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The New Yorker
April 26, 2020

Tori Amos Believes the Muses Can Help

A conversation about music, politics, and what you learn about America from being on the road.

by Amanda Petrusich

Tori Amos. Photograph by Deun Ivory

At age five, the singer and pianist Tori Amos was the youngest student ever accepted into the Peabody Institute, a music and dance conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. By eleven, she'd been dismissed, mostly for her disinclination to sight-read sheet music. Instead, she came of age performing show tunes and standards in the piano bars and hotel lounges of Washington, D.C. Her father, the Reverend Dr. Edison McKinley Amos, was her first manager. "With his clerical collar secure above the cross pinned to his lapel, we asked to play at every restaurant and bar on M Street," she writes in her new memoir, "Resistance."

In the nineteen-eighties, Amos moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, forming a short-lived synth-pop band, Y Kant Tori Read. Amos is featured on the cover of the band's only album, wearing a bustier and elbow-length black gloves, holding a sword, with her red hair teased high and wild. After the band's dissolution, Amos went to England to work on her solo début, "Little Earthquakes," a dark, gripping record about the burdens and ecstasies of being a woman at the end of the twentieth century. It was a bold and personal reaction to the pressure she felt to behave in a way that might placate men. Fourteen more albums followed.

Amos has always been a fearless political writer; "Me and a Gun," from "Little Earthquakes," is a frank, harrowing, and autobiographical account of violent rape, one of the first songs directly addressing sexual assault to reach a wide audience. Her new book explores how she developed and nurtured that voice. On a Friday afternoon, during a slightly more normal time, Amos and I met at her sunny apartment in Tribeca. She had recently arrived in New York from the U.K., where she lives with her husband, the English sound engineer Mark Hawley, and their daughter, Tash. In conversation, Amos was kind, earnest, and deeply impassioned. The question of how musicians should react to political realities has been on Amos's mind for a long time. Her vantage on the world--she has been travelling and performing for more than three decades--has left her worried about the future. "Something's happening right before our eyes," she said. "How do we make a living as artists and express what we feel we need to express?" We sat together in Tash's bedroom and discussed Amos's experiences performing in Russia, her childhood in Washington, her relationship to her creative muses--there are eleven of them--and what it was like to perform in New York shortly after 9/11. A few weeks later, just as the coronavirus had begun to shut down the country, we spoke again, on the phone. Those conversations have been combined, edited, and condensed.

Fifteen years ago, you released your first book, "Piece by Piece," a memoir co-written with the music journalist Ann Powers. What made you feel as if it might be time for a second?

My editor said, "I think it's time, and I think you're ready to write by yourself." Which is a very different thing than working with one of the great music journalists--it's very different when you're staring at a blank page alone. My editor was curious about my story, and particularly my time in Washington, D.C. When I first got a job there, I was thirteen, America didn't want war, and Jimmy Carter was President. But a country can change. I watched it change, from the piano bars. That was where the lobbyists did their deals. In the book I call it "the liquid handshake." I was watching legal corruption, and I was observing it from a very particular viewpoint. I couldn't vote in 1980, but I had friends who could, and it amazed me how people would talk themselves into whatever they wanted to talk themselves into.

You began playing those piano bars along M Street, accompanied by your father, a Methodist reverend, when you were just a teen-ager. Thirteen is an intense and formative age, and you were in the citadel of American politics. Do you remember beginning to form a conception of "country," and of how that idea might relate to art?

I was being taught history by a wonderful man--I think his name was Dr. Marlow--at Richard Montgomery High School. I was being taught the three branches of government, but I wasn't being taught about the Federalist Society, I wasn't being taught about legal criminality. I started to observe it as a teen-ager. Once I moved to L.A., and got caught up in hairspray and Aqua Net, I got away from it. After the 2016 election, other musicians would find me and say, "How are we here?" They were reading people like Masha Gessen, who are asking questions about authoritarianism. The question for me is: Does an artist have a responsibility when democracy is on the line? That's my question for all artists, and the answer is different for each one.

