Singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s 15th album, Native Invader
, an “intense feast of melody, protest, tenderness and pain,” as it’s put in a press release describing it, stems from a road trip she took through the Smoky Mountains. She wanted to reconnect with her mother’s family, who were from the area.
Just a year ago, Amos and longtime friend and manager John Witherspoon took that road trip as Amos, a North Carolina native whose maternal grandparents had Eastern Cherokee grandparents, sought to discover her roots. The venture became a formative experience and informs many of the tunes on Amos’s latest album, Native Invader
“I was hoping to get closer to my mom’s dad and the stories he told me,” Amos says of the road trip while speaking via phone from London. She comes to the State Theatre
on Sunday, Oct. 29. “That’s where he grew up. I wanted to be in the vicinity and with nature to see if I could feel closer to him. He was my favorite person — Poppa. He was an amazing weaver of a tale. He could tell you anything. He’d light his pipe, and you couldn’t look way as he began talking. I was a kid, and he died when I was nine and half. When he died, I cried and cried because I couldn’t hear the stories anymore.”
She says she started to remember his stories a few years ago, and their fragments began to inform her songwriting.
“It’s almost like his spirit came back,” she says. “So I wanted to go and feel that, yet songs weren’t coming right away. I wanted to be there and listen and just 'be' in the Smokies.”
Then, the U.S. presidential election took place. A few months later, Amos’s mother Mary suffered a debilitating stroke and lost the ablity to speak or communicate in any fashion. After all that, Amos says “the songs started to come like a sonic tsunami.”
With plenty of material at her disposal, she and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Mark Hawley, holed up at Martian Engineering, Hawley's Cornwall, England studio, and began shaping the songs on Native Invader
. Though the album features string arrangements and dense layers of synthesizers and electronic instrumentation, Amos says she and Hawley played most of the instruments themselves.
“Everything except ‘Reindeer King’ and ‘Mary’s Eyes’ is just me and Mark [Hawley],” she says. “We played everything else, and we’re not divorced yet. It was very challenging. We’re both dealing with our mothers’ health. Trying to organize schedules when you can work with people and when you can’t is difficult. We just said, ‘Screw it.’ And we rolled up our sleeves and did it ourselves. It became an adventure.”
With distorted bluesy guitars and a bit of old school organ, “Broken Arrow” possesses a great roots rock feel. Amos says the song’s narrative helped determine her approach to the music. She passionately sings, “Have we lost her” over distorted synths that suggest the anguish at the tune's core.
“I knew what the song was saying, and that made the choices in that arrangement,” Amos explains. “We were pushing each other. I wanted to make the Native peeps proud.”
She says a call from her sister's friend who’s part of the Association of American Indian Physicians Community helped trigger the lyrical content.
“She’s been in that community since the late ’70s,” Amos explains. “I got sent some messages. With everything going on and the references to President Jackson, I started to dig up my history lessons, and I remembered hearing my grandfather talk about Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act and all of that. It seemed [like an] essential [issue] with the water protectors and what is going on with the EPA and the Department of Interior. All of that is in play and layered in that song. Jackson’s life was saved by a Native American person who years later regretted it. I don’t remember his name, but had he known what the genocide would be, he would have done things differently. My grandfather’s and his wife’s ancestors fled to avoid the net. Everybody was collected and forced to leave unless you could hide from the Calvary.”
With its refrain “good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” “Up the Creek,” a song that features chirping strings and fluttering electronic noises, includes a reference to her aforementioned grandfather.
“Anytime you’d ask him anything, he’d say, ‘Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, granddaughter,’” Amos says. “[The song is] a shout out to him because he was always somebody that made sense to me. When [my mother] couldn’t talk anymore, it became really important that I valued what storytelling could do and the power of words and the power of voice. It’s not like Mary can pick up an iPad and start typing. We’re just not there yet. I’m flying to see her tomorrow before the tour starts. To look into her eyes, you still get that love. I know she’s frustrated because she’s trapped.”
As much as grim realities inspired the songs on the album, it’s not a downer. With their dramatic piano flourishes and rich vocals, songs such as "Benjamin" and "Reindeer King" comes off as vintage Tori Amos tunes.
“The Muses kicked my ass,” says Amos. “They said to me, ‘You have to shift your vibe. We are not bringing destruction. We are not bringing Boys for Pele
. You did that 20 years ago. You did that tour. That’s your bloodletting album. It’s not what you need to be doing at almost 54 right now.’ They told me something different is coming, and that I have to shift. It showed me a sonic wildwood, so that whatever emotional whiplash is happening that day in the news or all the tragedies that seem to be happening, whether it’s hurricanes or floods or fires or ‘other,’ they’re sending music whereby people can hopefully step into it. If they need resilience at that moment, they’ll find it in one of the songs. If they need magic mushrooms sonically, they might find that too.”
Tori Amos, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 29, State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave.,
216-771-4444. Tickets: $45-$70, playhousesquare.org.