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Drowned in Sound (UK, www)
May 23, 2014
DiS meets Tori Amos: "You have to be able to sing about anything"
by Giuseppe Zevolli
photo by Jim Wileman
"I didn't go anywhere", Tori points out when discussing the details of her 'return' to the pop-rock field. Unrepentant Geraldines arrives after five years of incessant work and prestigious collaborations within other genres and artistic 'spaces': her first seasonal record, Midwinter Graces (2009) was followed by two works rooted in classical music, the song cycle Night of Hunters (2011) and Gold Dust (2012), a collection of highlights from her alternative pop-rock canon, re-arranged, recorded and performed with the Metropole Orchestra on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her landmark debut Little Earthquakes. In the meantime the long awaited musical The Light Princess, inspired by George MacDonald's fairytale, adapted by Samuel Adamson and featuring lyrics and music by Tori, finally saw the light at the London National Theatre to critical and public acclaim. With all these endeavours redefining her career, Tori found herself faced with a few challenges: turning 50, finding the inspiration (and the time) to reconnect with pop music.
Staying current, engaging with the now, speaking to different generations, as she asserts in our conversation with the utmost gravitas, is the songwriter's ultimate "responsibility". Amos took on this responsibility quite transparently on the new record, which far from relying on the thematic and sonic cohesion of some of her post-2000 concept albums, 'reads' like a collection of 14 independent short stories. Each functions on its own, as if Tori was trying to capture a feeling, a state of mind, a memory in the time between all those stage rehearsals and shows around the world.
Some of the songs are inspired by paintings, from the 'otherness' of Diane Arbus' portraits in 'America', where she expresses concern for the fate of the 'land' and the generations to come (signed 'The Other America') to Cezanne's 'The Black Marble Clock', whose imperturbable ticking inspired Tori to reflect on the challenges we face at different stages in our lives and collect them in a polyphonic "cry" for change. The album title refers to an etching of a penitent woman called Geraldine by 19th century artist Daniel Maclise, but also to the repentant Mary Madgalene of the Christian iconography. For those who are familiar with Tori's work, this won't come as a surprise. "Got enough guilt to start my own religion" she sang 22 years ago in 'Crucify' while redefining the contours of pop music; "I'm gonna free myself from your opinion/I'm gonna heal myself from your religion", she sings now in the title-track. Alongside Tori's driving forces and recurring themes, the record, with its hints at 'relenting' governments, 'flattened worlds' and at the NSA surveillance scandal, engages with the 'here and now'.
Musically speaking, Tori's 'here and now' doesn't sound like so much of a fresh start but a crossroads, where old and new forms meet, a journal documenting a quiet but tireless process of experimentation. Overall more scaled down than its immediate pop predecessors, Unrepentant Geraldines displays a stylistic variety which reopened the dialogue between die-hard fans (and purists) of "The Great Four" (Little Earthquakes (1992), Under the Pink (1994), Boys for Pele (1996), From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)), as Owen Pallett recently called them, and of her post-Atlantic adult-pop canon. Between the Americana-inspired guitars of stunning single 'Trouble's Lament', the suffused electronics of '16 Shades of Blue' and the old school piano rapids of 'Selkie', 'Oysters' and 'Weatherman', Geraldines surprises and looks forward.
A 80-date world tour brought Tori to London for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall. I meet her the following day at the British Library, where she's moments away from reuniting with writer and long-time friend Neil Gaiman for a special event where the two will touch upon the connections between their work. Tori welcomes me with a big smile and that's about when the Toriphile in me decides to step in. We talk about aging, screwing things up and how fans co-create with her among other things. She didn't go anywhere. In fact Tori is ever so present.
What a great show last night, Tori. There's this sense that you could come up with literally any song from your body of work when you're playing solo. Every gig is an entirely different story. How do you go about selecting the songs for the night? Are the 'girls' [Tori calls her songs 'girls'] competing against each other or do they come together naturally?
