Interview

Q&A: Tori Amos On The ’90s Revival, Missing Prince, And Whether Humanity Is Doomed

Pig-headed masculinity run amok? America in spiritual crisis? A dying Earth? This sounds like a job for Tori Amos!

Since her 1992 debut album, Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos has addressed big-picture issues with the same fearless empathy she once trained on heartbreak and self-actualization. She’s been good for an album every three years or so since Earthquakes, along the way engaging in one of the best runs of the ’90s and nurturing one of rock’s most passionate fanbases. Though some of her fans grumbled about her ’00-era albums (charges of “Adult Contemporary” were thrown about), she’s been on an upswing since moving over to the classical music side of Universal in 2011, first with Deutsche Grammophon and now her current label, Decca. Though elegantly wrought as only she can, her new album, Native Invader, is her most direct and fiery release in a while, inspired as it is by the state of the world (both politically and ecologically) and her mother’s recent stroke. As Stereogum’s resident Tori correspondent, I met with her at the Decca office recently to talk about her new album, ’90s nostalgia, and why the youth give her hope.

STEREOGUM: When did you start writing Native Invader?

AMOS: We took a road trip to the Smoky Mountains about a year ago now. I left from Washington, D.C. I guess you’d say that was the beginning of many months.

STEREOGUM: So you started writing around this time last year, right when the election was started to ramp up and get even uglier. Were you starting to get the queasy feeling everyone else was getting?

AMOS: Well, taking a trip down South, it was an eye-opener to realize… to realize the tone… Let’s put it this way: I was writing a record about stories my grandfather had told me; he was part Eastern Cherokee Nation. There is that happening on the record, but then after the election and I was in the states, there were stories that people were telling me — first of all, about conflicts that were happening in their families, even relationships, friendships.

STEREOGUM: About who was voting for who?

AMOS: I think it became much more about ideologies than two people. So after that, then people started reaching out to me through somebody who knew somebody who might be a scientist, or who might be a civil servant, and then they pointed me to, “Do you understand what these appointments mean? If you are supposed to protect the environment, and the track record doesn’t really show you protecting the environment, or protecting the interior…” All these things.

STEREOGUM: People reached out to you?

AMOS: Yep.

STEREOGUM: Did you feel like you had a responsibility because people were entrusting you with this information, that you had to tell… not their story, but get out their viewpoint, if they didn’t have a voice?

AMOS: That came when my mother became paralyzed and lost her voice.

STEREOGUM: I’m sorry to hear that.

AMOS: I understood, when you don’t have a voice, or you don’t feel like you’re being heard, or you can’t vocalize it, that’s when the responsibility of taking information that seemed imperative… and the emotions behind the information, that’s when the songs all then started to glue together.

STEREOGUM: Did the album you were making change after Election Day?

AMOS: It changed, yes, after the fallout from the election. Those energies, emotions, started to push me in a place of… into the songwriter place. To do that, you really have to listen to people. From all walks of life. Listening to people, and watching, in some cases, people being unable to communicate with each other. Because it became about talking at each other.

STEREOGUM: Did you talk to a lot of people with viewpoints that you don’t necessarily agree with? Is it easy for you to listen to people who you extremely disagree with?

AMOS: Honestly, I go into a place of observing. I’m just trying to study it, like a songwriter. In your mind, you’re taking notes, because you don’t know where the next song is coming from, ever. You don’t know the characters that will embody that song. You are dependent on material.

STEREOGUM: Can you blend into the background, or do people notice you?

AMOS: Oh, I blend in very well. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it, but I roll in a Clint Eastwood hat.

STEREOGUM: Really?

AMOS: Yeah, different hats. All kinds of hats. You might think, “Where has that lady left her horse? Or her truck?” I mean, the shoes might be a giveaway, but if you don’t want to be noticed, you won’t be noticed. You have to really not want that. That’s something you have to check with your own vanity.

STEREOGUM: I know this record has an environmental theme. It’s a very important topic. But it can be a dry topic. How do you turn that into songs that people will actually enjoy listening to, and will resonate with them, and not just, “The icebergs are falling, people, pay attention!”

AMOS: Well, exactly. Nobody wants to be preached at. I’m a preacher’s daughter and the granddaughter of a missionary teacher, my father’s mother. Nobody wants to be preached at. I think that’s always the struggle. Sometimes there are songs that are written for every album that you think are, to steal your line, “dry.” Or it doesn’t have the right story.

