Planting The Seeds Of Creation With Tori Amos

By Jessica Licciardello

Tori Amos has been tending the fire of musical creation and personal expression for more than four decades, and in her new book, “Resistance,” she delves deep into the inspiration behind her work—how it has been shaped and molded by not only her personal experiences, but also by responding to world crisis and the sociopolitical climate globally.

Indeed, Tori’s music has spoken to the human condition of millions of fans around the world. She writes and performs with fierce intelligence and thoughtfulness, slams us a powerful femininity that breaks all barriers, and forges a path forward for so many. Her book is coming into the world at a very important time. We have been navigating the crisis of a virus that has ravaged us physically, emotionally, financially, and mentally.

There has been a deep call to all of us—the heroes on the front lines of medicine and logistics, and also the artists and creators. The mantra of “Resistance” is to “out-create destruction.” Although written by Tori before the start of the pandemic, her words speak to a fragility of how we have operated even up until this point. The balance of creation and destruction is such a historic battle, it recalls a story as far back as ancient mythology. Individuals have been fighting for rights our entire existence, and these rights not only apply to our basic human needs, but the right to freely create and express ourselves.

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In her exploration of the topic, Tori discusses the plight of many creators, but specifically those in Russia. “Russian artists have really talked to me about how the news can be so dreadful, so overwhelming, and there is grief. Understanding what they go through on a daily basis as Russian citizens, particularly if they identify as LGBTQ because it’s against the law there—[is important],” she explains. “What they have said to me is that creative paralysis can happen before you know it, and it’s about finding ways to break through that and plant those seeds, realizing that someone will need their art in maybe three or four months time on the other side of this.

This virus is something that people will have to mourn and grieve through—some who have lost their jobs, some who have lost their homes. There’s a lot of loss we will have to deal with,” says Tori, “but I believe it’s the writers [and] the artists of every field that will need to mend those broken hearts.”

This time in our lives is a new call to action—a call to stay aware, stay strong, and be visionary. We are faced with a mirror to ourselves, and we must speak to that reflection. Tori’s “Resistance” is an inspiring look at the importance of the artist’s voice, our inner voice, and our responsibility to be true to ourselves. And, as she says, “It’s OK to take some time to dance your ass off too.”

I sat down with Tori to discuss her book and explore the concept of creating in a time of crisis…

How are you, and where are you right now?

I’m in the middle of farm country in Cornwall, England. I see more animals than people usually when I am here. This is my husband’s casa, and this is where the recording studio is. So you can kind of add those two up to figure out what I’m up to.

Before the crack of dawn [here], I hear tractors and the farmers. They’re not giving up. They’re going to plant, and they’ve been called to action too. So yes, if the farmers are planting their seeds, the artists can be doing that too.

In your book you discuss collective trauma, which takes on a new meaning in the light of current events. How do you describe the collective trauma right now, and how can you visualize the healing process?

I think that along with the anxiety, which is fine, we have a little cry and then say, ‘OK, I’ve had my cry today because the world I knew [in the past] is not the world I’m living in. And I don’t really know what the world will look like, because a lot of the freedoms we knew several weeks ago—have they been suspended? Or will they still be in place in a different way, in an authoritarian way, whereby it can be justified that we have less freedom and less democracy?’ And that’s the question.

For artists, I think there’s a lot to write toward; it’s an opportunity for them to really allow themselves to go as deep as they want to go, or to recognize and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m going to get some dance music because some of those people talk about the loss of freedom, and I’m gonna just dance my ass off tonight.’ And that’s valid too.

During a time of global crisis as we are experiencing now, there is always the possibility of important matters and policy “slipping through the cracks.” How do you feel we can keep our “True North” when it comes to policy and society during this time?

Well, that’s a really important question for all of us to answer. Because if we don’t have a loved one that’s in the hospital right now, or if we are not caring for someone who has [the virus], or we don’t have it, then we do not have an excuse to fall asleep and make this a staycation. You get a few days, you can have a  staycation for a week, but you cannot keep your eyes off the road—the road of democracy.

One of the great books written, “The Road to Unfreedom” by Timothy Snyder, walks us through how freedoms were lost for millions of people, from Ukrainians to Russians, to so many people. So for you and I and everybody else who isn’t on the frontlines fighting the physical virus, it doesn’t mean you’re not needed. We can be distracted from the trauma and the grief of the loss; it’s loss of life, which—having lost my mother—I understand.

