Tori Amos launched her career at the age of 13, performing at Mr Henry’s, a Washington DC gay bar for tips collected in a brandy snifter atop the piano. Her father, a Methodist minister, accompanied her to the gigs; at first, the customers mistook his clerical collar for fancy dress, Amos recalls in her new memoir, Resistance. Later in high school, she played smoke-filled piano bars near the White House that hosted the “liquid handshakes” of lobbyists. “Even though I was not aware of the details, I was a witness to something dark occurring.”
Resistance eschews the standard formula of the genre (“rise, bling, fall” as the hip-hop artist Questlove put it). Instead, it is loosely organised around 18 of what Amos considers her most political songs, including Cornflake Girl, Jackie’s Strength and Silent All These Years. Each track prompts a memory about what inspired the lyrics or a discourse on an issue close to her heart.
She recounts the anger and grief she perceived when touring the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, including appearing as the first musical act on the Late Show with David Letterman after the terrorist attacks. She played a cover of Time by Tom Waits, from her album Strange Little Girls: “And it’s time, time, time, that you love.” Ever since the invasion of Afghanistan that ensued, the United States has “been a nation at war”, she writes.
Amos has never shied away from politics: the song Me and a Gun, from her 1992 debut solo album Little Earthquakes, is a stirring a cappella account of her own experience with sexual violence. Amos has been a spokeswoman for Rainn (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), which provides support to survivors, for over 25 years. The busiest day in the hotline’s history, she notes, was the day after Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against the US supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Her albums Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and American Doll Posse (2007) both challenged decisions made by President George W. Bush, and Native Invader (2017) was written “to help process the shock of a Trump presidency”.
Resistance follows Amos’s 2005 memoir Piece by Piece, which described her sources of inspiration as well as personal and professional struggles, including conflicts with her first record label and multiple miscarriages before the birth of her daughter, Natashya. It also included interviews with her entourage about life on the road. Piece by Piece was written in collaboration with the music journalist Ann Powers. “It’s very different when you’re staring at a blank page alone,” Amos has said.
To recreate the fluidity of the conversational form, parts of Resistance are presented as dialogue: with Amos’s recently deceased mother; in an address to a commencement class; or in discussions with the creative spirits she calls her Muses.
Amos credits the Muses with guiding her work. In a departure from the self-deification rife in celebrity culture, Amos, who is part Cherokee, subscribes to the Native American belief that artists have access to the Source, rather than being the Source themselves. Lest readers misinterpret the process as passive, however, she clarifies that “any form of writing is a discipline” and that it’s “not all faeries, Muses, and angels. Sometimes it feels like dancing with demons.”
Brush with failure
Nor should aspiring musicians expect a straight road to success: “The key to realising my identity as an artist was failure,” she writes. The youngest pupil to have ever entered the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, at the age of five, Amos was kicked out at 11 for her “disrespect for classical and sacred music with that sassy attitude”. Her second brush with failure was when her first album, released in 1988 as part of a synth-pop band called Y Kant Tori Read, flopped, selling only about 7,000 copies.
While difficult at the time, both of these turning points “were great catalysts for artistic change”. Despite studio execs suggesting they “replace all the pianos with guitars” on her first solo album – at a time when folk guitar and synthesisers reigned – Amos stood her ground, defending her unique sound for that album and the 14 that have followed.
Only a handful of rock-star memoirs attract a wide audience outside of their fanbase, such as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2004) or Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010). Resistance is unlikely to enjoy such breakout success: the narrative can be hard to follow as Amos criss-crosses chronology, skipping, for example, from the Iran hostage crisis to Trump’s current immigration policies before circling back to 9/11.
Her devoted fans, however – over a million monthly listeners on Spotify – will no doubt relish the book’s release. Reading the backstory of her often-abstract lyrics recreates the bygone intimacy of studying liner notes to suss out meaning.
Fans will also applaud the news that Amos is in Cornwall with her husband and sound engineer, Mark Hawley, recording a new album, which she hopes to get out before the US presidential election in November. At 56, her defiance includes resisting the music industry’s double standard about artists as they age.
After nearly four decades in the business, “I’m not going out to pasture, for the boys’ club,” she recently told the New Yorker. “They can go f**k themselves. I’m not going anywhere.”