Music

Tori Amos On Her Fifteenth Album, The Militia Of The Mind, And What To Do When The World Is Crumbling


Tori Amos hasn’t shied away from anything in her decades-spanning career, and her fifteenth album — Native Invader, out today, is no different. Emotional, lyrical, and fiery, the album’s lush, melodic soundscapes reels from major issue to major issue, turning the personal into the global and the political. But don’t take the album’s produced, often dreamy sound as an indication that this Amos is any less powerful than the Tori of previous eras. Where she once broke your heart into pieces with the pounding of her harpsichord, Amos is now calling on her listeners to take a stand with every urgent bass line and every ethereal echo. A stand against hate, against climate change, against the never-ending machinations of the political machine.

It’s a lot to absorb in in one listen, and this album deserves many. As a follower of Amos’ work since my teenage years, it’s one that I’ve been waiting for. While her most recent albums — Abnormally Attracted To Sin, Night Of Hunters, Gold Dust, Unrepentant Geraldines — have all featured standouts that have a home on any Spotify playlist I curate (I’m only allowed to bring Midwinter Graces out around the holidays), Native Invader feels like it must be listened through. And then listened through again until you really hear it.

Much of the album’s power comes from how intimate it feels. Amos’ original intent was to connect with the stories and song lines of her mother’s family, but then the universe decided it had other plans. First, the 2016 election shook America to its core; then, only months later, Amos’ mother, Maryellen Amos, suffered a debilitating stroke that robbed her of the ability to speak. The pain that sweeps through the album is Amos’, but as she unleashes the full spectrum of her emotions across the sonic divide — grief, hope, anger, a frustration with fake news (that’s an emotion now), healing — it feels like yours, too.

“It wasn’t going to be a record of pain, blood and bone when I began,” Amos said in a release leading up to the album’s drop date. “It wasn’t going to be a record of division. But the Muses 9 insisted that I listened and watched the conflicts that were traumatizing the nation and write about those raw emotions. Hopefully people will find strength and resilience within the songs to give them the energy to survive the storms that we are currently in.”

I spoke to Amos about Native Invader, the militia of the mind, and how to stay strong when it feels like the entire world is collapsing.

You’ve said that Native Invader isn’t an album that you actually set out to make. Can you tell me more about that?

Well, a year ago — over a year ago now — I had been told to take a trip; a road trip to the Smoky Mountains, not knowing what I would find there. And I was told by people that I respect to just be open, and to listen, and to just expose myself to the streams, and the nature, and the waterfalls, and the rivers, and the rocks, and the trees, and the ridges. And just be as open as I possibly could. And I might not know what it all meant at the time. And they were exactly right. It wasn’t until the autumn, it wasn’t until mid-November the songs then started to really come.

This album has many themes: Your mother’s stroke, nature, politics. How did you bring it all together?

It’s the Muses’ work. Really — the Muses 9. I co-create with them, but they are driving this message, more than on some albums, because that’s just how it worked this time. Sometimes I was just taking dictation, literally. It was just being shown to me and I was trying to not miss anything they were saying. And yes, of course there’s a level of collaboration with it. But, there were moments when I was just honestly being a scribe.

I’d be walking down the street and just, there it is: Verse, chorus, chords, melody, structure, bang! It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s pretty cool.

More than any other album in your recent past I feel like there’s a lot of nostalgia on this album. I know it’s a different sound, but I was listening to it and I was like, ‘Oh, this reminds me of Choir Girl, or oh, this reminds me of American Doll Posse, or this reminds me of Scarlet’s Walk.’ I wonder if that was intentional.

It wasn’t intention no, it was just — I think it’s sort of like cooking in the kitchen. You grab for the Worcester sauce to put in the cannellini beans, and you grab for, well you have some arrabiata sauce left over from the night before and you go, ‘Oh, that’ll go in the beans,’ and then you say, ‘Oh, and that spinach could go in the bean, but oh my god we need lots of cracked pepper what are we missing?’ It’s that type of, it’s sonic cooking, Mark [Hawley] and I in there.

One line that really struck me was your reference to “the militia of the mind,” on “Up The Creek.” It felt like a call to action. Can you tell me more about the militia of the mind? What are you hoping this militia will accomplish when they “arm themselves against those climate blind?”

They’re already forming, I saw them in Brooklyn the other night, the beginnings of it. We saw it in the March For Science and we saw it in the Women’s March, in their walk more than in the speeches.

