Tori Amos talks gay mentors, not being politically distracted by the ‘master showman’ and her ‘underworld’ years in D.C.
Tori Amos’ mind is one of the greatest wonders of the music world. For over three decades, via an oeuvre as unpredictable as the muses that guide her, that very mind has been a trove of lyrical salvation and a divine mélange of eccentricities, insight, imagination and, as I discovered during our illuminating exchange, even Mean Girls references.
Before last year’s political turn of events, the piano virtuoso took a summer road trip through North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains to reconnect to her familial roots, setting into motion her nature-influenced 15th studio album, Native Invader. Featuring some of her best music in years, as influenced by these divisive times and a speech-crippling stroke her mother suffered in January, the album’s emotional core is resilient and healing despite “a cluster of hostile humans who side with their warlords of hate,” as she brazenly sings, calling for us to “rehumanize.”
Amos, 54, took me to every remote corner of her meandering mind during our recent interview, name-dropping everyone from Persephone to Regina George and the two gay men who helped transform her into the Tori Amos. But there’s more: “the new invasion of the body snatchers,” exercising to rap, being postmenopausal in 2017 America, the prospect of a Vegas show with hot male dancers and also Washington D.C., the “underworld” where she launched her career, unknowingly performing for political players who would set the stage for crucial issues Amos and the entire country are now facing.
I am feeling grateful to have gone to bed the last few nights with Native Invader being the last thing I heard.
Oh, good. I’m glad it took you to dreamland.
And it’s very possible it will be taking me to dreamland for the next few years, if you know what I’m saying.
(Laughs) Well, the “Dream King” is on there too in “Mary’s Eyes,” so everybody can go to dreamland.
You talk about being a “safe place” on the album’s comforting second song, “Wings,” and since the beginning of your career, you have been that safe place for many gay men, myself included.
Well, they were a safe place for me when I was 13. Then, when I was 16 I just happened to work at a place not far from the White House, which is very core to Native Invader because I cut my teeth professionally playing in the belly of the beast in Washington, if you see what I mean. Lobbyists, people in different departments; it was the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and so on and so forth. You gotta figure that anybody in Congress might have been rolling through those doors. That’s just the establishments that I was working in when I was 16. But anyway, my point to you is… there was a point. What were we talking about?
You were talking about safe places, and you said that as a teenager, the gay community was your safe place.
Yes, there was one waiter that was a bit of a… I won’t say a bully, but he was one of those guys at the time, because you’ve gotta imagine I was 16, so what was that, 1979? So, you know, longer hair, mustache. He was always pushing me to think about all the bad things that could happen and his foil was this beautiful gay man called Joey. Joey was just the most supportive kind, and he would admonish Ray and Ray was macho. He was a macho gay guy, but probably in very protective mode.
So did Joey make you feel special?
Joey taught me how to sit. Joey taught me how to walk. Joey walked me through my crushes. And Ray would be chiding all the time and explaining why I would never get that guy. Ray made Regina George look like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
What song did your gay audiences most connect with then?
They would ask me for all kinds of things. It was more about them realizing I needed training. Not with Joey and Ray. I was kind of a pro by then. But at 13, when I was in (a gay bar called) Mr. Henry’s in Georgetown, which was across town, that was sacred. That wasn’t the Congress set, although you have to figure some head of something was sneaking in there (laughs). (But the gay community) was more about, “Oh, you need to learn this song. You need to learn that.” They would say, “OK, learn these songs and come back next week,” because they were helping me fill out my repertoire. They were really pushing me on more popular songs. I had Joni Mitchell covered. I had Elton John covered. I had The Beatles covered. So, they were asking me for things that I didn’t have in my repertoire. I can’t remember now (which songs), but I do remember them giving me loads of requests for the next week and then I would go and learn them all and then they’d give me more.
And not much has changed in that regard.
(Laughs) Yes, yes. Nothing has changed!
Can you tell me about the conversations you were having with people in the LGBTQ community that led to the songs on Native Invader?
I will tell you specifically what was going on with the people that I know who are a part of the LGBTQ community, but there were messages coming through friends of friends – acquaintances and then friends – because Putin is not the only one with a back channel on planet Earth. You with me? So, that means somebody who might be a civil servant or somebody who might be working in the intelligence community or somebody who might be a part of the science community will get to somebody who will get to somebody whose mother will then get to somebody who gets to me. So that’s how it works. Does Tori understand that this is going on? Does she understand the super PACs? Does she understand that this movement has been going on since 1980 when one of the Koch brothers was running on a ticket as a vice president against Reagan and then clearly the penny dropped that one doesn’t need to be president to be one of the American oligarchs that is possibly running Washington? I didn’t come up with this myself! I’m a piano player! I mean, come on, everybody knows, I’m a conduit. (Laughs)
Going back to the messages from people in the LGBTQ community: How did those influence Native Invader?
