Tori Amos on Being “Baptized” by Gay Bars and Building Her “Resistance”
Shockingly, Tori Amos has never seen a Tori Amos drag queen.
The fiery fairy goddess has been a favorite of the queer community since her 1992 solo debut, Little Earthquakes. And let's be real, with that big hair and saber, we would have been obsessed since her Y Kant Tori Read days if we'd known about her then.
Amos has steadily released new albums every few years following '92. However, since dropping her most recent record, 2017's Native Invader, the Scarlet's Walk siren has been quietly at work on a book.
That book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, is out now from Simon and Schuster. It's billed as a "timely and passionate call to action for engaging with our current political moment," using songs from Amos' own vast catalog as anchors for each section.
NewNowNext caught up with Amos recently to talk about Resistance and her upcoming album, her dream of being a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag Race, and where she thinks the girls from American Doll Posse are now. Find our full chat with the singer-songwriter below.
Hi, how are you?
I'm nervous! I've been a super fan for years, so this is a dream come true for me.
Oh Christopher, we'll have a blast. It'll be great.
I loved Resistance. You have so many songs, so how did you select which songs would make it into the book?
It really started to show itself that it wanted to enter with "Gold Dust," because that was just the way in. With every project—with all the albums—there'll be a song that grounds the project. It might not be the song that everybody is relating to on a record, but it might be the one that just helps to bring clarity to the narrative of the album. So I applied that process of making records and how the songs operate to this. What I had to really keep in mind, though, was this storytelling is quite focused. It isn't, as you know, the story of my life; it's a book about how artists write during a crisis, and towards that crisis, to then ultimately heal from that crisis. So songs needed to work within the chapters but sort of underscore them in a way.
I thought the chapters where you discuss being in New York City on 9/11 were so fascinating. I remember watching your Letterman "Time" performance in my dorm room. I rewatched it a lot that fall. What was that like, performing on Letterman that night?
That means a lot, Christopher. That means a lot because it was a heavy responsibility, going back on that tour bus [after 9/11]. There were different emotions that I was picking up on for a few thousand miles—leaving New York after several days and then going down to Florida, and after just a few hours turning, jumping back on that bus, and coming back up. It was about contemplating what I was seeing and hearing from people when we would stop at a truck stop. [Back then], similar to now, people didn't know what the next day was going to bring. There were fears that the drums of war had started beating because that was the language, and those people who were present could hear that. So it was important to try and play the right song that night.
Speaking of Strange Little Girls, what was it like creating those looks for the album's different characters with Kevyn Aucoin?
Working with him in that way—I'll remember it forever. To collaborate with him was really watching a master work, and Karen Binns was styling. So the two of them were talking a lot, and of course, I was included, but they're such wonderful visual artists that it was important to give them the room to imagine and dream and have conversations. It was just magical to watch him work and be part of it.
Scarlet's Walk is one of my favorite albums of yours, and I loved the story from your book about the young gay kid who was watching you while you did the album photoshoot in Montana. Can you talk about that?
Scarlet's Walk was really art imitating life. So we had just crossed the country on the bus after deciding to tour right after 9/11. We were crossing the country and hearing stories from people. In a way, Scarlet's journey—we were doing it. I didn't realize what that was going to be yet. And the record was writing itself in real-time, but I didn't know that. So when it came time to shoot, it was essential that we get out and into what I think is the heart of the country. We were called to Montana, and it was one of those situations where I thought that we had moved on to a place of equality. And so when this young man talked about his life and what he faced and what his fears were being gay there, I didn't realize, because we had just come from the '90s, where I had thought there were a lot of openings in conversations about sexuality and gender. And it was surprising and heartbreaking to see the struggle that he was having. And I told him—I hope I encouraged him—that he would have to choose to be very wise because there were people that really had, what do you call it? There was an energy that you could feel that wasn't about equality.
In Resistance, you write about how the fairy godfathers of Mr. Henry's [the Washington, D.C., gay bar Amos played in as a teenager] took you under their wings, and you were "baptized by the barroom." You talk about your Mr. Henry days, but did you go to gay bars when you were older? Maybe when you lived in Los Angeles?
Well, there was always a gay pal. I was working most of the time in my L.A. days playing piano bars, and a lot of times I would do a double shift. And in the day time, I was writing my record, so I was pretty driven at that time. So it sounds weird, but I wasn't a real clubber. I was more of a "hang around and chat" type of gal.
