Tori Amos on writing 'dangerous songs' in a time of 'unprecedented crises': 'That's why I get up in the morning'

Lyndsey Parker
Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
Tori Amos performs at UCLA's Royce Hall in 2005. (Photo: Karl Walter/Getty Images)

“Make no mistake: We are living in a moment of crisis. Of unprecedented crises,” singer-songwriter Tori Amos declares in her introduction for Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, her new songbook-as-memoir that chronicles her “journey to engage, examine, and then reassess the artist’s role in society.”

Of course, Amos wrote that warning long before the current — and certainly unprecedented — coronavirus crisis. So when she connects with Yahoo Entertainment via phone from her farm/studio in Cornwall, England, in the middle of lockdown (or “smackdown, whatever you want to call it — I call it what it is, my friend”), her prescient words take on even more weight.

Amos is in the “early stages” of working on her next album, saying, “If you're feeling called as a writer, I think there's a lot to write about.” And that’s what is at the heart of Resistance: The book tells Amos’s story through the lyrics and Amos’s personal memories of some of her most iconic — and in many cases, more relevant than ever — songs. And it also poses questions about how Amos and her peers can document what is going on today.

What follows is Yahoo Entertainment’s fascinating and intense conversation with Amos about her past —from growing up as a strict minister’s daughter, to playing piano for politicians in D.C. bars at age 13, to surviving a sexual assault that inspiring the groundbreaking “Me and a Gun,” to embarking on a concert tour in the aftermath of 9/11 — as well about this country’s uncertain future.

Yahoo Entertainment: I know Resistance was written before the current state of the world, before the coronavirus. In light of everything that's going on right now, how do you think this book resonates in a way that you could never have predicted?

Tori Amos: Well, the book fundamentally is about creating through crisis, and I was speaking about different crises over the many years, whether that's 9/11 or losing something that you care about. And really, I hadn't considered a global pandemic as the next unprecedented crisis that we would be facing. I was speaking about the loss of democracy, potentially the loss of democracy. And now here we are, in something we've never experienced before.

There’s a lengthy passage in your book about 9/11, and how you and your band were caught in the middle of that panic. That was obviously a very different crisis, but it too interrupted life as we knew it. Are you seeing any parallels now to that situation?

There are a few parallels, which is our world did change — security was never the same, and it took a while for people to feel safe to travel. But at that time, people needed to connect with each other, to exchange information, and that was how they were doing it at the time — by coming to concerts. People had even said to me, “Don't take this wrong, but some of us aren't coming really for the music. That's a backdrop. We're coming to exchange information.” I found that really intriguing, because people have, in an audience, if you're fortunate as an artist, you have a cross-section of people. They're not all in the same field, and they don't maybe all have the same political viewpoints, so you can get a cross-section of perspectives, which we did at the time.

But we were discouraged to tour — it was not a veiled message. A lot of people didn't tour. We felt, when I realized [John Lennon’s] “Imagine” had been banned [from radio play], having worked in Washington for many years and cutting my teeth there as a professional musician from 13, I realized how the inner loop of the Beltway works, and that told me everything I really needed to know: that the message of peace was not a message that [politicians] wanted the public to embrace. … It's about who's controlling the narrative and how people can weaponize a traumatizing situation, which was 9/11, and then politicize it to their own ends.

So, when people steal the narrative to then push for their own political gain, that's the parallel that you can track. So I'm very focused on that in my work. … It is our job to make sure that that this current [coronavirus] narrative is not hijacked and airbrushed — for those of us who feel called to do that. 

You mentioned that when you were 13 years old, you were cutting your teeth as a musician in D.C. bars. What was your early political education that you were exposed to then?

That the lobbyists were able to develop legal criminality. And I watched it happening before my eyes. I'd been playing professionally for years when David Koch was running for vice=president on the Libertarian ticket, and I was there while they were building war rooms off the K Street Corridor. And I was playing on 16th and K Street on both sides. I played the Hilton and Carlton — that's what they were called at the time — three blocks from the White House. That was my education: realizing that it was about big corp and big money, and they found ways to legalize what would be criminal activity, and if you get the right judges on the right courts, then they can change laws which are in the favor. … I realized this as a teenager, and it was shocking to realize that what they were teaching in high school was not how things worked in Washington.

