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May 5, 2020
Tori Amos Gets Political
by Megan Labrise
Tori Amos' new memoir isn't so much a call to arms as a call to instruments. To
paints, pastels, and pens. To cloth, stone, laptops, phones, and Photoshop.
"Some artists are called to perform now from their homes, and I applaud them,"
Amos says by phone from England, in an interview about her new book, Resistance:
A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage (Atria, May 5), just 10 days after
Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the unprecedented step of putting the U.K. on
lockdown to stem the COVID-19 pandemic. The artist is exploring the contours of
quarantine while continuing to write and record what will be her 16th studio album.
"I'm being pushed to go to a place of writing and observing and listening--really
listening--to what people are discovering," she says. Like the story of a 28-year-old
woman who plumbed an unknown reserve of resourcefulness to feed five people,
every day, from pantry staples and sporadic shopping trips to understocked
stores. "I'm also discovering that I need to value myself better and not look for it
in men," the woman told Amos, instantly inspiring a song.
"She's someone I know, and the fact that she trusted me with that [revelation
inspired me]" Amos says. "I asked her, could I write to that--could I write a song
to that?She said, ‘Write the whole album about it!' "
Amos has served on active duty in the music industry for nearly four decades,
striving to create songs that move legions of fans to epiphany. For a solo tour in
support of her last studio album, 2017's Native Invader, she played a Bösendorfer
grand piano with one hand and a keyboard with the other, commanding stages at
sold-out shows around the world. Still, her set lists differ every night, depending
on where she is and whom she's performing for.
"The most important skill a songwriter needs is to be able to listen," Amos writes
in Resistance. "Like an elephant: ears the size of Kansas. Not only do you need to
hear every beat of breath between what is being said; you have to hear
what isn't being said."
The idea for Resistance came out of a conversation with Atria editor Rakesh Satyal,
who worked on her bestselling debut memoir, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece,written with
music critic Ann Powers, back in 2005.
"He came to see me on tour, during Native Invader, after the  election,"
Amos says. "He, being a New Yorker, a son of immigrants, a proud gay married
man, talked to me about our time and talked to me about what I'd be willing to
write toward. ‘What do writers and artists have to offer? What is your value in this
time, where freedoms and democracies are on the line?' And that was really the
beginning of the book."
Amos wagers her stories and her songs, the latter interwoven throughout the text,
in an attempt to answer these and other questions. She begins with "Gold Dust"--
lyrics lying across three pages, italicized--preceding a deep dive into life as a
teenage piano prodigy in Washington, D.C. Chaperoned by her father, the Rev. Dr.
E.M. Amos, she honed her performance chops in a gay bar and learned the
mechanics of power in a hotel bar not far from the White House.
"The young artist's journey is made up of a number of components, not least the
ways they see older people act when it comes to issues of morality and
accountability," Amos writes. "It was no coincidence that a father like mine--who
bucked Christian conventions that would have stopped me entertaining a gay
clientele, conventions that would have stopped me from sharing my piano playing
with a diverse crowd of patrons--would lead me to a job from which I could
observe the interactions of people of great influence."
She enlists "Little Earthquakes," "Bang," "I Can't See New York," and "Silent All
These Years" to enrich readers' understanding of her pilgrimage from a young
artist on the rise to a human rights activist whose art speaks truth to power. But
later songs, in the book's last chapters, chronicling her mother Mary Ellen
Copeland Amos' last years, hold the keys to the whole endeavor.
"When I wrote the Mary chapters, right after she died in May , Rakesh called
me up and said, ‘Hey, T., I really hate to tell you this but now you have to rewrite
the whole book,'" she says. "‘Because you found your voice--through Mary, you
found your writing voice--for the book. So now you have to take that to every
Guided by her mother's wisdom and wit, Amos rewrote the manuscript in two
months. What emerged was as much a manifesto as a memoir--one that,
ultimately, may help readers find their own artistic voices in the current political
"Honoring the grief of this moment is huge," Amos says of our strange new era.
"Having experienced personal grief of the loss of a mother, now, this grief is...it's
different, but it's deep." The collective grief of the pandemic is physical, emotional,
and upending. It's causing some to confirm their faith and others to lose it; raising
so many moral and practical questions.
Amos says let them all in. "In my humble opinion, I think you've got to let them
come, these questions that you didn't have--I didn't or you didn't have--time for
[before] because we would just push them away," she says. "But now we can't
hide from ourselves. And I would say, why would you want to? Yes, you can get lost
in social media and spend your whole day there, possibly running down all kinds of
rabbit holes, but it's also a chance for all artists to decide what kind of art they
want to make."
Whatever your medium, whatever your instrument, the time is now.
"Once Mary died, I was in a deeply dark place for several weeks. Then, though, I
had to crawl--really, little by little--and begin to walk, step by step, back into the
world," Amos says. "But there was a world to walk back into. So, we have to help
create that world together to walk back into. And I think it will be the artists that do
Megan Labrise is the editor at large; hear her full conversation with Tori Amos on
the Fully Booked podcast.
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