Tori Amos Is Releasing Her Most Political Album Yet, But Don't Ask Her To Talk Trump

The musician radically changed course for her 15th album after the presidential election.
Paulina Otylie Surys

Tori Amos is finishing up a grocery list in the kitchen of her New York City apartment when I arrive to discuss her new album, “Native Invader.

At first glance, it’s a somewhat strangely domestic situation to find her in, considering she’s been granted near goddess status as one of modern music’s most critically acclaimed, commercially successful and influential singer songwriters. But even goddesses need to eat, and watching the 53-year-old musician, dressed in a black sweater and oversize black glasses, hand the list to her 16-year-old daughter, Tash, before leading me to her couch, I’m struck by the many varied roles Amos simultaneously plays ― rock star, mother, business woman, truth-teller, daughter, confidante, wife, healer ― all of which have inspired the army of rabid fans who are no less loyal to ― or obsessed with ― her today than they were nearly 30 years ago when she released her first single.

“Native Invader” is Amos’ 15th studio album and arguably one of the most personal and confrontational collections of songs she’s released to date. The album tackles America’s current tumultuous political landscape, the ravaging of our planet, the highs and lows and complexities of love and the recent stroke that left her beloved mother, Mary, unable to communicate.

During our chat, we discussed her thoughts on the 2016 election and why it reminds her of playing the congressional Christmas party as a teenager, the prospect of talking about her sexually explicit lyrics with her daughter and whether or not she’s ever going to fully embrace ― and re-release ― the decades-old glam pop opus that first put her name on the musical map (though perhaps not for any of the reasons she’d hoped).

Where were you when you found out that Donald Trump had been elected?

I was in my house in Florida. I had flown in that day from LA and I remember the plane ride — I sat next to a woman who was basically chanting “lock her up!” all the way there. [I learned] she was a single parent, had her own business, brought her kids up by herself and I wasn’t really saying anything. I was just sitting in my seat and all of a sudden I began hearing rumblings around me and I thought, Hmmm. I don’t know how [this election] is going to go. I had been thinking that — I’d been in London on and off [during the presidential campaign] — and every British cabby had been asking me, “So, what do you think is going to happen?” And I was saying, “The tide is turning,” because I took a trip down [in the American] South last year in June or July.

You were seeing things firsthand.

Lots of bumper stickers [for Donald Trump]. Lots. People seemed to really want something different. There was a real anger and sitting next to it on a plane for hours — I just dove into the movie I was watching. It was “The BFG” and all I wanted to do was become a mini BFG and crawl into that movie.

But you did the exact opposite. Last September, when you had just started working on new songs, you said, “The album might be a very different album come Nov. 8… I know where it’s going if [Hillary Clinton] wins. But if Donald Trump becomes the president of the United States… buckle your seatbelt.” So when did you decide to move the album in a more confrontational direction? Was it literally the day after the election?

The muses don’t work with me that way. They might work with other people like that but it’s about observation [for me]. I was [in the South] and then I went back to LA again and it was watching people’s reactions towards each other [that moved me]. It’s not about the election — it’s about the fallout from the election and the energy afterwards.

What were you seeing?

Families falling apart. People not being able to communicate without slamming the phone down or breaking off communication all together. I’m not judging anybody — I was just starting to pull the “sonic camera” back. I thought, OK, you need to get neutral really fast. When I say “neutral,” it’s about a space you hold to observe. When you go in ready for a fight, then how can you really hear the couple and what they’re arguing about when you’re sitting next to them with your book in that cafe? And they think you’re reading your book and you are but they’re so close to you and you’re just thinking, Aw, geez — I don’t want to be involved but I may as well be at their table! So you’re hearing every word wherever you are and things started to change. I started hearing stories of people, particularly in the North and on the East Coast — like I heard a girl was stopped by a group of guys. She was on her way to college and she was terrified by some of the things they said about her going back to her “liberal school” and they told her that she’d “better get back there very fast.” There were threats — and I’m paraphrasing — and I heard about that story from someone who knew the girl. These stories started to come out and that’s when the songs started to come.

What about that other album you had planned?