I get e-mails from people talking to me about their experiences, and some of them are just exhausted by the doom and gloom of it all. And they're considering, you know, just giving up. When you're just overloaded on news, it can be demoralizing. This is where artists and writers have the ability to step in and really give people what they need. Sometimes the point is to make something that gives people joy, so that they have a break from the panic. I really think that even in the darkest of times, our ancestors got something from art, some kind of spiritual manna--or, as the British would say, the bloody bollocks to move forward and not get stuck. That's something that I think we've all gone through--the feeling of "What's the use?" I'm here to light that match and get you off your ass. I think all artists are being called at this time.

You talk a lot in the book about how failure has shaped you, beginning in 1974, when you were kicked out of the Peabody Conservatory. You were only eleven. Years later, in 1988, you had another failure, when your first record, "Y Kant Tori Read," didn't exactly work out the way you'd hoped.

God knows what would have happened if that had been a success. I left L.A.--I was sent by the record company to England--and I started writing "Little Earthquakes." Doug Morris was running Atlantic Records at the time, and he believed that Max Hole, who was the head of East West Records, the U.K. side of the label, would understand "Little Earthquakes." Doug's idea about cross-continental collaboration was not a given template, but his instinct proved to be accurate. It took me four years to really write about my betrayal of my instrument.

My daughter, Tash, and her friends will come out to dinner with my husband and me, and they'll sit around and ask me questions about music. They talk about the envy, and they talk about the depression. What I say to them is, "It took me a big failure." Nobody cared. I was just a blip on Billboard, you know? It didn't really stop anybody's day. But it struck me down to the ground. It takes time. You might be looking at somebody your age who knows their writer's voice, who has found it--and that can be very difficult. I wanted to talk about that difficulty in the book, because we lose a lot of artists in this vulnerable place. Somebody might have ability, or even a calling to the language of music, but if that isn't nurtured, Amanda, then it can get stunted. Mozart comes around once every gazillion years. There are a lot of good musicians out there who need mentors--they need to be taught how to practice, and how to change "practice" from a pejorative into an adventure. Which is not an easy thing!

You write, "My belief at my age now, at 56, is that artists are never barren--that is a delusion."

But the thing is, my God, you have to have the stomach for it! So many talented musicians have talked to me about writer's block, and I just say, "If you choose to see it that way, you can." Some of them haven't been able to write for fifteen years. They're pulling out of their catalogues, or they're writing the same thing over and over again, because they've bought into what I think is a delusion, a kind of propaganda. It stops artists from creating.

You also write about how difficult it is to not become consumed by commercial success.

Fame, she is such a seducer.

What a hard thing to resist.

Of course it is. We've all been prey to it, and we've all been seduced by it. Let's not kid each other--I had my battles with it as well. And you pay for not getting radio play, you pay for taking the artistic path. Some can walk both paths. They're very few. The book is, in many ways, also a treatise on the nature of creation--on how to remain open enough to the world that you can document something true about it.

It's about taking in, and it's about trusting that the muses will come when they come. They don't always come on your schedule. Did the muses operate differently for you with the book, versus the writing of a new album?

They began to operate in a similar way. My work--on songs, as well as the book--is very much based in research. Sometimes the muses would be pushing me to research World War I, and I'd be asking them, Why? Sometimes I don't know where they're taking me.

In this case, it was toward a memoir rooted in politics, and in your own political awakening?

I had a kismet moment on Memorial Day in 2019--the book really started to change then, and I had to go back and rewrite some of the earlier passages. We went to a parade in Florida. I was watching families who had lost someone they loved who was serving the country. People weren't asking which party they were affiliated with. I just sat there watching the emotion. And the muses said to me, Do not buy into this propaganda that we are so divided. So many Americans have lost people to the fight for democracy. Or, they've had somebody come back and live to tell the story. The muses explained to me that you can be groomed by Putin and not even fucking know it--you can be groomed into an idea, into an ideology, and not even know it.

