Photo: Paulina Otylie Surys

Still Those Songlines Sing: Tori Amos Talks About ‘Native Invader’

Tori Amos talks about some of the themes and inspirations behind her new record Native Invader, and why her upcoming tour will see her become “the rock ‘n’ roll Angela Merkel".
Tori Amos
Native Invader

Tori Amos calls me from New York for our interview: warm, funny and gracious despite being at the end of several hectic days of promotion in the city, an experience which she nonetheless describes as “a blast”. With her new album Native Invader due to be released on 8 September and a three-month European and North American tour on the horizon, Amos sounds characteristically focused, present and energised. Now 15 albums in, she remains among the most vital of American artists: politically engaged, razor-sharp, and still determined to undertake a lengthy solo touring schedule “while I still can”.

Amos immediately describes Native Invader as “a political record”. Originally inspired by a Smoky Mountains road-trip undertaken last summer, the new album, she says, dramatically shifted its focus due to two events: the result of the US Presidential election and a severe stroke that left her beloved mother Mary partially paralysed and unable to speak. In fact, Native Invader fuses all these elements. Its references to Native American spirituality, songlines and history are combined, throughout, with allusions to current political disasters and personal challenges, resulting in a work that feels like a spiritual sister to two of Amos’s mightiest masterpieces, Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and American Doll Posse (2007).

Sonically, as an in-house production built around Amos’s collaborations with her engineer/guitarist husband Mark Hawley (plus long-time arranger John Philip Shenale on two tracks) Native Invader shares the same base as its predecessor Unrepentant Geraldines (2014). But the sound is richer-toned, more textured and ambient than the lighter, brighter arrangements on Geraldines, sometimes gesturing back to Amos’s more elaborately produced works, from the choirgirl hotel (1998), To Venus and Back (1999), and Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009).

Amos emphasises that Native Invader is a record which frequently turns to nature, to the rhythms of (Mother) Earth, as a source of strength and wisdom against divisive, destructive forces, as encapsulated on the just-released second single “Up the Creek”, an urgent, echoey item that finds Amos and daughter Natashya Hawley trading lines as they mobilise the expression “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” in a subversive take on climate change.

Asked about the genesis of that song, Amos refers back to one of her main inspirations, her Cherokee Grandfather, whom she recalls using the expression during her childhood. “I’d be heading out the door somewhere, and he’d say, ‘See you later, little one. Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.’ I have to say he’d have a glint in his eye since the Cherokee and the Creeks had some hostility going on historically.” As the title suggests, Amos herself re-appropriates the expression as one of empowerment for the Muscogee people. “I’m not qualified to represent First Nations,” Amos says. “But I am endlessly inspired by them as guardians of the land.”

I ask her how Tash’s contribution to “Up the Creek” came about, since the track, in its emphasis on Earth’s sovereignty against exploiters, suggests something of a companion piece to the pair’s earlier duet, “Job’s Coffin”, on Night of Hunters (2011). “The song was already forming and developing in the studio,” Amos says. “Then, when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, Tash just stepped up and said ‘This is war.’ That led to her wanting to sing on the song.”

I ask Amos about what the title of the record, Native Invader, evokes for her, and she immediately emphasises its multiple meanings. “The Muses 9 really showed me the way on that one. This idea of an invasion can come in so many forms. It can refer to something that’s happening to the body, like Mary’s stroke, or to carrying a baby: I think of Tash as my ultimate invader, in a sense. So in that way it doesn’t just have to be pejorative, Alex. We can reclaim this concept of invasion for ourselves, thinking about it in terms of going inside, looking for clues, hunting for information.”

At once confrontational and conciliatory in tone, the album itself is full of such subversive investigations, as embodied in the title figure of one track, “Benjamin”, which deals with a fact-hunting “computer bat friend” engaged with, among other issues, the landmark ‘Juliana vs. the United States’ climate change case. “Sucking hydrocarbon from the ground/ those pimps in Washington/ are selling the rape of America/ as they attack Juliana” Amos sings, electric guitars grumbling in sympathy.

Throughout our conversation, in fact, Amos conceptualises these fact-hunters as “Benjamins”: science “boffins” who, it seems, have a special place in her heart as productive information-gatherers working under the radar of the dominant culture. “So many Americans that I’ve been talking to haven’t even heard of ‘Juliana vs. the US‘ when it should be being shouted from the rooftops,” she says. “It makes you question what’s being suppressed in the media, what the lobbyists and Think Tanks are doing.”

Please don’t ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.

