Twenty-five years have passed since Tori Amos’ therapeutic debut album, Little Earthquakes. And, she’s still reasoning, poetically, with her audience – and herself – about crucial issues such as familial myths, sexual repression, political turmoil, female empowerment, and white-male dominance, sometimes all in one sitting. Much is the case with Native Invader, which manages to weave the tales of her grandfather, a reach into the mind of her mother who suffered a debilitating stroke, religious faith, and the oppression wrought by white men on indigenous peoples into one poignant tapestry. Amos will sing from her songbook, new and old, at Upper Darby’s Tower Theater on Saturday.
Philadelphia filmmaker Mark Webber just created a hyper-realist docu-drama, Flesh and Blood, about looking for his father and making truth out of his mythology. Am I correct in stating Native Invader does something similar with you searching through your grandfather’s past?
I can remember my grandfather telling stories that captivated me and my mom. I went in search for what inspired him when he was younger. He grew up in the Tennessee-North Carolina area. He liked it there. He could tell you a story about anything and make it dramatic — whether it was him picking up butter at the flea market to how weather systems worked on any given day, and be enthralling. His presence began to loom larger with me when my mother had a stroke, because she, too, was a great storyteller. That’s especially tragic because she can’t speak, and she was very articulate. The whole family has felt such a loss because now we can’t hear her versions of those stories.
With this sense of familial loss, how do you funnel that into song without making it saccharine or singular, but rather universal and strong?
I guess that goes back to listening to grandpa tell stories. I spent summers, Christmas and Easters there with him. Growing up with those stories was everything, but, I didn’t realize that he was teaching me something. It didn’t dawn on me until much later. He was the one who made me know that — as the weaver of the tales — you have to make choices. And it is important as to what choices you make, or you’re going to lose your listeners, whether it was him telling his stories or me telling mine.
In “Up the Creek” you repeat a phrase from your youth: “Good lord willing and the creek don’t rise / We may just survive / If the militia of the mind / Arm against those climate blind.” Your dad was a Methodist minister. Tell me about the religious aspects of your family and how you took to them.
My father’s mother was really the one: a painter, a missionary, a missionary teacher. That was unusual for a woman at that time. She was a real disciplinarian. She and her husband had five boys, all [during] World War II, though my dad didn’t make it in until right before it was over. He was going to go into medicine, but got guilted by his mother to start a career in religion. She was strict, and music was frowned upon in her house, so I stayed as far from her as I could.
Where do you stand now in terms of religion?
I was forced to go to church until I was 21, even though I was working in clubs six nights a week — it wasn’t an option. I had to toe the line. When I moved away from home to the West Coast, I got exposed to different ways of thinking. I spent a lot of time in nature, and seeing the different points of view. I’m thankful for that time. I was able to put distance between myself and institutionalized religion.
The idea of oppression is a great part of Native Invader. On “Broken Arrow,” you paint a portrait of inequality, of white fathers unfairly running the show. When did you write this song in regard to Trump and his followers?
The Indian Removal Act of the 19th Century that was driven by the likes of President Andrew Jackson, but questioned by indigenous leaders who called those in Washington ‘the great white fathers.’ “Broken Arrow” is reflection of what’s been happening in the last year and a half, thinking about our sacred land, and what should be our part. Those in power now in Washington… I’m thinking that the Environmental Protection Agency should be renamed, as I don’t think that there is any protection going on for our federal land or the citizens of this country.
How do you compare Native Invader’s socio-political conversation to that of your previous albums American Doll Posse and Scarlet’s Walk, where songs like “Yo, George” looked at the crimes of the Bushes?
I think that these three records are related to each other, and only truly resonate because of what is happening and what continues to happen in our lives and in our world. That’s why I write them. Scarlet’s Walk was in response to the fallout of 9/11. Native Invader is the response to what happened on [9/11].
Please opine – you have forever made music on the topic of women being oppressed, repressed and hurt by men, physically and psychologically. The moment we are living in, where a man such as Harvey Weinstein can be ousted from a position of power: Is that any kind of positive sign where the safety of women is concerned?
Anytime predators are held to account gives us an opportunity to address what the protocols should be in the workplace. If people have these internal pervs and act upon them, there will be consequences, rather than promotions. It’s very important that there always be consequences. That is the only way that we are going to make change, to put boundaries into the workplace, to treat each other with respect. Look, we’re always going to have classic bullies, but we have to all stand shoulder-to-shoulder in demanding these changes. Otherwise, it is business as usual.