There were songs happening.

Did those go by the wayside?

They went by the wayside.

Because you said, “This is what I need to be doing.”

Well, we were changing course: this is what’s coming ― this what we have to do.

I’ve been listening to your back catalog a lot lately and though your work has always been political, songs from the last 25 years are now speaking to me in ways they hadn’t before. Songs like “Sweet Dreams” and “God” and “Virginia” and “Scarlet’s Walk” are now imbued with a new energy because of our current political climate. But “Native Invader” feels like the most overtly political album you’ve released ― perhaps ever. Do things feel more dire to you right now?

It feels like the movement has taken root ― and those roots run deep. These seeds were planted [a long time ago]. This is not a phase. And this is not about one or two people — it’s not about a vice president or a president.

It’s funny that you should say that because you haven’t talked about him in any of the promo you’ve done for the album so far.
You mean the master showman?

Yes. Donald Trump. That’s on purpose because you’re trying to make a larger point about this not being about him, right?
Yes. You can’t get distracted.

A year ago, before he won, you were talking about him. You told The Daily Beast that Trump was “disrespectful to all women.” But now that he’s in office, you want us to talk about ...

The issues! The issues. Whether his administration is behind some of these issues or merely delivering these issues, does it matter who and what’s behind these issues? I think it does. The intention matters. The agenda matters. And what really started to happen was when I was getting a crash course [with people telling me] “look this up” and “look that up” and “do you understand what’s going on here?” and “do you understand the indoctrination of our youth?” I said, “I’m a piano player, so why don’t you tell me more?” And emails would come in through people and acquaintances and friends of friends and then I’d be able to communicate with them. Scientists reached out. Physicists who might be musicians too who worked with some musician I worked with — it comes through like that. I listen to the nerds.

The nerds know what’s up.

They know what’s up! And they can be quiet, but they’re vocal through their work. [After talking to so many people about what was happening] I went back [in my head] to sitting next to Tip O’Neill. Most of the piano players [in D.C.] got the Russian flu that year. I was probably 14 — I had [become a professional piano player] at 13 but to do the congressional Christmas party was a big deal. I had been playing in the gay bars [in Washington, D.C. already] but I got to play this party. I don’t remember the exact year, but I remember the dress I was wearing. Tip O’Neill asked me to play “Bye Bye Blackbird” and I enjoyed that moment — it was a lovely moment — and he was very nice to me, but there was an energy in that room of power that I had never smelled before. And so, [after the election last year] I started to go back to that time and I had a little chat with my spirit brother Neil Gaiman and he asked me about that time. He said, “Do you remember? Because you were there.” And I said, “I remember an energy, but I need to go and research.” And what really became wild was the fact that I was playing in D.C. when [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch’s mother was running the EPA [from 1981–1983]. And when [David] Koch [of the Koch brothers] was running [for Vice President in 1980] on the Independent ticket. But the muses are saying that the penny dropped for them in the loss of the presidency ― the muses are saying they realized they didn’t need to win. If the seeds are planted, then the roots become deep and the tree grows tall. Many seeds [that were planted a long time ago] are representing the ideology of the think tanks and the super PACs [operating today] that I don’t even need to name.

Your daughter, Tash, duets with you on the new track “Up The Creek.” Have you talked ever discussed your earlier music with her ― especially some of your more personal and sexually explicit lyrics? For instance, have you two talked about the line in “Precious Things” where you sing, “So you can make me cum / that doesn’t make you Jesus”?

That isn’t one that we’ve talked about. As a mom, I’m not that way.

I want to hear more about this. I’m fascinated about that line between who you are as an artist and a performer and who you are as a mom. There are so many young people who discovered that song when they were around Tash’s age and that line meant a lot to them.

Every mom has their own style and way of talking to their daughters and sons. That topic, with teenagers, yeah… no. For me, it’s cringe-worthy. Sometimes I just put my hands over my ears and I’m like, “Nonononononono!” It’s not Pollyanna exactly… but it’s different as a mom. But when I step into Tori and I’m on stage, that’s very different.

