Tori Amos: ‘I wasn’t prepared for it. I was staring 50 straight in the eye’
Amos returns to her alt-pop piano roots on new album Unrepentant Geraldines, ‘a sonic selfie that I didn’t send to anybody’. She tells how her family snapped her out of the shock of reaching a half-century
Tori Amos: ‘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’
Say what you like about Tori Amos, but you can’t accuse her of coasting through life. She established herself as both a successful and diverse alternative songwriter in the 1990s, with albums such as Boys for Pele and dance remixes including Professional Widow. The warm, slightly eccentric musician’s most recent projects have, comparatively speaking, 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 The Light Princess, a musical stage adaptation of a 19th-century fairy tale for London’s National Theatre last year.
Now, after her various incursions into different genres and musical mediums, she has returned to her alt-pop piano roots for her 14th studio album, Unrepentant Geraldines, an album she 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 me like an old friend. “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 fairy tale, 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 says. It was a stripped-back affair: she and Hawley played “pretty much everything” on the album. Their 13-year-old daughter, Tash, duets beautifully with her mother on Promises, while mixer Marcel van Limbeek helps structure the recordings.
Influenced by Cezanne
That streamlined approach also helped Amos’s lyric writing. 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 nods. “Then I began reading that Rilke would say that he [Cezanne] would paint in at least 16 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, and quite frankly I wasn’t prepared for it. So as I was staring 50 straight in the eye, that then became the song.”
That birthday came and went last September. Amos says the age was “more of a milestone than it is made out to be. This time last year, if you and I had spoken, I don’t know how positive I would be. I needed to turn 50. 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 50. For men, it might be more turning 60, as far as the music and film industry goes, anyway – but for women in the music industry, at 50 and up there are a lot more male songwriters getting those frontline contracts. Tash and I had talks, and she just said to me, ‘Okay, 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 50 isn’t sounding so great. Just go out there and rock, mom.’ So then I thought, oh, okay then.”