It is thanks to a cataclysmic combination of Donald Trump and coronavirus that Tori Amos decided to make a seasonal EP. The singer-songwriter behind dazzling alt-rock anthems such as “Cornflake Girl” and “Silent All These Years” had intended to release her 16th studio album this autumn, then hit the road in the run-up to November’s presidential election. But when the pandemic intervened, these plans were “kicked down the road to 2021” and her label asked if she’d consider releasing something else this year instead.
“Are you interested in American politics at all?” asks the 57-year-old, on the phone from the Cornwall home she shares with her British sound engineer husband, Mark Hawley. “When I wrote this music over the summer, we had no idea what was going to happen in November. First of all, we didn’t know how people were going to vote. And then Trump warned us that he was going to contest [the election result] no matter what. So I said the only project I could do would be something we do know about – and that was the Christmas season.”
The result is Christmastide, a beautiful four-track EP steeped in Cornish folklore. On the blustery ballad “Circle of Seasons”, Amos namechecks a famous leyline which runs from St Michael’s Mount to Hopton in Norfolk. She says that despite its title, Christmastide is actually “more of a solstice record” than “a Christmas record as Americans would think of one”. Still, the wintry imagery of “Holly”, on which Amos sings about “two candles for the oak and holly trees”, adds an elegant festive glow.
Amos’s music is often described – rather reductively – as “otherworldly” and “ethereal”. But the classically trained pianist and first-ever spokesperson for American anti-sexual assault charity Rainn definitely doesn’t have her head in the clouds. Throughout our hour-long conversation, I’m struck by her nuanced and carefully considered analysis of the political situation in her homeland. “In America, what's been so hard to see this year is people politicising this horrible disease,” the North Carolina-born, Maryland-raised artist says with a sigh. “Compromising people’s health because of your partisan politics, that’s been difficult to watch.”
Though the EP is never overtly political, Amos says pre-election tension definitely informed her songwriting. Indeed, the EP has a song called “Better Angels” – the same phrase Amos uses during the interview to describe Republican politicians who were prepared to stand up to Trump. “Remember,” she adds, “I was writing this during the English summer, but as an American citizen and an American voter – one who voted for a third party in the 2000 election, which I’ll never forgive myself for.” Amos voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in that year's nail-bitingly close contest, a decision she still “bitterly regrets” – especially because she voted in Florida, where George W Bush pipped Al Gore by just 537 votes. “So I knew how important this year’s election was,” she adds. “And I watched with horror at what ended up happening. British people ask me all the time, ‘How can someone have the power to purge the government and fire people that aren’t agreeing with them?’ It’s like a tyrannical situation in what’s supposed to be a democracy.”
Amos has always been an artist with a strong moral compass. Since she broke through with 1992’s Little Earthquakes, the startling debut solo album on which she sang about self-hatred on the hit single “Crucify” and chronicled a rape she had experienced several years earlier on “Me and a Gun”, her music hasn’t shied away from dark and uncomfortable subject matter. Her most recent album, 2017’s Native Invader, features songs about the climate crisis, social division and her mother’s inability to speak following a stroke. “What’s behind Mary’s eyes?” Amos sings on “Mary’s Eyes”, a song made even more poignant by the knowledge that Amos’s mother, Mary Ellen, would pass away in 2019.
Encouraged by her parents, who would put phone books on a piano stool so she could reach the keys, Amos started making music as a child. At five, she became the youngest student ever admitted to Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she studied classical piano for six years before rock and pop music took over her muse and she decided to drop out. At 13, she landed her first professional gig at a Washington DC gay bar; given the setting, it’s arguable that her Methodist pastor father made for a rather improbable chaperone. A spell fronting an Eighties synthpop group called Y Kant Tori Read didn’t bring her mainstream success, but since Little Earthquakes, she’s built a formidable reputation as an uncommonly evocative singer-songwriter with a loyal fanbase. One of her best songs, “Glory of the 80’s”, recorded during a period where she incorporated more electronic elements into her piano-based music, captures the decade’s dark glamour perfectly.
As well as a prolific songwriter, Amos has always been a hardworking touring artist who still describes herself as a “lounge lizard” in a nod to the clubs she cut her teeth in. Known for dynamic live shows in which she drops in unexpected cover versions requested by fans, she says this year’s thwarted tour left her feeling “a bit of a grief”. “It’s not that I cancelled a tour because I hadn't actually put it up yet,” she says regretfully. “I was going to put it up in May, but I have a sister who’s a doctor and she said to me in March: ‘You’re dreaming – what land are you living in?’ Because at that moment in time, I couldn’t see – we couldn’t see – how long this would go on. But obviously, she as a medical person could see things differently. And that’s as it should be.”
Instead, Amos was holed up at home in Cornwall with her husband, daughter Tash – who would ordinarily have been in London for university – and Tash’s boyfriend. To occupy her time, she turned to the region’s rich folklore. “I figured I’m here, I can’t leave here, so why not immerse myself in the myths and stories that exist here?” she says. “I’ve been collecting books [about Cornwall] for 30 years, so there’s quite a library here at the studio. And so I just started reading about all kinds of Cornish mythology.”
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Although the songs have a definite mystical quality, something Amos has always excelled at, they’re also rooted in real-life issues. ‘Oh, what a year to be here, on this little rock third from the sun, we need some mercy,” she sings on the rousing ballad “Better Angels”. The glistening title track offers some straightforward advice for the future: “It’s time that we shine, we all need to shine.”
Amos may be an optimist, but she definitely doesn’t see her country through rose-tinted glasses. When I interviewed her for Gay Times magazine in 2017, she described Trump disdainfully as “the master showman”. Three years later, does she think the showman's facade is beginning to slip – or is his response to the election result just another episode of the show? “I think it's another element of his showmanship,” she says after pausing for thought, “in that he causes chaos, and the chaos seems to serve him in some ways.” Amos points out that Trump is still asking for money from his hardcore supporters – even though many of them may be struggling to make ends meet in states that have been “economically ravaged” by coronavirus. “It’s important that we understand how the con keeps getting run. Con men and women, they don’t stop running the con – when one ends, they just run another one.”
She also remains hopeful that her staunchly divided nation can be brought together. “I’m not an extremist. I'm a Democrat, but not an extreme Democrat,” she says. “My mother was a Republican and we had [political] conversations all the time where we didn’t yell at each other. It wasn’t like that. But she wasn’t against gay people. And she wasn’t against immigration. And she was for women having their own rights. So you kind of go, ‘Well Mum, how can you be a Republican and have those ideas?’ And that’s an important question to ask because there was a time when you could.”
With the interview drawing to a close, I bring up those overused words: “otherworldly” and “ethereal”. Amos concedes that in the past she’s been the victim of some “lazy journalism”, but “if they’ve got it in for you, they've got it in for you, and there’s not a lot you can do about it”, she says with a shrug. “When you’ve been around for as long as I have, even if somebody doesn’t really like what I do, they have to acknowledge that I’ve lasted. I mean, I turned pro at 13 and I’m 57 now,” she adds proudly. “You do the math.”
Christmastide by Tori Amos is out now
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