Well, that's why I try and do the stage door meet and greet. You get a lot of perspective from people. Sometimes that line's moving fast, but people talk to you about songs. They put ideas in your head. Sometimes it's not right that night, I just won't have the time to work something up. For example 'Sugar' had been requested a lot since [the first show in] Cork and it was something that got requested again yesterday. When I walked into soundcheck at some point I just looked down at the request pages, I flipped through them and there it was. So I started playing it and the crew egged me on: "Yeah, c'mon! It's the night for 'Sugar'!" and I thought: "Not tonight. Not the Royal Albert Hall!" Sometimes you don't want to do a show like that and take too many chances, but I took a few chances last night, with 'Sugar' and with 'Hey Jupiter'. It just seemed right to do those two. It's just funny. My husband was pushing me to do 'Sugar' yesterday. He said "Oh, c'mon, pull it out, do it, go ahead!"
'Take To The Sky' is one of the many b-sides of yours that has turned into a classic. If I remember correctly, it's one of the very first songs you wrote before Little Earthquakes took form. How do you relate to that song today?
This time around, as you know, it's also holding a bit of 'Datura' [from her 1999 album To Venus and Back] in it. That was a suggestion of somebody who comes to the shows. That was her kind of vision, so I have been doing it... for a while now. It just seemed right. That song still has an energy about it that works with me being solo. It's very much on the front foot, it's like an arrow that leaves at the bow. As I build the show, if there are other songs that hold that energy she might move over for a few nights, but she likes to be there. She likes to be a part of it, because it really wraps up that energy by the end.
In the years following Abnormally Attracted to Sin you've been working with masses of people: orchestras, musicologists, writers, actors and so on. With Unrepentant Geraldines you went back to contemporary pop and recorded in your own studio in Cornwall. How did you experience this transition?
It was unexpected I guess in that the songs were just being written to respond to what I was experiencing. I know it sounds very vague, but it wasn't a calculated move like "Oh, I'm gonna write this type of work now". The songs just started appearing in order to perhaps deal with all the other things, components that were occurring at the time. I didn't know that I'd be making another pop record. Naturally it's possible. In your mind you think you might, 'cause I have made a lot of 'em... [Laughs]. The songs just started becoming very personal and private so I wouldn't play them for anybody, they would just come, and then I started playing them for Mark [Hawley, her husband] at a certain point and he said "You know, this is what you need to make, this is what you need to do". I said: "Well, how am I gonna do it, how am I going to do it while I'm doing The Light Princess?" We had just been working with the [Metropole] orchestra doing the live shows and I knew The Light Princess rehearsals were starting. Around then I played him a few things. The idea was that I had to record it when I got a minute and therefore it was a different approach than the other ones. If you see what I mean, I didn't have the space and time to just fly everybody in like I used to. I had to just record it when I could and jump on a train and go down to Cornwall. Mark and I did everything, played everything... he's Mac Aladdin [in the credits] obviously, you know that... We worked out the mid-range. We worked out guitars and piano and everything that was happening in the mids first and then we built the tracks up, knowing what the mids were.
Whenever I hear the word 'repentance' I immediately associate it with 'confession'. Your work has been described as 'confessional' for decades, but there's nothing 'repentant' there.
What does being unrepentant mean to you, as a songwriter?
You have to push yourself, because the only way you can do that is to keep pushing; be open to other forms so that you're growing. You also have to know that where you are today is where you are so don't apologise for it. You can't. You just can't. If you feel you need to then make a change, you need to change today, now. Make a shift NOW. That doesn't mean you won't do something different tomorrow, because you're unrepentant today. It doesn't mean that nothing is changeable. It means that a certain point you have to say "This is where I am today". And I might be somewhere different next week as an artist exploring something, but today I am here. I have to be present, really present with where I am right now. And where I am right now is here in this conversation with you. And if you're present, that's where the magic is. That's where the ideas originate. If you're always somewhere else then you're not really focused. You're just going through the motions. And you can do that as an artist and as a writer, you know. You can go through the motions, or you realise that you might not have anything but eight bars: that's all you've got and you don't have the inspiration to have anything else. 'Oysters' was like that. 'Oysters' came in drips and drops over time. Like raindrops, it came a little bit at a time and I had to stick with it for a couple of years to really understand what it was up to and take all kinds of trips and travels. She would find me in all kinds of trips and places. She found me in Ireland too.
When I listened to 'Oysters' for the first time it took me back to my first encounter with Under the Pink and Boys for Pele. I don't know, it seems to connect with some of your darkest songs.
