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The Herald Scotland
May 8, 2020
"I don't think we'll ever be the same."
Tori Amos on politics, grief and the
by Teddy Jamieson, Senior Features Writer
RIGHT now, Tori Amos says, the big thing is to resist despondency.
"That is an illness," she tells me near the end of our conversation.
"That is cancerous. And it can spread through your whole being and
you don't even realise. You're in a mental war and you don't know how
to get out of it, and you do have to have words with yourself."
For the previous 40 minutes, the Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter,
pianist, and composer has been talking about politics and failure and love
and grief (she and I have both learned about that in the last year) and rage
and singing in a gay bar as a teenager. But, again and again, we circle back
to the moment we are living in, this time of the virus.
"You have to resist despondency," Amos continues. "Throwing your hands
up and saying, ‘See you on the other end of this Covid.' No, we have to be
present for it because the gold is here.
"But the pain is here, too, the loss of freedom. The loss of life. We're
grieving. You and I. We're not only grieving somebody that we lost, we're
grieving a way of life."
This afternoon Amos is in lockdown with family in Cornwall. "We're a full
house. I think husband would love to be bored. When he hears people are
alone and having a Buddhist retreat, I just see envy across his face," she
It's a good noise to hear. Before I speak to her, I've been reading her new
book Resistance. The subtitle describes it as "a songwriter's story of hope,
change, and courage." All of which is true, but it's a book full of grief and
anger, too. A book angry at toxic masculinity, angry at the politics of
America, her home country, angry that it could become a country where
children are being put in cages.
The grief? That's for her mother and her best friend, who both died in 2019.
The anger and grief are, in their own way, the reason the book exists at all.
In 2017, her editor suggested she should write a second book -- she had
already written Tori Amos: Piece by Piece -- A Portrait, in collaboration
with Ann Powers -- one on "the aftermath of the 2016 election and what is
the artist's role in this time," she explains.
Amos tried, submitting several chapters. But it was what she wrote in the
wake of her mother Mary's death that led to her editor calling to say she
had finally found her voice. The bad news was that she would have to go
back and rewrite the rest.
"So, to make the deadline, there were times I was writing 10,000 words a
week," Amos admits. "I had to galvanise to make the deadline. But that was
OK after the Mary chapters. She helped me to find my way."
Resistance is an impressionistic book full of snapshots of Amos's life. It
begins in Washington DC in the 1970s when Amos is a 13-year-old girl
wandering up and down the strip looking for a bar that will let her play
piano, accompanied by her father the Reverend Edison McKinley Amos
(complete with dog collar).
Who was that 13-year-old girl, I ask her? "That young girl had grappled
with being a failure at 11," she says.
Amos had been a child prodigy, playing piano from the age of two and a
half, winning a place at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory (part of
Johns Hopkins University) in Baltimore. But at 11 she lost her place.
"My father was devastated, absolutely devastated. Because the trajectory
had been that, by 13, I would be on the concert stage playing
classical music. That was his dream.
"The downside of kids having so much hope being put on their small
shoulders is when it doesn't go to plan. And the disappointment is not
small. Trying to deal with being a failure was not easy."
Hence the trek around Washington bars to see if one of them would let her
"My father finally said, ‘I can't let you waste away. This is not happening. I
can't accept this,'" Amos recalls.
"Nobody would give us a chance. And at a certain point I just wanted to go
home. This was excruciatingly painful. Just the looks we would be given,
because, at 13, you can observe. My father with his clerical collar on and
me dressed up in my sister's clothes and some heels and bad eyeshadow.
The turquoise kind. Oh God, what a picture were we?
"And, finally, at the last door they said, ‘If she's any good she can play for
This was Mr Henry's. A gay bar. "That was the beginning of my
professional life, I guess. Dad took a lot of flak for that. My sister reminded
me that the parishioners were not humoured by this at all. So, it really was
a bold move."
It was a place where Amos began to learn life lessons. "Gay men know
more about men than anybody," she points out. "They really do. And they
know the dark side of men and the secrets."
She learned about politics too. Throughout her teenage years Amos
continued to play piano in Washington bars and when she wasn't playing,
she was paying attention. She could see the political shift from the Carter
years to the Reagan years, felt the ground moving during the Iranian
hostage crisis, the emergence of the idea of the need for a strong man at the
top of American politics, one that has been in play periodically in America
"I saw people in 1980 change," Amos recalls. "People I thought I knew. They
had been allergic to the idea of another war because of Vietnam. So, this
hostage crisis and how that was politicised changed American politics
"It was a sort of madness, Teddy. And we saw it again in 2016. We saw it
after 9/11; how they controlled the narrative for war."
The "they" in that sentence refers to the hawks in the Bush government.
And now we live in the Trumpian era, where racism is public policy, where
migrant children can be caged. The question is, Tori, what can an artist do
in the face of such naked, brutal ideology?
"Artists can document time in different ways to political journalists," Amos
suggests, "because they are documenting the emotions and the mental state
as well. Artists are not always about proven facts. They're about opening
up your imagination. And activating your resilience and remembering that
you have that."
It's a role that applies to the world of the pandemic, too, she suggests. "I do
think artists have a role in how we are going to heal the emotional and
mental scars of this agreed house arrest.
"That's the writer's job; to evoke and excavate the emotions that different
people are feeling and reflect it back. That's the job."
Amos's own story is one of misstarts and finding her own voice. In her
early twenties she fronted a synthpop band called Y Kant Tori Read. Their
eponymous debut album was a critical and commercial disaster. Another
moment of failure. But one that helped lead her to find her own voice on
Little Earthquakes, released in 1992, which saw her address her religious
upbringing, make violence, feminism and sexuality.
Amos, now in her fifties, has a reputation for eccentricity. She believes
songs require the assistance of a higher power, after all. "The muses" is the
name that she gives to it.
And yet, as Resistance reminds us, in Amos's case it's life experience that
feeds the songs. We inevitably end up talking about grief. Mine and hers.
I've lost a wife. She, her friend Beenie and her mother Mary, to whom the
book is dedicated. She died in May last year, two days after Beenie, after
originally suffering a stroke back in 2004. In fact, back then, Mary's heart
stopped three times in a single day.
"I thought I would be relieved because she suffered," Amos says. "Oh, she
suffered. It was cruel. It was torture. And so, I thought I'd be relieved. But
all it did was make me remember her before the stroke.
"Nothing can replace her. I think that's the thing. When you have an
artistic failure there are other paths up the mountain. But when you've lost
a parent, you've lost a parent. There's no replacement."
In the book Amos writes about Mary "visiting" her in the kitchen while she
was grieving and telling her daughter to turn her feelings into songs. "She
did visit me in the kitchen," Amos says this afternoon. "There was her
energy. And I haven't had that since."
There is a debt owed to her mum, Amos feels, one that brings us back to the
present moment. "What she went through can't be for nothing. I think we
have to document this time and we all document it differently. But I think
once the public is out of the physical threat, then we have to deal with the
scars and the wounds of the emotional, mental and spiritual effects of this
"I don't think we'll ever be the same. We're not going to go back to how we
were on New Year's Eve."
What of herself? Can she sit down at the piano and escape for a moment?
"I'm having to push myself. I'm writing a record for Decca and I don't know
when it's going to come out. I don't know when it's going to be done."
Well, is there any joy in the process? "Creating with the muses is joyous,
although they demand a lot. They don't let me slack off. And when I do, I
kind of get met with silence. They're just not interested. If I'm not going to
bring my A game, then they'll go visit Bjork over in Iceland."
Resistance by Tori Amos is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
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