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Tori Amos on serving the muses: “You have to get yourself out of the way”

With my long-running investigations into the experience of inspired creativity in the mode of the muse, the daimon/daemon, and the genius, I was interested to see this theme getting a big shout-out in the mainstream press in connection with the publication of Tori Amos’s new memoir, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage.

Here’s Brian Gresko in Literary Hub:

Throughout Resistance runs the idea that the artist exists to serve; not just her audience, but the creative force that speaks through her, The Muses. “There are some people who think that they write their songs, and you know what, maybe they do,” Amos says. “But I don’t. I co-create.”

The Muses gift her with bits and pieces of a song—“usually only eight bars at a time”—and she works with that to develop the whole. Her writing process, as she describes it in the book, involves travel and research, word maps and free association, and most of all, listening, paying close heed to people oppressed, and critical attention to those in power. This too grew out of her time in the piano bar, when she witnessed senators sharing drinks and handshakes with lobbyists, Big Oil, and corporations.

“The Muses are quite something,” she tells me. “They’ve been with me since I was a tiny little girl, and they are real. Even my husband, who is a cynic, and an agonistic [sic; I think the writer means agnostic]—he doesn’t believe in things unless they make sense—has seen it happen. I’ll be ready to record a song that’s written and all of a sudden something I’ve never heard before comes out. For example, “Marianne,” on the album Boys for Pele, was written as you hear it on the record. And I feel I’ve never really learned how to play it properly, because when a song just downloads like that, I’m left thinking, ‘What in the world was that?’”

Under The Muses’s influence, Amos develops a Song Being, a musical form with its own soul and essence. The relationship she forges with that Being is personal and intense. Handing them off to the label, at the end of the recording process, is tough for her, and she marks it with a glass of champagne or, “when I really need it,” tequila, and a few hours alone in the studio.

“It’s not a private conversation once they leave the control room.” The Muses, she says, have made clear to her: she doesn’t own the songs or control what they mean. “What somebody thinks of a song is just as valid as what I think of it. You have to accept that, I think, as an artist.”

More: “Tori Amos Is Always Listening to the Muses

And here’s Amanda Petrusich interviewing Amos in The New Yorker:

The book is, in many ways, also a treatise on the nature of creation—on how to remain open enough to the world that you can document something true about it.

It’s about taking in, and it’s about trusting that the muses will come when they come. They don’t always come on your schedule.

Did the muses operate differently for you with the book, versus the writing of a new album?

They began to operate in a similar way. My work—on songs, as well as the book—is very much based in research. Sometimes the muses would be pushing me to research World War I, and I’d be asking them, Why? Sometimes I don’t know where they’re taking me. . . .

When I was really little, these muses would just come. It always feels bigger than me as a person. I step into my art form, and I serve. You really have to do that. The muses know if you don’t.

When you say the word “serve,” I think of religion, or the idea of serving God. It’s obviously different, what you’re describing, but it still seems to involve humbling yourself before something bigger than you. It also makes me think of your father, who was a pastor.

Yes, but maybe it’s more of an aboriginal or a native perspective. If you’re serving Mother Earth, there’s interconnectivity. You have to get yourself out of the way. Let the muses take over. . . .

You do have to be ready when they show up, and that’s not an easy task. I think it sounds easier than it is. Other artists have talked about it—the idea of pulling aside on the freeway. I know that I’ve had to just stop conversations, because I’m not going to get it if I don’t quickly write it down, or record it. People who know you get that that’s kind of how it is, but people that don’t know you can think it’s kind of dramatic. But I find that if I don’t write it down, then I just can’t remember it, not in the form that it’s being given.

More: “Tori Amos Believes the Muses Can Help

For those who find such thoughts and insights to be interesting — or maybe even, like me, fiercely gripping — be advised that they pair ever so nicely with Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the genius, Steven Pressfield’s insights into the muses (and their battle with Resistance) in The War of Art, Victoria Nelson’s sage advice on learning to work harmoniously with your unconscious writer’s mind in On Writer’s Block, Dorothea Brande’s sage advice on the very same thing in Becoming a Writer, Ray Bradbury’s “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” in Zen in the Art of Writing, and my own A Course in Demonic Creativity (which is the only one of these titles that you’re likely to find for free outside of a lending library).

Photo by Indolent Dandy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)