The energy of the militia of the mind — it’s not necessarily overtly confrontational, where they’re calling people out on a microphone. It’s much more of an energy that’s fusing into a synergy. And that, that is what it’s gonna take to combat the plutocrats who serve the American oligarchs.

Is that a reference to our current president?

Oh no, he serves them. Of course, he’s a master showman, but don’t get confused who’s running this show. No, it’s the Benjamins. The computers were getting to me through people. You know, it’s like a film, what was happening. It’s a mother with a toddler in a coffee line somewhere as I’m doing the Netflix promo and she comes up to me and says, ‘By the way,’ and I get this message: ‘Are you aware of the think tank? You need to do some research.’

And so then I start researching, and I could tell you some of them, but I mean there are think tanks everywhere pushing all kind of agendas. But, there’s some that are much more influential and powerful than others.

In a recent interview you said that words are weapons. Right now, there’s a huge battle between one side saying, ‘Yes, words are weapons, speech is important, what we say matters,’ and the other side saying, ‘You precious snowflakes, words aren’t violence, words aren’t weapons, words are just words.’ What do you think about that?

Perhaps it would be more productive to step into neutrality. I’m talking about an energy force, neutrality is a powerful force because it gives you objectivity and clarity and groundedness. That’s what I think of this. I think of course words are being weaponized, I talk about it on “Bang,” the record, the Muses talk about it.

People need to activate right now: Themselves and their awareness and their clarity, and get out of this political, emotional taser they’re getting attacked by every day and which they, in response, attack back. That is futile. That’s how people are becoming consumed.

That’s what the Muses were trying to — you know, they really read me the riot act. They said, ‘You know, understand this is a human response, Tori, but this is a bit Human Response 101 with the plutocrats. This is not how you respond.’ And they’re just sitting there cross-legged on the couch, looking at me, you know?

They don’t talk to me all the time, but when they do, they do. And the thing is, back to what you were just saying, that’s probably one of the most important things being asked all day. To me, anyway, in all of my interviews. People are becoming consumed and losing themselves in this, and that’s why you need to discipline, we all need to discipline ourselves and only have so much time committed to the news cycle a day. And then go create. Whether that’s in your garden, whether that’s in a kitchen, whether that’s in whatever your work is. But then where are your hobbies? Where is your passion?

It doesn’t feel like we’re allowed to have hobbies anymore.

Yes, I understand. I understand that. So activate it, reactivate it. Go invade your creative essence. Reinvade it. That’s what Native Invader is about. Because it’s been stolen from you, and it had been stolen from me for a moment and then the Muses kicked my ass and said, ‘Oh Tori, really, get off the cross we need the wood.’

The term Native Invader brings forth a very strong image. Can you tell me more about that and how you came to that concept?

They [the Muses 9] said, ‘This is what you need to do.’ And I looked at it and I said, ‘But it’s a paradox,’ and they said, ‘Yes it is. What do you want us to clap for you for that?’ I said, ‘Okay, alright,’ and they said, ‘So, put it through different lenses, hold it, carry it around, see different ways that this makes sense.”‘

The most tragic Native Invader is Mary’s stroke, for me. That’s tragic, there is no upside to that. The stroke that went from her heart to the left side of her brain.

But then as a mother, another native invader is Tash [Tori’s daughter], when she was hanging out in mommy timeshare for nine months. That was a win-win, though, because that’s an exchange of energy that’s very hard to describe. But although I had a hard time walking up hills during my nine months, it was still euphoric.

When you’re talking about your mother and native invaders it feels like you’re saying like, ‘Your body turned against you. This is your body, you expect it to be yours and it turns against you.’ That’s a fear many of us have.

Yes, whether it’s dementia, people have been talking to me about dealing with their parents, especially early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s, and people having grandparents that then don’t know who they are anymore. And that’s a real aspect to the phrase. But nature, nature has a way — whether it’s with fires, a force that comes in and there’s a forest fire, and yes, it’s destructive but then eventually there is a fertilization and a regrowth, eventually.

There’s a transmutation, there’s a transmutation that happens. And it might take time. It might take time for that transformation to happen.

In the song “Wings,” you have two lyrics that strikes me: ‘Is it too late to make myself safe place’ and also, ‘Sometimes big boys need to cry.’ which I think are really important in our time right now. As I was listening to the song, it kind of sent me back to when I was 17 and just coming out of the closet.

