Long before pop stars were urging us to swipe up to call our representatives, back when the music industry hewed to a strict “shut up and sing” ethos, Tori Amos straddled her piano bench, singing about subjects like her own sexual assault (“Me and a Gun”), religion (“God”), and female friendship and rivalry (“Cornflake Girl,” “Bells For Her”). Songs unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I didn’t necessarily think of them as political at the time, but for Amos, the personal and the political are always intertwined.
In her new book Resistance, Amos makes the connection even more explicit. She writes about playing at a Beltway piano bar as a teenager, where she witnessed louche political dealmaking—what she calls “the liquid handshake”—up close. As her political consciousness grew, she became closely involved with the nonprofit RAINN, which works with survivors of sexual assault. Her tours became consciousness-raising sessions, with fans seeking her out after shows to talk about their own experiences with sexual assault and domestic abuse. And in 2014, after performing in Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, she was radicalized by her conversations with anti-authoritarian activists there. Though she wrote Resistance pre-COVID, the pandemic has given the book a new resonance. It is, she tells me, “about writing through personal crisis and collective trauma, and we’re experiencing a trauma that I can’t define, that’s unlike any of the others in my 56 years on the planet.”
Resistance also feels timely for another reason: The indie women of Amos’s generation are experiencing a surge. When we speak, Fiona Apple’s new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters is all anyone is talking about. Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco published books last year, and Alanis Morissette’s musical version of Jagged Little Pill made it to Broadway. Amos is currently holed up at home in Cornwall, England with her beloved Bösendorfer piano, which she refers to as “she.” We chatted about ’90s womanhood, her political awakening, and being the kind of person some male record executives considered “difficult.”
When I revisited your songs recently, I realized the ones I loved and thought of as personal were also political. The book is more rooted in world events than just your own experience. Why did you decide to write a political memoir rather than a standard narrative?
My editor said to me, “I know you, and I know that in your touring and through the past 30 years, there’s been an activism side, and you’ve been called to action at different times during not just personal crisis, but sometimes collective crisis. I really want you to write toward that.” When I started to write the book, it was really about the loss of democracy, and my concern about that.
Working at the piano bar, you saw the Beltway movers and shakers in action. You also saw the mechanisms that were in place then, and how little has changed.
It’s funny how everybody has their story and their start. Sometimes, because it’s your own, you don’t see how it currently resonates with what’s going on. Growing up, I always wanted to live somebody else’s life, someone else’s story, thinking, Wow, they traveled the world because they were an army brat or something. But at a certain point, [for] each one of us, our story resonates with what’s going on [in the present]. I remember talking with people from both sides of the aisle in the bar. Some of them would come together and have drinks. In some ways, I was exposed to the seeds that were being planted, that would later come into power with Citizens United and groups like that.
The detail that you once duetted with Tip O’Neill came out of nowhere! I really enjoyed picturing that happening.
He was charming, a charming man.
How do resistance movements work right now when we can’t gather or go door-to-door without violating social distancing rules?
There’s an opportunity for people to look at issues like they never have before. We’re all being affected. We have to resist despondency. That’s the one thing the Russians really taught me: Resisting becoming complacent and so demoralized that you give up [when you’re] hammered with propaganda all the time. I’ve used this analogy in my talks, but as a piano player, the left hand and the right hand have to know what each other is doing for that instrument to sing, or grab you right there in your Kundalini. The right hand seems to be very involved in the pandemic, [and] it’s very dangerous to think about what in the world that left hand is up to with policy, with rights, with freedoms, in the guise of, “We’re doing this for you.” When there’s a crisis, there’s always an authoritarian somewhere that’s trying to shore up their power. That’s just how they operate.
You were the first person I knew of to write an explicitly first-person song about rape. What has it been like to witness the #MeToo movement and the wave of changes over the past couple years—people talking about this more openly, people being held responsible for sexual assaults they committed 20 years ago? And when you wrote the “Me And a Gun,” what was the reaction at the time?
There were people at the label who didn’t want me to put it on the album because it made them so uncomfortable. I said, “If you’re not uncomfortable, there’s something wrong with you!” You need to be uncomfortable. This is what art can do. This is what a song can do. Just discussing an issue doesn’t have the same power that a film or a song does, to express the emotion and tragedy in a way that only art can.
