Tori Amos on fighting sexism: ‘I had to become a gladiator’

When Tori Amos thinks of Los Angeles, the first thing that comes to mind is the distinctly artificial scent of Aqua Net hairspray.

“I’m ashamed to say it, but back then I always had a can of Aqua Net in my purse,” says the 58-year-old singer-songwriter, ready to go.

Coming from a Southern Methodist family in Maryland, Amos moved to LA in 1984 when hair metal dominated the charts and the members of Mötley Crüe were the kings of the Sunset Strip.

Amos was only 5 years old when she began studying classical piano at the Peabody Institute; But at age 11, Amos, already corrupted by Led Zeppelin, was asked to leave the program because of her reluctance to read music. Her major-label debut in 1988, a work of synth-pop pastiches sarcastically released under the name “Y Kant Tori Read,” was met with harsh criticism from the press; A writer for Billboard described the record as “bimbo music”.

“In LA, the worst disease you could get was failure,” Amos says over the phone from Rochester, NY, a recent stop on her first tour in more than five years. “But failure was my greatest teacher.”

From the ashes of their 1980s remained the same spirit of rebellion that impassionedly pervaded their 1992 reinvention: a hit record entitled Little Earthquakes, which turned 30 this year. Empowered by the volcanic vigor with which Amos played the piano, her relentless, operatic reflections on trauma – from the religious shame she endured as a girl (“Crucify”) to the brutal sexual assault she suffered after a concert survived (“Me and a Gun”) – came as an alternative rock revelation to generations of misfits, artists and provocateurs who make up their loyal fan base. (Notable “Toriphiles” include wrestler Mick Foley, Halsey, and even Justin Timberlake.)

Amos returns to Los Angeles on Wednesday for the first of three shows at the Orpheum Theater in support of her 2021 album Ocean to Ocean. A series of intimate sketches from the pandemic era, each ballad draws on Amos’ longing for community as she seeks refuge at home in the English coastal county of Cornwall, where she lives with her husband, recording engineer Mark Hawley, and daughter Natashya “Tash”. “Hawley. Although she enjoyed the time with her family, “so many of us got lost,” she says of the long period of isolation, citing police brutality and political unrest in the United States.

Lacking a real community with fans at her shows, Amos learned to communicate in different ways with the world around her. In “Speaking With Trees” she lets nature carry her grief for her mother, who died in 2019; and in “Addition of Light Divided” she invokes Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and transformation, to “break this chain of pain.” In contrast to her Christian upbringing, Amos plays with a peculiar syncretism, drawing inspiration from the mythology of different cultures; in our interview she attributes her own artistic process to the muses, daughters of the greek god zeus and spiritual patrons of art.

“I keep room for the muses to come and go wherever they want to take us,” says Amos. “Even if it’s somewhere in the galaxy.”

A woman plays two pianos at the same time during a concert.

Tori Amos performs in Kansas City, Missouri on May 31st.

(Chase Castor / For the Times)

You moved to LA in the 80’s at the height of the hair metal era. How was that for you back then?
I would play all the piano bars in town to pay my rent. I would do these four or five hour outreaches in these Greek robes with my hair in a bun. Then I changed back into my car, put on black eyeliner and shook my hair so I could reach the Sunset Strip and not look like an alien. My daughter looks at photos from back then and [asks]”Did that really happen?” I said, “It really did.” It was such a fashion car accident.

Her solo debut Little Earthquakes turned 30 this year. After its release in 1992, hair metal began to decline, and Nirvana entered the picture. What was it like recording a piano record during the height of the grunge rock era?
People in the industry would say to me, “The piano thing is dead.” One famous producer suggested to the label, “The problem with ‘Little Earthquakes’ is you have to take all the pianos out and put the guitars on.” Doug Morris [then-president of Atlantic Records] and I had a hit in his office near Sunset. I had to become the gladiator.

But in the end, I have to give credit to Doug: he said if I submitted a couple of new tracks on a very low budget, we’d see what happens. So I asked my musician friends from LA and Eric Rosse, who was my partner at the time, to produce the demos. We submitted four songs, including “Silent All These Years,” and Doug accepted them. To be an original creator, you must be able to stand alone with just a few people around you to support you. The worst that can happen? You wake up with your self respect.