Now, my nephew, for example, years ago when he was 5, he kept getting kicked out of kindergarten for cursing and [no one could get him to stop]. It was getting so out of hand that Tori Amos walks in — not as mom or aunt — but I was like, “Nothing’s working?” And everyone said, “No. And it’s serious — we need to get him back into school.” So I said to him, “All right, let’s go. Competition time.” And I have to say it felt different to be 30 or 32 years old — and not 54 — when I said the things I said that day.

Did it work?

I won. [Laughs] He just looked at me and his face turned red and he said, “you win.” And I said, “You’re going back to kindergarten? Shake on it.” And he did. And I told him, “If you ever need to use foul language, call me up.”

“I’ll be the repository for that.”

Exactly! I’m Tori! I’m the reposiTori! [Laughs]

Paulina Otylie Surys

There’s a conversation happening right now on one of your message boards…

Wait. Right now? Like as we’re talking?

Yes, actually. Probably right this very minute. “Native Invader,” more than any of your albums since “Scarlet’s Walk,” places such an emphasis on Native American cultures and Native American voices, and, so, people have been talking about cultural appropriation and what’s OK and what’s not OK for an artist to talk about or use in their work. You’re Native American…


Partly. Exactly ― you’re also white. So how do you approach that topic and what are your thoughts about cultural appropriation?

Doesn’t all of this depend on your intention? The Native Americans I know want people to learn their history ― want people to have awareness of Bears Ears, have awareness of our land. I thought the fact that some veterans went to [Standing Rock] to stand with the water protectors was a very powerful merging. And other people coming there too. Because for me, the Earth is calling all tribes to be aware of her as our mother — however you put it in the words of your country. But, the fact that our water, our land, our air, our resources are under attack — no, no — worse than that: being enslaved, possessed — that’s what’s embedded in the record too. There’s a consciousness whereby we’re back to the seeds that have been planted. People in government are looking the other way, people are getting put in very powerful positions in these agencies — the Department of Interior, for instance, but we’re not mentioning names because it’s more important than that. If they walked out of their job they’d be replaced by someone else who would fulfill the agenda. This is not about one person. But it is about greed.

Is that the root of all of this to you? Greed?

It’s a root. The other root is power ― and power being a drug and it never being enough.

It’s strange to me because you’ve got these super rich-ass people running for office and trying to grab these positions of power — many of which come with a lot of headaches and drama. I always think if I were that rich, I’d just go buy an island and disappear to enjoy my life. But the money isn’t enough for those people — they need the power too.

It’s the power. But one feeds the other, because to have that kind of power, to be able to get some of these seeds in D.C., you’ve had to have a lot of financial support. [Like we were talking about earlier], these seeds were planted decades ago. That’s what distracts us. No one is stumbling into this — it’s all been designed.

On your last tour, you played almost all of the songs from “Y Kant Tori Read” [the much-maligned first album Tori released with her band, also known as Y Kant Tori Read, in 1988, several years before she released her critically acclaimed debut solo album, “Little Earthquakes”] ― something you’d never really done before. Does this mean you’ve made peace with that album and is there any chance of you ever putting out a reissue?

Its 30th anniversary is coming up! And, yes, I’ve made peace with it.

So would you consider reissuing it?

I’m considering it.

Get on it, girl. It’s one of my favorite albums.

It is?!

It is! I think when you strip away the hairspray and the clothes and you listen to the actual songs ― the melodies, the piano lines encased in this wonderfully indulgent glam pop ― it’s a killer album and a lot of fun. Even ― especially? ― 30 years later.

I think if I had [stylist] Karen Binns in my life then, it would have been a different visual and because she’s had such an influence in my life, that would have seeped through. But I met her in 1991. She wasn’t part of the “Little Earthquakes” package styling, but we were friends. And then she became part of the whole look from then on. So if she had been there from the beginning, things might have been very different.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

“Native Invader” is available in stores and online on Sept. 8. Tori kicks off a European tour on September 6, in Cork, Ireland, and starts her North American tour on October 24 in St. Paul, Minnesota. For full tour dates, head here and for more from Tori Amos, visit her official website.

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