Twenty-five years after her startling breakthrough album Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos remains one of our most beloved and beguiling singer-songwriters. Along the way, she scored a wonderfully scandalous dance hit with Professional Widow (“It’s gotta be b
Tori Amos is a real artist: she starts talking about her “muses” when we ask what inspired the songs on Native Invader, her typically rich and poetic new album.
But she’s not grand or detached in the way someone who talks about her “muses” could be. The day before we meet at a smart hotel next to Tower Bridge, Tori happily shared screen time with Shane from Westlife on Sunday Brunch, TV’s most centrist dadfriendly show. And she ends our interview by offering her very funny (though not very accurate) attempt at a British accent.
That album title is no glib soundbite – it’s political. “About a year ago, lots of people with European immigrant ancestry were talking about how America was made for them”, Tori explains carefully. “And the muses kind of said, ‘What about America’s First Nations people? Did you all forget about them?
Yes, you have. Because... genocide.’ People weren’t talking about that part of our history because as Americans, we haven’t claimed responsibility for how we treated our First Nations people. And it’s absolutely shocking. People were talking about being ‘American natives’ when they’re completely of European immigrant ancestry.
“I’ve got Native American blood in me, but more European. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that people in my family probably stole land from the Native Americans.”
The injustice and hypocrisy of this situation led Tori to coin the phrase ‘native invader’, which initially seems not to make sense.
“So then I thought, ‘Is there a frame where these words that seem to be opposites can live together?’ Well, my daughter Tash is kind of a native invader, too – she hung out in ‘mummy condo’ for nine months, rent-free! So I realised they can.”
Political conflict is one of many tangled threads that make up Native Invader, but the album is more evocative than explicit. Tori Amos, the woman behind uniquely alluring hits like Cornflake Girl and Crucify, is never going to write a song called Donald Trump is a Dickhead. Today, she refers to the president with searing disdain: “The master showman... I don’t mention his name.”
But she’s under no illusion about how harmful he could be for LGBT+ people. “Of course your community is under attack, so the natural response is to fight back”, she tells us. “But the key is always: how does one fight back – and be effective? Because you better understand the skill set of this thing you’re trying to resist. Otherwise, you’ll get trounced.” Or end up screaming into a vacuum? “Absolutely – and then you’re not achieving anything except laryngitis.”
Tori’s affinity with the LGBT+ community stretches back more than 40 years. At 12 years old, after wilfully losing her prestigious classical piano scholarship, Tori found a new creative outlet playing at a gay bar in Washington, DC. Her father, a Methodist pastor, acted as her chaperone. Today, Tori says she still struggles whenever Christianity is used as an excuse for intolerance.
“My mom always considered herself a Christian and she wasn’t judgemental. But there are people who say that because of their religion, they’re not going to do certain things – like marry a same-sex couple, or bake cakes. And I don’t understand that. It makes no sense to me and it made no sense to my mother. I can’t tell you what her views were on [equal marriage] because she never spoke about them. But I do know that she was always very loving to anyone from my crew that I introduced her to, whatever their sexuality.”
Tori’s recollections are especially poignant in the light of recent family events. In January, her mother Maryellen suffered a severe stroke which left her unable to speak.
Anyone who’s seen Tori live will know, scholarship or not, her piano playing is incredible. On recent tours she’s gamely covered everything from Bananarama’s Cruel Summer to Madonna’s Frozen – and a YouTube video of the latter went viral.
“There’s this lounge lizard in me that likes learning songs because that was my trade for so long”, she says with a smile. “A lot of those songs are requests. I remember the young lady who requested Frozen. That song really meant something to her. I’m paraphrasing here, but she’d been ill, and the illness had made it so that she was almost frozen movementwise. She got better, but she was still dealing with the emotional trauma. When I heard her story, I went, ‘Right, we’re doing this, and we’re doing it right.’ What you felt when you watched me sing that song was her story. It wasn’t just T doing a cover. It was me giving a voice to this young woman’s journey, her experience.”
As the interview wraps up, we ask Tori if she feels part-British yet. After all, her daughter goes to school in London, and she and her husband spend part of the year in Cornwall.
“No, I’m an American here. I don’t always get the jokes, but the nice thing is I don’t have British baggage. I don’t make a judgement as soon as I hear someone’s accent. With me, it’s just, ‘OK, so you’re complaining about the weather again.’ Do you know what I love about the Brits? As soon as you get a nice day, it’s too hot for you!” Then comes Tori’s British accent, followed by laughter: “It’s BOOOOIIIIILIIIING!”
The next day, Tori performs for journalists and fans in a tiny London theatre. Afterwards, she comes through to the bar for an impromptu meet-and-greet. Everyone who wants a photo gets one; she approaches us to say thank you for our interview. Tori Amos: not just a real artist, but a real nice person.
“Your community is under attack, so the natural response is to fight back.”