“Men’s stories of experience are an aphrodisiac,” says Tori Amos, dressed in a flowing black dress and sipping tea in a conference room at the Vulture offices on a crisp autumn afternoon, “because the wise man with the beard and the belly is still attractive as a storyteller.” She sets down her drink and jabs the table with an index finger. “But my goal is to claim a similar spot around the fire for women.”
At 54, the singer-songwriter has both come a long way from her ’90s breakthrough — via multi-million-selling albums like Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink — and stayed exactly where she’s always been. Yes, Amos is more of a cult figure than a mainstream star these days, able to maintain an intensely devoted audience without the help of hit singles or viral videos, but she’s remained as emotionally and musically fearless and singular as ever. (Her most recent album, Native Invader, is proof of that.) “My daughter, Tash, has been pushing me,” says Amos, a charmingly digressive, demonstrative talker. “She said, ‘You survived postmenopause. You’re a warrior. You need to tell that story so that my future doesn’t look like defeat.’”
When I went back and read old articles about you, there was often a sort of sarcastic, winking attitude on the part of the writers when they’d mention what I’ll call the New Agey aspects of your spirituality. But weirdly, given how cold and cynical wide swathes of the culture is these days, it also feels as if people are much more open to mysticism than they were 25 years ago. What happened?
Harry Potter happened.
What’s the connection there?
When the culture went wild for Harry Potter it showed that people were starving for magic.
Magic aside, you’ve carved out a successful career that’s not dependent on having hits or feeding the social-media beast. But most of the current discussion about the future of the music business is awfully bleak. Is there anything about what you’ve done that could be a template for other musicians?
The reality is that touring has been my bread and butter. If you have the opportunity, you need to be out there on the road constantly. But it just so happens that, at 54, I’ve been doing this for years, so my touring base is strong. Not everyone is in that position. I’m not a pessimist, but I have to be fair about what I see, and things have been changing in the business for at least the last ten years. I know talented people that cannot survive in music anymore. They had to get out, and that’s quite a prospect when you’re looking at people who’ve been in it for 25 or 30 years.
I often get the sense that musicians who came up in the pre-streaming days think the business was uniformly better back then. I can’t help but wonder if people are looking at, say, the ’90s through rose-colored glasses. It’s not as if being in a band ever guaranteed a living.
Of course, any musician that was making a living in the ’90s was in a small percentile. I don’t do statistics, but my nephew, who was a Rhodes Scholar, he looked at me once and said, “Auntie, do you know the percentile of how many musicians have actually sold over 15 million records like you? And have done it as a solo artist who has written all her songs?” His answer was something like just above point zero. And he was curious to know what I thought the components were of someone who’s been able to do what I’ve done. It’s hard to know, because there are quite a few talented people that should be making records, but I do know that you need resilience to put up with a key aspect of record industry.
Which is what?
How many singer-songwriters who are men over the age of 50 have major-label recording contracts? A lot. The Chili Peppers, Sting, U2, Dave Matthews. The list goes on. And how many women? Not a lot. The question is why. I can give my music brothers the namaste sign but theirs is a very different path up the mountain than ours is. So if you’re asking me if I’m hopeful about the future of the music business — I’m hopeful that more women of more ages will get more opportunities. And that will only happen when the culture thinks that women’s stories of experience are something we want to hear.
How do you make that happen?
Whoever you are, you have to find out what archetype it is that you can contain and which you can then channel with your stagecraft and studio craft and storytelling craft. If you’re drawn to overtly sexual expression or the Vegas-diva type of expression, then step into that archetype. If you’re comfortable containing Aphrodite at 55 — if that dress fits, wear it. Right now I’m more drawn to aligning with the forces of nature. That’s been my path up the mountain, particularly with Native Invader. As an artist, seeing where the culture has been going, I did a lot of thinking about where I should put my energy — David, I’m sorry. I’m not sure if I’m taking the conversation in a direction you want it to go.
I’m happy to go wherever you want.
