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Phoenix New Times (US)
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Tori Amos Emerges from Career Doldrums with Plenty to Say in Her Songs
by Jason Keil
photo by Amarpaul Kalirai
There's that saying "the more things change the more things stay the same." In the 22 years since Tori Amos released her debut album, Little Earthquakes, the world has changed dramatically, but the singer has stayed remarkably true to herself. Of the topical and occasionally confrontational nature of her music, she says, "I think at different times, the songs have chosen to grab issues that are out there. It isn't always like that."
In what many consider her commercial peak in the 1990s, she was known for her activism, wildly visual music videos, and theatric singles, which dealt with themes regarding feminism, sexuality, and religion. Her first single, "Me and a Gun," dramatically recounted her getting sexually assaulted after a show in Los Angeles when she was 21 years old. "Cornflake Girl" was inspired by a novel about an African woman undergoing genital mutilation. Amos defiantly asks the Heavenly Father if he needs "a woman to look after" Him in the chorus of "God," from her second album, Under the Pink, which turns 20 this year. Parents of '90s teenagers were so focused on their sons being influenced by grunge and gangsta rap that they ignored the fact their daughters were being swayed by a ginger who could tickle more than the ivories with songs like "Icicle," which talks about masturbation.
"I think as an artist, people's history with your music is very real," Amos says of her legacy.
For a portion of her career, Amos' output consisted of odd collections of cover songs and overlong concept albums. Her compilation Gold Dust, essentially a retooling of her hits with the Metropole Orchestra, made some wonder whether the once-vibrant artist had run out of steam. Perhaps the pianist, now a wife and mother, had grown accustomed to domestic life. Did music become part of the routine and cease being a creative outlet?
But Amos deliberately pursued these unconventional avenues.
"There's a lot of reasons to do it," she says of her decision to cover Eminem's fantasy about killing his ex-wife "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" on 2001's cover album Strange Little Girls. "Ultimately, it's a great song. The song is really well-written. I can handle a different point of view, particularly when it's American like that. I was quite fascinated by the fact that my young nephews were really into it, but into it in a way where they didn't realize what it was about. I just felt that they needed to hear it from a different perspective, whether they listened to it or not. They needed to hear it from the almost dead body in the back of the car."
Then last year saw the première of the musical production The Light Princess in London, for which Amos wrote music and lyrics. Based on the Scottish fairy tale by George MacDonald, it revolves around a young princess who is mired with constant weightlessness until she finds someone who will bring her down to Earth. The dark fantasy was right up Amos' alley.
This directly influenced her latest album, Unrepentant Geraldines. She continues to walk that road into the whimsical, but it is also the songwriter's most straightforward album to date. "Writing The Light Princess and working with story and narrative, I learned to be more direct. I do think it affected me in a way, as [did] turning 50," she says. "You have to be clear in the storytelling at all times."
The title track, filled with religious imagery, was inspired by how it would be to be unapologetic for standing her ground creatively. The fanciful story song "Selkie" is a love story that is structured like a hymn. "Trouble's Lament" revolves around another Amos alter ego, the appropriately named Trouble, running away from a corporate Satan in a possible allusion to her past dealings with record labels.
Amos isn't trying to push a musical career for her daughter, who currently is in boarding school. Rather, she is trying to help her find a creative outlet of her own. "As a parent, you can go with it or they'll find another way," she says, "Her interest is in telling stories and finding ways to tell the story. It's about making sure she has a skill set and that she's working on her skill set. I'd like to encourage her to investigate other mediums because now the kids coming up are finding ways to combine the visual and sonic mediums on their own computers!"
There is an Abbey Road influence on the track "Giant's Rolling Pin," a commentary about how the United States' influence on other countries has become apparent.
"'Giant's Rolling Pin' and the song 'America' happen to be the songs on the album that are commenting and resonating with a lot of discussion that has been going on over the last year. The whole world is really going through a lot of change. Germany is still affected by the NSA exposure. It's created this backlash against the United States, and Americans can feel that. It's a big discussion. These were the questions I was asking when I was writing [those songs]."
Her presence on a stage hasn't waned, either, even when it's just her and the 88 keys for the Unrepentant Geraldines Tour. Throughout her history as a performer, her set lists can change from night to night to accommodate the requests of her dedicated fans. "When people ask me to play something off any of my records, if I can do it, I try to do it. Sometimes I get a lot of requests in one night. If I play all the requests, we could be there for three hours!"
Just don't expect her to tone down that set list for the large Mormon community of Mesa or even Russian President Vladimir Putin. Known for her strong ties to the LGBT community, Amos covered the lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u's song "Not Gonna Get Us" in Moscow knowing the next day that Putin would be on the same stage.
"I was singing about my viewpoints, which make it very clear I'm a big supporter of the gay community," she says. "If I can do it in Moscow, I can fucking do it in Mesa, Arizona."
Tori Amos is scheduled to perform on Friday, July 25, at Mesa Arts Center.
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