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The 405 (www)
September 5, 2017
The 405 Extended Play: An Interview with Tori Amos
As she readies the release of her 15th album, The 405 meets Tori Amos in London to discuss the politics of theatre, governance and climate.
by Doron Davidson-Vidavski
photos by Paulina Otylie Surys
Tori Amos' fifteenth album, Native Invader, was announced almost exactly ten years after the release of one of her most political records, American Doll Posse, the opener of which, 'Yo George', was a short, articulate and direct assault-of-the-pen against George W. Bush and his conduct as President of the United States of America at the time.
That tenure, of course, now seems like halcyon days when compared with life under the reign of the White House's current occupier. The latter's election win last November and what it means for the American people and the rest of the world forms an important driver behind the songwriting on Native Invader. Except, this time round, that direct address on songs such as 'Yo George' is taken over by more allusive, allegorical composition. With this record, He Who Is All Too Often Named is never, in fact, named but you know exactly who Tori is talking about. And his accomplices don't get off lightly, either.
I've been an avid Tori follower (she famously dislikes the word 'fans') since 1992's Little Earthquakes and, while I've had the opportunity to interview her twice before, those occasions were phoners -- great to have the opportunity to chat to her but, you know -- it's just not the same. The release of Native Invader allows me finally to graduate to a face to face meeting. I am excited but nervous and my nerves are not helped by the fact that my phone on which I plan to record the interview decides to die for no reason just before Tori enters the room -- certainly a sudden stress I can do without as I am about to meet one of my ultimate musical idols. And then she enters the room and greets me with a massive smile, pronounces my name correctly (that never happens) and -- my phone comes back to life. It's all going to be alright.
"At the time of American Doll Posse, Junior was President but Cheney was probably running things with Senior," she says, as we settle into our conversation. "Now, this is just a piano player's lens, the lens that I was looking at it through. That's one thing. After this [recent] election, people were reaching out to me through other people, when positions were being announced -- like the Head of the EPA, things like that -- and they were saying: 'do you understand what's happening?' and I would say 'probably not', because if somebody's reaching out to you, they clearly know something you don't, ok? And they're trying to tell their story. And so, I wasn't seeing the whole picture and I wasn't seeing what some of these think tanks and super PACs on the alt-right -- what their intentions were and what they were trying to accomplish. But then you realise that whoever is President of the United States -- you still have to look at these super PACs because they have an agenda too. [Native Invader] was about understanding what the agenda is. That is really what the Muses were channelling to me: be aware!"
Do you think that the agenda is obvious to the outside world now more than it was ten years ago, I ask. "Well, I think there is a lot of distraction right now, while things are happening," she says after a moment's consideration. "It shocks me that people are talking about-- [here she pauses but resolves to continue] the erosion that's happening at the Environmental Protection Agency: protecting whom? Protecting what -- the American oligarchs? That's the shocker for me -- what's going on in the courts, Juliana vs United States [a case which inspired the track 'Benjamin' on the new album], the Water Protectors for Lakota nation -- those things that we only hear snippets about now. The distractions are there. And, look, I know that people in New York are consumed with yet another tweet and, if you're a political journalist, that's fine. You have to be on the front line, you've got to know what's going on, that's your gig. But if your gig is something else and you're not doing that gig because you're being diverted, then you've taken yourself away - you're not seeing things, you're just a consumer."
Our discussion about what people should be engaged with despite so-called diversions then itself gets diverted to talking about the last song on the deluxe version of Native Invader -- 'Russia' -- a lyric from which also gives the record its title. Anecdotally, 'Russia' was the working title for one of Tori's early b-sides, 'Take To The Sky', and was discarded only to find a worthy home a couple of decades later, with a song about what will undoubtedly continue to occupy Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, for a long while yet. Tori sings: "For those on the right; you need to build a bridge /For those on the left; you must build a bridge /For those in Washington; there is only one question: is Stalin on your shoulder?"
For Tori, asking the right questions about the world and -- crucially -- then sticking around to try to discover the answers to those questions is a pivotal part of what it is to be an active participant in our society. "I think political journalists must -- they must -- a lot of them -- feel like they have laryngitis," she laughs. "I feel like they are trying to ask the questions but -- I mean, there are people asking the right questions. I don't know, though, if the public is listening to it, because they think some of the questions are being avoided, not being answered."
