Tori Amos: Loud and Clear
Still using her voice to change the world? You bet your life she is
Far out on the rugged English countryside of Cornwall, surrounded by the bright blue Atlantic and the nearby Celtic Sea, known for its powerful winds and stunning beauty, lives a woman almost otherworldly.
American born, before the age of three she’d already found her life in music, her gift for the piano so immense and so palpable it earned her acceptance into an exclusive conservatory, at the time the youngest child ever admitted, at the age of five. Her father, a man of God who preached His word, had a vision for his daughter: She was to be the best, the brightest and perform at the greatest music halls — all by the age of 13.
The girl had to get to work. And she did.
But there was a fire inside her that refused to conform. In her father’s words, she would deny “God’s plan”, and was perceived as defiant and rebellious.
You see, the fire was her calling, and the calling wasn’t simply to play music, it wasn’t simply to be the best. The calling was to use her gift to heal and to change. Her force was more powerful than any teacher could likely comprehend. Misunderstood, like many great visionaries, the girl was banished from school at eleven. Her father accused her of “betraying God” and “drowning in her own sea of mediocrity.”
No one could know how fiercely her fire was growing.
Her father hadn’t given up on his daughter, and, planning to make good on her talent, he put her to work. In our nation’s capital, as a young teen she started playing for spare change and small bills, eventually, as the years drew on, playing for some of the great kings of politics—or so they thought themselves — and interacting with some of the most powerful decision-making men in the world.
And then, her own music and the stories she shared with us, stories epic, mythic, but so stunningly real, of bravery and courage were transformed into musical art. Stories so oddly beautiful, singing: “You’re not alone, girls!”
The setting, and the woman in it, is the stuff of fairy tales. But not the sweet, kid-friendly kind. This one is gory, one of blood and guts and dragon-slaying and monsters and demons and ogres lurking under picturesque bridges. As with all great heroes, a snapshot makes it look so simple, their sword is light and their journey is short. Their voice comes easily and listeners are open and ready. They are accepted and appreciated, revered and praised at the start. They make their triumph look easy.
But her journey wasn’t easy. Not at all.
The woman truly is not otherworldly, either. She is brilliant, she is gifted, she is passionate, she is dedicated. But it’s important to remind ourselves that she is thoroughly human. Her devotion to her craft and her courage to create change and connection, her openness and even her extreme kindness, is something we are all capable of if we try. There’s a reason the Tori tales are so far-reaching. She’s real.
As Carl Sagan once said and Tori quotes in her book, “We are all made of star stuff.” Tori Amos is undoubtedly made of star stuff, and she’ll be the first to remind you that you are, too.
Never a “cornflake girl”, and a one-time big sister to us all, Tori is now a fiercely devoted Mother Courage, someone who takes everyone under her protective wing. Her book Resistance: A songwriter’s story of hope, change, and courage (Atria Books) which came out on May 5, this year, is a passionate and articulate manifesto as only Tori could tell it. It starts with the dark fairy tale of her life, her early years as a child prodigy, her time playing piano-for-hire in Washington DC during the Carter and Reagan administrations, an insider’s view of the many transitions and downturns of American politics. Her rough years of womanhood and the songs of survival she’s shared with us have already been well documented throughout the decades, but this book offers a new perspective from a later phase of life — at an unprecedented time.
It was the book’s editor, Rakesh Satyal who, while Tori was on tour in 2017, convinced her to write it, that her early, previously-untold tales, her “front-row seat” DC experiences, her brave musical journey, was important for every songwriter and artist to hear. She called it a “tall order”, and the book went through many incarnations. “When I was able to write the Mary chapters [Mary was Tori’s mother who passed in 2019] he came back to me and said: ‘The good news and the bad news is you found the voice in the Mary chapters and now you have to apply that voice. And now you have to apply that storytelling to all the political chapters.’”
Don’t think for a second the book is depressing, it’s not. As with everything Tori does it’s honest, illuminating and empowering. If you were, or know, a girl whose light was dimmed for being defiant and rebellious, this is your book. If you care at all about America, this is your book. If you want to leave behind a better system of government, this is your book.
If you’re feeling helpless in a world you don’t quite understand, you’ll definitely want to read it.
Her book’s not angry, either. She explains that she’s had experience dealing with, working through and mastering her anger—though she doesn’t consider it a negative emotion. “I don’t denigrate the energy of anger,” she tells me. “I think it’s force and I think it can be utilized to channel ideas. I worked with anger on an album I did called Boys for Pele, that’s sort of my harpsichord punk record, really. And it’s a hard record to listen to because I was battling what I thought was the boys club in the music industry at the time, I was battling the patriarchy, I was battling the control of my father at the time. I was in my 30s and my father was very much in control of my life, my finances, etcetera. And on the one hand I was grateful because he and my mother ran my publishing company and I’m one of the few people in the industry who own my own publishing and part of that is because of my parents, so I have to honor that. But at the time, Liza, my anger was such that I couldn’t channel it. I wasn’t the master of it. It was mastering me. And therefore—yes, I stand by that record. But I was not in control of the anger.”