Other gay icons like Dolly Parton and Kylie Minogue have talked about seeing drag versions of themselves. Have you ever seen a Tori Amos drag queen?
I haven't. I've heard they exist. Are they good?
I haven't seen one either! I think I might have to do it myself.
I'd love that. Let me know. I'll try and be there when this house arrest lifts. We can do a house drag show.
Do you have any tips for being a Tori Amos drag queen?
Oh, I don't know. I think that whoever does it will do her better than I can. That's what I think.
And speaking of drag, would you ever be a guest judge on RuPaul's Drag Race?
I would love to do that. That would make my world.
Going back to the book, in the "Bang," section you write about collective trauma being "its own energy," which I think is even more prophetic regarding the coronavirus pandemic we're in right now. Do you agree?
This is an opportunity for artists of all mediums to listen and experience this unprecedented moment in our lives fully. I do think the art coming out of this trauma will be vital in our healing, but in order to heal, I think some artists will be called to address the wounds. Some artists will be called to try and bring us calm and hope, and some will be called to find the balance in both. That's really where I'm at because I'm writing my next record. I'm working on it right now. So, of course, this is changing the course of it. It has to if you're being present with what's going on. We can't hang on to what was—I can't anyway. I have to look at the now, at what people are feeling, and write towards that.
What would you say to people who are feeling helpless right now? How can we resist or join a resistance movement?
We have to resist complacency, and we have to resist giving up. When I was in Russia in 2014, what they really talked to me about, the most challenging disease they found was despondency, so that you almost become a shell of yourself. You go into a zombie state, whether to protect yourself or because it's so overwhelming. When we allow ourselves to really talk about what's happening, the planet has stopped. The planet has stopped as we know it, but of course, Earth keeps turning, and the medical workers keep going [to work], and people are getting ill, and some people are recovering. But it's overwhelming what is happening right now, and it's unprecedented. So it's different than 9/11. Paris was reaching out [after 9/11]—different cities in the world were reaching out to send resources, to be emotionally supportive. Right now, everyone in this smackdown is being challenged in some way. Some people have reached out and sent letters or messages through other people that they are finding loneliness, the emptiness, to feel so great at times.
What do you think the dolls from American Doll Posse are up to these days? I sometimes wonder how Pip would be handling a Trump presidency.
Oh yeah, me too, right? I wonder where she'd be right now. Knowing her, she'd probably be in Asia, and she'd be figuring things out. She'd be on the underground somewhere—really trying to figure out what's going on.
Seriously! You mentioned working on your new album. Can you give us any more details about that?
It is evolving. In some ways, it's strange because there are so many different emotions that people are feeling that I have to find the balance so the record isn't just an expression in one way, so it's not a melancholy record only. There are moments of that. There are moments of refusing to allow my mind to be controlled. And this is another thing the Russians taught me. They wrote me many letters, and they tried to warn me at the time of authoritarianism. And they also talked about how to deal with propaganda. Those teachings are with me every day. And what they said is, that they actually use art as their shield. So if it's great writers, that they would go back to those writings and those books or poetry and reclaim them. Not how perhaps people can twist a narrative, and try and invade it, or invade a word, like the word freedom. That's so important. So yes, those letters, really what they taught me, those people—I learn a lot from the letters that get written to me. And I do read them all. Some people think I don't, and of course, it drives the crew crazy because it takes up like two bunks, and some Brit'll [give me a hard time], and I'm like, "Fuck off, I'm reading them, leave me alone. Give me my wine and piss off!"
Are you still aiming to release the album before the 2020 election?
That is my aim, if there is a 2020 election. Sorry, that is the lioness in me coming out. My fear is that there might be people who utilize this tragedy to access more power and control whoever those people are. A time like this historically, as we know, can really bring people to a place of, How can I put something out that empowers people? or, How can I gain more power and disempower people? That's just what happens.
Okay, one last question: Fans were so sad when the From the Choirgirl Hotel anniversary remaster never happened. Will that ever see the light of day?
I don't want to make anyone sad. I really don't. Doing those things takes a lot of time, and I felt that I needed to be creating and documenting the now, especially after 2016. It just felt that whatever work I was creating needed to reflect what we're doing right now. And I also kind of like Choirgirl [as it is]. Not that there can't be improvements, always. I'm not saying that, but it was just going to take... all of these [re-releases] take time. When I say time, it doesn't happen in a week. It's weeks. So I just thought that I needed to focus on documenting the now.
Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, is out now.