Yes, I mean. Yeah. [Smiles]
On the record, in '16 Shades of Blue' more specifically, you explore age. There are many voices there, which makes the song very 'relatable' in my opinion. The line "You've screwed up your life before you've even begun" I think sadly speaks to many people in my generation. What struck you the most about the younger generations?
The first line of the song: "So you're telling me it's over". Whatever age you are, to be told that it's over or for you to think that something's over, your dreams, the line of work you thought you could be working in five years prior... if you go back to yourself five years prior and visit that self, that self wouldn't see where you were. At the time I was talking to people who were unhappy with where they were at all, early 20s, really tough time. They were qualified for things but couldn't get any work, so they were doing other things. They were questioning: "I've trained and I spent this money to get this training yet I can't see a future with these skills that I paid to get". There was a real sense of "I've screwed up". This idea that they made a mistake, they made the wrong choice and because of that choice that they have gone off the rails somehow. And they get worn down and worn down and worn down a little every day, a little every day, so that there isn't the energy to fight it. So how do you combat that? You have to. The song was really talking about all these situations and the pressure that people at different ages feel under. You know, it was a cry. '16 Shades' is a cry. A longing, yearning cry for something to shift in the life of the people I sing for in the song.
In the song, in interviews and even in one of your recent improvs [in Dublin] you reflected on the challenges of being 'out there' at 50. How do you think we should start deconstructing the idea of the aging female singer-songwriter?
At 49 I was having issues with it. You know, there are all kinds of things that you think about. Tash even told me: "You got to get your head around this, Mommy, you really do, 'cause if you don't, then you're telling me that I got nothing to look forward to, at a certain point". Both our grandmas are alive, they're 85 and 86. She said: "So basically, you're telling me that it's all gonna dial down". I mean, particularly if you're in the music business and you're a songwriter. The idea wasn't so much about the entertainers. The entertainers have a different path off the mountain. As the songwriters will tell you, you have to write to be relevant. If you're an entertainer, dependent not dependent, but... whereby you sing other people's songs, being on the front line... it's a different career trajectory than if you were the one writing the potent thoughts that people are resonating with - resonating with at all ages, like we just said. You have to be in the music world as a songwriter. Maybe in country music you start to sing about certain themes, but in the pop-rock world you have to be able to sing about anything in order to stay. In movies certain roles are created for you, take Judi Dench, because they're kind of age-specific. So in the music pop-rock world I have to carve out for myself what that path is going to look like in order to remain relevant. As I was staring all these ideas in the eye the songs were coming but, you see, I didn't have them all when I was staring down that gun. The songs came out of... you know, I wasn't where I am now. When these songs were written I didn't know I'd be sitting here. There was no heat on it. There was no real interest in it. When I would bring up to somebody "Oh, I think I wanna be making a record" nobody would talk to me about it. They were like "Oh, alright, OK". They were talking to me about everything else, The Light Princess... Can you imagine? It just doesn't get brought up, it's almost as if it's something of the past, you see, not something that is current, of the present, so I had to generate that. I had to find a way to generate that and I pulled Mark in and Marcel [Van Limbeek] to generate it with me, to do it. There was a lot of 'making honey', but without a lot of heat, without a lot of energy. So the energy came from all these other projects that I was doing. I took all that energy and drove it into this.
It's more like you had to reinvent yourself, rather than just make a comeback.
Exactly. Because I didn't go anywhere. I had records out the past five years, with Deutsche Grammophon, but it was a different genre and I wasn't contributing to the pop field. So to re-enter that field I needed to be clear at a certain point on what my intentions and what my energies were. I didn't know what they were until the songs showed me - because the songs drove it all. And if I wasn't in this abyss then the songs wouldn't have come. It was a strange Catch 22.
At the time of [American Doll] Posse you said that after a few years of "peace and quiet" you were ready to "pick up the tomahawk" again, because your daughter Tash was now able to negotiate the difference between Tori the Mom and Tori the performer. Now it seems like Tash is involved in the decision-making. Am I right?
Yeah, she's very involved in my work now! She's very present with it, a part of it. You know, 13 and a half. She exposes me to a lot of things, things I wouldn't know about. Shows... all kinds of things. Oh, my God, so much it's hard to even describe. It forces me out of any type of bubble that I might be in and that you can get in, because we can all get involved in our own worlds, in our own routines and things that we're drawn to. So when somebody around us keeps exposing us to things we wouldn't be exposed to then it does affect how you think of things. It does affect how you communicate. It really does. So she's very active now in my work. She's not a passive part of my life. And she's an independent thinker now. She has her own viewpoints.
