There was a time in the early ’90s when female artists who played piano were chart rulers. They were the Lilith Fair rock stars in a sea of post-grunge testosterone, and the unequivocal heroes to millions of lonely girls vexed in their own understanding of womanhood. The most captivating and intelligent musician of the lot was Tori Amos, who challenged listeners with provocative themes about religion, death, and even masturbation. On Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos’ just-released 14th album, the 50-year-old singer is embracing issues of ageism in the music industry, the NSA, and motherhood. The album’s first single, “Troubles Lament,” is a haunting ode to her southern roots and a subtle departure from her contemporary writing style, a conscious move by Amos to distance herself from old habits. We spoke with Tori Amos about the new album, turning 50, and working with her daughter.
I read that you found the inspiration behind Unrepentant Geraldines by viewing a painting of “Geraldine” by artist Daniel McClise and wanting to tell her story. Do you feel as though you’ve found it?
I’m finding it all the time in different women. Geraldine began to be all women. She was her own person and I saw her in The Irish House [a restaurant in New Orleans]. I thought she looked like the Unrepentant Magdalene pictures. So before I read her story, I was already on this wavelength of penitent women and things that women had to apologize for, for so long because society said they had to when men didn’t have to. Then I began to think of this idea of unrepentant and what did that mean and when can you stand in that place and be that in a positive force instead of just digging your heels in and being rebellious for rebelliousness sake? So that’s kind of where this whole feeling started coming from.
Have you experienced moments in your life when you apologized for things that you felt you didn’t have to?
That’s a very good question. I’ve been on all sides of it. I have apologized for things that maybe I didn’t really feel I should, but in order to be smart, not right, I did. Sometimes in life you want to be smart not right, just because I’ve been right and not smart many times and seen the consequences to that. I would also say that at times I haven’t been apologetic for standing up for certain artistic ideas which can get you the reputation of difficult to work with. I know when I have a team of people I want to hear what you think because after this album is out, don’t you dare tell me that it’s out of time. Don’t you dare tell me that I’m bitchy. I’m gonna scream my head off! Not everyone wants to hear that. So when we’re talking about working on all kinds of projects, not everybody is okay if the composer says, ‘No, you don’t want to do this here because that’s structurally not correct. That’s not what you want to do.’ It depends on the ego you’re dealing with.
You also talk a lot about ageism on the new album, which kind of connects with what you were just talking about. Why do you think the music industry conditions women to fear age, and how have you avoided falling into that mentality?
Well, I think there’s a real reason why. There are more men getting frontline record deals 50 and up than women. The culture sees women 50 and up as being vital for telling stories now. If we’re looking at men making records, they’re talking about all kinds of things that people of all ages can relate to, not just from the perspective of a 50-year-old guy singing a song. It could be that way for women. Does our culture see men as they get experience and getting older as storytellers more attractive and pleasing to hear? I think what I’ve been trying to do for myself is begin to see that you have to be telling stories that are vital. You have to be very aware of what’s happening in the world and you cannot succumb to the projection of the masses. Other women who are my age said to me, ‘You have got to see yourself as all your creations, and it has to be the vision of yourself and then build a shape of that. Look at that like a piece of architecture, and from the time you turn 50, you’re going to extend this shape and this building that will go on for the next thirty, forty years of your life.’ So I began to start seeing myself as a sum of all these creations instead of projected as, ‘Oh, she’s a 50-year-old songwriter.’ I just thought, ‘I’ve gotta grab 50 with both hands. I have to kiss it. I have to love it. I have to love it with every cell of my being and not lie to myself about it, but I have to surrender to it and then go fucking rock!’
What you did differently on Unrepentant Geraldines?
How we did the arrangements was very different. It was with melodies. I was working out arrangements so the chord information on the piano and the guitar would hammer out first. How I would do a pop album in the past is that you bring in players and you work with players and you develop things and you jam. But there was no time to jam because I was just with Mark [Hawley, sound engineer and Amos’ husband]and Marcel [van Limbeek, mixer] working on other projects while also trying to work on the new album. When I had songs that I was collecting, I would record while we were dealing with other projects. So Mark and I play absolutely everything on the record. And Tash (Amos’ daughter, Natashya) said, ‘I’ve grown up with you two playing everything since I was zero anyway so why don’t you just do it? This is what I know happens, you two are always playing everything around me, so just go do it. What’s the problem?’ Then we thought, ‘Well, you’re involved in this, too, so come here and sing.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, geesh. It’s like The Partridge Family.’ So that’s how the record was made and it was done in a very different way.
What was that experience like of working with your daughter? Was it your idea initially?
It was my idea. I talked to her about it and said, ‘Look, this is kind of a family affair. So, you know, do your bit.’ And then I said that I had to talk to her about something that should be talked about and we started talking about mother-daughter relationships. She’s at a performing arts school in London – she’s 13 now, so she’s been around lots of people and she loves her school, but she’s also learning about good relationships between mothers and daughters and not so good relationships with mothers and daughters, and we were talking about how and why can it get to the place of really tough communication. And that was the jumping off point about making a promise to each other not to judge each other so harshly as sometimes mother and daughters can do. So that was really the premise behind the idea of our song about a mother and daughter who love each other and agree to be there and listen to each other. Yet, we realized that sometimes that’s more easily said than done.
I can attest that a good relationship between mothers and daughters (even in my case) takes time. It isn’t always perfect. It takes work.
It takes work on both sides. And then we were talking about what is the line when a mother might know better, and her point was that a daughter has to make her own mistakes and she has to figure out things for themselves. Of course as a mom, I said, ‘When does a mom step in and say, a bridge too far here? When does a mom step in and say this could be life threatening and that the consequences could be serious enough that I have to say something – even if it’s unpopular and gets met with disdain.’ And she kind of looked at me and said, ‘Very good point, but what is the line? Is it how short a skirt is, or is it life threatening?’ I said, ‘Well, fair point. I agree. What is the line? It can’t be the hemline of the skirt. That’s up for you to decide. I’m not that type of mom. You have to make those decisions and understand what that means and what that feels like and the reaction to that. But there are consequences to all kinds of things.’If the mother is trying to live the life for the kid to protect them from everything, they won’t learn. So we were talking about when does a mother pull back and let the daughter learn from mistakes. But when can mistakes be so dangerous that a mom says, ‘You can dislike me and not want to talk to me, but I’m speaking up because I’m your mom.’ And she said, ‘GO MOMMA T!’. She also made me make a promise for my upcoming tour. She said no flesh, not too much flesh; don’t want to see it onstage. Just be cool. And no interpretive dance.