She's beautifully complex, her sound haunting and ethereal, a little meditative. But as you enter the musical world of Tori Amos, beware of the pits. As you're drifting on her gossamer voice and sparkling piano, relishing the texture, digging the ride, you may plummet all of a sudden. Her stories -- at times, dark and deep -- are like open elevator shafts.
"It's like the sound of the Sirens leading Odysseus to his death," she says jokingly. "But I like to think that I'm leading people to honey after the bees have left."
The artist, who plays Merriweather Wednesday, is on the phone, stuck in Detroit. The blackout hit the city the night before, so there is no power in her hotel. It's hot, sweltering, Amos says. She and Natashya, her 2-year-old daughter, slept on her tour bus last night because it's air-conditioned. The singer-songwriter doesn't know whether she will have to postpone her show later in the evening. But she's not fretting over what she can't control.
Amos is calm as she discusses the fluidity of her art and Scarlet's Walk, her latest CD and one of her most ambitious works. A "sonic novel," the 18-track album follows Scarlet, a fictional character who represents "the voices of many people," as she travels the 50 states in search of America's soul after the 9/11 attacks. To give the heavy, literate observations a certain lightness, Amos, during the recording, studied the art of Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.
"I was working with a Native American undertone with this project," she says, "and I wanted to capture a natural light from the sun and shadow. I wanted to achieve that sonically. I wanted to go after what comes from the organic, natural world. Once I knew the elements -- this woman getting to know the soul of America -- I had a research team to pull everything together to make it air-tight. It's probably the most time I've spent writing and researching a record."
For Scarlet's Walk, which hit the streets in October, Amos received a wave of critical praise. And the album, her first for Epic, went gold. It is her most accessible work in some time, perhaps her most consistent effort since 1994's Under the Pink. But it still requires repeated listens to fully grasp the tale -- if you can get past the floating sonic beauty of the record. The North Carolina-born, Maryland-raised artist was inspired by the stories passed down by her mother, who's part Cherokee. Amos was also deeply moved by the Native Americans' spiritual connection to the Earth.
She says, "What I needed to achieve was to get people to develop a relationship with the land separate from those who were using the land. It's what I saw in people's eyes on Sept. 11. Scarlet went on this search to discover who this creature America is."
Although Amos owns several platinum plaques, she has never been a commercial artist. You either feel Tori Amos or you don't. She makes no concessions, and what she does flows directly from the soul. So as you enter her lush musical maze, you will, at times, find yourself hopelessly lost or just freaked out. Well, that's Tori Amos: a pure, dramatic artist in the Joni Mitchell-Kate Bush mold who always stretches her music to reflect her most authentic self.
Her artistic journey started in Baltimore, where Amos, who's 40, spent part of her childhood. By age 4, she was playing piano and singing in the church choir. (Her pops is a Methodist preacher.) As a child, Amos also studied at the Peabody Conservatory but was booted out at age 11.
"I was supposed to be a concert pianist," she says, "but I was more interested in what Stevie Wonder was doing."
She isn't bitter about the dismissal, though. She "learned discipline from Peabody, which prepared me for the tours I do today," Amos says. "I should have been rejected. It wasn't the right thing for me at the time."
At 14, she was playing in clubs. Around this time, she was also a pianist at a hotel bar in D.C., where she tickled the ivories for "Congressmen and their call girls. You learn a lot from the call girls," Amos quips. "You just sit there, play and listen. You have to crawl inside the political underbelly to see how things are really made."
At 21, Amos moved to Los Angeles, trying to make it as a recording artist. After three years of toiling in the City of Angels, she signed with Atlantic Records in 1987. Initially, her sound was an awkward fusion of pop and metal. And nobody dug it. So in 1992, she stripped, so to speak, and dropped a masterwork. Little Earthquakes -- which contained "Me and a Gun," a poetic, autobiographical song about her experience with rape -- sold more than a million copies and established Amos as one of the most arresting artists of her generation. Other albums -- Under the Pink, Boys for Pele, From the Choirgirl Hotel -- explored her emotions through ambitious, sometimes difficult, arrangements.
And Amos' fearless explorations continue on Scarlet's Walk. As long as she's breathing, she's evolving, Amos says. And her revelations, big and small, will shape her art.
She says, "It's a very humbling experience. I can't possess a song. The songs are like live entities for me. I have to put them out in the world, and it's none of my business what relationships the songs form. As an artist, I have to make peace with that."