Okay, good. I didn’t realize that there’d be women my age that could see Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and not have it affect their vote.
Why do you think it didn’t?
I’m still trying to sort that out. But as the new record started to take hold last December and January, the music grabbed me by the bones and said, “This is not a bloodletting, bullying record, because there’s enough of that out there. Instead, we’re going to create a sonic wildwood for people to walk in and take something from — strength, creativity, anything but destruction.”
The album has political songs, and they’re not your versions of those blunt Neil Young protest songs where he’ll sing, you know, “Let’s impeach the president.” But if your goal is to convey a political message, are you ever worried that using metaphors about nature and goddesses might bury the political content? Is there any value in being a little didactic?
Different storytellers have different ways of telling stories. Some songwriters have a mantra that they want to say over and over and over. I can respond to mantras: “I’m too sexy for my shirt” — that’s a great mantra for when you’re in the thick of menopause and you’re feeling like you’ve lost your you. But my approach is closer to the idea of the spider weaving a tale with its web, where words might seem to mean one thing and then you crawl into them and you find you’re somewhere else. I want my songs to feel collaborative to the listener — almost like planting seeds. I plant the lyrical seeds, and listeners help them grow.
How has your relationship with your audience changed over time? You have famously obsessive fans.
I know that right now, in a cultural moment of great trauma, people are ready for songs that talk about in-depth emotions and issues. Let’s put it this way: There’s always going to be pop music, but in times of tragedy people turn to certain songwriters who have layers to their work.
Who have those songwriters been for you?
Leonard Cohen — a big one. Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush. Joni Mitchell.
Do you draw different things from the men and women who’ve influenced you?
The fact is, like I said, that there are not a lot of women singer-songwriters having the level of success that the men are. The guys are endless. The women are not. I know that’s not a direct answer to your question, but it’s a subject I really started wrapping my head around four years ago when I was making Unrepentant Geraldines. That’s when I was underwater in the depths of menopause. I realized that I had to pull on some serious energy from deep within my being and also from the earth itself; by sheer will I had to become a force of nature. Tina Turner was a force of nature in her early 50s. So was Nina Simone. Our industry, though, doesn’t value women songwriters that are 50 and over. There’s ageism, and certainly men aren’t going to write the stories my generation needs to hear. Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and Cher — they’re not a parallel with alternative-pop singer-songwriters. They’re amazingly talented entertainers and actresses, but they’re different than what I’m talking about. Country music seems to be open to having mature women tell their stories. You’ve got Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire and others. But in the alternative-music field where I came from, there aren’t many of us. Patti Smith is out there. We’ve got Stevie Nicks. There are some, but not many, and it’s not a coincidence.
I don’t mean to be crass, but are we talking about a supply and demand issue? Wouldn’t the biggest male chauvinist ding-dong running a record label sell music by made middle-aged women if he thought he could make money from it?
Yes, the label might say, “If the public demanded that we nurture music by women artists over the age of 50, talking about whatever it is women over 50 talk about, then we would sign it.” I think they are saying that. And someone could look at me and say, “Why are you worried about this? You’re doing fine.” But I am worried about it because I know talented woman who cannot make records. Without mentioning their names — that’s their story to tell — I know women in the industry who are not making records and it’s not by choice. It’s not by their choice, David. I’m trying to take on what these women are saying and change things. Let’s make a supply! Let’s make the public realize that they do need these women’s voices, because they have experience and that experience is valuable. The labels look for young ingenue singer-songwriters, but where are those ingenues going to be in 20 years? We need to nurture them into middle age the way the industry nurtures men into middle age. Otherwise, important voices will get lost.
If you keep running up against a music business that’s systemically unreceptive to middle-aged women, then what’s the strategy? Is the move to operate outside that business?
The move is to tell stories that resonate. In the middle of creating music you don’t know if you’re making a powerful work, you have to hope and trust that the muses have their fingers on the pulse. I’m not talking about a commercial work here; I’m talking about important work. Work that people will look at 25 years from now when they want to understand how 2017 — with this president in power — felt to us. This is what you need to try and do. But sometimes you can’t orchestrate your next move. The chess game is happening in real time and you’re playing against some Russian bot.
