving through is a challenge," she says. "But I didn't set out to write a road-trip sonic novel. The songs just started coming quickly because I was out in the land at a time when the masks were down, when people were talking about things they might not talk about today. Like, 'If tomorrow doesn't come, what would I change today?' "