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May 28, 2020

Tori Amos: 'We need a revolution to protect our children'

As she releases a personal guide to changing the world, Tori Amos talks politics, #MeToo and the muses that spoke to her aged two

by Fiona Sturges

At the start of her new book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change and Courage, the singer-songwriter Tori Amos warns: "Make no mistake: we are living in a moment of crisis. Of unprecedented crises. It seems that in every possible sphere, we are all confronting dark forces that aim to divide us as a world, as countries, as people... as creators."

The book finds the 56-year-old, who rose to fame in the early 90s with albums including Little Earthquakes and Boys For Pele, looking back at 40 years in music through the prism of politics, the patriarchy and personal trauma.

Her aim is to "engage, examine, then reassess the artist's role in society and, by doing so, to create a way forward for us as we commit to resist those dark forces that wish to subjugate us."

Amos was born and raised in Baltimore, the daughter of the Reverend Dr Edison Amos, a Methodist minister who disapproved of her love of rock'n'roll.

A classically trained piano prodigy, she blazed a trail through a male-dominated music industry singing about the harrowing end of female experience, from sexual violence to miscarriage, and appeared on the front of one album suckling a pig.

She is currently under lockdown "deep in farm country" in Cornwall, where she lives with her husband and daughter, and where she has a studio. She should be on an international book tour but instead she is doing a series of virtual events, including a Q&A at the Hay Festival Digital.

Over the phone, she tells me she is finding the enforced period at home productive -- she is working on a new album -- if fitfully challenging. "I process things differently from my husband [the sound engineer Mark Hawley]. I usually travel to work things and he is more of an at-home kind of person. It's worked for over 24 years because I just kind of pop off."

The idea for the book came from her editor Rakesh Satyal, who worked with her on her first memoir, 2005's Piece by Piece, and persuaded Amos that her perspective on creativity and the changing political climate needed to be heard.

"This was when only something like democracy was on the line in the United States," Amos says dryly, referring to the current coronavirus crisis. The discussions in Resistance take as their starting point specific songs from her back catalogue, each of which represents a formative moment in her life, among them childbirth, 9/11, Trump's election, #MeToo and the death of her mother, Mary, in 2019.

We learn how Mary would read her children Edgar Allan Poe stories at bedtime and instilled in her daughter a love of language that would carry through into her songwriting. In the book, Amos's grief is viscerally drawn -- "Death is messy," she writes, "and I am leaking" -- and she includes lyrics to a new song about her mother called "Mary's Raven".

'If America re-elects Trump, it will be a very dark world'

Power is a recurring theme, from her account of her altercations with record companies -- her label initially rejected her first album and suggested she replace the pianos with guitars -- to her observations on the nefarious goings-on in government.

The song Gold Dust, which references Amos's years playing hotel lounges three blocks from the White House in the late 70s, yields a reflection on her education in how political deals are brokered. Employed as a pianist from the age of 13, she overheard the conversations of lobbyists, political operatives and bankers over bottles of whisky, and was startled by the gulf between what she was told at school and how government really worked.

She notes that little has changed -- "I don't know if anyone can evade the swamp. And I've spent a lot of time in Florida and in Washington, so I know what a real swamp is... If America [re-elects Trump], it will be a very dark world. We're seeing systems gutted from the inside out. While this pandemic is happening, so is the excavation of a democratic government."

Amos, who sees herself as a pragmatist, is hoping for "an awakening... because that is what is needed, a mother-revolution to protect [our] children from the lights of democracy going out."

She saw a similar awakening in 2017 with the #MeToo movement, which arrived a full 25 years after Amos's song Me and a Gun, which documented her experience of rape, and which appeared on her debut album in 1992. In the book, Amos describes the Little Earthquakes LP as "a long and arduous climb to song-write my way out of a very personal hell."

How did she feel in 2017 when, as revelations about the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein came out, the floodgates opened on women's stories of harassment and assault?

"I thought: 'Well, thank God' -- or, I should say: 'Thank the goddess'," she says. "It's like: 'OK, a lot of us have been chipping away at that wall that was immovable for so long.' People are beginning to draw the line of what is acceptable and what isn't. And we have to keep drawing the lines. That way you change the behaviour, because it's out in the open and can't be swept away without some kind of reckoning."

I ask whether writing a book without the usual constrictions of verse and chorus was freeing. "Oh no, not at all," she replies, with feeling. "I think the chapters about Mary became freeing and more natural-feeling, and that's when the editor called me up and said: 'The good news is that you've found the voice but now you have to go back and re-write the whole thing.' And I did. It was about grounding it in the personal before we got into the political."

'I believe there will be live music again. And it will be transformative' The book also offers glimpses into the creative process which, Amos writes, "is not all faeries, muses and angels. Sometimes it feels like dancing with demons."

Amos earned a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore at the age of five -- the youngest student ever accepted -- but, more interested in writing her own music than performing others', left when she was 11.

"I've met songwriters in my life who believe they're writing the songs themselves, but I'm the co-writer with this force that I call the 'muses'," she says. "It's been coming to me since I can remember -- my mother said I started playing when I was two and a half."

In the past, Amos has taken hallucinogens for inspiration, but no longer -- "That was way before I was a mother."

Right now, Amos is alarmed not just at the political future but also what lies ahead for musicians.

"Until there's some type of vaccine, I don't see how there will be live concerts," she says. "It's terrible for the unknown artists and musicians who depend on music to keep the lights on and eat. I think everyone is really grieving. We're all missing that collaboration with the audience, that magical exchange. But I believe there will be live music again. And it will be transformative."

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