KURT MARKUS Enlarge
Tori Amos went off to search for America's soul and came back with a story as broad and beautiful and complex as the land that stretches from sea to shining sea.
On "Scarlet's Walk," the singer-songwriter's 11th release, we see the nation through the eyes of Amos' alter ego, Scarlet.
"Scarlet is walking in my shoes," Amos explained. "You could say she's based on me. Or perhaps I am based on her."
Her journey began in the underworld of Los Angeles and zigzagged across the United States to visit such diverse locales as Laredo, Texas; Wounded Knee, S.D.; New Orleans; Las Vegas, and New York.
Now Scarlet is coming to Toledo, as Amos will be in concert Tuesday night at the Stranahan Theater.
In a recent interview, the passionate and articulate artist said she spent much of 2001 traveling across America, collecting information for the songs that would eventually tell the story of "Scarlet's Walk."
But it wasn't until the new disc began taking shape that she realized she had been absorbing the background information for years.
"I was out on the road in 2001, not for a year but for a while,” she said, sounding weary but resilient. “In a weird way, it took me 15 years to kind of take notes when I didn't even realize I was taking notes, if that makes any sense.”
The fiery artist, a musical prodigy who started playing piano at age 2 and studying at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore at 5, believes the genesis for her new musical travelogue was planted by her grandfather, a full-blooded Cherokee who survived the infamous Trail of Tears by fleeing into the Smokey Mountains.
“I believe that at one point my grandfather probably slipped this invisible chip underneath my skin before he died,” Amos said. “Then he said, ‘One day you're going to remember all these stories I've told you.' ”
The 39-year-old singer, who married her sound engineer Mark Hawley in 1998, said the need to connect with her “own personal body map” became irrepressible with the birth of her daughter, Natashya, 21/2 years ago.
“I guess it kicked in when I became a mom,” Amos said. “It started kicking in when I became pregnant, but I think it really kicked in when I had my daughter and lullabyes didn't necessarily work.”
The songs on “Scarlet's Walk,” like Amos herself, are multilayered and provocative. She does not just examine the outward, visible signs surrounding us but looks deep below the surface. Her narrative songs explore the hidden trails buried under the highways of modern America, drawing upon the legacy of Native Americans, including her own ancestors.
“I've been to all the states except Alaska at different times, gathering a sense of the history that happened there, the native people that had been there, the layering of cultures that come in afterwards and what they contribute,” Amos said. “And in a lot of places, the native people were segregated from the development of the place.”
During her and Scarlet's cross-country travels, Amos happened to be in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, which is eerily described in her song “I Can't See New York.”
“When they watched it on TV, people had to remind themselves that it wasn't a movie,” Amos said. “Being there and being able to smell it, you knew that it was reality.”
Traveling after 9/11, she said she witnessed firsthand the way the terrorist attacks affected Americans and their feelings about their country.
“The storms were brewing, we were at a crossroads, and a lot of questioning started happening,” Amos said. “I would just watch people questioning what they believed in. And I started to see a different relationship that people had with the spirit of this land.”
Before 9/11, she said, people tended to treat America as an object.
“It was like, ‘I'm an American. This is my right.' I think when people saw her burning and bleeding amongst all the human death, they realized she was alive. Hurt. And people started kind of reawakening to this idea that there is a soul and a spirit separate from our government.”
It's a distinction that most Europeans are well aware off, Amos said, but historically speaking, the United States is a relative infant — “the terrible 200s,” she said.
She was highly critical of media coverage following 9/11, saying the government's influence resulted in “emotional blackmail” of innocent citizens.
“If you were questioning the government in any way, then it was as if you didn't love your country,” Amos said.
She still distrusts the mass media and believes their tactics can distort and censor the news in ways that are more subtle than book burnings: “They just inundate us with so much misinformation on 600 channels,” Amos said. “Each citizen has to say, ‘I can't turn it over to anybody else. I have to find out my own information.' ”
In the painful aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Amos sees a positive sign in the way Americans are looking deeper into the meaning of life.
She compared today's new consciousness to the social awareness and activism of 1968, when Americans' passions were stirred by the Vietnam War and civil rights.
For too many years, “our little lives” have been sheltered and self-centered, she said.
“There is a questioning now and people aren't just making sure that they can get to the mall this weekend.”
The transition to parenthood brought many changes in Amos' life and, fittingly, she closes the narrative of “Scarlet's Walk” with her alter ego embracing the role of motherhood — even when it's not a bed of roses.
“I'm freezing that frame, I'm freezing that frame,” she sings, “And somewhere Alfie smiles and says, ‘Enjoy her every cry.' ”
Tori Amos, accompanied by drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans, performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $37.50 from the box office, 419-381-8851, and Ticketmaster, 419-474-1333.