Tuesday, November 06, 2007
I interviewed Tori Amos for the second time in 2002. My first time, for LA Weekly, was a sort of definitive Tori 101 and look at why the fans go ga-ga for her. This was pretty much focused on her album Scarlet's Walk, and for the gay press.
It runs longer than the version published back in the day. Um... it was never spell-checked, either, so a few spelling and grammatical errs.
Enjoy, Tori fans!
by Lawrence Ferber
Perhaps taking a cue from Jack Keroauc, fire-haired myth-loving songstress Tori Amos hit the road for her latest album, Scarlet’s Walk (Epic). Through the experiences of an everywoman alter ego, Scarlet, Amos touched upon every state in the nation, connecting with people and the land itself. Boasting Cherokee blood (from mom’s side), Amos’ journey is both spiritual and physical, and Scarlett takes part in soul-searching episodes with young porn stars (“Amber Waves”), manic depressives (“Carbon”), a September 11th-inspired plane crash (“I Can’t See New York”), and a gay friend who dies (“Taxi Ride”). The latter song touches upon the loss of Amos’ real-life gay friend, acclaimed author/makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin (he died in May of 2002).
It’s a dense album - 18 songs - and possibly her best, a melodic and passionate kiss to the USA. Coming off a root canal (“ice cream sundae and Percocet,” she recommends as post-op treatment), Amos made a speaking appearance at New York’s annual CMJ Music Fest on November 1st. Later that day, I spoke with Amos via telephone about Scarlet, Aucoin, and how queerness fits into her -and everyone’s - USA. Incidentally, more songs from Scarlet’s extensive travels can be found on the website, Scarlet’s Web, which you can access with a “key” found on the CD.
I love your new album, Tori.
“Thank you honey.”
And so big, so many songs.
“Yeah - it’s a big country.... and there are more songs [that aren’t on the album]. On Scarlet’s Web now, ‘Tom Bigby’ is up, which is itombi, which means ‘he who prepared the bones for burial.’ So that’s a chocktaw word and that takes place in Mississippi, Alabama terrirtoy. Then we’ve got ‘Seaside,’ that happens over on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. But there are different roads off the path and that will be on Scarlet’s Web. ‘Operation Peter Pan’ made it on the European B-side, that occurs in Miami. Between 1960 and 1962, I think it was, a lot of children were sent from Cuba in this whatever you call it, Operation Peter Pan, experiment. And a lot of people were separated from their families, a lot of children. That’s explored in that song.”
I notice that Scarlet doesn’t go to Puerto Rico, a commonwealth.
“I don’t go to any commonwealths.”
Puerto Ricans are going to hate you for that.
“I love them. It’s in my curl, sweetie. It’s in my curl and in my heel. Always.”
This is the first album of yours, that I’ve been aware, in which you openly address gay people and gay matters.
“I don’t know - I think over the years there have been references to all kinds of sexuality, but on this record there are characters that Scarlet runs into. Her friend, Taxi, is gay and he dies. I think a core theme running through, though, is the outer betrayal versus the inner betrayal. The polarity of that, so in ‘I Can’t See New York’ [in which Scarlet witnesses a plane crash in midair] we see the culmination of outer betrayal that may have stemmed from some kind of inner betrayal. But then in ‘Taxi Ride’ the inner betrayal is taken to friendship where, at his death, Scarlet’s having to look at everybody that’s there and question were we really a good friend to him when he was in need?”
Do you feel you were a good friend to Kevyn when he was in need?
“I question myself every day.”
Kevyn’s friends, by virtue of who they are, pretty much have to be self involved - they’re artists and in the entertainment industry. And I think that in a way it’s almost harder to maintain that kind of I’m-there-for-you friendship, don’t you think?
“Yes. I think that is true. And I think that’s a fair point. I also think, however, that what’s being addressed in the song is that only you can look at your relationship with a friend and know if you could show up. Not when you needed them, but when they needed you. The thing about Kevyn is he always showed up when you needed him. But sometimes I think the question with us as ‘celebrity’ friends, the beauty icon, if he could make you beautiful, great. But if he couldn’t were you really there for him? And that is the question that Scarlet and I are asking ourselves. Talking to you on a personal level, Kevyn is the inspiration, but this is the story of someone Scarlet meets. There’s more than one gay friend that has died that brings up things in people. Death always brings up questions. This is the result. Loss that she has after the public loss everybody went through [during September 11th] in ‘I Can’t See New York.’”
