Originally published in The Irish Times, May 7th 2014
SAY WHAT YOU like about Tori Amos, but you can’t accuse her of coasting through life. Having established herself as both an enormously successful and exceptionally diverse alternative songwriter in the 1990s with albums like Boys for Pele and even dance remixes like Professional Widow, the warm, slightly eccentric musician’s more recent projects may have flown under the mainstream radar. They include a Christmas-themed album (2009’s Midwinter Graces), a classical album released via Deutsche Grammophon (2011’s Night of Hunters) and composing for a musical stage adaptation of 19th century fairytale The Light Princess last year. But make no bones about it: she has been a busy woman.
Now, after her various incursions into different genres and musical mediums, she has returned to her alt-pop piano roots for her fourteenth studio album, Unrepentant Geraldines – an album she humorously describes as “like a sonic selfie that I didn’t send to anybody”. Her time spent working with “musicians, actors, puppeteers” on music that wasn’t pop-based proved enormously re-energising.
“I guess there was a freedom there,” she says, greeting you like an old friend on the other end of a phone line from London. “Being part of such a big team at such a time in my life was truly exhilarating. It was demanding, too, because it wasn’t commercial theatre; we were never told to dumb it down. It is a feminist fairytale, the way we chose to tell it, and I guess working with all of those people – including my co-writer, [Australian playwright] Sam Adamson – affected my storytelling. So over the years, these songs which have become Unrepentant Geraldines were developing.”
The album was recorded piecemeal at her husband Mark Hawley’s studio in Cornwall “whenever he could grab me away from The Light Princess,” she explains. It was a stripped-back affair, with she and Hawley playing “pretty much everything” on the album. Their 12-year-old daughter Tash duets beautifully with her mother on Promises, while mixer Marcel van Limbeek helped structure the recordings.
That streamlined approach helped Amos’s lyric writing, too. For the first time, she found herself influenced by visual art – most notably Cezanne, who inspired 16 Shades of Blue after she had seen his painting The Black Clock.
“Rhythms and music started happening in my head,” she explains. “Then I began reading that Rilke would say that he [Cezanne] would paint in at least sixteen shades of blue, at times. All of sudden, it just came together: a story about age, and what it means to turn different ages at different times. I was hearing from women about their different struggles with age at different times, and quite frankly, I wasn’t prepared for it. So as I was staring fifty straight in the eye, that then became the [basis for the] song.”
Amos turned fifty last August, and claims that for her, the age was “more of a milestone than it’s made out to be. This time last year, if you and I had spoken, I don’t know how positive I would be,” she admits. “I needed to turn fifty. I began to see myself as a creative force, instead of all the projections that you can fall prey to – especially as a woman turning fifty. For men, it might be more turning sixty, as far as the music and film industry goes, anyway – but for women in the music industry, at fifty and up there are a lot more male songwriters getting those frontline contracts. Tash and I had talks, and she just said to me ‘OK, enough already, I get it! So if you don’t get your head around this, what do I have to look forward to? Because turning fifty isn’t sounding so great. Just go out there and rock, mom!’. So then I thought, ‘Oh. OK, then’.
Having a live-in life coach of-sorts may have been instrumental to gaining perspective on Unrepentant Geraldines, but her relationship with her elderly mother proved just as important.
“My mom is 84 and is on borrowed time as she’s survived colon cancer a year and a half ago,” she says. “She would say to me ‘Look darlin’, every day is a gift. You’re not 84, so stop acting like it! You’re fifty, and if I could be fifty, nothing would stop me until the maker takes me.’ I think it was hugely humbling that my 84-year-old mother – who has her brain, but who doesn’t have great power, physically – was saying ‘No excuses. You are in your prime – go and create’. That really woke me up. So my daughter and my mom – and some great women friends, too – really brought me to a place of realisation.”
Amos has been releasing albums for over twenty years now and has never been afraid to veer off-course, be it the electronic-oriented From the Choirgirl Hotel, adapting several personas for the Strange Little Girls concept covers album, or indulging her classical repertoire. Having just finished the new album in recent months and getting ready to embark on a worldwide tour in support of it, her appetite for creation shows no signs of being sated. She is meeting her Light Princess collaborator Sam Adamson later today to discuss another potential musical project, she says; while she is on the road, she also plans to record a cast recording of The Light Princess “against everyone’s advice” for release next year, having been prompted to do a “Jesus Christ Superstar-type thing” so by her good friend, author Neil Gaiman.
Given the often limiting parameters imposed on musicians by their labels today, does she think that her career may have taken the same daring trajectory if she had been starting out today? She pauses, mulling carefully over the answer before replying.
“Well, I’ve had to fight for it, y’know? You have to build trust with people, but my god, you also have to be willing to walk that walk,” she chuckles. “And don’t think there haven’t been battles along the way; I have battles all the time, in different ways. So when you ask whether a career like mine would be possible if starting out now – well, you have to be willing to make the moves that I’m making, and that means making a record while you’re on the road, doing six shows a week. If you’re willing to do that, you will have the career I have. It doesn’t get given to you; you have to be disciplined and absolutely devoted to the art. I can’t snap my fingers and say ‘I’m going to write something great today’. It doesn’t work that way – for me, anyway. But in doing these other projects, and in travelling, and in creating a forward motion, it’s like a fire catching on. Out on the road, the audiences bring so much energy to it, and then that energy gets put into other thoughts and ideas. So it’s a continuous thing, almost like how the solar system exists. It’s a rotational creative life, if that makes any sense; they all send off light and energy to each other.”