STEREOGUM: So you have to figure out how to make it work?

AMOS: It sounds simple. It is that basic: trying to track it down and make it work. Hunting for those things can lead you down many dead ends.

STEREOGUM: There was a story in New York Magazine a couple months ago that said, “We are very close to Earth being uninhabitable if we don’t change our ways.” As a person studying the environment, do you get overcome with despair or do you feel any hope, at all, for humanity still? Big question.

AMOS: Really big question. I have a lot of faith in Mother Earth. I don’t know if we’re going to make it. I think she will make it. I don’t know. Dinosaurs. They did pretty well.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, they had a good run.

AMOS: I don’t know if we’ll have as good a run as they did. I don’t know. It depends, doesn’t it? This Juliana v. the United States case gives me hope. Why it’s not being shouted from the rooftops, I don’t know. It’s really important. A lot of journalists didn’t know about it, the ones I’ve been talking to over the last week. American, not just European journalists.

I think the fact that you have teenagers and young adults now that are holding the government… yes, they started this while Obama was in office, but they’re determined to be a voice, and have their voice heard, which is, “We are going to be left with this. Are the [people] who are making these decisions, are they really the right ones to be making it? Are they qualified?”

STEREOGUM: You’ve always been unafraid to tackle really big, heavy things in your music. When maybe, probably, career-wise, it would have been smarter to maybe shy away from that sort of thing. Back in the ’90s, you were one of the first people to really explore toxic masculinity in your songs. That’s something we’re really seeing a lot of in our culture today. Perhaps more than ever. From the election of Trump, to Gamergate, to any comments section on any website whatsoever. Or the fact that we now know that Fox News is basically an organization of sexual predators that also propagates right wing news. Do you ever despair, thinking it doesn’t seem like this problem is ever getting better?

AMOS: When you think about how pervasive it is… I was just talking to a journalist yesterday. I wanted to talk to her more about what she was saying was happening at her college. She has been active in trying to bring attention to all the assaults that are happening on campus. At a certain point, she said to me, “It’s almost as if people are burying their head in the sand.” It’s happening too frequently. It’s happening so much. Not just to girls. It’s happening to guys, too. She did say, “I almost feel as if there’s some days when I get no reaction.” It’s almost as if we’ve surrendered to this, that this is not the new normal, but it’s something we’ll say as a society we’ll put up with: “This is the culture, this is just what happens on college campuses.”

Really, that’s what we’re saying? Until it’s your son, or your daughter who has been victimized and attacked. That’s why I did Audrie & Daisy [a documentary about the sexual assault of two teenage girls in a small town] with Netflix. It’s also the church community, that sinister behavior is happening even younger. You ask me if I despair, well, I can’t give into that, because if I do, then I’ll stop fighting. I can’t stop.

STEREOGUM: I was reading something recently that apparently the current generation of millennials, people your daughter’s age and younger, are drastically less religious than previous generations of Americans. The church will never die out in America, but it’s definitely losing power. As a person who has written a lot about religion — organized religion and spirituality — what are your thoughts on this movement? Is it a good thing? A bad thing?

AMOS: Some of these religions that even say they’re affiliated with Christianity, there’s very little spirituality. Therefore, some of the teenagers are starving for compassion, acceptance, chop wood, carry water.

STEREOGUM: Chop wood, carry water?

AMOS: Chop wood, carry water workshops. It’s about applying the ideas into your daily life, walking the walk. Some of the churches, they talk about what they’re going to do, then everybody goes back to work on Monday and treats people in the office with disrespect. They don’t think about, “Well, wait a minute. If I were sitting at that desk and somebody came up to me and said that to me, how would I feel?” It’s about bullying as well, it’s about making people feel worthless.

STEREOGUM: You say you observe a lot of people, and you’ve always been pretty accessible to your fans. Do you notice any change in the current generation, or is it the way it’s always been, from what you can tell?

AMOS: The current generation seems to be choosing to find out what is going on globally. Their future could be cut short because of the actions of people that are supposed to be looking out for them.

STEREOGUM: I want to change the subject a little bit. You’re now on Decca, which is basically a classical music label from what I can tell?

AMOS: Well, I’m on Verve in the United States. For this album, I sort of jettisoned to another side of… there’s a contemporary side of Decca that isn’t classical. I’ve kind of moved over with that team.

STEREOGUM: How do you like that as opposed to being on Epic, which you were on for most of the ’00s? Is there less pressure on you to try to make a hit than there was at Epic?

