Photo by Des Willie
Tori Amos On Maintaining Faith, Vision & Conviction In Troubled Times
Prolific singer-songwriter Tori Amos is never one to mince words, and her new book Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage offers a compelling manifesto for all artists who need to speak their truth and might fear push back in politically tumultuous times. Amos relates stories from throughout her career, intermingling personal anecdotes and remembrances with wider societal observations from the time she was an adolescent girl playing gay bars in Washington, D.C. to her numerous world tours since then. She also acknowledges mistakes that she has made while encouraging artists to continue evolving and to learn more about themselves and others.
Interspersed throughout Resistance are lyrics from key songs that are referenced, allowing us to understand how real-life events inspired words that can initially appear cryptic. As Amos notes, the Muses are a big influence on her work, and that is not a relationship that is always understood by some people. Regardless, her words and music have had a profound impact on her devout followers.
When the Recording Academy speaks with Amos, she is quarantined with her immediate family in the English countryside, working on new music and coping with family separations that span the length of an ocean. Read our interview with Amos below, and listen to an exclusive clip from the Resistance audiobook where Amos talks about her hit '90s single "Cornflake Girl."
I'm operating on three hours of sleep because my sleep schedule is off, even though I'm a vampire. I'm just not sure what day it is anymore. But hopefully it'll lead to some good creative writing?
These are odd times for vampires. I'm definitely on the owl side. I like a good vampire. But I'm a night person, too. However, we have [my daughter] Tash and her boyfriend Oliver here. They're still doing university courses for the next couple of weeks and doing testing, so [my husband] Mark and I can't be as rock 'n roll as we would be. We're making a new record in Cornwall at the studio, so we need to be thankful because we have access to what we do which is music. If I had ended up in Florida, I wouldn't have access to the recording studio. I'd have access to a piano, but I couldn't make a record. It's a very different scenario being here. He's having the last laugh, that difficult Brit husband of mine. He really shouldn't be allowed to talk to most people because his sense of humor is really off kilter. But the thing is everybody has been laughing at him since '97 going, "Why would you all live in the middle of nowhere with no streetlights when you all could have a studio in London?" And he just smiles at me daily. Those musicians from L.A. and New York wonder—why would you live in the middle of farm country where you're surrounded by more animals than people?
Now they know! I saw you speak at the CMJ Music Marathon in 2002 when Scarlet's Walk came out. You were talking to young people there about music, but you also told them, without mentioning any names, that there were certain people in power who did not have their best interests at heart. And you advised them that they should be able to use their voice to speak up and say what they wanted. In this book the names are very clearly brought out and the gloves are off now, as opposed to back then when you were being more diplomatic. What changed?
I just decided that it's time to just lay it out there. Jane Mayer and her book Dark Money was a huge push. It became necessary reading for people that would ask me what book they should be reading at the time. It just gives you the inception of how long the plans for what became the Tea Party and Citizens United and what's really driving some of these protests right now. The big money behind them. Of course, we understand people are in grief. People are hurting, losing, grieving, having deep anxiety about our future because our world is turned on its head. We toured two weeks after 9/11. We had a baby on tour. It was a very different world compare to what we're looking at, especially for the whole music world. If live playing is in your bones and playing to a live audience, it's a whole different world that we haven't had to encounter before.
I'm surprised at how, for many, the moral outrage over Bill Clinton's tenure is far greater than Trump's, which boggles my mind.
It boggles my mind, and we talk about that in the book. I've been saying this lately, so I should really give you a better soundbite. But what the right hand is doing and what the left hand is doing... Right now, I have no idea what the left hand of the government is doing. I'm not talking about sides of the aisle. I'm talking about the narrative around the pandemic that comes out and is politicized. I have no idea what they're doing with the policies and who's really getting the money. In situations like this, the concern is that there are people who will use an unprecedented crisis to seize more power. That's how authoritarians work, and we've got a gaggle of them up in Washington. They're not all men either!
