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May 4, 2020
The "Tiny Ways" Tori Amos Is Getting Herself Through Quarantine
The musician is forced to promote her new memoir, Resistance, from home, but she's got some help from other artists--and Richard Dawkins.
by John Russell
One of the biggest misconceptions about Tori Amos is that she is a confessional singer-songwriter. In fact, she sees herself as more of a documentarian than a diarist. Throughout her new memoir, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage (Atria), Amos writes about interacting with the people she's met as she's traveled the globe on her extensive concert tours. Exchanging stories, ideas, and information with fans has fueled her creative process. It's one of the ways in which she gets in touch with the mood of the country, the better to capture it in her songs.
Amos was supposed to be on the road this month, promoting the book with a series of speaking engagements. Of course, that tour had to be canceled due to the unprecedented efforts to curb the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. Instead, she is holed up at her home in Cornwall, making a record with her husband and longtime sound engineer, Mark Hawley. There will be virtual events in conjunction with the book's release, but Amos admits that's no substitute for face-to-face interaction.
Resistance, Amos's second memoir after 2005's Piece by Piece (written with music journalist Ann Powers), focuses on her career through the lens of politics. A child piano prodigy, Amos was accepted into the prestigious Peabody Conservatory when she was five years old, the youngest student ever accepted. By age 11, she was expelled, having clashed with instructors over her desire to play contemporary songs. As a teenager playing in Washington, D.C., piano bars and hotel lobbies, she began to recognize the gulf between what she'd been taught about the government in civics class and the power plays taking place between legislators and lobbyists over cocktails.
Her breakthrough album, Little Earthquakes, released in 1992, was a searing indictment of the patriarchy, among other things, and included the song "Me and a Gun," which she composed after her own experience with sexual violence. A pair of post-9/11 concept albums, 2002's Scarlet's Walk and 2007's American Doll Posse, took an unflinching look at America during the George W. Bush presidency.
Throughout Resistance, Amos uses songs from her back catalog as entry points, discussing how the politics of the moment influenced her work and her life. "I want to create towards what's happening now and document what's happening now, emotionally," she said recently. As ever, she's willing to go there.
Vanity Fair: I think a lot of people are dealing with balancing the pressure to be productive during this time of isolation and a lot of anxiety and the need for self-care. How have you been spending your time? Has this been a creatively fruitful time for you?
Tori Amos: Well, I'm finding this time challenging, as everybody is. I have bad days, or bad mornings, or a bad afternoon. And then I realize--I have tiny ways to get myself out of it. So, the way I get myself out of it is I go to other mediums, or to other artists. Sometimes I'll pick up a book that I haven't really finished reading. Like for instance Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale, which covers hundreds of millions of years of evolution! And then I begin to think of a month lockdown, a two-month lockdown, whatever it's going to end up being, as really...finite. And I have to think of...there will be a future; what kind of future do we want?
You write that part of your goal in writing Resistance was to "reassess the artist's role in society." How have you come to understand your role as an artist in this particular cultural and political moment?
Well, you know, sometimes it's wishing I was somebody I'm not. Sometimes I wish I could be a comedian. I wish I could bring laughter. Some people write songs that make you laugh, and I can do that once in a blue moon, when the muses gift me with that. Really, I think you have to come to terms with the kind of writer you are. I feel that having really cut my teeth professionally in Washington, turning pro at 19, there's something that I've carried with me. I understand that particular creature of power. And the power of the lobbyists, and really white-collar crime--but understanding that it's legal. So, cutting my teeth, underscoring these liquid handshakes, as I call them in the book, is a part of my piano-bar-playing DNA.
Is that when you first understood songwriting as a way to address social or political issues--as opposed to just a form of personal expression?
No. When I was accepted at the Peabody Conservatory at five, I had a lot of potential. And they had hoped that I would follow a certain path. But I saw the impact--that was 1968, when I was accepted. So, I began to see around me, because of the older students, the power of music, of the songs being written at that time. Whether it was coming out of Motown, whether it was coming from the British invasion. All the bands, from the Beatles to the Stones to Zeppelin. We can never marginalize Nina Simone and what she brought to the table, revolutionary songwriting. I began to see the power of the revolution that was happening at the time that was being driven by songwriters.
Resistance is all about the role politics plays in creating art. But I wanted to also get your perspective on the politics of consuming art. What responsibility do you think we have as consumers of art? What is to be done about the work of people who we know to be abusers or predators?
It's quite a question, because...you will not know all the ones that are involved in something that isn't consenting. So, that needs to be said first. When I know something about an artist, can I segregate their actions from their work? I can't. I can't, no. But I have to know that it's true. But that doesn't mean that their work is bad work. If you're going to ask that question and get an answer, it's a complex answer. If you're gonna push that thought, you've got to drill it down. It can't just be a liberal perspective. Of course, I'm a Democrat, but you're going to have conservatives that take that question too and say that if you are pro-choice, you're a killer. You have to see that, surely. Because I run into these crazy people when I'm out in God's country.
You're planning to release a new album before the 2020 election. Has that timing changed? Is there any significance to getting that work out before the election?
Is there gonna be an election?
I think, legally, there has to be...
There doesn't have to be anything. If we're living in a world where you're under house arrest--don't kid yourself. And yes, it's the responsible thing to agree to participate in. So, yes, the goal is to finish the record and have it out before November, yes. And to tour, yes. But, I'm having to write to the now. Not just songs that I've been working on since the 2017 tour. Some of those things are still holding up. But some of those things are not relevant now. I just listen to them and I just say, Sorry! Go whistle by the graveyard, my friend!
Your Cherokee heritage has been a major influence in your life and on your work. I wonder if you could share your reaction to the controversy around Elizabeth Warren's DNA test.
I have a lot of respect for her as a politician. My experience with the Native American community has always been one of spiritual guidance. My sister's been a part of [the Association of American Indian Physicians since 1982]. Before that, I only knew from my grandfather. So, it's been something that I've held really sacred to me, and it's a personal experience when they have shared their wisdom with me. That's been my experience with those from different nations. You can see the difference, right? Where the controversy comes in?
The difference between having a relationship with those communities and...not necessarily having a relationship--
With those communities. And also, I'm not running for office. So, there are a lot of people who have relationships with those nations in a quiet way.
What impact do you hope your work has on the world? What impact do you believe it has had?
It's not my job to understand the impact it has had. That's for those who track that and document that. I have to stay present with this work. Because that work is done. And it will either live on, and it's either been part of the conversation or inspired somebody or it hasn't. I focus on the next piece.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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