As America searched its soul after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Tori Amos searched America.
The trip began that Tuesday morning in midtown Manhattan, where Amos stayed in a hotel before beginning her Strange Little Girls tour in South Florida a few weeks later. Traveling the country, she kept a musical journal that turned into her current and seventh album, Scarlet's Walk, considered by some to be Amos' most accessible work since Under the Pink and her most ambitious effort to date. Scarlet's Walk, which has peaked at number 7 on Billboard's Top 200, is also Amos' first album after leaving Atlantic, where she originally broke ground with Little Earthquakes in 1992.
"I was seeing, across the country, people asking all kinds of questions that they hadn't asked before, once the shock started to wear off," Amos remembers. "There started to become a response to the government saying, 'If you question the government, then you're unpatriotic.' It hurt people at first, and then it started to offend some people -- how the tragedy was getting manipulated, and it's still being manipulated. So, Scarlet was driven to ask questions about what she believed in."
Scarlet is the titular protagonist of a journey that's mapped in clean lines and coordinated colors in the liner notes and also on Amos' interactive website (www.toriamos.com). Even though the photos of Scarlet bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Amos, the musician speaks of Scarlet as a third party, as in, "Scarlet found she had to go person-to-person, because the media wasn't giving her the info she was looking for."
But Scarlet is, according to Amos, not so much an alter ego as a character who streams multiple consciousnesses.
"Scarlet being a thread before she was a color. America being personified, and [Scarlet] getting to know America as a soul, which is different than the object some of our leaders are misrepresenting. That was the driving force," says Amos, who further explains her motivation for making the album as "a fascination with things I wasn't taught in school, the DNA structure of our culture. We're based on broken treaties and broken agreements. That's just part of our code, part of how we were formed. And the native people who were here a long, long time ago -- we didn't inherit their stories and incorporate them into ours; therefore, a lot of that wisdom and medicine is lost."
When Amos speaks of her own ancestry, she mentions her maternal grandparents, who were Cherokee. As a child, Amos says, she was bequeathed a tradition of Cherokee storytelling by her grandfather, whose mother escaped the Trail of Tears. "Her relationship with the land protected her, mothered her, loved her, kept her safe," Amos says of her great-grandmother. "And [my grandfather] would always say to me, 'One day, you're going to ask yourself, 'Are you keeping [the Earth] safe?' And I would say, 'Safe from what?' and he would say, 'Those who are not keeping her safe. She's not an object. The white brother doesn't understand her.' He would say, 'We've become takers, not caretakers.'"
Amos' own relationship with the land now extends to South Florida, where she lives with her sound-engineer husband, Mark Hawley, and their 2-year-old daughter, Natashya. "Where I live is really quiet. My mother found it for me. There's a real historical feeling to it," Amos observes. "There seem to be people who care about the land. I like that my little girl can take flamenco-dancing classes. You get people from all over in Florida."
And you get people from all over in Scarlet's Walk. Amos writes from specific perspectives (i.e., a girl on a plane on 9/11/01), but her lyrics ultimately mean nothing absolute -- at least, not to the listener. Her music works like a David Lynch film: an imbroglio of images and feelings that floats inches above the ground, only to coalesce and touch down in moments of emotional clarity: "And somewhere Alfie cries and says 'Enjoy his every smile/You can see in the dark through the eyes of Laura Mars'/How did it go so fast?" ("Gold Dust") or "Jasmine foxed me in her grove/Arms filled with honey belles, St. Michael's Sanford Bloods/'You have come to discover what you want'/'What I want is not to want what isn't mine'" ("Another Girl's Paradise").
The album's media kit comes with a sort of CliffsNotes breakdown of explanations for each song. For example, "Crazy" is named after a character who Amos describes as "seductive and dangerous." The lyrics read, "As soon as you have rearranged the mess in your head/He will show up looking perfectly sane," which is translated to mean, "Together they travel through cowboy country and back to the desert, before [Crazy] abandons [Scarlet] in Tucson."
It may make for complicated pop music, but it's also lovely poetry. Amos has been called the Sylvia Plath of rock, and even if that seems like a stretch, it isn't. At age 5, she became the youngest student ever to be accepted to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at John's Hopkins University. Six years later, she got kicked out due to "irreconcilable differences."
Fans have debated whether Scarlet's Walk is overtly political, because Amos can't get intellectual in her music without waxing poetic. On-stage, she makes playing the piano look and sound like a tantric sex exorcism, not a political oration. In conversation, however, her views come through in plain English.
"What has our government done?" she asks. "We know what everybody else is doing; what are we doing? Why are they burning American flags in Germany right now? This is a people that hasn't been able to move because of their abuse of power; they know the darkness of the abuse of power, and Germany is saying, 'We didn't ask the questions, we just agreed, and look what's happened to us.' In the end, I guess you have to ask if the album is to get people questioning their relationship with their country on a spiritual level, their relationship with the policies that their government is standing behind, and whether you agree with them or not. Is this the democracy our ancestors fought and died for?"
Fundamentally, the Scarlet's Walk album is not so much a political tract as a pilgrimage. "In the end, I think there are a lot of people who can't walk the walk they talk about, whatever it is," explains Amos, who says her "religion" revolves largely around questions. "Is there a code I can live by? That I'm answerable to? Whether it's me or the government, there has to be a code that we're answerable to when [we] look in the mirror in the morning. I've pretty much kind of dedicated my life to finding out what that is."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.