The EPA and climate change deniers are also tackled on a song called 'Bats'. Its dramatis personae are water creatures -- the Undines of the Sea -- and its inciting incident is humankind's betrayal of nature. "There is a flirtation with 'Benjamin' [which follows this track on the record] in this song," Tori says. "I think once the EPA announced the people that were going to be the caretakers of the country, it seemed like we needed to remember that, maybe there was an agreement that was made thousands and thousands of years ago between humanity and that which is on the other side of the veil -- the Devas that rule nature and work with nature -- maybe they do remember the agreement. The bats definitely remember. And so, humans have probably forgotten this agreement but the problem is they've been warning us, they'll wreak havoc, they're wreaking havoc right now. And will continue to do so."
Track three on Native Invader is called 'Broken Arrow' and on it Tori sings: "Rash and reckless won't get us to where we want to be / are we emancipators or oppressors of Lady Liberty?" I tell Tori that, by weird coincidence, I first listened to this song on the same day that Stephen Miller, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House, ended up in a heated debate with CNN journalist, Jim Acosta, about the Statue of Liberty. Acosta raised the point that the proposed US immigration policy favouring the better-educated would violate the spirit of 'New Colossus', the poem at the base the Statue of Liberty.
'New Colossus' includes the line: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" and Acosta suggested that nowhere does it state that immigrants to the US should all have to speak English, for example. Miller, who has been described as the mastermind behind the President's controversial travel ban, then descended into a vociferous attack of Acosta and maintained that the poem was added at a later stage and was not part of the original Statue of Liberty. Either way, Acosta's argument is material -- the current administration's stance on immigration certainly controverts what is an admired national symbol for the country's historic embrace of immigrants.
"Your lyrics were obviously clairvoyant, Tori", I say. She gives a wry smile: "That's the Muses for you!", she laughs. "It is! It's the Muses. I can write a song every day, you know that. Well, maybe that's ambitious -- but if I had to, I could. Nobody should ever hear it," she rolls her eyes.
"But when They enter the picture things change. Fusion. I have no idea sometimes -- there's trust but you're just being guided by the Muses. That song, though -- this has been happening for many, many, many, many months, it just didn't happen during that conversation. It was bright lights everywhere and it hit us all in the face but this attack on Lady Liberty started in the campaign, didn't it. I sometimes don't understand what people are saying, I just don't understand it. When they say they're Christians but then they're saying things about anyone that isn't a white Christian and I think: this is not the compassionate path of Christ! They're talking about Christianity and then hate. Maybe they don't say hate but they say hateful things. And yet according to them this should be a land of Christianity! Well, Jesus would be running thousands of miles from this philosophy -- this is terrifying! This is not love your neighbour as yourself. And we get back to that because that's how crazy things have become in the States right now, whereby when you're citing Jesus somehow for your philosophy it's an excuse. And a lie."
Immigration is also the lynchpin of album highlight, 'Bang', which uses astrophysics in an ingeniously erudite and elaborate way to negate the fallacies at the heart of anti-immigration tenets. It explores the idea that we're all flesh and blood, coming from the same place -- "we're all made of stars," as its lyrics proclaim.
"There was a real rustle with this one", Tori tells me. "I was going down the wrong road and it was actually Tash [her daughter, Natashya] who said to me 'mom, you're driving yourself mad with this.' I'd been researching for months -- anything I could find out about clusters and nebulas and stars and the more I learnt the less I knew. And I was getting myself into a wicket -- you know what I did? I did that thing you shouldn't do, which is to get on the comments pages of physics dot org and when you start reading how nasty they are to each other, you know, those brainiacs? How they shame each other! I don't even know what they were talking about but I understood the language of the verbal attack. I had no idea what the argument was but I started to think to myself -- they are going to come after me! And I said this to Tash and she said 'stop trying to write like you're one of those people. Mom, step into the emotion!' and I said alright. I started looking into old clips -- somehow they got me to Frank Zappa talking about stuff and then somehow they got me onto Carl Sagan. And to watch him explain how "we're all made of star stuff" -- it was that [clicks fingers] moment for me. It all came together."
Quintessential Tori Amos piano ballad, 'Breakaway', deals with a different kind of politics. Listening to the lyrics, it would be fair for anyone who has watched National Theatre's musical, The Light Princess, to surmise that this song is for Tori's beloved friend and fellow co-creator, playwright Samuel Adamson (he wrote the book, based on the George MacDonald fairytale, and Tori wrote the music). Following a lengthy development period, the show ran on the Lyttelton stage for just over four months but the rumoured resistant attitude and lack of support from the theatre's then commander-in-chief, as well as the scrapping of potential West End and Broadway transfers threatened to mar what was, by all accounts, a hugely enjoyable creative process for its makers.
