Tori Amos: ‘Menopause is the hardest teacher I’ve met. Harder than fame’

A walk in the Smoky Mountains in the footsteps of her late Cherokee grandfather helped the musician rediscover her muse and write an album that confronts the USs rapacious violence

A gargantuan truck fills the driveway of Tori Amoss Cornwall home. The surrounding countryside is tranquil verdant hills, stone farm buildings, golden crops swaying in the late August sun but a throng of activity greets us at the home/recording studio Amos shares with her producer husband, Mark Hawley. The van and attending crew, she says, curled up on the sofa in her library, are here to collect one of her beloved Bsendorfer pianos for an impending European tour. Shes being put in her case, explains Amos. Hopefully with a nice blanket.

Amos was raised in Maryland, a Led Zeppelin-loving daughter of a minister, and self-taught pianist who would jilt both church and conservatoire to forge her own sound in the 90s: wildly original, taboo-busting piano pop. She cut through grunges squall, playing two, sometimes three, piano keyboards simultaneously, while wearing 7in stilettos. Her music is celebrated enough to warrant the occasional benevolent ribbing the animated series Bobs Burgers recently had an Amos-esque woman using lyrics about an oil spill as a metaphor for her vagina and has been an indelible influence on todays musicians, acknowledged by Taylor Swift, Perfume Genius and Annie St Vincent Clark.

Native Invader, released this week, is Amoss 15th studio album, some 25 years on from her solo debut Little Earthquakes. She is feeling fortunate, blessed about this benchmark. But writing is still nerve-racking, mostly because Im waiting for the muses to turn up. She has jump-started the process in previous years; a penchant for hallucinogens, for example, is well documented. Oh, I havent done those in a while, says the 54-year-old. Im leaving that to the youth now.

Those 18-hour-long ayahuasca trips could be heavy going, says Amos, but nothing tested her creativity quite like the menopause. Thats the harshest teacher Ive met; harsher than fame. I was in the thick of it during [her 2014 album] Unrepentant Geraldines. But Im on the other side of it now, she smiles. I can see possibilities again. The muses saved her, but they took an age to show up. And when they werent there, I was a stranger to myself.

It was a trip through the Great Smoky Mountains, her late Cherokee grandfathers ancestral lands, last autumn that grounded her. Trekking through the Appalachian sub-range (a stretch that bridges North Carolina and Tennessee), she imagined her Poppa as a boy, treading those same routes. In that moment, we shared something; seeds were planted. I didnt recognise them at the time, though. It was very humbling.


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Up the Creek (audio only)

Poppas influence runs deep on Native Invader, peaking in the urgent thrum of the albums standout single, Up the Creek. When she was a girl, Poppa taught her about songlines the sacred navigational paths of the indigenous folk. Wed take walks. Hed smoke his pipe, tell me his peoples stories. There was no fanfare to it. I just drank it all in, like a weed.

Lineage and land, then, are dovetailing influences on this album. Resilience, too, the environmental kind climate change hangs heavy and the psychological, both in the face of Trump-era chaos. In the US last year, while working on a song for the Netflix teen drama Audrie & Daisy, Amos experienced the poison he has spread first-hand. I remember flying into Florida and sitting next to a woman who chanted, Lock her up! the whole way there. Oh! Such hate, she says. After that, I began to see the polarities; people unfriending family members on Facebook

The schisms bore an unsettling similarity to Poppas accounts of post-civil war life, gleaned from his mother, Little Margaret, a formidable, tomahawk-wielding matriarch who had evaded the forced relocation of Native Americans by means of taking refuge in the Smokies. I remember Poppa telling me how cousins would fight cousins, how some families still hadnt healed, a hundred or so years later. The similarities terrified me. I cocooned myself there for a minute, and the muses werent coming.

In January, Amoss 88-year-old mother, Mary Ellen, had a stroke, and everything changed. Before the attack, which has left Mary unable to speak and requiring round-the-clock care, mother and daughter had spoken often. About the election? About everything. Doctors say its difficult to assess the damage, but I believe shes still with us, says Amos gently. She remembers songs, certain hymns, the Beatles Penny Lane. She was, is, such a believer that all things can be healed by taking a walk; that all the answers are there, in nature. To see Mary under attack from this stroke, and to see America herself, Lady Liberty, under attack its a terrible parallel.