In 2014, I played in Russia, after the invasion of Ukraine. The Russians and Ukrainians who came to the shows tried to warn me, and to explain how they survived the constant Russian propaganda attacks. They survived by reclaiming their own narratives, which is not easy to do if you are susceptible to hearing and accepting the information you are being fed. Which made me realize most of us are targets for mind control if we are not vigilant about asking ourselves the pointed questions. We must seek out people who not only know what they are talking about but whose agenda is to expose the facts. It was made clear to me all those years ago, by the people who survived technological warfare, that Putin wanted to rebuild a variation of the former Soviet Union. Therefore Ukraine making a deal with Europe was beyond unacceptable to him, his oligarchs, and those who stand to gain from them. That meant that the West and what it stood for was his enemy. But he could not destroy democracy alone. He and some of the American senators who stand to gain a lot of money and power from his gaggle of authoritarians were not going to announce that they were killing democracy. It's no different than how a domestic abuser operates to gain power and control over their prey--they do not show up even on the seventh date and say, "I am going to divide you from everything you once held dear even divide you from your own thoughts and replace them with our thoughts which you will then believe are your own."

My mother warned me that if you choose to fall asleep during a time when people are seizing power, then the consequences of that are that you have to say, "I was part of America losing democracy. I was part of that." Dictatorship is dictatorship--you have to diagnose the signs, and keep looking and listening, and not put your head in the sand, pretending it can't happen again.

Within your own work, how do you separate the signal from the noise? How do you know what's worth pursuing?

I've been listening to hundreds and hundreds of hours of music that I've recorded since my last album, "Native Invader," came out. I was writing on the road after the election, and so, so much of it is crap. Some songs should never leave your lair. But a songwriter has her practices: there's pilgrimage, there's pushing myself to places and toward subject matter that scares me.

When you say pilgrimage, what do you mean?

It might just be going to see my dad in Port St. Lucie, where the same health-care professionals who cared for my mother are now looking after him. Or cruising through Target. Going to Chik-fil-A. My father loves Chik-fil-A.

In the book, you refer to songwriters as "sonic hunters." I understood that phrase in a literal sense--that you're always listening widely and freely, scouring the world for influences, looking for rhythms or sounds that might interest you. But perhaps you also meant it in a more expansive or spiritual way--that songwriters must be curious and present.

What's strange for musicians is that it's the opposite skill set, in some ways. You spend your life having this facility in your hands-- yes, you're listening, but mostly you're playing or you're singing. I can't speak for other songwriters, but for me, part of my practice is really to go and observe--that's what I mean by pilgrimage. It can be in a coffee shop; it can be anywhere. I have to push myself out of my routine.

Your fans are very present in the book. I was struck by how thoughtfully and fully you receive their stories; sometimes their stories gestate and turn into songs. What is that exchange like for you?

I get a lot of letters. That's another part of the practice--taking the time to read them. That's been going on for thirty years now. There are some nice people backstage at the Grammys, but I've found that when I'm listening to people who I might not ever meet otherwise--that's a very different practice than hanging out with your Hollywood Hills friends, or your East Village friends, or what have you. Sometimes people will speak to me and if they don't have a harrowing type of story, they devalue it, but, from a songwriter's perspective, every story has value, and everyone has their own. It's a practice I started to put into place after the failure of Y Kant Tori Read. I began to get into a place of becoming a container.

You were speaking earlier about how there's a significant difference between the art of songwriting and the art of performance.