I ask Tori whether 'Breakaway' is indeed a song about her after-taste of that experience or whether she is merely borrowing theatrical parlance to convey another idea. She looks at me very intently and says, resolutely, "trust yourself" and nods. I prod further and ask a stupidly obvious question -- was she disappointed that the West End (and, consequently, Broadway) transfer didn't happen? "Some people chose not to be that brave, themselves. Can we leave it there?" she asks with a knowing look and, before I move on, adds: "She's not dead. Meaning, her essence. But clearly there were people that didn't want it. You know, we've all heard the saying 'You don't want to marry her but you don't want anyone else to marry her, either.'"
On 'Breakaway' Tori sings: "You feel betrayed I feel played / by our so-called friends, not the friends we should have made / You feel betrayed I feel played / At least they made me exit through the chopper on the stage." The latter Miss Saigon reference does away with the need to mention the name of the person who, for Tori, is (at least partly) responsible for the show's fate. The night after our interview, performing a short live set at the intimate Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton, she delivers the "chopper on the stage" line with stern disdain, staring at what could be a conjured image of said person in her mind's eye and hitting the relevant note on the piano's keyboard with intent. As she continues to play the song, it is clear -- this is an artist that will not allow herself to be played again.
Climate, immigration and politics are not the only thematic inspirations behind Native Invader. Another event which informed the songwriting on the record was Tori's mother, Mary, suffering a stroke, leaving her with partial paralysis and an inability to speak. As with 'Toast', the closing track on Tori's 2005 album, The Beekeeper (which was written for her brother, who had died in an accident aged 50), with 'Mary's Eyes' Tori turns a difficult emotional experience involving a loved one into a beautiful, moving lament.
"Songs are the way that I understand what's really going on -- what I'm either hiding from myself or feeling," she says. "And also sometimes with a song -- it's almost like it's already there and just needs to be expressed. If I could express what was going on in any other way, I probably wouldn't write that song. Something strange had happened before all this happened to Mary and changed Mary's life. Somebody got in touch with somebody who then got in touch with Neil Gaiman, who is my spirit brother, and he talked to me about a Death Midwife up in Scotland, who had sent a note about what she does. She helps people to cross to the other side. So I started to think -- well, if you can help them across to the other side, why can't you help cross 'em back?"
The first person to hear Tori's finished songs is her husband, Mark Hawley, who also features on Native Invader, playing the guitar. But who did she play the finished version of the new album to first? "Oh", she prefaces a moment's pause of recollection. "Well, Mark, Marcel [van Limbeek, Tori's sound engineer since 1994] and I played it to the mastering engineer first. And Johnny," she nods to the adjacent room, where long-term manager John Witherspoon is poring over a packed itinerary for Tori's London promo tour. "And then Tash. But that's because she was at school."
Presumably, Tash was eager to hear what 'Up The Creek', on which she duets with her mother, ended up sounding like. "Yes, she did! We did that song on the last day of her break and I was, like, "ummmmm, yah, can you sing on this?" and she said "OK". She was there in the control room, making sure she liked the takes and then she left and didn't hear the whole development process. She had no idea what it was going to end up being. But I have to tell you, it's kind of great how she looks at me and her dad. Sort of: "you got this, right?" [Tori adopts a look of uncertainty] but with a question mark. Yeah, sure, it'll be fine. Trust!"
Now that the album is done it's time to take it on the road and the tour in support of Native Invader will see Tori going far and wide to bring her show to her followers. With Tori there has always been a real incentive to catching several dates of the same tour because the setlist changes from night to night. A recent Instagram post from the rehearsal room showed some of her songbooks piled up, presumably there as an aide-memoire, to remind her of all the songs forming her extensive back catalogue. But how on earth does she pick what older songs would go with the new album era?
"So, sometimes it is forest and trees," she says, "and you see hundreds of songs staring you down and you're just thinking, ok, we need a range -- for a first show, of the 'powerhouses' we're having one [she laughs] and then you get a real rustle among them and some of the songs would say to me fine, that's ok, not the first show because you might fall off your stool. So, you get a sense of who wants to come and sometimes it is a choice -- you go, "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" and you try it out and if it's going well on that rehearsal day then it's in. If, for some reason, it's not going well you just say "another day" and move on. Some people may find this ruthless but I only had a week's rehearsal with everybody. The first two days are set-up to kind of figure out the show so that's where it is. I think what we're starting with [for this tour] is good because it's not too recent -- for sure, it isn't at all -- but it's also not just the Little Earthquakes go-to. Because people always ask me for songs from that record for every show but I'm trying to mix it up a bit more."
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