By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Des Willie, Paulina Otylie Surys, Amarpaul Kalirai
In her second book, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage flaming piano queen Tori Amos shares her personal stories against a world-in-crisis backdrop and discusses how they’ve shaped songs from her three-decade career. She ruminates on personal and collective grief and traces her social and political activism as an outspoken LGBTQ activist, feminist and democrat back to Washington D.C. There, as a teenager, with a seat on the stage of a seedy political underworld, Amos played for immoral, powerful political officials; these men, she writes, were “laying the groundwork for a compromised future.”
Recently, I spoke with Amos on the phone from her home in Cornwall, England, where she is quarantining with her producer-husband, Mark Hawley, and their daughter, Tash. On this afternoon, Amos was comforting and jovial as she talked about bad days, how the Muses (capital M, in Tori’s world) showed up one recent morning, where she falls on the Winnie the Pooh pantheon, and the healing power of licorice.
Tori, I had a bad day yesterday and, to be honest, I didn’t think I was in the right headspace to do this interview. That feeling brought me to a part of Resistance, when you write, “I have looked up and out desperately talking to anyone saying, Help, please help – I am not prepared for what is in front of me.” So, I put on my big boy boots today; you taught me how to do that.
I’m so proud of you. It’s not easy for anybody. And yeah, I think everybody, Chris, in different ways because of different circumstances are being challenged.
How are you being challenged?
The unknowns. There are so many unknowns. One of the main things I’ve been doing since I can remember is playing live for people, whether that was as a little girl at church, then weddings and funerals, and then turning pro at 13. First, gosh, and you know this story: first place that gave me a professional chance, a venue, was a gay bar (Mr. Henry’s in D.C.). And then from then on playing all kinds of different establishments. So not being able to play live with that kind of connection and collaboration with an audience has been a bit of a grief process, just knowing that that’s off the table for a while.
What you create thrives on having those in-person interactions and hearing people’s stories. When that doesn’t exist, where do you go?
Well, that’s a good question. I’ve compiled a lot of emotions from this experience, and hearing from people. People have been sending me questions with all the virtual sessions we’ve been doing. We’ve done about six virtuals, I think; my brain’s hazy. But a lot of questions have come in. And people’s state of mind has really shown me the depth of this cataclysm and how people are being shaken to their core either emotionally, mentally or spiritually. And some people have physical issues that have really opened my eyes. I heard from somebody who doesn’t have antibodies, or I heard from somebody that they have real concerns of leaving their apartment. There’s so many different ways people are feeling overwhelmed.
I get the impression the energy of the album you’re working on has shifted from the time you wrote the book. Where is the energy for this work currently?
The energy is whatever was true before the pandemic because it was talking about events that had happened and that were real whether that was someone’s personal experience or an observation about the corruption and our loss of democracy, and having a fragile democracy. And it’s been shaken. Really shaken. And those foundations, some are being gutted from the inside out, as we know. So that material can still resonate. But there are other elements that have to get woven in because, like you said, you’re wrestling with having bad days. Everybody is. And these are the kinds of bad days that have to be addressed in the music and what takes people to a bad day, and then addressing those things. And with other songs it’s about how to help bring somebody out of that.
So it seems there’s a healing element you’re exploring in the music.
Yeah. Some of the songs are on their knees with you, and then others are, “Come on then. OK. (Laughs.) You guys are doing your job. You ladies are doing your job really well, sitting there in the mud. In the tears. With the cuts. And the glass. (Laughs.) The broken glass. The margaritas. And now there’s no more of that tequila, honey. And your shoes are muddy. And your heels, broken. And I’ve got no party dress in my bag for you. Here’s a Mac. And I don’t mean a computer. I mean a little raincoat. And I don’t have Welly boots for you. No galoshes. So you’re gonna have to walk barefoot, sister.”
And you’ve just written a song. That is a Tori song.
(Laughs.) It might come to that, Chris! And it might be called “Chris’s Crap Day.”
I’ve been thinking about grief as it applies to our various experiences with this pandemic. What have you learned from your experience with grief, both personal and beyond, that could serve anyone and everyone facing grief in letting go of normalcy?
I have to thank (my mother) Mary for taking me through it because I went to a really dark place when she died in May of last year. It didn’t settle in until two weeks later when I was there with Tash and we were back in Florida on our own, and then it just took me to a place where I think people are going right now. Having been there recently, it’s been a long haul out of it. I just came out of it around the new year, and then this happening and being thrown back into something we never experienced. We won’t be the same, and we can’t go back to where we were, Chris. It’s not back. We have to move forward. And we will see each other again. But not for a while, not in the way that we might have hoped it would be sooner.
So knowing that, there is a place for grieving. I think it’s the right answer because by doing that then we realize that something bigger is happening to all of us. A change to our world. We have to remember that with 9/11 a lot changed. War. All kinds of things. There were cities intact; there were other places that were physically decimated and the infrastructure had to be rebuilt. And this is the whole globe. There’s no place for us to go. We can’t hop onto Mars and the station there. That doesn’t exist.
