THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Butterfly on the Wall: Tori Amos
Tori Amos talks to Michael Burland about life as an expat, living in our troubled political times, and her new record, 'Native Invader'
You only have to listen to her music to realize that Tori Amos does not follow a normal path. She's said that she sees music as structures and filaments of light: "I started visiting this world when I was three, listening to a piece by Béla Bartók. I visited a configuration that day that wasn't on this earth ...It was euphoric."
And how's this for a timeline: At age 2, she could she could play pieces of music she had heard only once. At 3, composing her own songs. Age 5, won a full scholarship to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. At 11, expelled because she didn't want to read sheet music, preferring to play pop and rock music. Many parents might despair at this, but not so Tori's clergyman father, Rev. Edison McKinley, who diligently sent his daughter's demo tapes to one record label after another until she was finally picked up by Atlantic Records. Her mother supported her too – Tori's maternal grandparents had Cherokee backgrounds, which has become important to Tori's musical and spiritual development over the years.
Before we talked about her new album, I asked Tori about her peripatetic, expat lifestyle: the East Coast American (born in Newton, North Carolina and raised in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore) has become a South Western Brit and she now splits her time when she's not touring, between Florida, County Cork in Ireland, and Cornwall, England.
Tori, you've lived in Britain for many years – are you fully assimilated by now?
Well, I try! [laughs] Because I married a Brit as well, that puts a different spin on it. And the jokes have been explained to me over the years. I was here before I met Mark [Tori works with Mark Hawley, her husband, who is a sound engineer]. The record label on the American side got me to come over, and I got on well with the Brit side – especially Max Hole, who was running East-West Records which was connected to Atlantic Records who I was with at the time. I didn't know anybody here, which was a bit strange – literally I didn't know anybody – but I started touring here a lot after Little Earthquakes came out, then on the road every other year. I made the next record, Under The Pink, in New Mexico, so I've been in and out of Britain since 1991.
Little Earthquakes was your first commercially successful record, and like several great American musicians it was successful first in the UK [it entered the British charts in January 1992 at Number 15]. Under the Pink again had bigger success in the UK, debuting at number one here. Did the Brits 'get' you more?
Yes, in the early days. It got the ball rolling. I don't know why certain artists click, but I do know I really loved being in London in the '90s.
No musician likes to be pigeon-holed, but you're listed as being alternative rock, piano rock, chamber pop, pop rock, baroque pop, electronica and classical – among others! I won't ask you to define yourself, but do you deliberately start a new song or album with the idea of exploring a particular kind of music?
That's a good question. I was in the States a lot, writing the songs for 'Native Invader'. My mother wasn't well. Actually she wasn't physically well but she was mentally sharp, then she had a severe stroke and became partially paralysed and couldn't speak. It's been very frustrating for her, traumatising. I was noticing what was going on politically – who couldn't? An important part of what musicians do, especially songwriters, is to listen to people around you. You try to become a butterfly on the wall. It's a very different thing than listening, just to wait until it's your turn to speak. There are a lot of people like that, but it doesn't help you as a songwriter. You need to objectively hear what you're hearing, and see what you're seeing and if you dress it up you're missing the story, you lose your goal. And if you get riled up it's like you want to get into an argument... I have to say, 'Tori – No!'
Didn't 'Native Invader' originally have a personal concept, a road trip through North Carolina to explore the stories and music of your mother's family, who were from the Smoky Mountains? That plan was disrupted by the US Election & your mother's stroke and it became about the alt-right, Super PACs & lobbyists and the tensions that have arisen – you've called it "a record of pain, blood, and bone"?
Yes, it was going to have more personal stories that I remember, and some of that has trickled in – My grandfather's energy is very much there, my mother's father. But it was the fallout after the election. Watching people tearing apart, whether it was friends or family members. Hearing people say 'I don't understand how I became so aggressive!'. And the anxiety. Peoples' lives are changing. A friend said to me recently "I have lost a friend who has become so consumed by the news cycle that it's all they want to do. They don't want to do the things we used to do – go out, forget about all the problems, take in a show or something. I don't recognize this person any more." It's not just relationships that have been divided, it can be within the self.
Is it your most political record?
Well that's what people are saying.
What do you think?
I think it's a very emotional record.
A lot of it is metaphorical, with allusions to climate change and astrophysics – 'Reindeer King' for example. Other songs like 'Benjamin' [about a computer hacker who's searching for information on corporate abuse] are more straightforward. But all the lyrics are densely layered and reward repeat listening...
I'm glad you think that! I was watching how teenagers, like my daughter and her crowd, were responding to the idea that adults were making decisions which will change their future. I began to understand that the planet they will inherit will be a certain way because some of the grownups who've been appointed to government agencies are about deregulation and working for 'big corp' – big oil, big sugar – without thinking that they're making decisions that's responsible for the world that our grandkids will inherit. The teenagers were talking about their world being compromised – and they're not allowed to vote. 'Reindeer King' was also about the shock as they understood that. There's a lot of pain in that understanding. It's a betrayal.
There are some painful and serious themes throughout the record. But can I say that there are times when it sounds like you're having a lot of fun too? On 'Up the Creek' you sound very upbeat – I think you're singing with your daughter, Tash, on that one?
Yes, she's definitely there. After we [the USA] pulled out of the Paris Accord she talked to me about all this, and it just seemed right that we joined forces on something that her generation will be around for, long after we've gone.
The sound on 'Native Invader' is very rich – lush in places.
I think sometimes when you're talking about heavy stuff it needs to be balanced to make it ...I guess inviting is the word. It's not luring people in [laughs], but the record isn't there to make you work hard, it's hopefully a garden where if you need something from it you can pick that emotional herb and take it with you, or pick that peach from the tree if it's what you need at that moment. It might be about resilience too.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Tori Amos?
[big laugh] That a piano plays you!
Click here to order the album or concert tickets
'Native Invader' is released on Decca Records on September 8th 2017.
Tori Amos UK & European Tour Dates:
September 6th Cork Opera House Cork, Ireland; 7th Bord Gais Energy Theatre Dublin, Ireland; 9th Capitole Gent Ghent, Belgium; 10th Den Atelier Luxembourg, Luxembourg; 11th Le Grand Rex Paris, France; 13th Carre Amsterdam, Holland; 14th Tivoli Utrecht, Holland; 16th Jahrhunderthalle Frankfurt, Germany; 17th Teatro degli Arcimboldi Milan, Italy; 18th Geneva, Switzerland Theatre du Leman; 20th Brucknerhaus Linz, Austria; 21st Volkshaus Zurich, Switzerland; 23rd DR Koncerthuset Copenhagen, Denmark; 24th Oslo Konserthus AS Oslo, Norway; 26th Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Germany; 27th Colosseum Essen, Germany; 29th Tempodrom Berlin, Germany; 30th Philharmonie Munich, Germany; October 1st Konzerthaus Vienna, Austria; 4th Royal Albert Hall London, UK; 5th Palace Theatre Manchester, UK; 6th O2 Academy Glasgow, UK.