Matriarchal power in deities, myths, archetypes has been a perpetual touchstone in Amoss work, and is still present; I notice a pack of tarot-like Goddess Oracle cards on her library desk. Post-menopause, she is discovering a different kind of fertility in her work. She is honouring Gaia, and pulling no punches when it comes to naming the would-be architects of her destruction: Those pimps in Washington, raping the land, she sings on Benjamin, a track on the new album.

You cant beat a bully at his own games. And Im not talking about one particular bully. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Guardian
I think mother earth is being incredibly resilient against a government that seems hell-bent on exploiting her resources, she says. So she is under attack, and yet, when I walk in her bounty, I dont get the sense that shes giving up, or defeated. I do sense that [feeling] in people though.

She says that paranoia and fear permeated the tours for her post-9/11 album, Scarlets Walk, but shed encountered the smell, the taste of political influence, years before, playing to piano bar lobbyist crowds in Georgetown, Washington, throughout her teens. I was at a very impressionable age, performing for people making huge backroom decisions about the country. That was back when [Trumps Supreme Court appointee] Neil Gorsuchs mother was head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Iran-Contra; Weinberger I played through all of that.

Remaining creative in the face of the machine, she says, is vital. You cant beat a bully at his own games. And Im not talking about one particular bully here; its energy. You have to out-create the destruction its the only way.

But first, says Amos, the US must face its shame: its crimes against the First Nations, from Andrew Jacksons 1830 Indian Removal Act to the bulldozers that crushed the Standing Rock protests this February. Im not in a position to speak for First Nation people thats a sacred task. But, as an observer, it seems to me that, unlike Germany, weve never had to really face our holocaust. Until we do that, the healing cant begin.

In the Smokies, she encountered locals who were oblivious to the lands fraught history and had no idea they were inhabiting sacred songline territory. The ignorance she encountered stunned her and left her meditating on her own complicated lineage: a family tree that includes both Native Americans and Confederate soldiers.

It was Amoss physician sister, Marie Amos Dobyns, a member of the Association of American Indian Physicians, who prompted the pilgrimage. Maries a big believer in championing the voiceless; I didnt truly understand that until Mary lost hers. Dobyns has forged deep friendships in the Native-American medicine communities over the years, says Amos, kinships she has been generous enough to share with Amos. I call them the Seattle sweat lodge sisters. Theres nothing Ive experienced like [sitting in a sweat lodge with them]; you feel so nurtured, so given to. But theres a nakedness, a vulnerability, you have to bring to it in order to receive that.

Amos on stage in Cambridge in 1993. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Vulnerability mens, in particular is tackled compassionately on the Native Invader song Wings: Sometimes, big boys, they need to cry. Is she referencing anyone in particular here? Oh, I see it all around me: in my marriage, in my crew. Men can spend hours gabbing in the pub, Amos says, without ever articulating their feelings. When, I wonder, did Trump last cry? Would we all be safer from the epidemic of toxic white masculinity Charlottesville, Dylann Roof, fire and fury if men could own their fragility? Listen, we have all heard men being called a certain female body part when they cry. And we all know the real power of that body part; talk about a multitasker! Emotional vulnerability takes bravery. Great male leaders through the ages have understood this.

Trumps most bilious voters the ones who invoke Gods name with white hoods and burning crosses are anything but brave, says Amos, and definitely not true, compassionate Christians. As a former Jesus groupie, or recovering Christian as her Boys for Pele-era tour T-shirts touted, Amos is uniquely qualified to know. Some of Marys carers, they really walk the walk. They practise their faith on a daily basis and they glow with it. Mary had has that glow, that containment, too. But shes got a fight on her hands now, to stay on the planet.

On her impending tour, how will Amos endure the miles between mother and daughter? Will she cut things short should the worst happen? Its day-to-day right now, she says, after a long, heavy pause. Ive been doing music since I was two and a half; its the thing that makes sense to me. And yet, at her peak, Amos didnt always make sense to her critics. In the 90s, her genius was frequently couched in misogynistic backhanders by the music press: she was a weird chick in Q; a Grade-A, class-one, turbo-driven fruitcake in the NME. And they werent all men, those critics, Amos points out wryly. But she persisted, and here she is now, 15 albums in still touring, still creating, still defiant.

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