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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 pandemic

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 says laughing.

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 play.

"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 tips.'"

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 ever since.

"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 forever.

"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 lockdown.

"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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