Tori Amos Scarlet's Walk

Tori Amos’ ‘Scarlet’s Walk’ Travels Across Land and Time

In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the USA was searching for its identity. So, too, was Tori Amos. With creative freedom, Amos wrote Scarlet’s Walk

Scarlet's Walk
Tori Amos
28 October 2002

If you’re a thought
You will want me
To think you and I did

“Scarlet’s Walk” by Tori Amos

In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the United States of America was searching for its identity. So, too, was Tori Amos. Her sixth solo studio album, Strange Little Girls, was released just seven days later, simultaneously releasing her from contractual obligations with Atlantic Records. Her work thus far had leaned heavily on introspective and confessional modes of songwriting – however esoteric her lyrical references might be. Now with a new label (Epic Records), Amos was afforded creative freedom and was poised to grasp in both hands. The ‘Strange Little Tour’ saw her circle the United States in the months immediately following the attacks on the country. It was in this climate, this shared grief, and state of terror, during announcements of war and retaliation that Amos set to writing what would become Scarlet’s Walk

Having thoroughly (though not exhaustively) mined her own experiences and life for inspiration in her previous work, perhaps Amos looked outward more and questioned the path her country was on. Thus was born the avatar, Scarlet’, a character who embodies America – the land, the people, the history, all searching for self – and, of course, Tori herself. Scarlet’s path is depicted on a map of the USA, which accompanied the album’s release. Each track is color-coded to show where Scarlet was during that part of the narrative and bounces around the country like a melody. She flies up to Alaska to see the Northern Lights in “Amber Waves”, and across to Hawaii to compare differing perspectives in “Another Girl’s Paradise”. In doing so, the narrative is hand-stitched into the land itself, showing that to write about America, you need to experience all of it. Deep-diving into her own Cherokee heritage in “Virginia”, Tori uses the Scarlet figure to explore the land along so many dusty by-ways, to look at the history of native peoples and how colonization is of the mind, as well as country: “Oh Virginia / You can’t remember your name.”

Some of the themes explored in Scarlet’s Walk are a connection to land, environmental conservation, historic revisionism/erasure, coercion, and the abuses that those in power inflict upon the people they are supposed to represent. The fact that each of these can equally be applied to an individual’s romantic and personal relationships as they can be to a nation’s domination of its own environment perfectly illustrates how this album resonates just as powerfully 20 years after its release.

On 28 October 2002 (UK) and 29 October 2002 (US), Tori Amos offered her seventh solo studio album and all the messages it contains to a world awaiting to hear what her newfound independence would nurture. The 18-track concept record debuted at number seven in the US, making it her fourth album to debut in the US Top 10 and seeing a marked change in style from her previous albums. Many long-term fans, who had come to associate her with raw (and often angry) ways of expressing herself, were caught off guard by what is perhaps her most accessible album since her debut, Little Earthquakes (1992). However, the lead single, “A Sorta Fairytale”, still reached number 11 on the Adult Top 40 chart proving to be one of her most successful singles. 

It cannot be ignored that since her last album containing original work (To Venus and Back, 1999), Tori gave birth to her daughter, Natashya. As the pain surrounding previous miscarriages and the struggles she underwent on her journey to motherhood are present in her earlier albums, it makes sense that birthing a healthy child will change one’s perspective and approach to their work. While the anger at the world’s injustice has not been removed, there’s more a sense of an individual navigating through a larger picture than an ‘I against I’ or ‘me against the world’, which was present before. The softening of tone is in no way a softening of spirit. 

Describing her experimental frame of mind, Tori told Keyboard Magazine in 2003: “Scarlet came at a time when I had experimented with all forms of keyboards, from harpsichord to synthesizers to sampled things, and each album that I’ve done, I think has taught me something about a different facet of the keyboard world. With Scarlet’s Walk, it wasn’t about sampled sounds. I needed to capture the authenticity of the land, so I used instruments that weren’t a sample of themselves. And I was also trying to tap into that ‘great American road trip’. And the Wurly and the Rhodes lent themselves to that. But we were going for more of that classic songwriting, sonically nostalgic feeling.”

“A Sorta Fairytale” sets the scene for the entire album and was an inspired choice as the first single. Presenting a laid-back, road-trip vibe, the song’s narrative tells of someone recalling a day they spent with a significant person in their life, out driving up the 101 (also called Pacific Coast Highway, which stretches from San Diego to the Oregon border). As picturesque as the day might have been, the narrator can’t help but question the underlying discord in the relationship and the ways she is not being heard.

