“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception,” astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wrote. He may have found himself surprised to inspire a Tori Amos song (‘Bang’) and to be one of the many muses that helped Amos write her fifteenth album, Native Invader. Surely the two would have quite a conversation, with Amos giving a primer on survival. For all Amos’ dexterity in excavating pain, she remains invested in resilience. Even as she enumerates the personal and political cataclysms that detoured the album she thought she was writing, she seeks to understand her own grief and for the tumult that’s gripped the world since the United States’ Election Day.
When Amos set out for the Smoky Mountains in 2016 to visit the lands of her mother Mary’s people, she could not anticipate how the synergies of her past were conspiring to prepare her for what was to come. On the drive from Washington, DC, Amos thought about her early years performing in piano bars for politicians who’ve now found higher office. As Amos hoped to channel the voices from her own past, merging them with those of Mary’s past, a grim turn of events altered Mary’s literal voice; Amos’ mother suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. The stroke happened just two months after the election. Amos watched her mother be compromised from within her own body. And she watched things she held dear – natural resources, the advancement of science, the truthful dissemination of information – be attacked by predators that had been lurking among us all along.
The songs she had been writing fell by the wayside, and the songs of Native Invader were born. Like Sagan before her, Amos knows what a black hole is. But she’s is committed to climbing out of black holes, and here she sheds some light on how it’s done.
DiS: In the past, I know you've written songs and not known what's coming out of them, like you said about American Doll Posse, for instance. With Native Invader, when did you know that's what you were dealing with?
Tori Amos: Let's say it like this. I took a road trip. In retrospect, it makes sense. At the time it was happening whereby we got the car, Johnny and I, in DC. So we flew in. My sister came to see me. She was at a convention – she's part of an AAIP group, Association of American Indian Physicians. One of our dear friends who was at this convention, Polly, who's part of the Yakama tribe, she and my sister came over the night before I took the trip. Held hands, lit the sage, and they both encouraged me to go. I already knew I was being drawn to the mountains of Mary's people. That means the European immigrants that came all those generations ago, and first nations, and the Eastern Cherokee nation ancestry for Mary. Both my parents have both. I didn't know what I was going to find there in the rocks and the streams and the trees, but I knew that I needed to go where those songlines were. Leaving Washington sparked a memory of playing so many different places from Georgetown all the way to K Street where the lobbyists would come in working in all different parts of government. I played for them from the age of 13 to 21. I didn't realize in that moment all the different synergies that were happening. The record was beginning. I didn't really have the songs yet, but the seeds were being planted.
What do you hope that people will take away from Native Invader?
I'm curious to know what people get from it. What they hear. What visions they have. What their relationship is with the songs. What comes to them. Because I think there's an exchange to be had there, and that will keep giving. I go back to that word: energy. So that we have what we need to ride out the storm and plant seeds while we're riding out the storm because we have invaded words like "freedom" and reclaimed them. Not to hoard them for ourselves, but to release them back into the earth so that they can plant their seeds down as a sovereign essence.
Both Scarlet's Walk and Native Invader have a lot to do with nature as a force. Does nature function the same way on both albums, or how is it different?
There are differences because she's under attack. Whereas the attack was a very different plot and different antagonists, and now the antagonists are within. This is where the title Native Invader comes from – there is no win there, except for the plutocrats. Where the native invader doesn't win either is in a stroke, which happened within Mary. Where native invaders can work is mother and child, in the womb. As I like to say, Tash had a condo nine months for free, rocking it in the mommy time-share.
I feel like you've been talking about the concept of a native invader for a while now. Like ‘Taxi Ride’ for instance. Or ‘Not David Bowie.’ Or all of your songs that deal with the way women can be really cruel to each other. So I feel like this is something that may have been brewing for a while.
Well, I like brewing. A nod to the witch community out there. I like a brew, whether it's chocolate on the stove or a good cup of tea, there's something about simmering on the stove. Sauces. And I can see, that, yeah. I agree with you. Things that are able to seep into what should be a protected space and then is not a safe space. Whether this is ideas that are able to seep through, whether that's a mirror image of the CO2 in the ice that's being stored. I can't even begin to understand what the scientists understand, but with ‘Reindeer King’, not only are we talking about that a teenage girl's mind has been invaded and she can't get those thoughts out of her mind and those thoughts are taking over – she just hasn't found a way to process them yet. Or we're talking about an element on earth that is changing form. It's changing form before its own eyes.
You talk often about bloodlines. Do any of the songs on this album share bloodlines with your earlier work.
Probably a lot of them do and I might not know it yet. I would say ‘Reindeer King’ has a bloodline to ‘Winter’. And, yet, it might be connected to other things as well. I'm just discovering them, so if you find any, you'll have to let me know.
I know that you read a lot of history and a lot of mythology, taking lessons from the past. Does this time now remind you of other things from the past that you've encountered?
Certainly, the propaganda of information, the flooding of information has to be reminiscent of the burning of the books that was occurring in Europe [before WWII]. It's just a mirror image. It's flooding instead of burning, and digital flooding, but we're drowning in information so that there's so much misinformation that the tower of Babel is amongst us. That's why in some of the songs it talks about: “Vowels and consonants our weaponry”. And: “Bang with a gun on your tongue / Bang with a gun on their tongue / Word crucifixion toward immigrants shunned”. So the idea is the words are words and guns. Words are very powerful things.
We've got all the huge movements happening now, with Black Lives Matter and things ignited or continued by the Women's March. I've heard people saying that these movements don't have enough of a defined direction, that they're too unfocused, that they have no goals. I personally don't know that they need to be focused, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
Tell me why you don't think they need to be focused. That's interesting.
