Tori Amos on Creating “Caves of Freedom”
Tori Amos’ newest record, Native Invader, is — to put it perhaps too simply — a doozy. A rumination on family, politics, the environment and love, the record is careening, lovely look at what it’s like to make art now.
“You do need to get to a place of neutrality in order, for me anyway, to write,” Amos told TIDAL. “Whatever I’m feeling, the songwriter has to step in and be vicious but fair, because then you have to start building — you need to build a structure. Yes, you’re being driven by an emotion, but then you also have to sculpt it.”
The clay Amos had to sculpt from for Native Invader sprung from two monumental life events: a stroke that rendered her mother, Maryellen Amos, nearly mute — and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
“When you step in a place of focus, it’s almost a reprieve from the emotion, because it’s a discipline,” Amos says of the process of creating art from such fearsome subject matter. “You feel like the muses come and go. It’s almost as if they take lunch breaks. Long lunch breaks, sometimes.”
The muses showed up in droves on Native Invader, however, wearing the masks of family (Amos’ mother and daughter, Tash, who sings on “Up the Creek”), Russian composers (in “Russia”), evil and love.
TIDAL had the chance to sit down with Amos and go deep on a few of Native Invader’s tracks. Read on to see what she had to say about what happened when the muses came back from lunch.
On “Mary’s Eyes”… [My mother] Mary had a severe stroke in January; she had not been well, but her mind had been sharper than mine right before it. I happened to be at the beach house at the time, which is in Florida — not far from her, but not close enough. It happened at home. My dad was there. We rushed to the hospital when he called and then that began that journey.
She’s now home with full-time care — and the ladies are spiritual ladies and they adore her, but she’s paralyzed on the right side and she can’t speak. When you sing hymns or things that are there in her memory, she will try to form the words with you, but without music she has an almost impossible time forming a word that is understandable. So in a way she’s trapped and I know it frustrates her.
But she’s still fighting; she’s wanting to stay on the planet. Therefore, all of us are fighting with her. And that’s been really humbling and inspirational. All these very different emotions — to see her not wanting to leave — because there is distress there. You can see there are times when she’s in distress, and then there are times that you can see that she’s not. So that song is very much inspired by that.
Within many months before that, my spirit brother [author] Neil Gaiman sent me a message that a woman in Scotland who is a dead midwife had a message and that was that: while she’s helping people to cross over to the other side, sometimes it’s more difficult than others. During this one crossover session — I think someone in hospice — he wasn’t quite ready to surrender to going and seemed to be very agitated. She sang one of my songs from years and years and years ago and that was the moment that he crossed over to the other side and she wanted to share that with me.
But what really spoke to me was the idea of a death midwife. In [Gaiman’s] Sandman comics, death is one of the sisters, so I felt like I needed to bring [one of Gaiman’s characters called] the Dream King — he’s been in a few songs [like ‘Tear in Your Hand”] over the years — into this story.
On “The Chocolate Song”… In a relationship, isn’t it funny how — when it’s working — being in the kitchen is heaven, isn’t it? You don’t need one of these amazing trips. You don’t need all the glamour. You can just be together in the kitchen making something simple, like a dessert. Or anything. When things are good. But then when it becomes combative…it’s unattainable sometimes, because the two of you can’t bring yourselves to do something so simple yet magical when you’re in conflict. It’s such an intimate thing, making something together. You have to really like that person. I mean, you can be in love with somebody and hate them, but it’s really hard to hate and like at the same time. So that song is really about a relationship — a state of it and where it is.
On “Up the Creek”… As the song was developing, people were sending me messages — sometimes through other people, sometimes stopping me. I was doing a lot of traveling; I was in the States a lot. [People] would talk to me about, ‘Do you understand what’s going on?’ And I’d say, ‘Probably not. Tell me.’
And they would walk me through some of [Trump’s] appointees that were happening. The EPA is one of them, but there are many others. It’s not just one person. It’s about an ideology where the job description is to protect the environment, really. It says it in the title. And then you have to start questioning yourself, especially once I was directed to read about what some of the interests were.
In ‘Up the Creek,’ I started to come to a realization with learning about Juliana vs. the United States — which is the teenagers suing the government [for ruining the environment] — that a teenager needed to be with me on this. At the time, we had pulled out of the Paris Accord.
And [my daughter] Tash, although she’s been schooled in Britain, she was born a few blocks from the White House — and so she talked to me about, ‘How are grownups allowed to make these decisions when clearly many grownups cannot be trusted? Not only can’t they be trusted, but they’re irresponsible with our future resources.’ And I said, ‘Yes, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying.’ And the brutality that some people feel is…is something that they make excuses for and call it other things. They call it all kinds of phrases.
So Native Invader the album is really about reinvading some of these words like ‘freedom.’ Like ‘liberty.’ And saying, ‘No, we’re reclaiming them.’ And the word has to be sovereign. Freedom is sovereignty. That energy must be sovereign to itself.
Of course we’re dealing with the Persephone myth all over [the] record. From ‘Climb’ to ‘Wildwood,’ it’s there. Whether the mother is there, as she is in ‘Wildwood,’ waiting for Persephone to come back from her abduction by Pluto — plutocrats, Hades from the underworld — or whether, in ‘Climb,’ the mother’s not there. Is she gone? Is she dead? Is she not looking? Is she choosing not to see what’s happening to her daughter? There are all these things happening in the record, this authority that seems to be making decisions about America’s resources, our Constitution — things are changing right before our eyes, and the record is tracking that.
Some of these things have been in place for decades. We can’t get distracted by the master showman who’s got the levitating lady here and the rabbit out of the hat.
On “Russia”… [This song] was brewing for a few months, I guess, because…well, it’s around us. [I heard a story that] that Stalin in the ‘40s was known to be ‘on the shoulder of Shostakovich,’ one of his composers. … That was sort of the key that led me into Russia as songwriter. Seeing it from a composer’s perspective, that a great writer, Shostakovich, was there, having a dictator trying to get him to put the dictator’s ideology into the structure of the songs he was building.
I guess you could say with certain marches you could maybe build certain energies into certain rhythms — if you look at the Third Reich and you look at some of the music and how it was played. And Nationalist-type music that gets written to stir that spirit. I can see how you can do that. But I can also see how you can plant booby traps within a structure to create caves of freedom. You plant things in structures whereby people can pick up resilience.
The phrase ‘native invader’ shows up here in ‘Russia.’ … They seem like two words that can’t live together, but they can. Particularly one form, which in its heartbreaking form is a stroke. Mary’s stroke is that. But also Tash was that, when she was timesharing in Mom for nine months — free of charge.
Perhaps some of our ancestors came from Europe. Some might have come from Asia. Some might be Native Americans. They are who they are. But as Americans, it was shocking to me that there seemed to be a group of people that were deciding that because they were European American, full-blooded — that they had some kind of access to the songlines of this land. Now they didn’t put it in that form, but I’m putting it in that form. Without even recognizing and acknowledging the first people, the first nations.
Well, the songlines don’t accept that. They’re acknowledging the first nations, of course, and also that people did come from here. And there are people that came from here that want to protect our resources and acknowledge that their ancestors were immigrants here and that they really care about equal rights and are looking at the American oligarchs that are hijacking words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty.’
(Photo credit: Paulina Otylie Surys)
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