Her confrontational, feminist approach to piano-driven music has spilled over into pop today. I hear your spirit on records by Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and especially the latest Halsey record produced by Trent Reznor, a former collaborator of yours. Are you keeping up with this new wave of singer-songwriters?
What’s interesting is that I now have a 21-year-old daughter, Tash, so I’m learning through her. But she discovers all sorts of things and even goes back in time to find things I’ve missed before – like she loves India. Aria. We were driving through Florida a few weeks ago and saw that Paula Cole was touring. Tash said, “I want to visit her, Mom.” And I never actually met Paula Cole until she showed up backstage in Boston the other night. What a pretty woman, by the way.

In her 2020 book, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage You wrote that the “weight of conflict processing” influenced the writing of Little Earthquakes. When I listen to “Ocean to Ocean” I think of the many large, collective conflicts that we have all had to process: a deadly pandemic, protests, violence. Last January we turned on our televisions and witnessed what is now being investigated as a coup attempt in the US Capitol.
We have to keep naming what we’ve seen. We will not allow this to be watered down – what they did was treason. They don’t get a pass, especially not from the ginger behind the piano. To be honest, she hasn’t.

Do we all process it? I don’t think we are. The wounds are there, but I don’t think we’re recovering. We must want heal. I’m currently traveling in the US trying to create a space where people can have community. Having your own ideas about things, yes, but also getting where it’s a safe place to be emotional. I keep room for the muses to come and go wherever they want to take us…even if it’s anywhere in the galaxy.

Did you write “Ocean to Ocean” with the intention of achieving a community healing process rather than a personal catharsis?
I first started out with the intention of writing myself out of my own private hell. During the first lockdown I realized that other people were experiencing this in their own way – I know the lockdown was stricter in other parts of the world. But my husband and I did our little thing in the middle of nowhere. I published my book, did a virtual book tour, turned the recording studio into a video studio. My daughter learned to do my hair and makeup. I happened to have “Quarantina,” that wig that we got because nobody could do their hair for five months. But I haven’t been touring since 2017. Until January [2021]with a third lockdown and a riot in the States, everyone was exhausted and it just felt like, “Will this ever end?”

Five years without touring is a long time. It’s also a long time without connecting with your fans.
This is the longest time that most musicians have gone in their lives without performing live. Some could do a virtual concert in their living room – but I’ll only sing to you from Cornwall and maybe you’ll do something else back home in New Zealand. But there is an exchange between audience and musicians that is very sacred. be with [a live audience], we’re just in this together. And if we work together, that’s where the magic and the transformation can happen. That’s why I think so many of us were lost.

The demands on musicians have changed to some extent during the pandemic. Now they’re expected to share so much of themselves on social media, to the point where their mental health starts to suffer. You have long opposed the exploitation of women, especially in the music industry – but did you feel so overexposed at the beginning?
In our time there were more magazines and more time between exposures. If we’ve been criticized, it’s usually from someone who at least knows music. Many of these publications have now disappeared. It was a different kind of exposure, and it was a shield of its own since it was more difficult for the public to go directly to an artist. You couldn’t just… DM me. Am I using the correct terminology for this? Please cover for me.

Anyway – online you can get wonderful reinforcements and you can gain a huge following pretty quickly. You don’t have to be so obedient to a label. You don’t have to go through the gatekeepers. If they don’t get it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get a response from people online. This data is real, it changes careers. I think artists face the same pressures, but now you have to find new ways to protect yourself. And you have to protect yourself.

So how do you take care of your mind and heart when you share it so graciously with other people?
I think the whole world could use therapy. Sure you want media training, but you do to need This. A lot of artists don’t even start touring and opening for 10 years now before they really make it – they jump right in and don’t have the tools to handle that level of attention. I am grateful that I started slowly. Without that, I wouldn’t have known how to hold the stage, whether it was a small theater in 1998 or Madison Square Garden.

That’s how you became a gladiator.
Yes Yes Yes. But hopefully with some wisdom and a fairy wink. Tori Amos on fighting sexism: ‘I had to become a gladiator’

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