Tori continues: “When I was hearing people’s anger, while I was writing the book, what they were concerned about—the loss of democracy, those who were cannibalizing the Republican party from Republicans who’d felt they’d lost their party to Libertarians who really want an economic aristocracy. This is scary. What we’re facing is scary. And we’re voting for a system of government, we’re not voting for two men. And one can really understand what’s happening by reading things like Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean or Dark Money by Jane Mayer.
“So…anger was something I was working with writing the book. However, I can see how anger can be self-destructive. And, instead of achieving what you and I are hoping to achieve, what we do is just polarize and push people away. Instead of saying, no let’s sit down. I understand you have a different viewpoint, but if we both agree to keep anger out of it and try and have a conversation I want to hear what’s upsetting you. What are you worried about? What are your concerns? And when I started asking people these questions—in England, too, as well as America—just asking questions to people, I was really interested in what I was learning. Understanding that no one wants to be pointed at and told what to think. So, how can I listen to what people—what’s coming up for them. And what’s fascinating is this pandemic, this has brought things to the forefront. People weren’t talking about certain things in 2017 because they had a job. It’s very different when you don’t have a job and you’re worried where your paycheck is coming from.”
Does she think America can ever heal?
She takes a long pause and a deep breath. “Only if we as America understand how democracy can be compromised and how there are Americans that are willingly, knowingly, consciously compromising it because of their greed and they’re making a lot of money by doing it. By being part of this aristocracy. Not by blood, but by money.
“If we think that some of these people that are benefiting incredibly from not paying tax, at all, and making gazillions of dollars, that they’re gonna help the average person and their children get to school and not be in debt…
“We have to see that everything our ancestors fought for in WWII so that we didn’t become Germany. And I talk to the German journalists all the time. And they say to me, ‘Tori, there’s a blueprint. Why can’t the Americans see?’ Go look and study 1930. Go see — we drank the Kool Aid. We want to believe that some of these people are going to help the average person out there. They’re not going to help the average person have a good life. That isn’t the game. And that’s the only way we can heal is if we’re willing to see, not what they’re saying, but what they’re promising us. In their action, what it really is.
“And it’s a road to serfdom, Liza. That’s what it is.”
Among the many dragons she’s slayed were the record company execs who, upon hearing tracks from 1992’s Little Earthquakes, wanted to replace the piano with—are you ready for this?—guitar. Her book tells the story of sticking to her piano-playing guns, not an easy task as her 1988 debut album with her band of the same name Y Kant Tori Read had adamantly refused to sell.
When we spoke, she tells what it means to believe in your art above all else, no matter what the outcome. “Sometimes they do intertwine when you choose the path of artist, you can have ‘commercial success’,” she says. “But I had to really make that choice and make that vow and I looked at myself in the mirror and I said that means if nobody else gets Little Earthquakes — nobody gets it — then I’m gonna go back to the piano bar and I may die there. I mean…I may die there at 40. They won’t have you after a certain point at piano bars because there’s age and looks, and you know that game. But I made that vow to myself before I knew what that response was going to be. And I think that was the turning point and I think that is what people felt from that record. That record helped me. The muses helped me. But they also made it clear that they were channeling certain things, and I was going through certain things, so I had empathy, so I could understand it and hold that energy and then write with it.”
The result, truly, was little earthquakes everywhere, a musical movement no one could have anticipated. At the time, it was a voice of understanding and empathy GenX-ers were starving for, and now, fifteen studio albums later are a continuation of the most beautiful-sounding revolution of all time.
She explains, from experience, that there is power in opposition. “Liza, tell them…it does make you realize as an artist…take it from me…there’s an opportunity when there are troubles. There’s an opportunity to write, and you put it out there and it might move somebody that day to make a different choice that isn’t destructive. And I think that’s the reason to wake up in the morning.”
Though the term “music saves lives” is true on every level, there’s a reason so many women point to Tori’s specifically. Yes, there have been many strong women in music before and since, but none who invited us in on her visceral, primal journey of coming into her own quite like her.
I tell her that one friend remarked: “She is one of the reasons I am still here.” She responds with utter humility: “When people say this to me, I say to them: You saved your own life. What the music did…was to be there and whatever talisman it carried for you, then you chose to utilize and channel the strength of it, or whatever it was giving you, to then empower yourself. I feel like the muses made it really clear to me because Little Earthquakes was written in order to write myself out of Hell. Because I had to. That was the only way out. I tried everything else, and nothing was working.”
An artist who has always given so much of herself, she’s calling all women to band together and take action for the better of humanity.
“What kind of change could women make if they bonded together,” I ask.
“Complete change,” she states, with absolute conviction. “A complete change, but I also think there’s propaganda through technology that plants seeds that keeps us apart, keeps us from joining together. And creating together. I do believe that. We sometimes have to bond together even though the structures are against us that are in place, that are put there by the patriarchy.”
