In Tori Amos' New Album, A Return To Nature and Family

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 7, 2017 12:04 pm

Tori Amos is the kind of artist you might describe as a seeker. Since she started recording in the 1990s, Amos has used her songs to ask big questions about the world she observes. Time has made her powers of observation more acute, and on her new album, Native Invader, Amos takes stock of the present moment.

Native Invader is also a personal project that gave Amos a chance to explore her own roots. "[I was] searching for my grandfather, his stories, his essence," she says. "He died when I was 9 1/2, and there was something whereby I wanted to be in the spaces where he grew up."

So Amos hit the road, traveling the mountains of North Carolina, doing something her Cherokee grandfather taught her to do: "tracking the song lines of the land."

Papa, as she calls him, was a strong believer in nature's power to inspire. He believed "that we needed to spend time sitting by streams, listening to rocks," she says, "and if you get really quiet, Granddaughter, they might start talking back to you, but you have to listen really, really hard."

Her grandfather's influence is nowhere more evident on the album than the song "Up The Creek." In it, she sings: "Good lord willing and the creek don't rise / We may just survive / If the militia of the mind / Arm against those climate blind."

"Good lord willing and the creek don't rise" was a pet phrase of his, Amos says. "Any question you'd ask him — 'Will you be home for dinner?' 'By the good lord willing and the creek don't rise.' "

Amos has been making music since she was 2 1/2, according to her mother. "They would put phone books on the piano stools so I could reach the keys," Amos says. "It was really a blessing whereby if somebody could play me something, I would play it back."

Amos' father, a Methodist minister, encouraged her musical pursuits in his way. "My dad, being the guy that he is, believed in training," she says. "People in the church said, 'Look — it's one thing to be able to play it by ear, but it's another thing to develop as a musician.' "

So at the tender age of 5, Amos auditioned for and was admitted to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, becoming the youngest person to ever have been admitted.

It was a remarkable achievement but also somewhat torturous. "I couldn't read music, but I could play," she says. "So although you're playing scores of musicals by ear, we had to start with 'Three Blind Mice.' "

Amos stuck it out for several years. And while she got the training her parents had wanted for her, she didn't get to play the kind of popular music she craved. So at age 11, she left.

Her father was understandably devastated, but he remained supportive. Amos recalls, "Two years later, he said to me, 'You're just whiling away. So get dressed.' And we went down to Georgetown, Washington, D.C., with his clerical collar on, and he would ask managers of these bars, 'Will you let my daughter play?'

"And they all looked at him like he was mad, until we went to the 12th or 13th one. And some guy, he had studs around his neck — and I don't know if my father noticed that or not, by this time, and he said, 'Can my daughter play here, please?' And he kind of looked at us a little strangely and said, 'Why not?' "

Amos' father only realized a little while later that he had gotten his teenage daughter a gig at a gay bar. "When the parishioners found out about it, they were castigating him," she says. " 'How in the world could you take your 13-year-old daughter to a gay bar?' And he said: 'You tell me a safer place for a 13-year-old girl than a gay bar!' "

Native Invader moves fluidly between existential questions about politics and deeply personal concerns. Amos' mother, Mary, also has a presence on the album; the song "Mary's Eyes" is a tribute to her.

"She is the center of our world; her love has been something that the family leans on," Amos says. "Everyone goes to Mary to hear what she has to say."

Amos' mother suffered a severe stroke in January that left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak; Amos says that she does, however, want to sing. "Anything that she knows by heart, when she hears it, something seems to click," Amos says. "And she will try and vocalize."

"Mary's eyes are so blue and they will look at you with so much love, even though what she's going through [is] distressing to her and she's in pain sometimes," Amos explains. "But she wants to be on Mother Earth so much that it's humbling to see Mary's resilience."

NPR editor Vince Pearson and NPR Music news assistant Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tori Amos is the kind of artist that you might describe as a seeker. Since she started recording in the 1990s, she has used her songs to ask big questions about the world she observes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD")

TORI AMOS: (Singing) God, sometimes you just don't come through. God, sometimes you just don't come through.

MARTIN: Time has made her powers of observation more acute. And in Tori Amos' newest album, she takes stock of the present moment. But this is also a personal project that gave her a chance to explore her own roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORI AMOS SONG, "CLOUD RIDERS")

AMOS: Searching for my grandfather, his stories, his essence - he died when I was 9 1/2, and there was something whereby I wanted to be in the spaces where he grew up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOUD RIDERS")

AMOS: (Singing) Standing on the edge cliff...

MARTIN: So she hit the road, traveling the mountains of North Carolina, doing something her Cherokee grandfather taught her to do. She calls him papa, and he was a strong believer in nature's power to inspire.