One of the things that I was being told by somebody who is very much in that community was that (he was being) consumed by the energy that was out there – an attacking, bullying energy. And the news cycle. This person got to me personally and sat me down and said, “I’m losing friends.” I said, “To what?” This was a specific person, a gay man, and he said to me, “I’m losing them to a force. It’s terrifying because it’s zombie-like.” And it wasn’t funny. There were tears in the eyes. It wasn’t a zombie joke. You know, everybody likes a good zombie joke. (My daughter) Tash being one of them. But this wasn’t funny. And I said, “OK, this is fascinating, this is a different invasion of the body snatchers.” And there were, again, tears rolling down his face. He said, “I can’t explain it.” I said, “It’s like they’re being emotionally cannibalized – is that correct?” He said, “OK, keep going.”
How did that particular conversation work itself into the album?
It’s a thread, not a song, through the album.
Had you ever considered a more direct approach to the current political landscape you’re addressing on this album, perhaps in the same vein as “Yo George” from American Doll Posse? Why not just call this album or a song on the album “Yo Donald”?
No, because that would be weak. Let’s walk this through. The great thing about being non-reactive, postmenopausal, which cannot be possessed until you have experienced it, you absolutely cannot get this one thing; all the younger women cannot have this with all the money in the world, do you know why? Because they bleed. When you sit at the metaphorical fire, Chris, and you don’t bleed, what is it? It’s called containment. That is the state of being.
The issues are not about one name. The issues are about a movement and the master showman is a distraction. Don’t give it the energy. There are no conundrums there. You don’t need quantum physics, which I don’t know, but I like the phrase. “Alice In Quantumland” this is not. There is no mystery.
The best thing that the community can do: treat it with neutrality. Don’t give it energy. Apply your energy elsewhere and do your research, because there are things going on around us with Democracy. You have to ask yourself, little by little, what’s going on at the EPA, what’s going on at the Department of the Interior – that’s far more interesting.
You offer far more light than one might imagine from an album that’s rooted in the chaos of our current political climate. I wonder how the overall mood of the album took shape and whether you ever felt like you had to stop yourself from going too dark.
I think “Climb” is dark. “Climb” is probably the darkest place, and that is a very dark place.
What do you think an album about this past election would’ve sounded like if Tori of Boys for Pele or From the Choirgirl Hotel wrote it?
Well, look, those albums can be played and are relevant now. Pele is relevant now because Pele is railing against the patriarchy, but Native Invader is invading concepts like freedom that have been hijacked by some of these super PACs, by these think tanks. Again, don’t get distracted by people who are mainly in the news cycle all the time. You’ve gotta understand, if for some reason they walked away and decided to just not be in that position anymore, you still have a movement to deal with. These seeds go back. (Supreme Court Justice Neil) Gorsuch’s mother was head of the EPA in the ’80s. Not that he can’t be a fair judge, not that he didn’t learn, not that he doesn’t have integrity – he might have integrity. But what we have to understand is the EPA was big corp in the ’80s. I was playing piano bar for those people as a teenager and Joey and Ray would say, “Do you know who so and so is?” And I’d say, “What? What are you talking about?” I didn’t know at the time that I was playing for some of these players that planted that seed. I was right in the middle of it all. It’s sort of like Persephone. I was living the Persephone myth. I had no idea I was in the underworld.
Switching gears to your tour in support of Native Invader, which of the rare “girls” are itching to be played this go ’round?
Yeah, that’s fair enough. I haven’t figured it out yet, and if you guys and ladies have any ideas then it’s always welcome, because I think it’s gonna be very collaborative this tour. I think it’ll be an exchange of ideas and building. Every night will be different. When I’m alone I can really do that; there’s flexibility to it. Also, I really don’t know for how much longer I can hold a one-woman show. It’s really demanding. The physicality is beyond explaining, to myself. But it gives me a flexibility. And these times – things are happening every day that I need to be able to throw out a whole show and do a whole different one, if need must.
No more one-woman shows?
I’m talking about a one-woman show. I’m not talking about not performing. I would love to have, you know, hot male dancers.
Ha! I would love for you to have hot male dancers.
Maybe that’s the Vegas show.
You’ve been known to cover some classics on tour but also some modern pop, like Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” Are there any pop songs from the last few years you think might fit the vibe of this tour?
Yeah, maybe. And maybe I need to look at some rap. It’s my niece – my niece is Kelsey (Dobyns) and any time we do a little work out she makes me do it to rap. I have no idea what any of the rap is that I’ve heard. I’ve heard all kinds of rap. She’s throwing these beats down and I don’t know what I’m listening to.
Are you a fan of any of it?
No. I’m not a fan of rap. All the rappers know I’m not a fan. However, I can look at the rap and say, “This is well produced,” and put my producer hat on and say, “I like the flow of this, the language; I like the rhythm. Yeah, I’m into it.” But I’m a melody person. So, I appreciate the form and I respect it, but I want Freddie (Mercury). I want a melody. I want “Killer Queen.” I want “Somebody to Love.”
And as we’ve established, hot male dancers.
And hot male dancers! I’m a flaming queen, what can I say?
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).