In some ways, there's a real dichotomy. Not all songwriters are great players. Some of them are competent; some of them are good. But a lot of them just kind of get by. They're not gonna whip out Prokofiev, or even Debussy. Because it's a different practice. The songwriter is reading, taking in, exploring, and doing the work of documenting a time. It broke my father's heart that I wasn't going to be a concert pianist. That was the trajectory for me, starting at five years old. When you're two and a half, people don't look at the downside of calling you a child prodigy. But there's a huge downside. The idea that you're a failure at eleven, and people are treating you like a failure--it was quite burdensome, realizing that I couldn't compete. The devotion, six to eight hours a day of playing somebody else's documentation of their time--my friends were talking about Brahms, and I was talking about the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone. Those writers were also documenting time, but it was their time.

And that's what you wanted to do.

That's what I felt I was being called to do. But how do you go about it? That's the mystery. I was up this morning, going through hundreds of hours to find two bars. You find those two bars, and then you realize, O.K., that was June 17, 2019, and that kind of connects with something that was happening in November of 2019, which is connecting with something from February 1st.

You write in the book about a moment in your twenties when you hated music, and felt betrayed by the machinations of the recording industry, its treatment of women and people of color--

And I, too, betrayed--I betrayed myself, and my instrument. I whored it out. It wasn't just Y Kant Tori Read. It was years of buying into the idea that to be successful and pay my bills as a musician, I had to fit into a certain slot, a commercial slot. After the failure of Y Kant Tori Read, I had to get through the shame and the blame and the embarrassment, just being disgusted with myself for betraying the dream I had, and asking myself, How do you go from prodigy to bimbo? Those scabs being ripped off--they didn't just sting a little bit. I had to come finally to terms with what kind of writer I was, and what kind of writer I wasn't. That doesn't mean I don't write some silly songs, or bawdy ditties. Netflix called me recently for something, to record a song for a documentary, and I said to my daughter, "Oh, won't that be fun?" And she said, in her British accent, "Mummy, I really hate to tell you, but no one calls you for fun. I love you and I adore you, but you have to understand that's not why they're calling you."

To return to politics for a moment, one thing that struck me while reading these stories was how remarkable of a perspective touring musicians have on the country and the world. You described it in the book as "bearing witness."

Yes. I'm wary of comparing, say, American politics to British politics. Each country has its own mythology and its own influences. America is not just New York, Chicago, and L.A., even though I love those places, and people in them. Sometimes Americans are so insular. Touring pushed me to travel, and to see different points of view. I talk a lot in the book about touring during the Iraq War. It was very difficult.

You were the first musical guest on David Letterman's show after he returned to the air following 9/11. You sang Tom Waits's "Time." It's a staggering performance.

The grieving was unbelievable. And having travelled up and down the country that week, seeing the grieving and realizing that, yes, of course, there's always going to be a reactionary energy, but the country had not committed itself to violence yet. It was looking for leadership. Which brings us to 2016, and to how the book starts. Sometimes people aren't quite sure what they're looking for in leadership, so if you have a really good snake-oil salesman, who is able to tell you something that's going to make you think that your life and what you believe in will get better, that they have a solution--well, then, people will look to that person. The problem with all that is when they're lying. We have a hard time accepting that our leaders would lie to us. I'm sorry, but we all just need to raise our hands and say, "We can all be groomed."

When I played David Letterman, I was still in a place to pray that we would do the right thing. He was grieving--I'd been on Letterman throughout the years, and I have such respect for him. I felt David's responsibility to ask the questions. But the pain was more than palpable. And the city--it was very different being in the city. I talk in the book about thinking about playing "Imagine." But that wasn't the right one. I needed to play something from a great songwriter that had an emotion that wasn't about violence, but that also contained grief. Tom Waits has the line, "So close your eyes, son, this won't hurt a bit."

It must have been hard on you, too, to be there, to sing that.

But it's like I said, Amanda, it's not me--or it's not just me. People have asked me about this. When I was really little, these muses would just come. It always feels bigger than me as a person. I step into my art form, and I serve. You really have to do that. The muses know if you don't.

When you say the word "serve," I think of religion, or the idea of serving God. It's obviously different, what you're describing, but it still seems to involve humbling yourself before something bigger than you. It also makes me think of your father, who was a pastor.