It was a shock to people, and it was a shock to me, that an epidemic of sexual assault has been going on in every sector, has been endemic in our society. Finally the public is holding people accountable. There was a time, though, when the culture was, “Look the other way.”
Female musicians of your generation are really being re-examined right now: Fiona, Alanis, Liz, Ani. What does it feel like to be part of that renaissance? I remember listening to Fiona Apple’s album in 1997, and it’s so great that more than 20 years later, the day a new one comes out, everyone’s listening to it.
It’s because she is true to her muses. Not everybody is able to withstand the battle you have to sometimes have with your labels. I don’t know exactly what their battles have been, but if they’re still around and they’re still being true to their muses, they’ve had to fight in ways we can’t know. Normally, after the first record, they want the same record again. A thinking songwriter knows you can’t repeat the same record.
On alternative radio, if they were playing two women, [you would hear] “Well, we’re already playing two.” There was a culture I found very divisive in the ’90s, where they would pit women against each other. And critics would do this too. As if there was only room for one! The truth that you and I know is that if someone is writing to what they’re experiencing or what they’re seeing, then there’s not a carbon copy of that.
There was a tendency to group women together: the Spin Girl Issue in 1997, the Rolling Stone Women in Rock issues. Did you feel you were being grouped with people because of gender? Just to fill a quotient?
Sometimes it felt as if you had to pick one. With the male artists or the bands, you didn’t have to pick one. It was almost as if to support one [woman], you’d have to betray the other. I use the word divisive because it was. And that’s why I gravitated towards doing my work away from the big city centers, away from L.A. and London and New York.
You write that you were told, on your first album, “no piano, only guitars,” I guess because guitars were considered more masculine or “rock.”
There was a real battle about piano. I think they imagined it would be an Elton John or Billy Joel record. I have great respect for both of them and their work, and yet their voice isn’t my voice, and that’s not my piano style. I think certain people at the label, producers that had a lot of success, felt it wasn’t relevant, because if you looked around, the acoustic guitar was having critical and commercial success with Suzanne Vega, with Tracy Chapman. You can go back in time and look at around ’88, ’89, ’90—there wasn’t a lot of acoustic piano. That battle is part of my narrative. I had to fight and stand my ground. And then people changed their minds about it. The success of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink changed their minds.
There was a time [when] if you did not get their support, they could shelve you. It was a serious game you were playing. If you’re contracted to a label for eight albums, it’s their option, and they can shelve you at any time and won’t sell you. I don’t know any other business in America, or in the Western world, that works like that. I’ve known artists whose careers have been destroyed. I’m not going to mention their names, but [they] were shelved or not released from their contracts because they angered somebody, because they stood up for themselves. I’ve pissed a lot of men off. And they think I’m very difficult [imitating a man’s voice]: “Tori, you’re very difficult.” But you know what? Fine. I stand in my truth and I ground in that. I started in this life with a piano and I’m going to go to war with you. And what helped me do that, if I’m honest with you, is my fan base. They’re MI6, boots on the ground. They’re the reason I’m here.
You wrote a lot about female friendship, which really appealed to me because you weren’t seeing many narratives about it in pop culture at the time. There was this idea that it wasn’t as important or complex as romance. You talk about that in the book, these ideas of girl-on-girl crime and girls excluding each other, but also female friendship not shown as something idealized. What kind of responses did you get from critics and fans at the time?
People would come and talk about their stories, and I realized this was a subject that needed to be mined. There was real, worthwhile material there—and there was value. People had scars and wounds and regrets because of friendships that, in most cases, were not romance-driven. The power dynamic of friendships, of one becoming successful, or one finding love and the other not, and what this did to the relationship, really fascinated me. Women’s stories fascinate me. That drove me to listen to all the dynamics and elements that can really poison the friendship.
Are you working on new music? How does being a performer work in a time like this, when everything is remote?
I’m pretty fortunate that I ended up in Cornwall, because this is where the recording studio is; it’s where the Bösendorfer is. She can’t live in a home studio. I’m writing a record for Decca right now. I think you’re going to find a lot of artists are being called to write through this crisis—write toward it, and then write through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.