Behind the mask

Tori Amos finds redemption in the real

Tori Amos is sitting
in a truck parked on New York City's Bleecker Street. It's an appropriate port of call for someone so moved by last September's events that her ensuing tour became the fodder for Scarlet's Walk, her seventh studio album. The 18-song disc tells the story of Scarlet, a woman who travels across the United States in search of truth, beauty and, well, the American way. She's a lost soul, buoyed by soaring melodies and soothed by the soft hum of the native land. Scarlet, is, in fact, much like one of Amos' fans.

Fans are one thing Amos has no trouble finding. They, like her cryptic twists of lyrical phrase, come in all forms — equal parts heterosexual and homosexual, conservative and liberal, male and female, old and young, happy and sad. But each shares what can only be called an obsession with the North Carolina-born piano prodigy.

"I find that most people drawn to my music are thinkers and searchers," she says. "They ask questions. My live shows are a place where you can play with different parts of yourself. Parts you don't show your family or your mate."

Amos' confessional lyricism is the key to understanding her power. Whether she's graphically describing her own rape ("Me and a Gun") or taking 19 songs (on the difficult 1996 album Boys for Pele) to dissect a break-up with a longtime boyfriend, her music settles into one's psyche and resonates in the unsteady grind of daily life. It's this kind of passion that attracts so many fans to her tour meet-and-greets. A Web search reveals endless recollections of these meetings: Amos holding a teenager in her arms while singing quietly in the girl's ear; Amos listening to long stories of heartbreak; Amos serving as a sort of motherly pop-star priestess for confessions involving everything from infidelity to incest. In an industry where most rock stars dash from backstage to tour bus, how does Amos keep the intensity alive?

"When you start realizing that everyone has a story, you realize real people are much more intriguing than what goes on backstage at the Grammys," she confesses. "Early in my career I thought, 'I'm gonna meet people I look up to, and we're going to have these great conversations.' And then I met them, and they are great writers — but don't assume people can do more than their job. Where is that elixir? Where is that conversation we all search for? I found it standing in the lines and in letters."

And the fans flock religiously to Amos. In Germany, groups of Lebanese and Israeli fans followed her from show to show, each with their own tales of Middle East horror. At an in-store in New York's Washington Square just days after Sept. 11 (Amos planned to cancel, but fans' desperate e-mails changed her mind), a man who had lost his uncle came up to give Amos a hug (she says it was she who needed it).

"These moments of meeting people where we haven't said, 'What's your name?' or talked about the weather are sacred, sacred places to be," she explains. "These people need someone without the mask on. These aren't the people you read about in InStyle; these are the people that inspire the stories all the actors are recreating."

Though she's had several cases of over-the-top fans ("Sometimes you just have to say, 'Hey! Snap out of it!'"), Amos considers herself a very lucky scribe.

"The songs are separate from me," she says. "I'm just a librarian, hopefully wearing cute shoes. I don't have the hubris to think I'm creating this myself. The songs come to visit me, and I'm blessed. They are like my grandfather's [a Cherokee Indian] teachings. He was like an old bard sitting around a mythological fire. There were no pictures and no Rockettes in the background, just an old man making the land come alive, making sorrow have a blue dress. The mystery lives in the storytelling. I'm a mom and a piano player — and hopefully I take good dictation."