Tori Amos on the fight against sexism: “I had to become a gladiator”
When Tori Amos thinks of Los Angeles, she first remembers the distinctly artificial scent of Aqua Net hairspray.
“I’m ashamed to say it, but at the time, I always had a can of Aqua Net in my purse,” says the 58-year-old singer-songwriter. be ready to go.
Born into a Methodist family in southern Maryland, Amos moved to Los Angeles in 1984, when hair-metal was dominating the charts and the members of Mötley Crüe were kings of the Sunset Strip.
Amos was only 5 years old when she began a classical piano course at the Peabody Institute; yet at age 11, Amos, already corrupted by Led Zeppelin, was asked to leave the program due to her reluctance to read sheet music. His 1988 major-label debut, a work of synth-pop pastiche sarcastically released as ‘Y Kant Tori Read’, was met with torrid rejection from the press; a Billboard writer described the record as “bimbo music”.
“In Los Angeles, the worst disease you could catch was failure,” Amos said over the phone from Rochester, NY, a recent stop on his first tour in more than five years. “But failure has been my greatest teacher.”
From the ashes of his 1980s remained that same spirit of rebellion, which ran with passion throughout his reinvention in 1992: a hit record called “Little Earthquakes”, which turned 30 this year. Underpinned by the volcanic force with which Amos played the piano, her unforgiving lyrical reflections on trauma – from the religious shame she suffered as a girl (“Crucify”) to the brutal sexual assault she survived after performing a gig (“Me and a Gun”) – came as an alternative rock revelation to generations of underdogs, artists and provocateurs who make up her devoted fan base. (Notable “Toriphiles” include the wrestler Mick Foley, Halsey and even Justin Timberlake.)
Amos returns to Los Angeles on Wednesday for the first of three shows at the Orpheum Theater in support of his 2021 album, “Ocean to Ocean.” A series of intimate pandemic-era sketches, each ballad is inspired by Amos’ yearning for community while sheltering in her home in the English seaside county of Cornwall, where she lives with her husband, the sound engineer Mark Hawley, and their daughter, Natashya “Tash” Hawley. Although she enjoyed quality time with her family, “many of us were lost,” she says of the long period of isolation, with nods to police brutality and the political unrest in the United States.
In the absence of any real communion with fans during his shows, Amos has learned to commune with the world around him in different ways. In “Speaking With Trees,” she lets nature hold back her grief for the loss of her mother, who died in 2019; and in “Addition of Light Divided” she invokes Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and transformation, to help “break that chain of pain”. Unlike his Christian upbringing, Amos plays with a curious syncretism of his own, drawing inspiration from the mythology of various cultures; in our interview, she attributes her own artistic process to the Muses, daughters of the Greek god Zeus and spiritual patrons of the arts.
“I keep space for the Muses to come and go wherever they want to take us,” Amos says. “Even if it’s somewhere across the galaxy.”
You moved to Los Angeles in the 80s, at the height of the hair-metal era. How was it for you then?
I played in all the piano bars in town, to pay my rent. I was doing these four or five hour periods in these Grecian dresses, hair up in a bun. Then I would transform back into my car, put on black eyeliner, and shake my hair out so I could go out on the Sunset Strip and not look like an alien. My daughter is looking at pictures from the time and [asks], “Did it really happen?” I said, “It really is.” It was such a fashionable car accident.
Your first solo album, “Little Earthquakes”, turned 30 this year. Upon its release in 1992, hair metal began to recede and Nirvana entered the scene. What was it like making a piano record during the height of the grunge rock era?
People in the industry would tell me, “The piano thing is dead.” A famous producer suggested to the label: “The problem with ‘Little Earthquakes’ is that you have to get all the pianos out and put in the guitars.” Doug Morris [then-president of Atlantic Records] and I had a hard knock in his office off Sunset. I had to become the gladiator.
But in the end, I have to give credit to Doug: he said that if I made new material with a very low budget, we would see what would happen. So I called on my fellow musicians from LA, and Eric Rosse, who was my partner at the time, to produce the demos. We returned four songs, including “Silent All These Years”, and Doug accepted them. To be an original creator, you have to be willing to go it alone with only a few people around you supporting you. The worst thing that can happen? You wake up with your self-esteem.
