Tori Amos Interview: “We had to have a few rules: no sliding on giant tongues.”

14 albums in, the fiercely candid star talks desirability, growth and making pop at 50.

May 08, 2014

14 albums in, the fiercely candid star talks desirability, growth and making pop at 50

It’s been nearly 25 years since Tori Amos made her solo major record label debut. That effort, Little Earthquakes—a confessional collection of songs that explore everything from religion to relationships to rape—introduced Amos, a North Carolina-born minister’s daughter, as a crimson-haired prodigal musician with a knack for metaphor and melody. Her fiercely personal lyrical candor earned her a face among influential '90s singer-songwriters (many of them women), but it's her appreciable mysticism and prodigal chops that carried Amos into something like otherworldliness, and, well, the new millennium. While her own influences—from Bach to Kate Bush—have always been clear, today her influence on others can be heard in the veracity of songwriters like Fiona Apple or in the guttural vocals of Florence Welch. (Watch Lady Gaga straddle a piano bench and there you’ll also find Amos.) She’s since gone on to sell more than 12 million albums.

Amos, who lives in Cornwall, England with her sound engineer and husband of 16 years, Mark Hawley, and their 13-year-old daughter, Natashya, releases her 14th album, Unrepentant Geraldines, on May 13 (now streaming in full on Amazon). It’s an evincive chamber pop album largely inspired by many visual artists, including 19th century French painter Paul Cézanne and his many shades of blue, and Irish artist Daniel Maclise, whose drawing of a woman named Geraldine inspired the album’s title. Like all of her work, she’s unrelenting in the narratives, mapping stories across topics of age, marriage and even the NSA. Amos spoke to The FADER about the album, turning 50 and why she won’t be sliding down any tongues onstage on her current 80-date tour.

You've made what is a very contemporary pop album after four vastly different previous projects: a season album (Midwinter Graces), a classical album (Night of Hunters), a re-imagining of your catalog (Gold Dust) and a musical in London (The Light Princess). How did you draw upon your creative energy from those efforts into Unrepentant Geraldines? There were times when I would just have a moment where a song would escape; I’ve kind of called it a secret moment, a private moment, because all these other projects are very collaborative and happening simultaneously. It’s really busy … there were armies of people involved at the musical. I kind of jumped in at the deep end. But there were just times when a song would visit, in a moment by myself and I would really just keep it to myself. I wasn’t contemplating writing a pop album; songs were just being expressed. There would be something that was happening in my life and I would just write. I was really writing songs just to live, to express.

The first track released from the album, “Trouble’s Lament,” has a rich southern tinge. You were born in North Carolina. How much of the South stays with you, despite now living in England? The South has its own perfume, doesn’t it? And memories and tastes and sounds and ways of telling stories. The land has stories too. [The South] gets in people’s DNA when you spend time there. It’s just something that takes over sometimes. It’s hard to describe to people who haven’t been, because there is nowhere like it in the world.

On this album, you write from several different female perspectives, particularly about relationships. Are all of these women you? I’d say for most of it, I know those women very well. It’s been five years since [the last studio album] Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and there’ve been a lot of experiences, and relationships have changed. I recognize these women. I know the situations and sometimes I don’t go into detail about them because in some ways, it’s exposing enough that the songs are out there.

"When I walk out to that piano, I walk out as a musician; I don’t walk out as an age. Fuck 27, fuck 28; I’ve got this."

Love is an apparent theme on this album. On “Wild Way” you sing about the power a partner has over you, loving so much it turns to hate. How do you experience love now in your life and write about it versus when you were younger? Different moments challenge all relationships, whether it’s a friend or family or a lover. How you work through those times when you first start dating … as we all know it’s difficult to see anything else but someone’s amazing qualities. But when you’re going through it, when life is maybe dragging you both by your knees, sometimes you have to work a bit harder to see your own good qualities as well as theirs. I understand that not everybody does work through situations; they feel that they need to have different experience with other people, possibly. They’ve taken it as far as they can but sometimes you take a step back and you realize that you don’t want to walk away. There are songs on the record that are different parts of discovering these emotions.

You’ve worked with your husband for years. Because of that working relationship, do you compartmentalize certain facets of your marriage? Yeah, you have to. There was a moment when I sang “Wild Way,” and he was on the other side in the control room. I was in the recording room. I sang it for him because I was holding some songs back. It’s a strange thing when you sing a song like that to somebody, which says, “I hate you,” and you are in a work mode. He had tears in his eyes, and he said, “That’s the take.” I didn’t say anything, and he quietly said, “I hate you, too.” He’s got to have a sense of humor, and he’s aware all these songs are going out to the world. He gets it. Our songs have to be written so that they can resolve themselves.

You duet with your 13-year-old daughter Natashya on the album on “Promise.” Your voices are strikingly similar. Is that true for your personalities? She’s funny and quite likes to laugh. She’s been in a home that’s been quite liberal, quite open. She has a joke with her dad; she said, “You know, Dad, if we put controls on the computer, mom won’t be able to get on.” And that’s true, that’s absolutely true. She is at boarding school and has been for the past couple of years. There is a moment as a parent where you think, OK, a few years ago, I’d go and say, “Alright, lights out, it’s bedtime now.” Now, before that comes out of my mouth, I start counting 10 Mississippi. Like, hang on a minute, she’s at boarding school, she’s got 4 or 5 girls in her room and she’s got her computer and her phone. The idea of taking them away—who am I kidding? She looks at me and she says, “No, mum, I think it’s your bedtime.”