Is there a method to telling stories that resonate?
Before I had one note of Native Invader written, I knew I was going to have the album out by the fall and I knew I was going on tour. Artists ask me the same thing: “What? How did you do that?” Honey, I turned pro at 13. I’ve been climbing this mountain a long time.
Is your relationship with your audience at all creatively reciprocal?
The fans reflect things back at me that make me realize they want to talk about the same emotions and issues I want to talk about. But the Tori community encompasses a big age span, which is fascinating. There are so many different perspectives. That’s why I read the letters I get sent. It might take me weeks and weeks to get through, but I read them.
Letters? Not emails?
Yeah, letters. I read them and, boy, do I learn a lot. You learn what people are juggling in their lives; you learn how people see the world.
What’s a letter you’ve gotten recently that lingered with you?
I just read a whole bunch of them from Europe. But here, you know, I haven’t seen many fans since this latest wave of assaults on actresses, but I do know that calls to RAINN have increased exponentially. Women are speaking up.
Are the ripples from the Harvey Weinstein allegations going to wind up changing how the culture responds to sexual abuse? The scope and pervasiveness of sexual harassment — I’m sure I was naïve, but it’s been shocking.
We might be at a turning point. I hope it’s not just what the news cycle is focusing on for now. I was told that there’s a hashtag for men: #HowIWillChange. That’s encouraging. But the focus has got to be on the men out there that don’t want the culture to change — the men out there that are pervy and don’t see harassment as an assault. There are men who just don’t see that, but if there’s enough pressure from the public on the big corporations, if people protest with their pocketbook, what will happen is that these pervy men will understand that they’ll lose their jobs if they don’t change. That’s what we need. Because we can’t necessarily control that people are going to have a consciousness awakening. You can’t just snap your fingers and make people change their attitudes. There has to be anti-harassment protocols put in place and supported by executives. I’m telling you: Not everybody that has been a harasser is going to read the news and wake up tomorrow and say, “From now on, it’s Do Unto Others As I Would Have Them Do Unto Me.” Yes, maybe some men in positions of power are saying, “Sexual harassment is morally wrong. I don’t want this in my company.” But if what they’re saying is “This is wrong because it’s bad for business” — honestly, I’ll take either.
What do we need to be teaching our sons about how to treat women?
That’s a necessary subject. What is healthy masculinity? What does that look like? How will teenage boys learn to be respectful men if they’re surrounded by a culture where masculinity is in crisis? But it’s because we’re all talking about this stuff now that there’s an opportunity for a cultural change. You need men to talk to other men about appropriate behavior and you need men speaking with women about the same thing. Young men have to be asking women, “What offends you?” I know that’s a scary thought for some men.
I don’t know if you’ve followed this, but in music-criticism circles this year there’s been a fair bit of discussion about the place of women in the rock music canon. NPR did a list of the 150 greatest albums by women, for example. What’s your sense of why music by women has been underrepresented in the history of rock?
For fuck sake, if Kate Bush hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet, why would you even want to be in that club? Some of the names they come up with to induct instead — it’s all these men that don’t even matter. Kate Bush matters. You just have to roll your eyes at it.
In your memoir, you wrote very movingly about your southern heritage. The part of the country where your family is from is so often seen as the root of so much of our bad thinking and feeling. I’m wondering if, in your eyes, the South is misunderstood?
What are people getting wrong?
There’s a blanket of generalizations that gets thrown over the whole region. People on the outside don’t always remember — or don’t care to remember — that the South has different ideas alive in it at the same time. There are people in the South that were furious about what happened in Charlottesville, and are furious about racism and white supremacy. Generalizations aren’t just an issue for the South, though. The same kind of blanket gets thrown over the religious community. I’m a minister’s daughter; there are people who are trying to walk positively in the path of Christ. But elements of the alt-right have tapped into Christianity in a way that really concerns me. I thought the center of the religion was the beatitudes. The beatitudes don’t appear to have much to do with how certain preachers are framing Christianity.
