Don’t Call It a Comeback: Tori Amos on Her Elegant ‘Unrepentant Geraldines’

[12 May 2014]

By Matt Mazur

PopMatters Contributing Editor

If during last year’s Performer Spotlight series on Tori Amos’ career Joe Vallese best asked the question “where does she go from here?” in his incisive essay “On Tori’s Past—and Next: 20 Years Surviving the Music Industry, then Unrepentant Geraldines just might be Amos’ measured response. I first heard the new record on the first official day of spring in New York City, the same day the album’s stunning lead track “Trouble’s Lament” was released to the public.

As always, Amos’ careful curating of powerful themes and a painterly use of words found a way to strike a deeply personal chord in addition to being sonically dazzling. Elemental and experimental, Amos’ new album is surprising from song to song, an intimately-tended mini-epic full of the kind of showmanship and dynamism Amos has become known for over the course of her celebrated career. I had no idea what to expect track by track, something Amos recently told me during a lively chat was intentional, for “each song had to tell a story that you understood without needing to hear another song to make it make sense”.

This is the quality that made me first fall in love with her music: the complete audaciousness to hear her go from a ballad like “China” on Little Earthquakes to the China white of “Professional Widow” just two albums later on Boys for Pele changed the way I listened to music, and more importantly thought about music on an intellectual plane. Proving her music to be equally of the mind and of the physical, Amos’ subsequent triptych of From the Choirgirl Hotel, To Venus and Back and the underrated cover collection Strange Little Girls, highlighted an eagerness to grow and change in ways that also challenged her audience to take risks with her, both emotionally and technologically.

After the birth of her daughter Natashya (“Tash, who duets with Amos memorably on the new record) and immediately post-9/11, the warm Americana of Scarlet’s Walk folded listeners close to her protective bosom while asking confrontational questions about our democracy, a theme she would continue to explore on American Doll Posse. and again on this new record. Each progression in Amos’ discography takes a page from those that came before, and the romantic and lush Unrepentant Geraldines is a consistently surprising record that evokes and even references other key moments in her catalog while somehow possessing a duality of energy that distinguishes it as its own living, breathing experience. There’s no rigid adherence to any one specific style of music or instrumentation, no overarching concept to be beholden to, and yes, while there is an influence present from the other albums, Unrepentant Geraldines deploys them with style and in an alchemic, natural way. This album has the kind of wildness of spirit that I have always admired in Amos’ work, but here that oft-explosive vivacity is contained and refined on songs like the emotionally articulate swagger of “16 Shades of Blue” and on the psychedelic sonic Fata Morgana of the title track. There is a noticeable confidence in the new songs—in the writing, in the delivery and in the bright verisimilitude of her compositional landscape.

What Amos does as a consummate storyteller on Unrepentant Geraldines is something Maria Lassnig veraciously did with grotesque and abstract self portraiture in the 1940s and in 1992 with the revolutionarily whimsical filmKantate; it is what David Bowie did with Aladdin Sane and then again on Low. Each artist brings a distinctiveness from their past work while pushing forward boldly, yet retaining an unmissable, distilled essence of themselves. Though their stylistic choices on each project might have felt like extremities or departures, there was always a fundamental core of guts that were unmistakably their creators’. Amos has been accused in recent years of letting her concepts speak for her, but on Unrepentant Geraldines, she achieves the same kind of masterful synchronicity Lassnig and Bowie, but two of the specters haunting Amos’ newest work, did so effortlessly with their own art.

Unrepentant Geraldines, which will be released May 13th by Mercury Classics, has widely been called Amos’ “comeback”, though she has not really gone anywhere; preferring to take ambitious artistic gambles like the recent acclaimed musical The Light Princess and her bravura classical-influenced epic Night of Hunters. Though the new record is five years in the making, Amos’ unusual prolificacy has often been met with snideness and even outright contempt by the mainstream music press, yet she remains as steadfast, successful, playful and confident as ever in life and in music, clearly relishing in her distinctly precarious position on the bridge between fine art and performance art, while seizing and delighting in the freedoms gleaned from walking down a galvanizing path explicitly of her own choosing and born of an exhilaratingly rare kind of creative freedom. I recently had the privilege to continue an amazing, years-long dialogue with Amos about her work and its meaning. We spoke in depth about how the new record’s many components came together, about Judy Garland’s ghostly presence in all of our lives and about staying in love.