Yes, but maybe it's more of an aboriginal or a native perspective. If you're serving Mother Earth, there's interconnectivity. You have to get yourself out of the way. Let the muses take over. I see them. There are eleven of them.

Do they each have a name?


But you can describe--

I can see them. I don't know where people go when they die--no one does. People might say they do, and that's nice, that's great, but nobody has proof. My husband can show you proof of the muses. He recorded one of my songs, called "Marianne"--he just happened to be there and hit record when the song came. So what you hear on "Boys for Pele" is a song being written and recorded at the same time. And I've never been able to play it like that again. I had to learn it later. And I still can't play it like that. So, there are only a few of those, but he's seen it, and he's a very cynical Brit. He's not an atheist, but he's not quite sure what he believes in-- but he knows that he had never heard me play like that before. It was just kind of coming through. . . . Later on, I was trying to figure out--Jesus, bar 7, bar 5, bar 4, what? That's the difference between when it's really being channelled right to you, and when you are co-creating with the muses, but you're still the one doing the heavy lifting, and just hoping that you get a bit of their energy.

You do have to be ready when they show up, and that's not an easy task. I think it sounds easier than it is. Other artists have talked about it--the idea of pulling aside on the freeway. I know that I've had to just stop conversations, because I'm not going to get it if I don't quickly write it down, or record it. People who know you get that that's kind of how it is, but people that don't know you can think it's kind of dramatic. But I find that if I don't write it down, then I just can't remember it, not in the form that it's being given.

In the book, you describe your songs as children, almost--with their own birthdays and needs and desires. I wonder if there's a clear point of separation, a sort of postpartum moment, when the songs become their own creatures, independent of you.

It happens when I finish a record. When it goes out, when it leaves, when it's mastered, and when it's done, and I realize. My husband and I, we have a little glass of something. I don't need to be teary about it. But there is a moment where you just know, "They're not ours anymore." Because we've been together so long, he'll just hold my hand. He'll say, "O.K.--you realize that it's mastered now, it's all going out. You realize this. It's on the computers, it's moving, and I want you to understand that. So do you want to take a minute?" We have candles that we light to send them on their way. I think some of them get sent off with little packets of Jefferson Bourbon or Patrón. Some of them want that--others, no. Because they're not all just children. They're not unconsenting.

And they're not all small.

No, no. Once they go, they're going to make their own relationships with people. I truly have to step back. That moment is always very challenging for me. There have been moments when Mark and I come back into the house after recording day, and Tash has said, "O.K., I need my parents back now. Can I get my mum and papi? Can I get you, are you there? I need my mom." That really came up again after [my mother] Mary died. She had tears in her eyes, and said, "I know you've lost your mum, but I'm losing . . ."

Tori, I'm so sorry. That must have been a whole new kind of heartbreak.

It's a shock. That's when the songs are not saving you, and the muses can't save you. I was in the thick of the book then, and my new record was being rewritten. First, one of my best friends died. She had A.L.S., and it all just happened so suddenly--it was a huge shock. We were on our way to see my mom. But we were going to South Carolina first, to see my nephew, my sister's son, and his young kids. The three of us are there, and I get the call from my sister that mom's gone. It was the day before Mother's Day. Within two days, these two women are gone. . . . My mom was my best friend. I knew she was suffering, and, if I'm being honest with you, I thought I'd be relieved. And I think maybe for the first week, I was, because the suffering had been so great, and cruel. But then the grief was--it's almost impossible to explain. I try in the book. I try to explain it.

The book contains these parallel narratives of grief: you're metabolizing the loss of your mother, and simultaneously grieving for the state of America. It fits into that theme in a very different way than some of the political writing. Those passages feel different. There's an urgency and a tenderness to the writing.