The contradiction between the fundamental teachings of a religion and the behaviors of some people who observe that religion — it’s so hard to have that conversation without coming across as condescending. That said, the Sermon on the Mount seems pretty straightforward.
Right! Look, you never want to condescend or be condescended to. Religion is a hard topic to discuss. I just kind of think faith has to be about trying to listen and be present. I want to have an exchange with people because that’s where god and the goddess are. That’s the Shekhinah. That’s the moment of the life force.
It’s interesting, looking back at the whole alternative-music boom, to see how your music wasn’t taking off in a cultural vacuum. There were a bunch of other women who weren’t conventional pop-star types whose careers were happening in a big way around the same time. Was that just a quirk of generational fate?
If you actually look at the timeline, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, and I were coming up at the same time, but my record, Y Kant Tori Read, failed and their records went gangbusters. I remember listening to Melissa’s record and looking at her image, then looking at myself the mirror and thinking, I’m a stranger to myself. And that’s important to say because there were record industry powerhouses — men — who were choosing who got to be an “artist” and who was supposed to be product. The slot for me in 1986, 1987 was not to be a singer-songwriter. The industry was not open to me in that position at that time, and I didn’t fight hard enough against it. I just wanted to get out of the barrooms I’d been playing since I was 13. I crawled into the ’90s.
That’s surprising to me because I always think of you less in the context of the ’80s and more in the context of the ’90s and that amazing cohort of women from that era — Alanis Morrissette and PJ Harvey and a bunch of others.
The ’90s were a movement. Something happened there. The labels aren’t always nurturing original voices, but at that time there was an explosion of original voices. Maybe it was the music coming out of Seattle that pushed things along. Maybe it was because of the Persian Gulf War. It’s hard to point to specific things. I do also think Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, and Melissa Etheridge deserve more credit for carving a path up the mountain a few years before the alternative era took off. They were making such powerful statements and Y Kant Tori Read tanked. Which was a good thing. Years ago my mother said, talking about that album, “You never would’ve gotten out of that bustier.” Very few people can pull off a career that begins with a bustier. So I may be thought of as being part of the ’90s wave, but nothing was given to me back then.
What’s something specific you had to fight for?
I had to fight to keep those pianos on Little Earthquakes. The executives did not believe that anything with a piano that wasn’t by Elton [John] or Billy [Joel] was going to sell. They told me the piano was dead. Doug Morris was being advised to replace the pianos on my album with guitars otherwise it wouldn’t be viable commercially. I stood my ground. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t, but you’ve got to fight. I thought to myself, We have to show the piano in a different light. I reclaimed the instrument with my claws. I clawed at it and said, “Please, never let me go.” Not “I’m not letting you go,” but “never let me go.” I think she, the piano, was a little bit offended. But she said “okay.”
Not to sound weird, but you gave piano playing an erotic vibe that hadn’t been there for a while and which hasn’t really been there since. And before that, I know Robert Plant was someone you watched who helped shape your sexual presence. But looking around now, is rock music still sexy?
I don’t really talk about other musicians much — you always end up running into them somewhere if you do — but that’s an interesting question. I studied Robert Plant and where he took his performances. He was a master, this is just my opinion, of sacred sexuality. Is what he was channeling something that you feel inside? Is it something you can learn? Is it something that you’re born with an affinity for and nurture and then plug into when you perform? I don’t know. I can say, though, that if the sensuality isn’t grounded in some type of mysticism, it can just be a bit pervy. There has to be a component of emotional intelligence. I always felt Robert Plant had that, and then as he aged he metamorphosized into more of a sage.
But are you seeing any younger musicians, maybe through your daughter, whose approach to sexuality you find interesting?