And I rode alongside
Til the honey spread
Itself so thin
For me to break your bread
For me to take your word
I had to steal it

“A Sorta Fairytale” by Tori Amos

It is steeped in the political landscape of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, relations with Mexico a publicized priority of the US government, as well as Tori’s study of her connection to her Native American grandfather and his culture. Having a strong bond with her mother, who married a minister, she reflects on the church’s influence throughout history, expanding her previous work in this area which focused on agency and the self. Amos simultaneously weaves a deeply personal narrative that explores how power imbalances play out in relationships and makes bold political statements. Exploring the conflict that takes place on the US’ southern border in “Sweet Sangria”, and the unflinching plea for people and the land in “Wampum Prayer” are just two clear examples. Tori describes how one impetus for this project came from a conversation she had with a Native American woman: “[she] gave me a message saying that our relationship is not to the government because governments change, but to the land itself. Have we given back, are we being good caretakers or just takers?” (Musical Discoveries, 2004)

This year, I traveled to the USA from Australia to recreate Scarlet’s journey. Along with two friends, I adapted the trip to visit each of the songlines over the course of eight weeks in a loop around the country (10,000 miles driving, with a few strategic flights) as a way to revisit the most significant album in my personal life for its 20th anniversary. This trip was research and development for a memoir I am in the process of writing exploring non-physical forms of domestic abuse and how they are difficult to recognize, particularly within queer relationships. I also recorded and released a podcast called Michael’s Walk with Bayley Turner, chronicling our travels, and Teague Leigh photographed them. Scarlet’s Walk is deeply entwined with my journey of recognizing abuse and healing from it. Each song on this album speaks to me of how we are manipulated, controlled, lied to, misled, and taken advantage of by those in our lives. Released the same year that I entered what would be a 15-year coupling rife with abuse of many kinds, I decided to harness the power that Scarlet holds to illustrate my experience, healing, and hopefully help others along the way. 

However, as with the conception of this album described above, the political context of the world is all too relevant. In those eight weeks alone, there were a number of significant events, including Roe v Wade being overturned; Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas; the House Select Committee Investigating the January 6 Insurrection at the US Capitol held eight hearings over the summer; the emergence of the Monkeypox virus and the homophobic stigmatizing response to it; as well as bans on transgender people in sports.

It seems in vogue
To be a closet
Misogynist homophobe

– “Pancake” by Tori Amos

That a nation purportedly built on the principle that “all men are created equal” yet can so readily ignore such a simple premise for the gain of some, or which pretends that the country was not violently stolen from its native people are not symptoms that have been cured in the 20 years since Tori – and Scarlet – spoke out about these things. Not that she was the first nor the last to do so. However, the events listed above are proof that until those in power are able to control absolutely everything, they will not be satisfied. In the meantime, entire populations are quietly (or not so quietly) removed from the record books. Freedoms are twisted to become weapons against others, and minorities of all kinds are increasingly silenced. 

I opened this article with reference to 11 September 2001, a day that changed America and the world forever. In the Scarlet’s Walk press release, Tori said, “people were experiencing America as a friend, as a being, who was hurt. She wasn’t an object to them. We won’t go back to just referring to her as just a nationalistic concept. She was a mother, a friend, who had been put through pain. Once people started opening up to that, questions started to come.”

These questions are still bubbling to the surface. Why are freedoms and equal rights removed once they had been enacted after a hard-won struggle? Why are news items worth more or less, depending on race, gender, and sexuality? How is it that institutional – and personal – abuses continue to happen, unchecked and unanswered for? 

But it is in the song most closely related to September 11 that Scarlet poses a thought it is hardest to ignore:

From here
No Lines are drawn
From here
No lands are owned

– “I Can’t See New York” by Tori Amos

Is this a view from a plane, simply unable to make out, and therefore questioning the notion of borders? Or is this a line in the sand after a catastrophic global event? What kind of people are we in the wake of disaster? And how can we abhor the violence done against us when we so readily sweep under the rug the genocide and prejudice that is in our own history? 

While following Scarlet’s footsteps, I was amazed at how often people we met apologized to us about the state of their country. When asked by salesclerks, “Aren’t you worried? Travelling now, with all the gun violence in the news?” all I could think was, “but I get to go home; this is your country. Aren’t you worried?” Being in the thick of it as significant events unfolded yet removed enough as a visitor was fascinating. All the while, Scarlet was singing in my ear: “We’re just / Imposters / in this country you know.”

But there’s hope. If there’s one thing that Scarlet is not, it’s a nihilist. Part of my research while traveling was to interview other Tori Amos fans. While asking about their relationship to trauma and how music – specifically Tori Amos’ – helped them heal, I found a strange generalization that did not reflect my own instant connection with Scarlet’s Walk. While almost none of the people I spoke with disliked Scarlet when it was released, many confessed that they took a while – sometimes years – to really see its true value. My interpretation of this was that with age, we gain perspective, and while in youth, we wish to burn hot and fast, wisdom brings us the knowledge that a campfire should last the night. By this, I mean it perhaps took the aging of individuals to appreciate the growth Tori had herself undertaken in her personal life. As one interviewee said: I’d always relied on Tori to reflect my anger, but seeing that she could mellow gave me permission to mellow, too. 

Scarlet has had so much to say to contemporary listeners; there’s an entirely new generation of people just waiting to discover her. As Patrick Schabe wrote in his in-depth review of the album for PopMatters in December 2002: “Amos has produced one of the most invigorating and arresting works of her career.” That rings true, even now, with the benefit of hindsight and the 20th-anniversary vision. 

“Scarlet, is me sometimes, she’s a drop of blood sometimes, she’s the land sometimes,” Tori said, “Scarlet can be a thread, a thread that runs through us, a thread that ties us and binds us.”

Scarlet can be you, too. Just walk with her a spell.