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I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I found the new songs cinematic, specifically “Trouble’s Lament”, really evoked Thelma & Louise for me. Two girls on the road. What is the origin of this song?

Tori Amos: Well… I’m glad you see it that way and I hope that when you see the video, you’ll get a feeling of that. I am driving a car, an old Cadillac, for the video. I love the idea that Trouble was personified as a young woman and running from this Satan character. Whether you see it as a very powerful corporate Satan. And she’s gotten in over her head. She had no idea what she was involved in, as we can all get involved in, Matt, I’m sure [laughs]. So I’m telling the story and she and I are joining forces in order to get her out of this mess. And quite possibly, I know this corporate Satan myself, from way back. I have found ways. So, hopefully the video tells and supports that story as well.

Speaking of interesting female characters… I thought “SnowBlind” was a highlight of Night of Hunters. “Promise”, another duet with daughter Tash here was a huge surprise on the record. I wonder if you could maybe talk a little about Tash’s growth as a singer in just a couple of years, and what it is like for you singing with her at this level?

Well, she’s been working a lot on her soul chops and listening to that type of music. Immersing herself with that. She is British, as well as American, and those Brit gals really seem to have something in their genetics that they embrace, they just embrace, American Soul. It speaks to something deep in their bones. And I watch it. I see it happening. It wasn’t my orientation, I always loved it, but I knew that if I tried to sing that music…I mean I’ve told you many times: I sound like a fairy on crack. I know that! So you have to surrender to what your pipes are. When I hear her, and I was listening to what she was doing, it began to make sense that the song was designed around the style that she really is drawn to. So, we talked about what we wanted to talk about and we decided, make it truthful. I’m the mom, she’s the daughter, and so we just said ‘let’s start there’. Although there are times when something shows up on television or a video and she’ll say ‘mom, you need to leave the room. It’s your bedtime’ [laughing]. You know, because it’s shocking. But she’s a YouTuber and all those wild things.

So, we were talking about a mother and a daughter making all of these promises to each other and she goes to boarding school, she goes to Sylvia Young in London. She ditched us, by the way, we didn’t ditch her. She said, ‘you know mom and dad, I love you and everything, but I need to go live my own life now’. That was when she was 11. She’s learned that some girls have good relationships with their mothers and some girls don’t have good relationships with their moms. We were talking about that, why is that? And it’s complex. It’s a complex issue, it’s a complex dynamic at times. It was really about listening to each other, listening and not needing to make choices for the other person but respecting them enough to know that not everybody, not the mom, not the daughter, will know the answer to everything. Not one of them will be right all the time. There has to be a place where we allow each other to learn from each other. 

The second verse on “Weatherman” is fascinating from a writer’s standpoint. The lyrics are impressionistic in a way that reminded me of the lyrical composition of Under the Pink. I’d love to hear more about your lyric writing process for this song.

I knew that it was the 20th anniversary coming up but I think that the story became the focus, that each song had to live on it’s own. You know? That each song had to tell a story that you understood without needing to hear another song to make it make sense. So each song was its own complete story, although some of them are interconnected, the songs, but they needed to live on their own. I guess working on The Light Princess, whereby story was so essential, following a dramaturgical line through a song, revealing the plot through a song, was something I worked with Samuel Adamson on a lot, my writing partner on The Light Princess. Those kinds of things affect your writing, I think you take it with you. So telling these stories, the idea of “Weatherman”, I found this record wanted to tell certain stories of men, where they’re quite romantic, these men. He loves his bride so much, she’s dead, he can’t move on. And his love is so great that nature decides to help him and paint her back to life. Nature can only paint her back, though, to an extent. So between that and “Selkie”, these relationships, there’s that thread happening through the record.

“Wild Way” really captures the complexity and intensity of a long term relationship. That thin line between love and hate. What keeps you in love? And how do you keep bringing fresh perspectives to this topic?