People from other cultures who have lived under such regimes and are living here now can spot that. I know people who have. People who don't know about or haven't experienced that don't understand.
That's interesting. When we were touring that fall [after 9/11] and he [Bush] announced invading Afghanistan, I was playing two nights at the Daughters of The American Revolution Constitution Hall [in D.C.]. It was just intriguing how people were warning me that something else was coming. It's proven to be true that they were talking about Iraq the day of, when you read books about that time. It's hard to sometimes frame the times that we're in, but we have to document them as artists. I think that is our responsibility. That's what Scarlet's Walk was trying to do, anyway. I should have known when "Imagine" had been banned [from radio airplay] what was coming. That's pretty much all you need to know as a songwriter. When a song like that is banned, then you begin to understand what [certain] people are thinking—we do not want a peaceful world, the last thing we want is a peaceful global world. I should have understood the depravity of that move then. As a Scorpio rising, I should have f**king gotten that.
You've talked about the narrative with billionaires deciding to be more transparent about who they are. I've noted that they have seduced people into thinking that if you give them the money and the power, maybe they'll get a taste of it, which never happens.
Even Bush Sr. said that was "Voodoo economics," the Reagan economic policy. And at least for a few minutes there, he called it like it was. You can just watch how the oligarchs work. The Russians had warned me when I was there in 2014 that anybody can be groomed. I thought, "No," and they said, "Really, Amos, you've got to think this through." Neil deGrasse Tyson is doing a masterclass right now, and I might just take it. He's talking about how you have to learn how to question things. We think sometimes that we can't be groomed. That's the greatest mistake the Russian people were warning me when I was there, and Russia had just invaded Ukraine. Ukrainians were telling me the same—"You guys in the States, you just really don't get how good at propaganda Russia is."
One of the ideas you explore in Revolution refers to the time before the Iraq war and the premise of how real leadership could have been disciplined in a time of crisis and not acted on impulsively. Yet now in the world of social media, everyone speaks and acts impulsively, which is a big problem. The online rhetoric between everybody has become verbally violent.
It's funny, I stay away from that. The thing about writing the book is it had to be really methodical, and you go through several drafts to realize the story that wants to be told. Songwriting has a similar thing. I choose not to expose myself to that verbal violence online. I don't know what it would do to my sanity.
Tori Amos performs in 1998
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
You write about being an emotional conduit not just for your songs but for your fans. Your set lists are often dictated by the vibe of where you are and the people you've talked to that day. You've only told some of the stories that fans have relayed to you, like the judge that came backstage and told you about being in an abusive relationship. Obviously, you couldn't put all of the stories into the book. Isn't that emotionally taxing on you?
When I'm in that space, I'm not wife and mother and friend. I'm a container for the songs and the Muses, and I'm really connected and really grounded in that energy. It's about being a vessel. If you can imagine, I'm sending this information up to the Muses, and they're sending information down. This is how my relationship has been with them since I was two and a half. I stopped talking about it in the '90s because critics would take swipes and put it into L.A. New Age speak. Okay, if you want to belittle this into something, then the Muses just say, "You're not talking about us to them anymore because we're not going to visit them." So, next. This is about a power dynamic, is what they would say to me, so we're not going to then reveal how we work with you. They work with many people clearly, and people have their own vision and interpretation of how their Muses appear to them.
Back in 1997, I did an interview with Bjork. I remember at the time that people thought she was weird—like wearing the dead swan outfit to the Oscars—and they didn't understand what she was talking about. I remember speaking with her, and when you had the full conversation with her, it made complete sense. If you only used a pull quote it sounded weird, but if you actually sat there and engaged in that conversation, it made sense. I think the same concept could be applied to you. If somebody takes a pull quote from you on something, it's not going to have the same effect as having the actual conversation with you.