This isn’t just applied to men but it is very male-centric this song, from my perspective. A lot of men don’t have the opportunity to sit in a pub and express their fears with another guy. It isn’t part of our culture where guys are encouraged, whether gay or straight, to really talk about what just happened, in an argument say, whether it’s at work, whether it’s ‘Why did this guy throw me shade? Why was I think undermined in this moment by somebody who I considered a friend?’

Now, women, it is part of our relationships with each other to talk about emotional stuff. Sometimes really deep stuff. Even with acquaintances. It can be somebody that you don’t know too much but you happen to be with during break time, or in a moment. Something happened that day and you go, ‘You know, something really strange happened,’ and I go, ‘Okay, so what strange happened? Hi I’m Tori.’ And she says, ‘Hi, I’m Jill.’ Okay we’ve met. You’re a journalist. Whatever, I mean you can have this conversation that is quite personal and deep.

Well, guys are not afforded that and so some things stay, just don’t get expressed and released. And then what can happen is there’s a heaviness. So, the wings, think about it, there’s such a heaviness of emotion that they can’t fly above it. Because they haven’t released it in order to float.

And they’re not encouraged to cry. It’s looked upon as a weakness, opposed to as emotion, being an emotional guy is a powerful guy.

You’ve said that in your early career, especially the “Y Kant Tori Read” era, you were seduced by success. And that it’s very easy to be seduced by success. What important lessons have you learned from that? What are you seduced by now?

Oh. That’s a good question, that’s a good question. I don’t know if I know what I’m seduced by now. [If I did] that means the seducer, and I’m talking about energies, not necessarily a person, that means it’s not a very good seducer. So, you don’t know usually. If you know you’re being seduced.

But sometimes, we can be drawn to things. For instance, I read somewhere that when the Russians want to groom you, you don’t know you’re being groomed. Unless you’re very experienced and you understand how that works. But, sometimes a lot of us feel like we’re in control and we feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got this.’ No, Tori, you don’t got this. No you don’t, you don’t, what do you have? You’re being had, you don’t even realize it. You know sometimes we feel like we’re in control but we’re consumers. You’re just buying more products.

It’s a force that’s very good if the energy is good, then you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I purchasing this? Do I need this? Do I really want this?’ and then you go, ‘Yeah, I kinda do. I do. And I’m fully going into this.’ And if you check yourself, then yes, you need to trust that.

But sometimes, I’m seeing a picture being painted that I feel like stepping in, and then I put in the cart.

You’re going on tour in a really politically rocky time and much of your fan base are part of minority groups. You have a huge following in the LGBT community and right now is a really difficult time for us. Fans have oftentimes looked to you as kind of a friend, a mother, a mentor. What your feelings are about going, about this out on tour this time? Do you anticipate people needing you even more?

Listen: It’s about a tone, it’s about an energy, it’s about creating a place for conversation for the community. Everybody that’s in the community or wants to be part of the community that hasn’t come before. They’re welcome. They are welcome. And it’s a place for people to gather. There was a similar energy that was going on in 2001, after 9/11. But it was a very different invader then, if you see what I mean.

However, our government then was arming up for war and a lot of things were being canceled. If you remember, there were songs being blacklisted, such as “Imagine.” There was censorship happening. But, the community encouraged me to tour anyway, even though officials were trying to get a lot of acts to cancel. And I didn’t buy that.

Mark and I talked about it and we said, ‘We feel that we need to do this.’ And so, yeah, we had enough faith to take our infant on the road. She was a year and two months. And, that was her first world tour, on Strange Little Girls. And, she is a strange little baby. A wonderful baby, but meaning, she was a wonderful baby, in strange times. That’s more accurate. Very strange. But we felt safe enough to take our infant. Therefore we felt would be fine for the community, although we were told it was dangerous. But that was propaganda we felt.

I do think there’s a similar energy, you can say that, I’ve toured in strange times before. That’s the closest that I would say, is to our times now. But, it’s not an outside force, outside the United States, flying planes into buildings. It’s, that’s why the militia of the mind is gathering at the concerts. And exchanging ideas and thoughts. And energy.

This is your Fifteenth album, and your earlier albums are hitting major milestones. Are you thinking about your legacy?

No. I’m too busy to think about that. If you have to think about that you’ve got too much time on your hands and you need to chop wood, carry water.

Tori Amos is touring now.

Interview condensed and edited for clarity.

Native Invader is out today via Decca records. Get it here.

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