Is there something more you’d like to say about ‘I Can’t See New York?’ Have you already talked that one out?
“No. I think really that’s about is the question of what is permanent. Scarlet’s only a thread. She can be any woman, she bleeds. The men in this record are terra firma, they’re very flesh and blood, they’re real. But the women that are Scarlet, meaning any woman who isn’t, Amber, Carbon, those creatures, that can be America personified and real women. She is shape shifting through these others, crawling inside them, talking through them, penetrating them. So at this stage in the story, trouble’s been brewing. Amber has been making some choices and I think that at a certain point there are consequences to choices you make whether you’re a country or person. In ‘Pancake’ we’re exploring power, all sides of it. And what it can implore you to do. She’s investigating it. She’s toying with it, she’s looking at it. She’s intimidated by it but also drawn to it. And people that may have it and know what to do with it are also people she feels are picking it up and pressing their own agenda with it.”
On the topic of agenda, on this record you’re taking this trip to figure out what these things mean on a whole in relation to the land. What we give, what the earth gives us. How do gays fit into America?
“I think it’s something that may be being redefined right now. You all suffered quite a loss of a lot of people in the 80s, as you know. A wealth of intelligencia, artists, that were core, part of your fabric. And now the next crop is stepping to this metaphorical fire to plant the seeds, to hold spaces for others to come. It seems to me anyway, from the outside, it is about community now and networking. Because those making choices for our world now are networking just fine. And making decisions we may not agree with and may not be good for our true mother, our earth, or us. It seems to me that sometimes in name only we’re the land of the free and this is something the gay community... it’s feet to the fire time. There must be a stepping forward about what you all feel. How you penetrate, say, the culture.”
Do you feel that right now gays give something to the culture?
“Yes I do, but I think there can be more. I think it’s time to stop shying away from your place at the fire of wisdom. I think gays have been very shamed and I know you all feel you can give in fashion and art, but it’s time now for perspective. But you all have to do that work.”
Do you mean on an ecological level? Political?
“I mean every level. But that comes from thought, not just from style. Maybe the thought has to be put forth with a bit of style! But I’m talking about people’s projections and you must as a group make peace with that... I think you all can bring a temperance but not if you’re holding everybody’s guilt. It’s not your job anymore.”
Did you see Kevyn making a difference?
“Absolutely I saw him making a difference. He inspires me every day.”
How did he make a difference?
“He wanted to see someone’s goals. Each individual had goals, he believed that, and beauty. He would find the beauty in someone who couldn’t find any in themselves and then show it for them to look at.”
In a superficial, external way?
“But don’t you see, it might have been the way that they giggled that he was able... he was a painter, one of the master painters of this generation. He painted faces, but he could’ve painted something on a rhino’s butt and it would have been beautiful. He could do that in his sleep. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m suggesting is perhaps Kevyn found that nugget, that element, that real treasure someone had and found a way to paint it. By the eye, a glitter, so when they looked it was metaphorical for what it was. It was symbolic and they knew what it meant. That was his gift.”
Did Kevyn have a hand in the Strange Little Girls’ looks from last album? You were transformed into a different girl persona for each song you covered...
“Her look was designed by Kevyn and Karen Benz (sp?).”
That must have been fun, going for all the various sessions.
“It was. We had backstories on these girls for months and months and they were alive. They were the anima of these songs.”
Have you ever inhabited a gay persona or character, Tori?
“That’s a good question. I think some of the little girls are.”
“I have to go talk to them. But they certainly aren’t... they don’t all have one orientation, that’s for sure. And they all don’t get along either.”
Is Scarlet queer perchance? Bi-curious maybe?
“Right now I think more than anything she’s about being a good friend. Whether Amber does whatever she’s been doing and Taxi’s been doing whatever he’s been doing, they’re some of her closer friends and that’s where that sits.”
“Don’t be a stranger!”