Context is everything for some of us. I have a real affinity for her and her work. But yes, if you're just pulling out a page from a very rich narrative like hers, then you can slander a lot of us if we're being truthful and open about our process. Because if you want to skew it, you can. I talk about that in one of the chapters, [about] prepping for promo week. The promo dance and how there will be some who want to take you down. It's not as if I didn't know, but sometimes I think we were possibly naive and had a little more faith in the process. At my age now, having survived menopause, I can survive any of you f**kers.
You were discussing the Muses, and I have a friend who loves your music, but she goes, "You know, half the time, I don't really know what she's talking about, but I love her music." But I think the Impressionistic dance of your music and words works for her. And I'm curious, have you ever written songs where years later you realized what they were really about?
Yeah, actually. There are moments. Sometimes people tell me their impression of a song and I go, "I never thought of that." "Did you know there was a Japanese myth about that?" And I'm like, "Oh, I didn't know that." I'm a scribe when some of this stuff is coming. So if I'm having a hard time—if I tilt my head into that world of dancing elephants and bicycling through the stars with Beanie with champagne—if I'm having a difficult time translating, then sometimes I blame myself because clearly I'm not hearing what they're doing. They usually make some kind of sense. Sometimes it's referring to myth, though. I'm not saying that everybody doesn't know their myths really well. But I have found that sometimes the Muses aren't that literal like they are in “Me And A Gun,” which is very clear what is occurring there. They work in different ways, and I work with them in different ways. Sometimes I'll just look and see what that metaphor could mean. I understand it's a paradox. Sometimes they're putting things together to try and generate some kind of feeling, and of course it is there with the music. That's how songs work.
I like the tone of the book. It's interesting when you talk about the Death club and how you don't really understand how certain people feel until you've lost someone close yourself. It's something that I've talked about with people in terms of grief and mourning, whether for a person or a situation. Sometimes there's no way to say the right thing. I believe if you're sad or angry, be sad or angry. Just deal with that and own it. I'm not going to tell you it's going to be okay because right now it sucks. I think it's just better to own that and feel that then have people offer you these cliché platitudes.
And I feel terrible that I've done that to people. I apologized in the book because people will come to the shows that are going through things... Somebody gave me a letter. She had lost their mother, and I sent her a message back. I had no idea what she was going through. I had empathy, but I didn't understand. So I couldn't respond in a useful way. I didn't get that until [my mother] Mary left, even though Mary had had a terrible stroke and it was awful. She was really suffering. But how people respond to grief—that's something we're dealing with collectively right now. We don't have the world we had at New Year's Eve, especially if you were in the West. I can't speak to what people were going through in China. I don't know. But I remember New Year's Eve very well. My niece Kelsey is at the [Florida] beach house right now. She, Tash, Mark and I were there when granddad had come for his birthday dinner. He turned 91. It is a different world where nobody can go see granddad now. People are calling in, but he knows he can't see people. The whole world has changed, and to process it is not a small thing. I don't even have the words for it. We haven't experienced something like this in our lifetimes. Maybe if you're over 100, and you felt the repercussions of the influenza pandemic then.
Or the Great Depression.
You've produced so much music throughout your career, including many B-sides. Do you ever worry at certain points that the well will run dry? Is there a way that you know how to replenish the well?
Writing for me can be cyclical, and sometimes I have to really be motivated to choose the subject matter. Writing to fulfill a deadline for an album because you have a tour booked, which people have done for years, is a very different intention than writing because you have to. There's no other way I can express it. I think some writers find that when a crisis happens, you have to get out of despondency and get out of your own personal reaction to a crisis. Yes, you can infuse your work with that. But for me anyway, I think that this is an opportunity for a lot of writers, especially if you aren't really a fluff writer.... Some people are really drawn to entertaining people, and we need entertainment. We'll need levity. There's no question about that. But I also think that there there's a huge moment here, where we're writing about something that hasn't happened in our lifetime. The emotions, the fallout from this, the scars, mentally, emotionally, people's livelihoods, people's lives, always first and foremost—there are so many aspects to it. The whole globe is affected.