Your confrontational, feminist approach to piano music has proliferated in pop today. I hear your spirit in the records of Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and especially Halsey’s latest record, which was produced by Trent Reznor, one of your former collaborators. Do you follow this new wave of singer-songwriters?
What’s interesting is that I now have a 21-year-old daughter, Tash, so I’m learning through her. But she discovers all sorts of things, even going so far as to go back in time for things I’ve missed before – like, she loves India.Arie. We were driving through Florida a few weeks ago and saw that Paula Cole was on tour. Tash was like, “I want to go see her, mom.” And I never met Paula Cole, until she hopped backstage in Boston the other night. What a beautiful woman, by the way.
In your 2020 book, “Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage“, you wrote that the “weight of dealing with conflict” affected the writing of “Little Earthquakes”. As I listen to “Ocean to Ocean”, I think of the number of large-scale collective conflicts that we have all had to manage: a deadly pandemic, protests, violence. Last January, we turned on our televisions and witnessed what is now being investigated as a coup attempt on the United States Capitol.
We must continue to name what we have witnessed. We are not going to allow this to be diluted – what they did was betrayal. They don’t get passes, especially not redheads behind the piano. Frankly, she doesn’t.
Are we all processing it? I don’t think we are. The injuries are there, but I don’t think we’re recovering. We must want to heal. Just being on the road right now across the United States, I’m trying to create space for people to have community. Having their own ideas about things, yes, but also coming to where it’s a safe place to be emotional. I keep space for the Muses to come and go wherever they want to take us…even if it’s somewhere across the galaxy.
Did you go into writing “Ocean to Ocean” with the intention of a more communal healing process than personal catharsis?
I started at first with the intention of writing myself out of my own private hell. During the first lockdown I realized other people were experiencing this in their own way – I know the lockdown was tougher in other parts of the world. But my husband and I, we did our little thing in the middle of nowhere. I took out my book, took a virtual tour of the book, transformed the recording studio into a video studio. My daughter learned to do her hair and makeup for me. I happened to have “Quarantina”, this wig that we got because no one could get their hair done for five months. But I hadn’t toured since 2017. In January with a third lockdown and an insurgency back in the US, everyone was exhausted, and it was like, “Is this ever going to end?”
Five years is a long time without being on tour. It’s also a lot of time without connecting with your fans.
This is the longest period most musicians have gone without performing live in their lives. Some might do a virtual gig in their living room – but I’m just singing for you from Cornwall, and maybe you’re doing something else back home in New Zealand. But there is an exchange between the public and the musicians which is very sacred. Be with [a live audience], we’re just in it together. And when we work together, that’s where magic and transmutation can happen. That’s why I think so many of us have been lost.
The demands on musicians have changed some during the pandemic. Now they are expected to share so much of themselves on social media that their mental health is starting to suffer. You have long fought against the exploitation of women, especially in the music industry, but did you also feel overexposed at the time?
In our time, there were more magazines, and more time between exhibitions. If we were criticized, it was usually by someone who at least knew the music. Many of these publications have now disappeared. It was a different type of exhibition, and it was its own shield, in that it was more difficult for the public to have direct access to an artist. You couldn’t just… DM me. Am I using the correct terminology for this? Please cover me.
Anyway – online you can get a terrific reinforcement and you can get a following quite quickly on a large scale. You don’t have to be so attached to a label. You don’t have to go through the guards. If they don’t get it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get a response from netizens. This data is real, it changes careers. I think artists face the same pressures, but now you have to find new ways to protect yourself. And you have to protect yourself.
So how do you take care of your mind and your heart when you share it so graciously with other people?
I think the whole world needs therapy. Sure, you want media training, but you need this. A lot of artists today don’t even start out touring and opening for 10 years before they really succeed – they jump right in and they don’t have the tools to deal with that level of attention. I am grateful that I started slowly. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to hold the stage, whether it was a small theater or Madison Square Garden in 1998.
That’s how you became the gladiator.
Yeah yeah yeah. But I hope with a little wisdom and a fairy wink.