Tori Amos has spent the last five years in the trenches, musically speaking.
While she’s perhaps still best known for the piano-driven confessional songs she wrote in the 1990s, including Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink and Boys for Pele, the singer-songwriter has spent the last five years on a musical voyage. She has tried her hand at everything from finding inspiration in the seasons (Midwinter Graces) to studying classical masterworks (Night of Hunters) to sweeping orchestral arrangements of her back catalogue in Gold Dust to, most recently, a London musical called The Light Princess.
On Unrepentant Geraldines, her latest album (and her 17th!), Amos puts herself back at the piano, crafting songs that will speak to the fans she earned in back in the ‘90s as well as those who were attracted by her later work.
The songs on the album were largely inspired by visual cues — paintings and etchings she has seen in her travels, including photographer Diane Arbus and painter Paul Cézanne. Amos would sink herself into the stories she discovered in the art, becoming the protagonist and writing from that point of view, be it a troubled young girl or a mythical selkie. She then scored those stories with piano, sprinkled in some guitar and incorporated influences like folk, jazz and classical while staying true to her pop-rock roots.
TIME caught up with Amos in Berlin — where she was deep into publicity for the album, having already finished 16 interviews for the day — to talk about Unrepentant Geraldines.
You’ve been doing this for 40 years. Is the prospect of a global tour a little more daunting now?
It’s one of those situations where I’ve experienced different records with different media responses. When you’re having good chats with the media then you realize that you have the time, you have the energy. When I put out Boys for Pele back in 1996, I had a really tough media road ahead of me. It was tough. I’ve been on all sides of it before. So I know that. But when you are having a good chat, you find the energy and the ability to do it.
Are there some things that 50 year old Tori would tell 25 year old Tori about how to deal with the media and negative criticism?
Through the years, sometimes you do have to take a step back and realize that you have your own think tank of people, that you trust their opinion and they don’t have an agenda. Not everyone can dislike a certain style of music and be able to acknowledge its strengths and its brilliance. Not everyone can say, ‘I don’t like it, but it’s f—ing brilliant.’ That takes a certain person and I have a lot of respect for those people, whether they are in the theater world or the music press world. You don’t get them all the time. There’s the other side of the coin, too, where a journalist may love an artist and say, ‘I love this artist, but this record is not for me.’ I think over the years, you learn that sometimes people have a very personal opinion and can’t step away from their person taste, and the ones who can are real treasures. I’ve met some of these people over the years, the ones who can recognize objective beauty and they open your mind about how to think, how to know your own mind and how to analyze.
Since you mentioned the album, if you put out Boys for Pele now would you have used the infamous breastfeeding piglet photo?
Oh yeah — I stand by that shot.
What did that picture mean for you?
It was about nurturing that which had been rejected from going back into the fold; the idea from Christianity of embracing that which we judge to be non-kosher, non acceptable. That was my Christmas card, my Madonna and Child. What do we say is an acceptable child? When do we open the fold as a quote-unquote Christian family? But at the time that message was about do we judge our gay and lesbian children as not loved by Christ. Where is our Christ consciousness? Where is our humanity? Where is our judgment in saying that’s unacceptable, in saying that all God’s children are not to be loved? If you’re a religious person, don’t all of God’s children deserve love and compassion? Or are the only ones that deserve those that a man or a woman has decided deserves God’s love? These are real questions as a minister’s daughter that I had. I believed that a lot of Christians didn’t walk the compassionate path of Christ. They were hypocritical. It was Merry Christmas — that was my Christmas card — it was asking people, at this time when we are celebrating the birth of Christ, do you really carry Christ’s consciousness? I didn’t find a lot of Christ’s consciousness.
Your new album also has a lot of distinctively religious overtones. Do you think that because of your childhood, it’s a theme you are drawn to?
I was brought up in Christian mythology. It’s part of my DNA. That as well as Native American spirituality. That is who I am. If you’re brought up in a home with very political people, then you are brought up with a language, you have a particular perspective, it’s part of your palate. You know the imagery. It’s part of the modern language that I utilize as a writer.
The song “Trouble’s Lament” seems to especially tap into Christian beliefs. Could you tell me a little about that song?
Trouble is in all of us. Any gal knows that. I have run from Satan a few times in my day! Satan can be in a very nice suit in a very nice corporate office. It can be your boss, or it can be someone you are working with or fell in love with or both. You weren’t looking at what you were allowing yourself to be involved in. Maybe you do? Maybe you put your head in the sand? I don’t know — it’s different for different women. But then at some point, you recognize it and realize it’s becoming destructive. Extricating yourself from it is not all that easy. In that song, Trouble is on the run and the question is whether or not she will find friends to help her along the way.
This album was inspired by art and visuals. Was there a specific visual cue for “Trouble’s Lament”?
In my mind, I have pictures in my head, of crossing states quite a few times in buses, in cars, crossing America. I saw Trouble crossing America in my mind’s eye. Crossing it and jumping in a car. There were times when I saw myself in a car, giving her a ride for awhile, because I have been her. I have been there, I know what that adventure feels like — the panic, the desperation, the danger, all those things. I have a picture in my mind for that one. For others, there are other images. “The Black Clock” by Cézanne was very much what spurred on the song “16 Shades of Blue.” I really didn’t get Cézanne until I turned 50. He didn’t make any sense to me. Then I turned 50 and I was looking at “The Black Clock” and I started hearing the rhythm and the piano of this song. I read that Rilke wrote that Cézanne would paint with over 16 shades of blue on his palette at one time and I had just turned 50 and I thought about how you learn from women about the different pressures of different ages, whether you’re 15, 18 or in your twenties. I realized it was important to talk about the clock ticking, bringing different types of pressure to different types of women.
What was it like sitting down to write an album again after you wrote a musical? Were there things that you had learned?
The storytelling aspect definitely affected me. After being part of a musical team and writing with Sam Adamson and Marianne Elliott, a great director, whereby she was pushing everybody to tell stories, but keeping the plot moving forward. The Light Princess is told 80% through music and songs. Sam is an amazing playwright and we were writing together and I guess that storytelling aspect just doesn’t leave you. When I was writing these songs I was aware of the story at all times, more than I had been before I worked with such an amazing group of people.
Your musical was inspired by fairytales as were many of the songs on your album— there’s even a song about selkies.
I think the mythical world has always had some sort of magic for me. The song “Maids of Elfen-Mere” was an etching by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and when I saw that etching, I started hearing the music telling a story about where they are now. I started researching what he had drawn the picture for, which was a book of songs. I was aware of what the song was about, but I wanted to catch up with the maids now and include the story from the 18 whatever it was and tell the story in a 21st century way as well.
The selkies, of course, were seal women. Traditionally their coat gets stolen, when they take it off, and they can’t go back to their seal families. I was intrigued by the idea that she could go back, because he didn’t hide her seal skin, and he had never moved on because he was so in love with her. She finds him there, waiting. They are all twists on the old myths.
So they’re fairytales for grownups?