Do you see a lot of you at that age reflected in her? The difference between her and I is just that she hasn’t been brought up in a religious household. She’s had a lot of room to make choices, but she has been brought up in a home where we work a lot and we are on the move a lot. She has to adapt in that way, and there are times when she doesn’t have either of us. She was on the road with us for so long that her school, at a certain age, makes it difficult to be away. You know it’s tough when you’re gone for so long and she goes back and has to fit back into her peer group. She has had a very different upbringing than I had. She has a great relationship with her dad, and my dad and I have gotten closer as he’s gotten older. We’ve been able to have good conversations and it’s a great thing to see him become more open-minded and grow at 85.

Your religious upbringing threads your work. When we talk about repenting, we talk about what we're in need of forgiving. But I'm curious about the word choice of “unrepentant." Why that word? It’s nice to be asked about it in this way because I’ve been asked about it in different ways, meaning the genesis of finding the album name, and it relating to the different paintings that inspired it. But when you speak to it that way, there is a place where you have to come to in your life—maybe turning 50 was that for me. 49 had its challenges because when you hear that word midlife, you realize at 50, you’re not midlife anymore, unless you live up to 100. You have to think about what you believe in and what you stand for, and that those things can change. You have to allow yourself to stay open and not be so stuck in a point of view that you can’t learn and grow and yet still be unapologetic for the fact that you were standing by your belief when you believed in those things. And sometimes we get shown something we didn’t know was there. A pattern, a way of being, a way of thinking and it doesn’t serve you anymore. And you think when people say, “Oh, they’re too old to change,” I don’t know about that. You have to want to. You have to want to be learning, you have to allow yourself to stay open to ways of thinking, ideas, ways of expressing, ways of creating. Tash said to me at a certain point, “Look, if you don’t get your head around this age thing, I don’t have a lot to look forward to.” We talk about how, 50 and up, there are a lot more of my wonderful male compadres getting frontline record deals, or new projects and roles. That’s a fact. There are women who have a lot to say, and the fact that wisdom can be an aphrodisiac coming from a man and not necessarily from a woman at 68. We’re not talking about country music here; we’re talking about pop music. To be growing older and be part of popular culture and to be cool, and to be exciting, to have a frequency that inspires, that was something that I thought, OK, I’m going to grab it with both hands. But I had to turn 50 first. I was only grabbing it with one hand [laughs].

"To be growing older and be part of popular culture, that was something that I thought, OK, I’m going to grab it with both hands."

You turned 50 last summer. How difficult was that milestone for you? Was the biggest hurdle an awareness of your own mortality? Yes, because people around your age, Jess, right above you and right below you but circling very close to you are leaving the planet in a much more rapid way. And so it does make you think that it’s real. Without taking it to a place of negativity, it’s just life cycle. So how do you blaze a trail and rejoice in it? How do you think to yourself, there are aspects of this that are so golden that I wouldn’t trade it to be 30, because I can value the understanding that comes, the patience, with age. But then there’s a fire you want still, Jess. You want the fire. And you have to find your way, you find your way to contain that, find your way to have that power, that energy. Tash kind of looked at me and said, “Oh, geez. If you’re 84, maybe we’re going to have this conversation and I’ll be worried about you tottering in those heels but just go, get on that piano stool, Mum, rock that house.” We had to have a few rules: not too much flesh bearing, no sliding on giant tongues.

You just mentioned heels and the piano bench, which you’re known for straddling suggestively. Staying on this theme, do you still feel desired or desirable at 50, and how does that change with age? That’s a fair question. First of all, in my marriage, [Mark] makes a point of making sure I know how he feels. So when you’re asking me this, on one hand, it doesn’t matter. But that’s not necessarily true. There were different times in my life when it didn’t matter what anybody thought of me, I was clear how I felt. There was this kind of acceptance. But this a world where a lot of men who are my husband’s age—he just turned 49—do choose to be with a younger woman. So when he says to me, “You’re gorgeous,” does it have an effect? Of course it does. I would be lying to you if I said to you I have such self-confidence that hearing that doesn’t change the way I feel. When you feel desired by your partner, there is strength to that. Now, when I walk out on stage and I’m with the keyboards, there’s energy, there’s music. I don’t remember my age. I played in Berlin for a small group of people recently and I didn’t feel any age. When people walked away, nobody said that was good for 50. And I think my goal is not “That was good for 50,” but “That moved me.” I won’t take anything less than that. When you’re talking to me as a woman going out on a date with my husband and he turns around and says “You look gorgeous,” that’s a different feeling. When I walk out to that piano, I walk out as a musician; I don’t walk out as an age. I feel like I am at the height of my magical powers out there. Fuck 27, fuck 28, I’ve got this. And yes, sometimes you need to be reminded. I’m getting caught up in a cultural projection of how I should see myself, what place I should take and I’m like, OK, young’uns, you think you can rock a house? Come on, let’s go, baby.

The 20th anniversary of your debut album Little Earthquakes and sophomore album Under the Pink have both recently passed. We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Boys for Pele, a pivotal album in your catalog. What does it mean to you for that marker to be approaching and how do you look back on that time two decades ago? I wish I could go back to the me then and just say, “Hey, just stand strong ‘cause you have to make this record. Don’t you doubt. You have to do this and it’s gonna be a tough walk because you’re gonna have some things thrown at you, and the media will turn on you for some of it.” But Neil Gaiman told me at the time, “You’re gonna have a career with this record. You can do anything after this record, but you have to see through it and you can’t quit. You’ve gotta go a long way, cross the desert with no shoes on, trudge through this muck, and then you’ll realize one day that making Boys for Pele was a great gift, a wonderful experience, a blood-letting. It had to be done.” But it was a very tough time and yet people began to find it, and people began to be supportive of it. It renewed my faith in human beings-when they showed up despite reviews. I had a huge faith in the power of people and them making up their own minds and giving things a chance. That experience has stayed with me.

Tori Amos Interview: “We had to have a few rules: no sliding on giant tongues.”