One recent morning I was really missing my mother; we’re social distancing right now. So I sent your song “Promise” to her, which you sing with Tash. She called me because she was so moved by the song and the purpose it was serving on that particular day. It brought us closer in that moment. It made me think of what you write about “Girl” in the book and how that song bent to the times in 2017 because it, you write, “understood that America was under attack.” Are there songs that you are aware of in your catalog that are currently experiencing a shift?
I’m waiting to hear that one. It’s happening right now, so I think there’s a little delay in me getting that info from the gang. But yeah, I’ll be curious to know what that is.
In the book, you talk about “Reindeer King” from your last album, Native Invader, and how it was, in part, written with your mother Mary in mind. For me, now, I hear it as a message to my mind to get back where it was before the pandemic.
That’s fair enough. And yeah, “Reindeer King” was many, many years in the making. It started as tiny fragments in 2006 for the Doll Posse rebellion (laughs) in a song called “Crystalline” and then it morphed and moved and was kind of just dormant. Dormant until it wasn’t anymore. And there was a moment of Tash evolving and finding her voice, and Mary losing hers. And it was that paradox, that tension of the opposites that just shot me from either side, like an arrow made of light. So it didn’t wound me, but it kind of took me to the reindeer king.
There’s a photo of you in the book giving side eye and the caption is, simply, “Side eye.” But there’s no context, Tori! Do you have context for that pic, and what is it? I mean, personally, I’d like to think the side eye is in response to every man who has ever stood in your way.
(Laughs.) No. It’s not confrontational. It’s fun! Somebody who I know really well was compiling these photos with me and we were laughing our heads off. It’s not a meanie, you know? It’s not an indignation, or a confrontation.
No shade, no tea?
No shade! It’s, “You thought you were hot and so did I.” (Laughs.)
What do you do as a creative person when your mind can’t hold space for anything but taking care of yourself?
Go eat some licorice. (Laughs.)
And that cures you?
(Laughs.) Well, you know, it might be licorice. It might be popcorn. As everybody knows: microwave popcorn with some pepper. And then life can maybe just get a little bit better. But then, look, there’s some days it’s gonna be useless. Then I go research and I get my notes down. I try to read something, whether I’m looking at an art book or a book of photographs. Drawings, paintings. If I’m reading, researching about something.
It could be anything. Tash comes in and tells me about some documentary she’s watching about how they’re building environmentally friendly houses somewhere and she says you have to check this out. (Laughs.) Then you kind of go, “OK. So that took me out of, ‘There’s no live music, kind of my Eeyore (mood).’” And I’m traditionally not an Eeyore. If we’re on the Winnie the Pooh pantheon, Chris, I don’t know who you are, but I’m not Eeyore, normally.
I’m a Piglet.
You’re Piglet? I love Piglet!
Who are you?
Tash thinks I’m a hybrid of Owl and Roo. She thinks I’m Roo when I get into my jumpy-jumpy side.
You seem a little Roo-like right now, actually. I can’t see you, but I can feel your Roo energy. It’s making me very happy, I will say.
Today was a good morning. That’s because the Bösendorfer that I tour with has not been well. I can’t describe why; it’ll take too long. But just trust me: She needed some help. She had to wait until she was allowed to get the help she needed by the tuner; that’s been social distancing and going to the studio and then the touring piano is in the back … not a storage place, it’s got books. It’s a nice storage. It’s a little library kind of place. I wouldn’t call it storage, but it is where it is stored, OK? So it’s in a little room, and it got fixed. It got helped. It was like the piano hospital back in the back.
And so I got up before the sun was up, really early, and I raced out. I just put on some trainers and raced out into this space on my own and started playing. I was playing something I’ve been working on for a little while for the new record, and then after a half hour this thing started to come through. And it’s called … hold on. I couldn’t hum it to you if my life depended on it. I just called it something. I think I called it “Bluebell Forest.” But the mist was coming in, and the sun was coming up. I saw rabbits in the distance. It was barely sunrise, and it was foggy. But not cold, you know? We’re in Cornwall in farm country. And I looked out the window and it was just a moment when this music was coming and I wasn’t writing it. That doesn’t happen all the time, but it was happening this morning. It was just one of those things where I thought, “Yeah. The Muses. They’re still there.”
Tori, thanks for this. You are one of the threads connecting me to home and the feelings of home and the people who remind me of home. I wish you and your family well.
I wish you and your mom and everybody well. And guess what? I’m gonna see you when we’re out again. And God knows, it might be a year; it might be a little longer than a year. It might. But it won’t be endless, you know? When we can, we’ll be out there. And listen: Thank you, Chris, for putting those big boy boots on because I so enjoyed this. And I’m gonna tell Tash that your mom called you about “Promise”; that’ll give her a real twinkle.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.