Tori Amos has been composing since the age of five, but she’s never written a song like this. “Flicker” runs over the credits of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s “Audrie & Daisy,” the Netflix documentary that documents three teenage girls’ experience with rape and the cyberbullying that followed.
It’s a searing original composition, one that addresses a topic that deeply resonates with the longtime Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network spokesperson, and is now considered a favorite for an Oscar nomination. How do you write a piece like this? As she said, “You have to be a fucking hunter and hunt that frequency down.” Here’s what it’s like to be on that hunt.
Anne Thompson: How did you come to write the song for Netflix documentary “Audrie & Daisy”?
Tori Amos: Netflix got in touch with me. And they wanted to know if I would watch a documentary that they wanted me to see. The first thing I thought: “My daughter watcher watches Netflix all the time. Netflix, they’re groovy; that could be fun.”
For a minute. Then you realize you’re being delusional, nobody calls you for fun. I couldn’t speak after watching it. I was aware of sexual assault running rampant across our university campuses. I didn’t realize these events permeated our high schools and school kids are sexually assaulting our kids. It was very upsetting.
How old is your daughter?
She was 15 at the time. That was the beginning of the conversations, talking to Bonni and John. The directors spent two years on the film; we talked about all the issues, the culpability of the community, the idea that teenagers are not safe within their own peer group, the idea that underage boys are becoming perpetrators, the cyberbullying. The bullies are girls as well as boys that are victims.
Where do you live?
Part-time East coast in the states. I go back and forth to London; my husband’s British. We’re bi-continental. We’re bringing up our daughter in England in the British school system.
Have you ever written a song for a documentary?
This is the first documentary I’ve ever been part of. I’ve participated in soundtracks for movies over the last 25 years. It’s very different, I found, realizing that with Audrie, Daisy, and Delany, these stories are real, and Audrie has a family that has been mourning her loss. I met her mother, Sheila, since the song. Sheila goes into schools to talk to teenagers and teenagers stalking our teenagers and cyberbullying is another component that pushed Audrie over the edge.
Netflix is in 190 countries. We’re realizing now how pervasive this issue is, it’s not just occurring the communities in this film, it’s happening all over the globe. It doesn’t know the difference between Democrat or Republican. Another thing the filmmakers brought up is the grooming of girls — they’re being bullied to take naked pictures at 10, 11, or 12. There is the idea that our kids are doing this to our kids within their own peer group or a peer group they look up to that might be a few years older. You have perpetrators who are not even legal age, not even 18. We as parents don’t realize some of the kids, as in Daisy’s case, the perpetrators are eating chili in the kitchen with the victim, a couple of days before!
Was the film finished?
They were still working on the film, and once we talked about the issues that needed to be covered, it’s not like I go off to a room. I can’t snap fingers and demand the muses to come. I hope they’ll come. It’s not about where you are. I might be in a coffee shop in the midwest and the muses say: “Now! Let’s do it.”
I took off on my own, because I had to do some diving here: into betrayal, Audrie’s death, the attack on Daisy and Delany, into towns being divided, people choosing sides. So I had to take myself out of being a wife and mother and go into the metaphorical cave — when I do that, it can be anywhere, I take off. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years.
Did the song have to fit the film?
Yes. The filmmakers Bonnie and John knew the issues deeply; we spoke on the phone because it needed to fit in the title credits at the end of the film, and end up being uplifting. I said, “Guys, I can recognize that Daisy and Delany have moved from victim consciousness to survivor in the powerful film you’ve made. But we’ve lost Audrie, towns are divided, the justice system has failed, all of this has to be covered. I hope there is some empowerment, but we have to honor Audrie as well as Daisy.”
That’s when you go off on your own and get a deadline: “Yes, we need this in 3 1/2 weeks.’ And you go, “OK.”
The muses have always shown up when they need to show. They gave me the key when I saw the mantra on the wall: “Monsters are made, not born.” I knew, “That’s your way in, that’s your key.” You have to surrender to the muses and be vulnerable and open to all these emotions. You have to be a fucking hunter and hunt that frequency down, in a way. It’s the tension of the opposites.
Where did you go?
I was off on my pilgrimage. I take pilgrimages on records all the time where I go off somewhere, whether in nature, walking around a city or a small town, and you have a hat and people nobody’s paying attention. Everybody’s involved in their life. You fly below the radar screen, fly between shadows and cats, observe. You don’t need a piano or a keyboard or an instrument to write, but if I need one I can find one anywhere.
I can write it down, sing into the iPad walking down a street. You are building the structures as you are walking with mother nature, seeking the song lines you are trying to find. You’re a tracker. Sometimes you are walking, nobody knows you’re singing a song, they think you’re talking on a phone. It’s research — you don’t know what you’re looking for. So there are libraries that I rely on, when I’m traveling. I throw a bunch of books in a case and you’re instinctively thinking; it’s not premeditated. Art books, photographs, history sometimes.
I was reading books about Native Americans. The phoenix was there. The muses said that’s another key. With the phoenix clear in the element of fire, I was chasing a different matador. I don’t always know what I’m looking for. I have these clues. Once the phoenix was there, the muses were saying to me, “It’s not about monsters; don’t make that the focus. Our subject is the young ladies here.”
Heroines, they are not born, they are made
A phoenix forms, her ashes rise
Expose their hell, break Satan’s spell
Fire purifies, it’s redemption time
I was walking with Furiosa, obsessed with “Mad Max.” With songwriting, you don’t know where the penny’s going to drop and click and fall into place. It’s an energy, it’s that point of ignition, it can flicker out. Once it was clear about phoenix and fire, I had to take it to illumination and lights, some lights extinguished too early in Audrie.
Did you have any experience with sexual assault?
I had a song “Me and a Gun,” based on my personal experience in 1991 in the UK, on my album “Little Earthquakes,” and would sing that one every night. A community of people, women as well as men, would come and talk to me about their healing process and what they were wrestling with in their lives and so that song became central to live performances and then to conversations with people, these conversations became collaborative. They would share how they were dealing with it. And how they were choosing to move from victim consciousness to survivor consciousness. But of course it was a path and it took work.
And then one night in 1994, a young girl under 16 fainted near the end of the set, and she came backstage. She asked if she could join the tour, because when she got home her stepfather would rape her as he had the night before. Her mother called her a liar and insane when she tried to tell her, of course. Would she call the police? “No. My mother will say I’m crazy; I’ve no help from there.”
Naively I said, “All right, we’ll find something, figure something out.” And then legal had been called. The travel tour managers said I’d be arrested for kidnapping; it was clear she didn’t have an advocate that night. I watched her go back out into the night. I haven’t heard or seen from her since. What happened then was I became the RAINN Rape Abuse and Incest Network spokesperson. They connected one hotline number that is not traceable, since 1994.
When I got involved with “Audrie and Daisy,” I connected the dots.
Will you sing “Flicker” in concerts?
I’ll be touring sometime next year. I’m sure “Flicker” will join hands with the other songs. I haven’t been touring since it’s come out. I did a music video of a live performance, with scenes from the movie.