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CBC Radio (Canada)
May 19, 2020

How playing Washington piano bars changed the musical life of Tori Amos

In her new book Resistance, the revered songwriter retraces her steps in music, politics, feminism and life

'I began to get more interested in what the powerful were up to. And I think that seed was planted when I was a teenager playing for these very powerful -- and many were corrupt -- men,' Amos told q host Tom Power.

When legendary musician Tori Amos was just 11 years old, she got kicked out of the esteemed Peabody conservatory -- a prep school for promising young musicians. Amos's father, a minister, was devastated. But instead of throwing in the towel on his daughter's musical aspirations, he took her from one business to the next in their Massachusetts hometown, hoping to find her a spot to perform.

"He had his minister's outfit on and we knocked all around Georgetown. Finally, at the last place, Mr. Henry's, they let us in. And it was a gay bar," says Amos in a feature interview with q host Tom Power.

"I didn't know that until I looked up and realized they were all staring at my father. They asked me if he was in a costume," recounts Amos with a laugh.

"And I said, 'No, no, no, he's really a minister.' Then they decided to help us figure out the bar scene, which they actually did."

By the time she was 15 years old, Amos was playing the happy hour circuit in Washington, D.C. hotels. But that experience didn't only strengthen her musical chops: it taught her how politics really happen.

"That's where the lobbyists would gather. I called it the liquid handshake. And I didn't really understand until waiters and maître d's started explaining to me how it worked and how deals were made and the different groups," she says.

"And it it pretty much blew my mind. I played three blocks from the White House during the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter."

'Everybody has to right toward their true north'

That understanding began to fuel Amos's work, especially in the late '80s and early '90s, when she began writing unflinching songs about everything from political corruption to sexual assault.

"I feel that as as a writer, you're kind of searching for your true north, and what that is. And everybody has to right toward their true north," says Amos, who adds that when she was younger, she wrote a lot about typical teenage relationship struggles -- but that soon changed.

"I began to get more interested in what the powerful were up to. And I think that seed was planted when I was a teenager playing for these very powerful -- and many were corrupt -- men," she says.

"And it was it was pretty unbelievable to me to realize how few hold such power and how they can be owned and bought."

'Like meeting friends again'

Now Amos has poured many of those formative experiences into her new book Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage. In it, the songwriter travels from those early days playing for the political elite to her days as a starving artist in L.A. to her three decades as one of the music world's most original and powerful voices.

Along the way, Amos speaks out about her proud feminism and the #MeToo movement, and reinforces her lifelong mission to have marginalized voices heard. But does she think music can actually create change?

"Well, music powered the revolution in the '60s, didn't it? The civil rights movement, as well as dealing with the Vietnam War. There were amazing writers talking about these things. And I watched the effect that music had on people," says Amos, who also won acclaim for her moving rendition of the Tom Waits song Time on The Late Show with David Letterman shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

"So with all the messages that are being put out there, I think it's really essential that we take the narrative back and try and find the truth in our narratives. And what is that? That's what is really difficult," she says.

"But if you're called to write about this stuff, then it's about unveiling people's emotions and what they think and what they believe and reflecting that back and empowering them to make up their own minds."

In the book, Amos also revisits her earliest songs, among them Silent All These Years from her landmark 1992 album Little Earthquakes, and her arresting song about rape, Me and a Gun.

"It's like meeting friends again. Dear, dear friends who've never betrayed you," explains Amos.

"There's something about songs that I trust. I trust them to show me what I need to learn that day, because we're learning something every day, especially during these crazy times," she says.

"We're having to sit with ourselves and we're all facing different kinds of challenges. So being with these songs, I think, made me realize how much they have helped me and taught me."

'So many unknowns'

Amos is currently riding out the COVID-19 crisis with her family in the country in Cornwall, England, where she's spending her days working on music and growing food -- she's planted potatoes, tomatoes and broad beans -- and being encouraged by locals to learn how to make a rhubarb crumble.

"Going through times of trial and incredible challenge is one thing. However, this is cataclysmic and there are so many unknowns," says Amos, who went on tour soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At least then, she adds, people could gather -- unlike now, when billions around the world are in various degrees of isolation.

"As I begin to start writing songs and trying to hear what this is bringing up in people emotionally, spiritually, mentally -- and the unknowns, just not knowing when some of us will ever..." she says, then pauses.

"I probably won't get to see my father for many months. He's in the States," she says. "We don't know. We just don't know. And that unknowing can bring up so many feelings. That's what I feel like I need to write about now."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Cora Nijhawan.

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