But why women?
And what kind of change? And how?
“Women have an ability to listen if they choose to, because even if you’re not a physical mother, I think there is a sense of nurturing and it might be with a niece or a nephew or it might be with the earth,” she explains. “It might be wanting to be a caretaker to our rivers, to our earth, to our great mother. Because we’re made up the way we are I think we have a huge responsibility right now to be caretakers of the earth we’re leaving behind, of the system of government we’re leaving behind for the next generation and we can’t just turn it over to the men. Even though we’re under incredible stress right now. And I’ve heard from women that are working from home, the ones that have been schooling from home. I do know that women have been under a lot of pressure trying to do their job, trying to be mothers. Trying to keep it all together. And it’s not easy! I think women right now are our heroes here. If I could give every single one of them a gold star, I would.”
Then why are women still so awful to each other?
“That’s a really good point and question,” she says. “Sometimes, I don’t think we as women consider ourselves awful people. When we fall into a culture of and a mindset of ‘there’s not enough room for us all. There are not enough jobs for us all. There are not enough opportunities for us all.’ Well, just as an example, in the ‘90s, if 2 women were being played on alternative radio, that was one too many. So out of 63 or 65 new slots—new slots—you have 62 opportunities for men and 2 opportunities for women. This is on alternative radio! So, already, just by the structure, you’re pitting women against each other because the slots are so few. So, when people are saying, there’s room enough if you’re good enough, well…with the public, maybe, and once the internet was there. But when there are only so many opportunities and slots that they’re filling and men, whether it’s at the festivals, have a lot more opportunities to get those slots than women, then you are creating a bit of a battle.”
The “slots” she speaks of become metaphorical when you apply to any woman in any workplace, clawing her way to the top for both position, recognition and, of course, equal pay.
“And that’s what the culture was doing and we have to kind of look at how it’s structured. Not to be victimized by it but to analyze the structure. So, that then you can’t be groomed into reacting with cliché behavior, which we all have done in the past because you get sucked into the…well there are only two slots and my record didn’t get at it this week.
“So, how do women stop being awful towards each other? It’s a loaded question. First of all, I think we have to create more opportunities for women in the playing field. And our brothers in arms need to help us create those opportunities. Then it’s a more level playing field. It’s not filled with lack. But it’s filled with, “oh, this is her turn!’ I’ll have my turn.”
Today, Tori wakes up in her home in Cornwall, England, where she’d flown in the early months of 2020, not understanding, as none of us did, the pandemic on the rise would keep her there for an unforeseeable future. In Cornwall, she has a recording studio her husband Mark built in ’97 for her fourth studio album From the Choir Girl Hotel. “The challenge is really when I wake up. It’s researching, I research every day. I don’t write music every day, because I’m gathering. There might be a two-bar phrase that comes and I record it and I just jot it…but I’m collecting. You’re collecting in this forest — this sonic forest — and you’re trying to figure out a few things at one time: What is it that people are feeling? And then how do they want to process it. When I wake up every morning it’s…what is the message, first of all?
“And I’m looking to the muses for that. Sometimes I have to do a lot of hunting to find it. But then it’s…how do people want to hear this right now at this time? At this time of being overwhelmed. You know — this isn’t 1996. This isn’t the Obama years.”
You bet your life it isn’t.
As with so many musicians, her tour was pushed back, but that’s given her time to work on new music. She acknowledges that since she landed in Cornwall to now, the end of a year of unrelenting transition, it’s a different world.
“I wanted to put the tour up for the election—and afterwards too. I thought it was important. I’ve been touring on my own, not as an opening act since ’92. And I just thought it was important during this time in our history as a country to be out there touring, a place for people to gather and to share their views. Especially where things can be so divisive, and I wanted to create a place where music could bring people together. When we had to cancel it, it was clear that…I had to grieve like many other musicians and live theatre people because it’s our life so that was something that all of us have been trying to adapt to.”
Tori believes, wholly, in humanity. She’s spent her entire career bringing people together in such a way that, some might consider it, a religious event. Moving forward, she advises we share thoughts and ideas with the younger generations. “Younger women are a part of this circle and have as much to contribute as those of us that have been on the planet longer,” she says. “But we might not be reading and hearing some of the things they are saying. There’s an opportunity for exchange between the generations that can be wealthy—what they’re giving me is gold and perhaps something I’m passing to them they hadn’t thought of because they weren’t around in the ‘70s.
Her advice to young women: “Knowing your own mind takes time. You have to test drive ideas. You cannot get wisdom without experience. Knowledge plus experience equals wisdom. So, you’re only going to have so much experience at nineteen, but you’re building those experiences since day one. But test-driving ideas—having a way to test things, that’s really important. If you read different authors, listen to different songwriters and films and documentaries and whatever you can—political journals, that come from different viewpoints—but you test drive them. I’m still having to test-drive ideas, but different than they are at 20. I can learn something every day.”