David, I’m not going to talk about other musicians! But, for me, having a daughter and watching her look at women — not just musicians but women — who are expressing a certain type of overt sexuality … Tash would say to me, “Mum, when you see these mums of my teenage friends, and guys are saying ‘I’d like to get their kit off’ — that is not helpful! The last thing a friend wants is to hear a guy talking about how their mom really wants it bad. Why do these mums get so desperate? Why can’t they see that they’re lovely people and get confidence from that?” Seeing women through the eyes of a teenage daughter is fascinating.
Does what she sees affect how you publicly present yourself?
I’ve made certain choices as a result. I’m tapping into different archetypal forces now then I did before. Certain sensual, sexual expression I would do onstage in my late 20s and early 30s before I had Tash — I’ve hopefully transmuted that energy into more of a force-of-nature type of expression. I’m still a woman performer, but things have shifted.
So what archetypes do you feel comfortable inhabiting these days?
If we’re talking about performing, I need access to them all in order to leave behind the mom and wife that I am and step onstage and be the performer I have to be. I’ve been performing since I was 2 and a half, and it took me a while to understand that, Oh my gosh, I have to plug in. I realized I had to contain the songs’ energy. The audience’s, too: The energy is not to take. It’s to dance with. The larger lesson was that it couldn’t be just me up there playing. No, no, no. It’s about a process of becoming a container for different archetypes. One of the best of all time at becoming a container was Prince, who actually came to see a show of mine on the Doll Posse tour, when I was gravitating to the Athena archetype, Demeter, Persephone. When Prince came to the show he was running from one side of backstage to the other to watch when I would switch between keyboards. That was a moment for me of sharing with a mentor, even if he didn’t know he’d been my mentor.
What’d you learn from Prince?
What he had taught me was that there is a cord that runs deep, deep below the stage, into the earth and it better come out here [points to the base of her spine]. It might come out somewhere else for other people but for me it was the Kundalini.
Maybe it’s not something that you can explain easily, but is there a process for becoming the kind of container you’re describing?
There is. When I do meet-and-greets before the show, I get a sense of what people in the town are feeling. Then, with that as a frame, I go into soundcheck to work up what songs we might be able to play. I’m pulling together the components that are going to be the narrative for that night’s show — it’s a different show every night. There are methodical parts to it, too: adjusting the EQ, because every room we play is different. Then I might go and read letters from fans that will suggest certain themes to me that I want to explore with the songs I play, or I’ll remember what happened to me ten years ago when I played this city. I look at song requests from fans, which are often quite cheeky. The emotional journey I’m describing is at least a three-hour process. And it takes a few hours after the show to come back down — you have to let the fire go or it can destroy you. You know, people see me after a show and say, “You must be exhausted?” Are you fucking nuts? Yes, the left hip hurts a little because I’m twisting like a spider with high heels on and I’m 54 years old, but I’m not ready for bed. I’m ready to dance.
Your daughter has spent a lot of her life on tour with you. How do you raise a kid on the road?
We’ve made sure that we’ve had good people out on the road with us. She had a great tutor. She had nannies that could adapt to the road. You might think there’s a plethora of willing participants for that job — there aren’t. Not everyone can sleep on a bus every night and still function the next day. The biggest key is to try and create a routine. Your schedule on tour changes, but it’s not fair if your child’s schedule keeps changing, too. You want to have some element of regularity. Tash will go and help at the merch stand; she’ll be there unpacking boxes. She’ll go to front of house and see her dad and how the lights are coming along. It’s what she’s grown up with.
Does she have a hard time relating to kids who’ve been raised more conventionally?
I’ve had people say, “You’re on tour, that’s not real life.” And Tash would look at them and then say to me, “Mum, what are these idiots on about? Can’t they see this is what we do? What don’t they understand? What isn’t real about this? This is my real life.”
You’ve put out 15 studio albums.
Not including Y Kant Tori Read.
That’s a lot of albums. Is there one you think that deserved more attention than it got?