The album’s majestic seven-minute, strings and piano opener “Reindeer King” shares that sense of quest and questioning. “I had to go into the wilderness for that one,” Amos says. “I was learning about the [Alberto] Behar probes, and hearing about the ice sheet in Greenland and what was happening there. That influenced the song’s imagery. It’s a record that’s very much about bringing elements into balance, about creation with opposing forces, whether that’s at a macro, environmental level or on a more personal one, as on ‘Chocolate Song’.”

If the track above is one of the album’s most intimate and domestic moments, then the driving and dramatic “Bang” — a song that rethinks immigration experience through cosmological references — is one of its most expansive, Amos gleefully describing the track to me as her “Carl Sagan meets Frank Zappa moment.” “Something that gives me an endless eye-roll,” Amos says, “is when you hear white Americans describing themselves as ‘Natives’. Sometimes, their rhetoric, it’s not far from Germany in the ‘30s, or from Britain in the ‘30s, with the Blackshirts. Listening to what Carl Sagan had to say made me want to explore further who our ancestors truly are, and, beyond that, where we all actually come from.”

In an album that offers many trails and puzzles for the listener to explore (check out those numbers stations samples on the bonus track “Russia”), Amos also identifies “mother daughter” relations as “a thread” on Native Invader, whether on the meltingly sensuous “Wildwood” or the closing track “Mary’s Eyes”, which confronts her mother’s aphasia. “As you know, I’m always drawn to Persephone and Demeter,” Amos says.

The atmospheric artwork for the record, which features Amos posed in print-screened landscapes with various talismans and totems, speaks to its interwoven lyrical themes. Asked about visual references for the album, Amos credits Karen Binns, her longtime collaborator, as “the conceptual brain” behind the images. “Karen was on board early on,” Amos confirms. “We’ve been working together for so many years now. It was Karen who put me in touch with the Polish artist Paulina [Otylie Surys], and that was a great collaboration.”

On another new song, the plaintive piano dirge “Breakaway”, the record also casts an oblique, disillusioned eye on the betrayals and machinations of the entertainment industry. Our conversation thus turns to The Light Princess, the superb musical that Amos wrote with Samuel Adamson for the National Theatre in London 2013, and which many of us (including a friend who saw the show more than 20 times over its five month run) embraced with very whole hearts indeed.

Asked about the possibility of future productions of the show, Amos’s frustration at commercial producers’ reluctance to take risks and their focus on financial imperatives — which have (so far) led to one of the most carefully crafted, ambitious and innovative of new musicals not getting the extended theatrical life that it deserves — quickly becomes apparent.

“There was an attack on The Light Princess, and people need to know about that. I’m not sure if I understand why. Maybe I do. It’s about certain people not wanting certain work out there. The show needs someone brave, not a plutocrat, to step up. Quite honestly, if you don’t have the chops of Boudicca and Gandhi combined then you can’t produce it.”

Rehearsals for the Native Invader tour are now underway. What are her plans for this one? “Well, it’ll be about going back to the seed of the songs, not recreating the album live. That would take ten people on the stage. So it’s about stripping it back to elemental form. Back to the piano, where the songs started. It’s more the songwriter’s tour.”

I ask Amos whether, conversely, she’d ever considered releasing a piano-only studio album, since many would consider that to be the purest expression of her art. “I wouldn’t say no to that idea, but there would have to be a very strong visual component to the project as well. Think [Jane Campion’s] The Piano.” Looking further ahead than the tour, Amos also confirmed that a re-mastered and expanded edition of from the choirgirl hotel will be happening next year, for the record’s 20th anniversary, following the successful recent Rhino-produced reissues of Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink and Boys for Pele.

Learning that I relocated from London to Łódź last year, Amos, ever curious, is keen to quiz me about life in Poland, and, in particular, the country’s current political situation following the recent mass protests against government moves to curb judicial independence. Remembering her 2014 show in Warsaw, at which she dedicated a stunning cover of “Nights in White Satin” to the LGBT community in the context of the controversy surrounding the city’s “Rainbow Arch”, her questions lead me, in turn, to ask her about the absence of Poland on the Native Invader tour itinerary.

Fondly referring to her Polish collaborators on Night of Hunters, the Apollon Musagète Quartet (“oh,The Fab Four!”), Amos expresses regret at not being able to come to Poland this time, putting it down, simply, to the challenges and logistics of moving between countries during such a long series of shows. “Tell the Poles that I’m not playing Florida this time either! But I will be doing a lot of promo in Poland later this month, and I look forward to being there. And, if they feel like crossing the border, I’m playing five cities in Germany [Frankfurt, Hamburg, Essen, Berlin, Munich]. She laughs: “This tour I’m the Rock ‘n’ Roll Merkel.”

Native Invader is released on Decca Records on 8 September. The Native Invader Tour begins in Cork, Ireland on 6 September.