That’s a good question. But being in love means all kinds of things. Being truly in love with somebody means you’ve visited every tick on the clock. Or you’re about to [laughter] and you have to jump off the clock and decide ‘oh no, this is a little bit too in tense for me’. But I think that’s the upside about having an involved relationship, because you really explore all kinds of different situations and experiences. If it does challenge you both, it can also make you more in love.

This brings me to “Oysters”, which if you don’t mind my saying is up there with, I think, your all-time best songs. I loved the delivery of the line “with these Ruby slippers”. We’ve talked a little bit about Judy Garland before and you also cover “Over the Rainbow” sometimes, so I wonder if you could talk a little about Judy’s influence on this song and on you in general…

“Oysters”, I’ve been writing it for many years and it went through many stages, because it needed to go darker. It needed to explore a realm that it took me a while to get to, I had to get to that place. And I needed to isolate in order to get there and allow the song to take me to this place. I guess Judy carries possibility if you can get through the demons. Whether they’re in your mind or meaning if they’ve gotten inside your mind, and the demon has taken over you and you hear those patterns, those messages of negativity. That you can’t somehow heal or move on from the situation, that you feel trapped. That the ruby slippers is an image that means something to so many people and it seemed to me that the pearls…it’s hard to describe. I don’t want to describe the song because it speaks for itself. But there was a link that was happening for me, and once I understood that link the song started to come together.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of arranging and laying down your own background vocals on Unrepentant Geraldines and maybe just in general to get a sense of that process?

Background vocals, what happens, is a lot of time gets spent on the background vocals, and a lot got spent on this album. There’s quite a bit going on here. Designing them. Creating characters for them so that there’s supporting the lead, they’re adding something. “Rose Dover” was a moment of ghosting the lead, but not every word, in the B-section. It was affect that I was doing using the voice itself. So we were working with that, through the record, doing really low vocals. So it sounds like a guy on “Wedding Day” and on “16 Shades of Blue”, I’m doing octaves there.

I know we have talked about age in almost every interview we’ve had and since it is a topic that you directly address on “16 Shades of Blue”, I want to bring it up again. Why do you think your age is such an important or interesting thing to people who listen to your music and write about it?

Well… the music industry as you know, the reality, I can’t answer that question. I don’t know why. The reality is as you know when we’re talking front line contracts that more men fifty and older have those contracts than women. Yes, I have one and I’m excited and motivated to have one, to have the opportunity. Therefore with the opportunity, it was important to sharpen that pen over the last three years and putting into this record … as if it would be the last one you ever made. There is a fervent focus, a passion, swinging from the empowerment of being fifty and what that can bring, wisdom-wise. Also, the fact that for the men, they’re just stepping into their leading male status, the leading lady status at fifty it’s not that you’re just stepping into that. Culturally, that’s not how we see women. So I wanted to become my own leading lady, for myself. When I say that, I’m talking about in a musician’s sense, in a composer’s sense. Not to take on the projection of the culture. So, Tash said to me ‘you’ve got to grab this with both hands, Mom and go rock.’ So I looked at her and said ‘one woman show?’ She looked at me and [growls] ‘one woman show’. {laughter]

Unrepentant Geraldines reminds me a lot of my favorite album of yours, To Venus and Back, in terms of structure and experimentation. One of my favorite songs from that record is “Josephine”. I’ve always wanted to ask you, and can’t believe I haven’t until today, what does the phrase “in an army’s strength therein lies the denouement” mean to you?

When you think your army is so strong that you invade Russia and lose it all, so… your end becomes lost. Although you have the strongest army in the world, you lose. And you lose because of the narcissism that’s of the moment, the ego. Not seeing your humanity, not seeing that if you’re not really focused and playing out possibilities and probabilities then you make very destructive decisions. When you think you’re invincible, fireproof, however you want to say that; then you get careless. Even though you have the strongest army in the world, when you’re careless, you can destroy everything.

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Tori Amos is out on the road with her one-woman show, currently wowing crowds in Europe and this summer, she will return stateside. Unrepentant Geraldines will be released on May 13.

Matt Mazur is a Brooklyn-based film publicist who works on campaigns for documentaries, independent and foreign language films. A die-hard cinephile and lover of pop culture, he spends his free time writing about what he is not working on. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Mazur


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/181593-dont-call-it-a-comeback-tori-amos-on-her-elegantly-unrepentant-geral/