That's a tough and dark lesson to learn at such a young age. Do you have a memory, like maybe a conversation or interaction you overheard,  where this became clear to you as a child?

Yeah, in 1980, during that election, that was a pivotal moment when the Americans were taken hostage in Tehran, Iran, and I was playing at the time. It was fascinating to me how the country, or parts of the country, gravitated towards a very different ideology and a very different type of political leader, going from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Even when Bush Sr., who was running against him, called Reagan's concepts “voodoo economics.” I remember some of the waiters and the maître d's [at the bar I worked in] would just shake their heads and say, “Why would any thinking person, even basic thinking person, think that these people are going to make their life better? Why would they think that?”

The other thing that I think is interesting is the dichotomy that you were playing in the gay bars at this time. That's quite a span of audiences there. Can you tell me a bit about the life lessons or education that you received from being exposed to that environment at a young age?

That was, I guess you could say, my first proper job, at Mr. Henry's in Georgetown, and then I moved to Mr. Smith's down the block. It was an amazing gift of fortune to be able to meet gay men, not just one or two, but it would be packed every Friday night. My father very strict, even controlling. He would read letters in the back of my jeans. He was one of those people that ran a tight ship, let's put it that way, and yet he would chaperone me to the gay bars. … Very few ministers would have allowed their daughters to be in a gay bar, and his parishioners gave him a really hard time; my sister thinks that it affected his career, and it might have. But the gay community from then on have always been my teachers. They tried to protect me from lecherous politicians and lobbyists. They would teach me how to carry myself and how to deal with some leering guy over my piano. These are lessons, because my parents had to stop chaperoning me by the time I turned 15. The hotels wouldn't allow it, so my father would drop me off, and then I would drive at 16, and I was on my own.

That's crazy! That probably would not happen now in this day and age.

No, I don't think it would. But I feel I'm very fortunate, because I think there are things that only that experience could teach me.

How did you deal with that leering and any other kind of predatory behavior while working in these bars?

You try and talk it around to a song request, and you have to play it differently each time. Sometimes, the safest way is to be demure and for them to maybe think of their daughter: “Excuse me, sir, do you have a daughter? Does she have a favorite song? May I play it for you?” You begin to learn ways of survival. It's the gay men who taught me this. This is how you talk to men. My God, if a gay man doesn't know how to talk to men, nobody does! 

Do you have any instance of cases when this advice helped you escape a potentially dangerous situation? 

There have been some dangerous moments. Yeah, I write about them — in my songs. I don't talk about them. But yeah, there were dangerous moments down the line. If you play enough bars for long enough, there might just be that evening on your way to the car or whatever… 

Right. That obviously brings me to one of your most famous songs, “Me and a Gun.” That's maybe the first song I ever remember hearing that was very overtly about a sexual assault. I'm curious if that song has been readopted in any way as sort of an anthem during the #MeToo movement?

That song and “Silent All These Years,” people talk about as helping them to find their own voice and finally understand and pursue their story that might have led to their damage — whether it's an assault or whatever happened to them; it could have happened when they were children. Those songs have been with people. Those two come up a lot when people tell me their story about surviving an assault.

When you were preparing to release that song, was there any part of you that didn't want to — like it was almost too much to put it out there for the public to hear?

Well, I didn't understand the media glare and wanting to really pry that open. So I just shut down, because yes, it was too much. It was too much to go into detail, so I railroaded it in some ways, because I couldn't be singing the song and having it out there and having my personal life put under a microscope at the same time. It was just too much. And it was too much for my mother. My mother couldn't bear it. At the time, I wasn't equipped to handle the media focus on it. 

Did you regret putting it out?

I don't regret putting the song out, but I regret not understanding [what the reaction would be]. Songs can be very, very dangerous and powerful things, like “Imagine” became — that became a dangerous song for men that wanted war.

Which of your songs do you consider to be the most dangerous?