I stayed in Florida for a long time. Tash stayed with me for a bit. But I stayed there, alone, to try and work through it, and to write the book. Then songs started to come slowly. I was in a different place with it than, say, my sisters. Because I was able to put the grief on paper. It was not an easy few months. I had to allow myself to really go to those raw places.

People often talk about art-making as being a useful tool for processing grief--a kind of exorcism.

At the same time, it isn't a therapy session. I had this shrink for many years before she retired, Dr. Rita Lynn. She changed my life. But what I would say to a shrink is very different than how I would craft a piece of work. You have to step into your artistry. Which is a very different thing than just, you know, going to the shrink, which is a safe place where emotional stuff is not edited. That's not necessarily artistry. That's an open vein, and it's all pouring out. That's different than writing. Both things were going on at the same time, so I was self-editing, and going, No, that needs to be put down, buried in the earth, flushed down the loo. Retching is not going on the page. That is not the art work. I had a real issue when, particularly in the nineties, journalists would say things to me like, "It must be so cathartic." I'm so offended by that word that I've blocked it out of my memory--"cathartic." You don't say that about the male writers, so don't start with me! "Cathartic" is when you're talking to a friend, and you're commiserating, and you're having an evening together, and you're sharing. Maybe some of that goes into your art . . .

But it's distinct from craft.

And just because something is confessional--the idea that it isn't artistic, or that there hasn't been an editing process!

Do you think it's easier for women songwriters now than it was for you in the nineties?

I don't know if I'd say that. Different issues come up at different times. I'll tell you that being a piano player was a lot easier after "Little Earthquakes" came out than before it came out, because I fought those battles. The ones that came after me haven't had to fight that specific fight. Billy [Joel] and Elton [John] were different because they were legendary--they had proved themselves. But, at that specific time, the acoustic guitar was making a comeback, and of course any kind of synthesizer, any kind of electronic piano, was cool. But the perception at the time was that the acoustic piano wasn't cool, and it couldn't be a part of alternative music. But women are still dealing with all kinds of stuff. Particularly physicality.

That one feels eternal. It certainly affects an artist's longevity.

There's a press gal in the music business who said to me recently, "T., do you understand women will talk to me about how fortunate you are to still have a career and you're making your sixteenth album?" I said, "I have made my own luck, I've worked hard. Have I had, of course, doors opened for me along the way? Have I had people in my corner fighting for me? Yes. I've also had arrows coming right at me, too." People don't ask the question, "Where did this singer-songwriter go?" People think maybe she married a billionaire and just rode off into the sunset, and wanted to leave the music business. No. Country music's different, but this is especially true in alternative music. The music business puts women out to pasture.

Study male writers, whether they're in bands or not--look at the venues they're playing and the record contracts they have, versus the women who came up with them. What do you think, that those women just don't want to make records anymore? No. Men retain a certain value--within our industry, and within our culture--as they age. They're still desirable, because wisdom and experience are attractive. We need stories told by people like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. And of course they should get more work! Jane Fonda--more work. We don't want Helen Mirren's part played by a thirty-year-old. We don't. But it's very different in music.

It does seem like a short list of women who are allowed to have careers after a certain point.

Very few. I don't want to start naming names--I'm not trying to keep people off the list. I want more on the list, and I'm sure there are women fighting all the time. We see them here and there. That's important and good. But there are so many singer-songwriters whom we don't ask about. It's a silent gaslighting. It's quietly done. And my male contemporaries don't have to deal with it in the same way. And so to say that it's the same--it isn't. A lot of these women had to find other careers, other ways to pay their bills. In the alternative-music business, a lot of my male contemporaries who were rolling at the same time, they're still touring with record deals, but a lot of the women don't have these opportunities, or they're playing venues so small they can barely pay their bills. I don't want to digress, but it's an important distinction.

Well, of course it ties into the idea of resistance, and to so much of what you write about in the book, which looks at your entire life as an act of defiance--

Well, I refuse to capitulate. I'm not going out to pasture, for the boys' club. They can go fuck themselves. I'm not going anywhere.


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