NEW YORK -- In another life, Tori Amos' "Professional Widow" might have been a Led Zeppelin tune.
Just listen to the way the opening notes growl, scraping up through the blues scale with the same jackhammer insistenceas "Black Dog" or "When the Levee Breaks." It's precisely the sort of fist-pumping power riff Jimmy Page would play -- except that Amos plays it on harpsichord.
"My musicians were dying to put guitar on this," Amos says, smiling smugly. Even bassist George Porter wanted to join in, take the heavy-rock route, and ride the power of the riff.
But Amos wasn't having it.
"I said, 'This is what I want, George,' " she says, standing and slowly grinding her hips. "I want this. I want molasses. I want Sly Stone. I don't want these rock gods. Take them out of the room. I'm not interested in this obviousness."
That pretty much sums up the approach Amos takes on her third and newest album, "Boys for Pele" (Atlantic 82862, arriving in stores Tuesday). She does not want to take the obvious route; she is more interested in goddesses than rock gods, and she would prefer to let the songs have their say.
It is an attitude that reeks of strength and self-confidence. Yet the album itself is rooted not in the success the 32-year-old Amos garnered through her last album, the multiplatinum "Under the Pink," but in the emotional desolation and need she felt when her relationship with Eric Rosse, her producer and creative partner, fell apart during the "Pink" tour.
"A funny thing happens when a soul-mate walks out of your life," she says.
Amos, dressed casually in torn jeans and a zip-up sweater, is sitting in a New York hotel room, working her way through a week of back-to-back interviews. It's the kind of thing most musicians treat as a mixture of "Meet the Press" and flog-the-album, but as Amos talks about the turmoil she went through at the end of that tour, the mood seems almost confessional.
"Let's put it this way: I just hadn't developed so many sides to myself," she says. "And as I was playing show after show, I was desperately trying to find a place to fill these sides of my being that felt empty. I didn't know how to plug in. I couldn't feel that fire in my own being, as a woman. I needed men in my life, to reflect that back to me, to say, 'You have what we didn't have.' I needed to feed at that point. Like a vampire. I needed boy blood."
Amos was not interested in mere ego gratification, at least not in the usual rock-star sense.
"As a musician, I didn't need that," the former Peabody Prep student says. "The musician was excelling. But the woman was . . . I wasn't really listening to her."
Instead, she listened to the men she was seeing until she realized that she was not getting what she needed from these new relationships, either.
"I needed certain things from them, and obviously, there's an exchange," she says. "Well, they tapped certain energy force fields from me that they needed, and I still needed theirs."
She laughs ruefully. "So that's how you hit bottom."
Bottom, though, was the beginning of "Boys for Pele," the first step on the creative path Amos took.
"This record is truly a story about a woman who descends, who finds fragments in the unconscious to bring back into the light," she says. "But I was forced [by these circumstances] to do this . . . You're on your knees, and you make a choice.
"And the songs started coming. 'Blood Roses' was the first, and it was that feeling of ripping open your vein and going, 'This blood has sold millions of records. This blood can do many things.' And [the men are] like, 'Yes, Tori, and this blood isn't enough for us.' "
That may seem a little harsh, given how pretty the song seems at first hearing. But like much of "Boys for Pele," there's more to the music than shows on the surface. Listen with lyrics in hand, and you'll find an undercurrent of anger and recrimination
surging beneath all those harpsichord pirouettes, sentiments almost as shocking as the burst of keyboard distortion that erupts midway through the tune.
"It's not about, 'How could you do this to me?' The work, on any level, isn't," she says. "But it has so much of the seduction, and then the disillusion, and then the shock of the need that I had. But it was all of these things happening, all at once. And [I was] trying to get to the core."
The 'bloodline of woman'
Getting to the core was not just a matter of diving deep into her own shattered emotions; serious research was involved.
Because Amos wanted to understand what it would take to become a whole woman, she "went back to the bloodline of woman, to the Magdalene."
"I wanted to know why the blueprint of the Magdalene was not passed down," she says. "What was passed down was the whore that wiped Jesus' feet. We skipped the whole phase of the woman -- having sexual desire, wisdom, passion. Being an equal to Jesus, in truth.
"I truly believe that there was a unification there, a representation of the wholeness. Man with his masculine and feminine in balance; woman with her feminine and masculine in balance. Two whole beings, joined together. The blueprint.
"There's work in the past from other writers that have gone into this, particularly when you go back over a hundred years ago," she adds. "And that was the beginning of the journey."
What turns up on "Boys for Pele" are the lessons learned on that journey -- souvenirs, if you will, of Amos' voyage of self-discovery. Yet, as much as the album derives from her personal experience, it also serves as a celebration of feminine archetypes in all their glory.
Pele, the volcano goddess
The Pele in the title, for instance, refers not to the Brazilian soccer star but to a Hawaiian volcano goddess -- a "great mother" whose flames kept the souls of the dead for regeneration. "You've never seen fire until you've seen Pele blow," she sings in "Muhammad My Friend."
Then there's the protagonist of "Professional Widow," whom Amos describes as "the Lady Macbeth archetype."
"There are many ways to play Lady Macbeth," she says. "It can be done in a Jackie O suit. I like to think that I was clever about it. I don't think I really was. And the reason she was so far out on the periphery of my, shall we say, bloodline, was because I had judged her so harshly. I didn't claim the fact that I wanted to be the king myself. But the widow was just so much freedom for me."
And so it went, with Amos finding various aspects of the feminine in each song.
"Marianne," with its rippling piano and melancholy melody, represents "the death of the girlhood" for Amos.
The single, "Caught a Lite Sneeze," is, she says, about wanting to do anything to keep a relationship going, "knowing that it's over, knowing that it's slipping through the hands."
And "Father Lucifer" is not about the devil, but about needing "to go to the space of shadow, to go where we hide. Not Satanism. A whole different plane."
Funnily enough, the songs sometimes fought back. Although "Hey Jupiter" finds Amos singing "and I thought I wouldn't have to be/ With you as something new," the lyric sheet renders the couplet as "And I thought you'd see with me/You wouldn't have to be something new."
What happened? "It kept coming back that way," she says of the lyric sheet. "I kept correcting it. Seventeen times, revision after revision, it kept coming back. I looked at it, and said, '[It] needs to hold both of them. The girl needs to be saying it while the other voice is saying it differently, because they can't communicate anymore.' "
In other words, let the song have its say.
No ding-a-lings for fans
Still, given the fact the album has such depths, and its songs rarely deliver the obvious, isn't Amos worried that "Boys for Pele" will cost her some of the fan-base that "Under the Pink" helped build?
"Well," she says, "I don't think I'm singing to a bunch of ding-a-lings. If they show me differently, then I misread them."
But from the look on her face, it's clear she's not worried in the slightest.