AMOS: What it is is that they’ve embraced the internet. It is a different time. They realized that the world has changed how it listens to music. It’s a completely different way of thinking now, when it comes to my career.

STEREOGUM: Do you think about where you sit in relation to current music? You’ve produced all of your albums yourself since Boys For Pele. You’ve never gone for some hot producer to get you the current sound. You don’t really kowtow to trends, be it mainstream or underground trends. You do your own thing. Do you think, “I do me, and either people will find it or they won’t find it”? Or do you consciously think, “How can I reach these new listeners?”

AMOS: No, I do me. Hopefully, I’m learning along the way, and I work with the team I work with. No record, hopefully, is the same. But I’m not chasing it, no.

STEREOGUM: You’ve always had an album every three years. You’re very consistent. Do you ever feel like sometimes people take you for granted, like, “Oh, there’s Tori. She did another good album. Let’s see what’s hot this week.”

AMOS: I’m in a pretty fortunate position. I know that. Being able to be on my 15th studio album, life is good. The tour is sold-out.

STEREOGUM: As a person who was around in the ’90s, what do you think of ’90s nostalgia? We see a lot of it in our culture. Does your daughter like ’90s stuff at all?

AMOS: Yes, she does. Because I lived it, very fully, it doesn’t seem strange to me, it makes sense that people would want to experience it. It was a great time for creativity.

STEREOGUM: Are there any particular fashions or trends that surprise you, like, “Why is that happening?” I see kids wearing Simpsons T-shirts all the time. It blows my mind.

AMOS: No, I don’t judge people like that. I think that one of the great things about that time, though, was that there was more artist development. Which there isn’t right now, because… well, for all kinds of reasons. The labels aren’t like they were, in that they don’t have the funds. In that way, new artists can get dropped very quickly.

STEREOGUM: Speaking of that era, last year we lost Prince. Earlier this year, we lost Chris Cornell, who was in many ways someone who had their breakthrough just as you were having your breakthrough in ’90s. I don’t know if saw the news about Sinead O’Connor, but she seems to be in a bad place also. She posted a Facebook video about how she’s suicidal. It’s really sad. When you see things like this, about the people who came up in your era or that you admired for a long time, are you like the rest of us, thinking “This is really sad,” or do you feel a connection to these people, like “These are my peers, what is happening?” Is there a connection there?

AMOS: Well, look, I think we’ve lost a lot of people in music in the last two years.

STEREOGUM: A lot.

AMOS: A lot of people. That’s tragic. In some cases, it wasn’t a fatal illness. When that happens, the tragedy is always that you think, “How much more music was Prince going to create? What would he have been writing right now, at this time?” With the last nine months having been what it was. I so would love to hear his take on things right now. He was so prolific, for so long, and was such an unusual musician and writer. That loss has been really… a lot of people that I know haven’t recovered from that, because there’s such a void there. Of course, there’s so many others that we miss. But for me, that was a [loss] that could have been potentially avoided. That is why that tragedy… and I studied his work ever since I was a teenager.

When I went to see Purple Rain it changed the way I performed. I’d been studying Robert Plant, I’d been studying Jim Morrison. Of course, I studied Janis, but there was something about the Dionysus current that I was fascinated about with how some of the guys were channeling that, and holding that current. Then when I saw Prince performing in that movie, it just became… I can’t explain it to you, but the light bulb came on. I felt as if I’d been touched by… I don’t know, it was an awakening.

STEREOGUM: What does your daughter listen to?

AMOS: All kinds of stuff. She is having a ’90s revival right now, I will tell you. Nirvana, all kinds of things. She’s also had a Zeppelin phase. She’s been… you know, we have a pretty good iTunes account, her dad and I.

STEREOGUM: Does she ask you for details about who you met, who you didn’t?

AMOS: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: Did you ever meet Nirvana?

AMOS: No.

STEREOGUM: See now, that would have been a story.

AMOS: That would have been a story, yes. No, I haven’t crossed paths with them. As you know, I did the cover [of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”], and they played it when they’d come out on stage in tutus on a leg of their tour. The thing is, sometimes you don’t have to even meet people to have a… I don’t know, messages get sent back and forth through people. It’s just one of those things. My focus is really on studying and doing the research to then create more work. If you cross paths with other musicians, great, then you do. If you’re supposed to, you will.

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Native Invader is out 9/8 via Decca. Pre-order it here.

Tags: Tori Amos