Surprisingly, something like “Silent All These Years.” People who are in control, or are controlling in an authoritarian type of way, their power is based on our disempowerment, and that's how some people want it. A song like “Silent” is encouraging everyone to find their own voice, that it's their own authority that they need to speak from. … At the time, too, when [“Silent All These Years”] was released, we’d just had the Anita Hill trial, and she had said, “I can't be silent anymore.” There were people who couldn't understand the Anita Hill situation… there was a culture of that time of such misogyny. The #MeToo movement is the first time where really powerful men have been exposed on such a level.

True, but then the recent Christine Blasey Ford situation felt like a déjà vu of the Anita Hill one… 

I feel that one of the real pivotal moments there was Mitch McConnell saying, “Plow right through” — how it was just imperative, no matter what, to plow this [Supreme Court nomination] through. That kind of mantra, women heard it. That really kind of stung in such a way that showed where some of our leaders stand. It was a verbal smack in the face, this phrase. It said it all, even the sexualization of like, plow and seeds. It was about “ram it through it all costs, and it doesn't matter the collateral damage, it doesn't matter who gets hurt out of this.” It just doesn't matter. And then women took it to mean, we don't matter. And that was the message I got clearly, from speaking to women who were more centrist and on the fence [politically]. And I don't know how some of them voted, but they told me that was a real pivotal moment for them, which crystallized this kind of authoritarian misogyny. And you know, that's really important.

And now we find ourselves at another crazy juncture in history. The entire theme of Resistance is how you’ve responded to crisis via songwriting, and in the intro you pose the question, “What is the artist's role in society right now, and how does an artist document a crazy time?” Given what is going on now, how do you expect artists to write about the COVID-19 era?

You're going to get very different perspectives from different writers, and I think that is the beauty of it. Some artists want to bring relief form of helping people to dance, and putting music out there that is uplifting in that way. Others want to recognize the scars and help to heal by addressing the issues. Sometimes certain artists are better at being in the trenches, I guess, with the listener, and working through the problem by addressing it and drilling down on what the problem is. So I think you're going to get a lot of different work that documents this time in very different ways. And that that is the opportunity for an artist. We do have that opportunity, if we're able to do that. 

What do you say to people who think artists should not be in the trenches, so to speak? The ones that one want music to be apolitical, who say, “Just shut up and sing”?

Well, I think you need to know what you're talking about, and I think you have to know what kind of artist you are. Since Little Earthquakes, I've been documenting what I have observed and what people have shared with me, through songs. That's just been the path I've been on. And if you don't want to hear it, then you don't have to listen to it. I don't expect everybody to want to hear my songs. I understand that. I think writers are very different, though, because if you're going to write about stuff, I think you have a responsibility to back it up. If you're going to have the nuts to write about something, then why not discuss it, if you get asked about it?

Well then, the flipside of that question is, do you feel at this very crucial juncture in history, that artists have a responsibility to not stay out of politics, to take a stance on things, to address things in their art?

I think artists have to do what is genuine for them. Not all artists are called to talk about certain issues. They just don't have that calling, so why be disingenuous about it? I don't think that's right. I would never dictate to another artist what frontline they should be on. Some want to just make you smile and make you laugh, and God, we need that too! So no, I don't stand on that team and say all artists have a responsibility. If you aren't called in that way, you might be called in another way. And you need all types of artists to be creating and generating.                                           

What are the issues you’re called to write about right now? 

I think a big subject matter right now is: What is democracy? And what do we think it is? And what kind of freedoms are we going to have on the other side of this [upcoming election], that have been compromised? It's a question, having been in Russia and the Russians warning me, when I was playing there in 2014, how they survive the propaganda, the technological warfare that they deal with on a daily basis. They survive it, a lot of them, through art. Art is their armor. And that's how they reclaim their own narrative. And they see what's going on. They can see the corruption. They can see it. … And their argument to me was anybody can be groomed. Most people can be, unless you do your research and try and find what is true. And that can be a very difficult thing to do right now, to find what is true, and to want to see what is true. That's the other challenge.

The songs [I am writing] now are telling me that we have to do that. There are other songs I already know that are coming that are going be relentless about holding these people accountable for their corruption and their abuse of power. That's why I get up in the morning.

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