What I went through was a very dark time, and I was pretty useless for a little while there. Everybody gets to go through that moment of trauma and then release it, however that is for you. But then we need you back online, awake. Because we can wake up to a world that isn’t the one we left. And democracy was in question anyway. We really need to be watching what the left hand is doing while the right hand is in pandemic on the right over here. A piano player really has to know what the left hand is doing because it can screw with the melody.

During the time of preparing your Peabody Commencement speech, you were in the midst of very intense personal grief. In the book you describe that you were pulling on and applying your 50 years of music training to get through the week. Do you feel that concept of training can be applied to us right now as we are faced with intense emotions and uncertainty? How do you feel we can we prepare or train ourselves for this and the future?

Well, it’s training every day then. For me, dealing with someone’s personal trauma helped me become part of the RAINN movement [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization]. A girl told me that if she didn’t run away, her stepfather would rape her that night as he had the night before. I was going to take her with me, but I was told I’d be arrested if I did that. That propelled me to work with other people at that time—some of the women at Atlantic Records and with Scott Berkowitz who runs RAINN. Together we formed a collective that created RAINN, [which] has been going now for a long time—25 years in 2019.

My point is, I didn’t know at that time that I had the skill set to stay with something—to be an advocate and support something—for 25 years. During this time, you can find certain skills you didn’t even know you had. I believe that sometimes we say to ourselves, ‘Well, no, this isn’t my area.’ But that doesn’t mean that at this defining moment, you can’t realize that you have a knack for something. It really is about challenging yourself.

You write about how you approach set lists for your shows with the location and mood of the local community in mind. After 9/11 you were the first performer on “The David Letterman Show,” and you played the song, “Time,” after traveling up and down the East Coast and interacting with American communities that week. With the current world situation, what song or set list would you choose to perform for the world if you were performing tonight? 

Well, one of the songs would be the hymn, ‘There’s a balm in Gilead. To make the wounded whole, there’s a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul. Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work is in vain. And then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.’

And what is that balm? There’s so much explosive information coming out every day that is putting people into two states of anxiety and panic. And we understand why—because we haven’t dealt with this before. But we have to step into a place of sonic healing, sonic salve.

There are books to be written, there are articles to be written, poems, art, dances to be done. That will, I think, be part of the healing mechanism of the mental side of this.

It’s very interesting right now how we are turning to art and creators of movies, visuals, TV shows, and music. That is what is sustaining our psyche as we deal with solitude at home. It’s amazing how art has come up as a driving force to help people’s mental state during this time.

…which hopefully will validate all artists. Some are not ready, or haven’t felt called, from what I’ve been told, just because they’re trying to process. Others have been able to say, ‘I’m ready to share art, I’m not in a place of darkness right now or dealing with suffering on such a level that I’m not ready to explore that.’

But what I’m saying is there will be a time—even if you don’t feel called right now, or you feel [like you’re] in a state of shock. There’s an opportunity for all different kinds of art, and I think it will all be needed—some that will make us laugh and get us dancing again, but some that will write toward the grief. Part of the healing is talking about what it’s bringing up in people.

What do you see as a silver lining through the struggle we are currently experiencing?

It’s that if we take this opportunity, we don’t have to hide from who we really are anymore. And that might be a little cringe-worthy—I cringed a little bit when I realized there are sides to myself I could really improve on. There are sides that are a little tough to look at, so it’s a time to jot them down and think, Well, how can I improve on this? How can I be a better listener and hear the needs of people? How can I communicate?

One thing I’m learning, not just in our household but also from what other people are saying via messages, is how people hear. With emails and texting, there isn’t tone, so messages can get taken out of context, and then people react, especially during a time like this of heightened emotions.

Is there any calming ritual you’re doing at home now that you’d like to share?

I’m cooking a lot now in between developing work. [My daughter] Tash and I love being in the kitchen, but she has university online right now, so there’s a lot going on with lectures and stuff. I find my alone space sometimes where I’m not under pressure, and I know that nobody but the four people here are going to taste it, so I’m not going to get a bad review in The New York Times or the Guardian the UK. [Laughs.] The Guardian can’t give me two stars.

One last quick question: Is there anything you still have on your life “to-do” list that you’ve never done before?

Kick ass and rock out when I’m 80 on a Bösendorfer [piano] in high heels.


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