I feel like if they had a definite focus, it would shut a lot of people out. For instance, when there was still the big fight for marriage equality, of course I wanted gay marriage, but it was more important to me that everybody could have the rights that marriage would confer.
I'm with you. I don't know if they need a focus either, because it's about the energy, isn't it? The movement knows what it is. The energy is clear. It's important that the energy is clear. And if it is, then, as you say, people can march along. Or dance along. Inclusion. That's got to be the goal. Not exclusion. I don't have to be a scientist to march with the science gang. I just want them to be able to research and not be – there seems to be a purge of the idea of science happening. I'm not a scientist myself. I don't want to tell a teenager what to think, and there are movements out there that want to tell teenagers what to think. They want to indoctrinate them into what to think, as opposed to encouraging the teenagers to be taught a method whereby they know their own mind; they find out a way to think for themselves. So, that, to me, is – I'm taking to a place where I saw the glaring lights – when people were going through this variation of a back passage, of sending messages to me, and beginning to realize there's a lot at stake here. This is not about two people.
I'm sure you've been hearing tons of stories like this, but it seems relevant to the themes of the new album. In the tiny, tiny town where I live, which is also very old and historic, they're trying to put a huge natural gas pipeline in even though it will destroy the town, the water. It seems like similar things have happened in other towns where everybody gets together and does all they can but it's not enough. Is there anything that you've observed that can help people fighting things like this?
Well, the resilience is in the record. It is happening, in so many places, but until I started to be aware of the think tanks that are funding many seats in government, I didn't realize that this is a movement bigger than I understood. And when I say that, there are people in positions of power. They might not be in government, but they hold incredible power, and are deciding policy, are trying to relax regulations against bigger corps, and are the gatekeepers of our resources and the gatekeepers of our land. The question is, as people are starting to experience the consequences of that, how do we even unify a network? But we can. We have the internet. We're able to outreach to each other and support each other as far as energy. The sad thing about this is that big corp is going to get their way for a while. For a while. But we also have to hope that the teenage generation, the generation that had the determination to sue the United States government, is going to, like a domino effect, affect the majority of teenagers across this nation to think about that their resources are being pillaged by a few American oligarchs.
Have you ever had another time where you were getting so many messages?
After 9/11. During that time and during that tour, Strange Little Girls' Strange Little Tour, which is which is what propelled Scarlet's Walk.
You’ve talked about protection. That reminds me of 2007 when the Westboro Baptist Church came to your shows. I was at the show in Lawrence, KS, at the meet and greet beforehand. You came out and, before you spoke to anybody, you gathered everybody around and told us all to protect ourselves energetically. What are some helpful ways for people to do that?
I would say sage. I find a shift when that happens. When you do it enough, once you begin to take in that wonderful aroma, it already puts me in a place of: “OK, I'm letting negative energies that are projected fall off me. I'm gonna hand them back.” Just by smelling the sage that helps to do that. But it is taking time too, sometimes, and visualizing. When you visualize where you are, that you're grounded, that you're present, taking time to make sure you're present in the moment. That does take some training, I've found.
I think, too, for people who've been through any sort of trauma, it's really easy to dissociate and go off somewhere else.
Don't they say fight, flight, freeze, or fawn? When I started reading about that, I found that to make a lot of sense. Sometimes we could be responding with all four at different times.
It’s hard to protect yourself all the time.
It is, and to have almost a bubble around your being. There's a bubble if you see it like an egg of light.
Isn't that part of shamanic training?
Yes. And to see this sort of shape of an egg because it's fertility there. For me, it's about creation, not destruction, if you see it as a substance whereby things can bounce off it. So as things are being thrown at this egg, it deflects from it. Whatever that is, it deflects and goes back. That's a really constructive teaching that I was taught along the way.
On a totally different note, have you had any experiences lately with getting any kind of psychic reading?
I had a reading. I had a reading by Marina at Dark Star Astrology, and she works a lot with mythology. I gave her the time 1:18 PM because that's the time my mother had always given me. On August 22, at 1:18. I'm still processing. She knows her myths and so I recommend checking out her site.
Your tour is coming up, and I imagine you're still working out how things are going to go on your tour.
I brought in yet another tech because it is a one-woman show. I don't know, if I'm honest with you, how they're the hardest to do. Coming out of menopause, it's been something – last time I did it because it was a way to pull me out of it. That kind of demand was what helped me to turn it around. Now I'm hoping to enjoy it, have fun with it. But it is demanding, and I know that I can't do it forever just because of the physicality of it. I want to enjoy it because you don't know what tomorrow brings. You don't know. But I know I can't do the solo thing forever because, again, it's grueling.
At this point, you've done just about every touring setup possible. Solo, string quartet, a band with guitar, a band with no guitar, the list goes on. Is there any setup that you would like to do that you have not done yet?
Hot male dancers. That might be the Vegas show, though. Like the Piano Bar Vegas show.
You can move in like Celine Dion and just have a show there.
Maybe for a few weeks. I don’t know about "moving in", but when it's cold maybe one day, just have a piano bar with some hot male dancers. I like this idea.
I'm not sure if it would fit with all of your songs.
But it's the Piano Bar section where we do some of our standard moments and they could come out. It would be like Tori in the late 70's at the piano bar, but with hot male dancers.
Native Invader is out on 8 September via Decca Records. For more information about Tori Amos, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit her official website.
Photo Credit: Paulina Otylie Surys