Neil Gaiman had warned me about Boys for Pele. He even called me last year and said, “I was right. I told you at the time that people wouldn’t get it.” With Boys for Pele I was reacting to the boys’ club of the music industry. I’d had success before that album but there were still conversations happening about how I needed to wear chinos to be more appealing to the American public. I was having these ridiculous fights all the time. Instead of working on that album with some famous producer, I went off to Ireland with Mark and Marcel to make it. And if you don’t think I took a lot of heat because of that … People wanted me to make another Under the Pink but I held out and did what I wanted. Remember, this was before the internet allowed you to go directly to your audience. You had to go through these gatekeepers instead. And if you weren’t making the kind of record that the promotion people wanted you to make, they’d freeze you out. So we hit the road, which is what Neil had said I had to do: “You’ve got to go town to town and door to door. You’ll sell a million copies if you do that.” I felt like I had to prove the industry wrong because they wanted that album to fail. Who wants a powerful, independent women in her early 30s saying “fuck you” to the boys’ club? You have to see, David, how the business operates. If you go rogue, it’s a done fucking deal; you become an enemy and you’re on your fucking own.
You’re still here, though.
Yes, I am, but don’t think it hasn’t been a war.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Annotations by Corinna Burford.
The album’s breakout single, “Bring Me Some Water,” a raw, blues-meets-alternative-rock song, was nominated for a Grammy in 1989. 1993’s singles “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window” raised her profile even higher — as did having two children with her partner Julie Cypher. (The kids were fathered by sperm-donor David Crosby.) Amos and her (then) band, Y Kant Tori Read, released their self-titled debut — a thin assemblage of ’80s pop clichés — in January 1988. The cover art shows Amos posing as something akin to a swashbuckling, glam-rock dominatrix, complete with a glittery bustier and a sword. Amos’s 1992 breakout album included the singles “Silent All These Years,” “Winter,” “China,” and “Crucify.” The British music magazine Q ranked it No. 4 in their 2002 “100 Women Who Rock the World” list, and this year NPR ranked it at No. 27 in their “150 Greatest Albums Made by Women” list. Despite this, it is not featured on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The current chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, Morris was CEO of Universal Music for almost 22 years, and served as co-CEO of Atlantic Recording Group — Amos’s label in the 1990s. The Led Zeppelin front man’s open shirts, bulge-hugging pants, flowing locks, and sweltering stage presence made him one of rock’s biggest sex symbols during the ’70s. Amos, who collaborated with Plant in the’ mid-’90s, has discussed her admiration of his style on many occasions. “I was looking for what Robert Plant was tapping into,” she wrote in her autobiography: “This sensuality without the subservience.” Amos adopted five different personas on her 2007 album based on female characters from Greek mythology. On the tour supporting the album, she performed as all five, swapping outfits and wigs, to become “Isabel,” “Clyde,” “Pip,” “Santa,” or “Tori.” In Hindu philosophy, Kundalini is thought of as a type of “primal energy” located in a person’s spine that can be tapped into through the practice of Kundalini yoga, which incorporates meditation, breathing techniques, and chanting mantras. Amos has been close friends with the British writer, graphic novelist, and all-around cult hero since the early 1990s. Gaiman worked closely with Amos on her 2001 concept album Strange Little Girls, writing the text that accompanied the album. Amos’s first self-produced album, Boys for Pele debuted at No. 2 on both the Billboard 200 and the UK albums chart in 1996. Most of it was recorded at a church in County Wicklow in Ireland; the rest in New Orleans. Thematically, the album, which draws its name from the Hawaiian goddess of fire, focused on organized religion and women’s roles within these patriarchal belief systems. The album cover showed Amos posed provocatively on a rocking chair, holding a shotgun. Mark Hawley is Amos’s husband. Marcel van Limbeek is a sound engineer who’s worked with Amos since 1994. Amos’s second solo album, Under the Pink, debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. album charts in 1994 and was certified double-platinum in the U.S. in 1999. It included the Billboard-charting single “Cornflake Girl” — which remains perhaps her best-known song — and “Past the Mission” which features kindred spirit Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.