AMOS: Well, I was tracking the song lines of the land, his belief that we needed to spend time sitting by streams, listening to rocks - and if you get really quiet, Granddaughter, they might just start talking back to you, but you have to listen really, really hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOUD RIDERS")

AMOS: (Singing) Underneath the stars above, I said, no, stop, I am not giving up on us.

MARTIN: The album is called "Native Invader," and it's equal parts about family and nature with a good dose of politics thrown in. This song is called "Up The Creek."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP THE CREEK")

AMOS: (Singing) Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

Papa used to say that. Any question you'd ask him - will you be home for dinner, Papa? Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

MARTIN: (Laughter) What do you want for lunch today, Papa? Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP THE CREEK")

AMOS: (Singing) We may just survive if the militia of the mind arm against those climate-blind.

MARTIN: You've been making music for a long time. You were at it pretty early - 5?

AMOS: Two and a half, says my mother.

MARTIN: Come on.

AMOS: That's what mom says. They would put phone books on the piano stool so I could reach the keys. And the thing is, it was really a blessing whereby if somebody could play me something, I would play it back. And then, you know, my dad, being the guy that he is, you know, he believed in training.

MARTIN: He was a Methodist minister, right?

AMOS: Yeah. So people in the church said, look, it's one thing to be able to play by ear, but it's another thing to develop as a musician. And so I auditioned at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore at 5 and was really fortunate enough to be admitted.

MARTIN: Wow. It's truly remarkable. I mean, did it ever feel burdensome to you, the discipline at that age?

AMOS: Well, the problem was, Rachel, because I couldn't read music but I could play. Although you're playing scores of musicals by ear, we had to start with "Three Blind Mice." So it was a bit torturous, you know? They had quarters on my hands.

MARTIN: Ooh. Wait, why do you need quarters on your hands?

AMOS: For the shape.

MARTIN: ...The shape of the finger.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORI AMOS SONG, "MUHAMMAD MY FRIEND (REMASTERED)")

MARTIN: The young Tori Amos stuck it out at the conservatory for several years. And while she got the training her parents had wanted, she didn't get to play the kind of popular music she craved. So at the age of 11, she left.

Did your parents get over that? I mean, clearly, they - and your dad, in particular - had been invested in that kind of training for you. Did he attach with that a certain hope for a kind of career you would have?

AMOS: Certainly not the one I have. And he was devastated, and I understand. But two years later, he said to me, you're just whiling away, so get dressed. And we went down to Georgetown, Washington, D.C., with his clerical collar on, and he would ask the managers of these bars, will you let my daughter play?

And they all looked at him like he was mad until we went to the 12th or 13th one, and some guy - he had studs around his neck, and I don't know if my father noticed that or not by this time. And he said, can my daughter play here, please? And he kind of looked at us a little strangely and said, why not?

MARTIN: That's amazing. So he knew you had talent. He knew you had this thing in you that you needed to get out, even if it meant taking you to nightclubs.

AMOS: Yeah, dad - I think he realized we were at a gay bar a little while in. And when the parishioners found out about it, they were castigating him - how in the world could you take your 13-year-old daughter to a gay bar? And he said, you tell me a safer place for a 13-year-old girl than a gay bar.

MARTIN: (Laughter) What is so compelling about this album is the way it moves kind of fluidly from big, existential questions about our earth and national politics to the very personal. I mean, you disclosed that story about your dad. There's also a tribute to your mom. This is a song called "Mary's Eyes." Let's play a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S EYES")

AMOS: (Singing) What's behind Mary's eyes? Mary's eyes, Mary's eyes...

MARTIN: Would you mind sharing some of what this song is about?

AMOS: Mary had a severe stroke in January.

MARTIN: We should just clarify, Mary is your mother.

AMOS: Yes, and she is the center of our world. Her love has been something that the family leans on. Everyone goes to Mary to hear what she has to say. And Mary is partly paralyzed and can't speak. The one thing, though, that Mary wants to do is sing. Anything that she knows by heart, when she hears it, something seems to click, and she will try and vocalize.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S EYES")

AMOS: (Singing) She's a believer - hymns locked in her memory.

Mary's eyes are so blue, and they will look at you with so much love, even though what she's going through, it's distressing to her, and she's in pain sometimes. But she wants to be on Mother Earth so much that it's humbling to see Mary's resilience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S EYES")

AMOS: (Singing) What's behind Mary's eyes?

MARTIN: The new album is called "Native Invader." Tori Amos, thank you so much for talking with us about it.

AMOS: Thank you, Rachel, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S EYES")

AMOS: (Singing) The death midwife, can you bring her back? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.