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GRAMMYS (US, www)
MAy 5, 2020
Tori Amos On Maintaining Faith,
Vision & Conviction In Troubled
by Bryan Reesman
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 Resistance 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.
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 cliche 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
t o r i p h o r i a
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