As I see it. in your work there's always been less of an attack and much more of a problematisation of certain forms of hegemonic masculinity, which perhaps culminated in Strange Little Girls [where Tori reinterpreted songs all written and performed by men]. What about the men on Unrepentant Geraldines? They seem to be...
...they're the real romantics, those guys. The songs I've always maintained come from a feminine essence. The song-girls shape themselves into patterns and colors. Those were very much carrying an energy of deep love. It seemed to be different male essences: they might be connected. They might be. But 'Weatherman'.... the song was holding a space for me to love him, all of us to love him, whoever he is. His love was so great for this lover, who's dead and we call it a 'bride' in the song - metaphorically it's a bride. Because of the death he can't move on. He just can't. He's not ready to move on. So nature decides with all her power that she will bring back an essence of the bride for him, because he can't move forward. The song carries the compassion side of the spirit world, but also it holds the romance that this guy has. I think there are moments on the record, in 'Selkie' as well, where the male essence is very romantic. The songs were very specific at a certain point, when the melodies would be demanding that I followed them with the right stories. Sometimes I would walk away from that song and say: "I will try and write about something else", but the song would say "No, this is 'Weatherman'. You're not listening! You're not hearing the story!". I would go "Oh my God, what am I gonna do now?" and I played and played and played it. In the morning in Florida around Christmas time... Mark was relentless about it, he said "You've got to do it. This has to happen". Things like that, 'Invisible Boy'... this compassion wanted to be told. It's not pity. These are the men on the album. They are all strong men. Although they're vulnerable and they might be in a fragile space, there is a great strength in their vulnerability.
Many songwriters shy away from what fans project onto their music. Your fans feel more than just 'fans'. They feel like they are a vital part of a culture you've been nurturing over the years. Back in 1996 you coined the term 'Ears With Feet'. In 2014 many people still identify as such. How would you explain what 'Ears With Feet' means to you today, if someone who's never heard the expression asked about it?
Does it still apply?
It does. Ears With Feet is evolving, it evolves. The idea that somebody can listen to something that can bring an image to them and then that person can share that image with me... so that I then layer a live performance with that very image is how the 'giving' keeps circulating itself. It's about 'giving'. The songs go out and then they come back with a viewpoint. Quite possibly that image somehow gets some... 'gold dust' out of this. Some dust, some essence of that idea that gets put in the live performance, like last night. It goes back up. An idea that comes from somebody else comes back to them. This type of energy is all about sharing. You're open. You surrender. You have to surrender. I find that you have to surrender to the songs themselves. I am a co-creator with them. My impressions of them are my impressions, but that's all they are, but then as a co-creator the songs have their own impressions and they are fascinated to know other people's impressions. They really are, whether I am or I am not on that day. It depends if I'm tired and if my brain is not processing, but the songs themselves keep pushing for this. That way, you see, there's a constant exploration of the songs. The songs expand their shapes because they include those projections you were talking about, in their own shape. They know who they are, but they allow who they are to expand. They are fine with that expansion. I'm sure you can see that.
20 years ago this month, the memorable Q interview you did with Polly Harvey and Björk came out. In that piece you talked about all sorts of things, including the inequalities women often face in the music industry. You said that "Songwriters are the consciousness or the unconscious of the time". If you were to meet with them today... by the way Polly seemed to like the idea, when asked...
Oh, did she? Really?
...if you were to sit down with them again, what would be a 'pressing' topic, something you would like to discuss with them today?
We have a responsibility. We have the responsibility to break this age ceiling in the music industry, for the pop-rock industry. As writers -- I'm not talking about performers, I'm talking about writers -- we have to be potent and find, create our own pathway, each of us, and hopefully inspire each other to continue to do that. Because you see, although there are the generations above us that are doing that, it's still really tough to have those solo contracts, as a writer and to be current. I'm talking about our work now, not just our work from the past. We need to be relevant now, year by year. That would be the topic. That's the goal.
Unrepentant Geraldines is out now on Mercury Classics.
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