In her twentysomething-year career, Tori Amos has unapologetically done things her own way. She tells Daragh Reddin about the wisdom she shares with her daughter and how the music industry really should embrace mature women.
Tori Amos has been a formidable and enduring presence on the alt-rock landscape since the release of her 1992 multi-platinum masterpiece, Little Earthquakes. Sure, it’s been all too easy at times to mock some of the North Carolina native’s kookier endeavours – suckling a pig on the cover of the sprawling Boys for Pele album springs to mind – but her uncompromising lyrics and lush piano-driven soundscapes have garnered a particularly evangelical fanbase; while her devil-may-care attitude to the caprices of the pop charts suggest an artist of rare integrity.
Although she now lives in Cornwall with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, Amos owns a holiday home in Cork and has a long-standing affiliation with this country. The majority of the material on the aforementioned Boys for Pele album was recorded in a church in Delgany, Co Wicklow, and she even penned a song about us – “drivin’ in my Saab/ On my way to Ireland” – for 2005’s The Beekeeper album.
Her 14th studio outing, Unrepentant Geraldines, is her first proper “pop” record in half a decade, following the release of a Christmas LP and two orchestral projects on the storied Deutsche Grammophon label. As the title might suggest, there’s a pronounced Irish influence. “I was travelling with my painter friend Vincent Cooper-Smith [the art director responsible for the Boys for Pele cover] and we happened upon a reproduction of a print by a 19th century Irish artist named Daniel Maclise in an old country house which really caught my imagination,” she says in a breathy transatlantic whirr.
“It depicted a kneeling penitent called Geraldine; I was struck by the way in which her pose resembled that of repentant Magdalenes in the works of Italian masters such as Titian. Of course, I was fascinated by the idea of what she was really thinking, what her transgressions were, and if her demeanour was just a façade. The word ‘unrepentant’ kept bobbing about in my brain and became the jumping-off point for the entire album.”
For Amos, Geraldine seemed symptomatic of the taboo that surrounds female sexuality to this very day and was the driving force behind the songwriting. “There are different facets to the female self, and they’ve become compartmentalised,” she says. “For hundreds of years, the sensual self and the spiritual self have been separate from each other, and religions haven’t taught women how to integrate them. But being passionate or sexual is also a sacred state, and there’s a blessedness in sharing that spiritual eroticism with someone. We have women who know how to go out and be the mistress or the wife, but not to embrace both simultaneously.” I feel somewhat blindsided when, clearly warming to her theme, she then points out to this male interviewer: “If you don’t think women are struggling with both, you’re misguided!” Feeling duly chided, I’m tempted to reply: “But I do Tori, I do!”
Hard as it might be to believe, particularly for fans who’ve followed her since her Little Earthquakes era, Amos turned 50 last year, a fact that inspired the song “16 Shades of Blue”. “If you talked to me twelve months ago, I wasn’t exactly grabbing it with both hands,” she explains, with admirable matter-of-factness, when I ask how she felt about reaching that milestone. Her concerns, as it transpires, were less to do with growing older per se, than with the challenges faced by middle-aged women in a male-dominated industry. “If you think about the frontline contracts [in music] and who they are going to, you’ll see far more 50-plus men than women being signed,” she says, frustration evident in her voice. “There were a lot of great artists about in the late 1980s and early 90s who don’t have deals anymore, and it’s not because they’re not talented. I really wish the companies would nurture older female artists, but the public would have to want that too. The labels are only reflecting what they think the public will buy.”
She goes on to make a judicious observation about the double standards at play when it comes to the vistas facing male and female solo musicians hoping to tour in their autumn years. “Men like Neil Young and Elvis Costello are a kind of aphrodisiac because our culture sees them as the older guys with experience, and it’s perceived as sexy. We have a long way to go before the culture sees older women with wisdom in the same way, which is why they so seldom fill stadiums.” Her gritted-teeth response to a question about the state of today’s pop charts and the crass sexualisation of young women underscores her attitude to an industry where machismo continues to reign.
It’s scarcely surprising then that Amos is wary about her own daughter, Tash, who sings with her on the track “Promise”, plumping for a showbiz career. “Would I rather she ran from it? Of course I would. She’s no fool when it comes to the music industry because I’ve made sure she knows.” Far from being the kind of stand-offish parent who intends to let her daughter, now 13, find her own way in life, Amos makes no bones about the fact she’s there as a buffer between her and the big, bad world for as long as she possibly can be. “Sometimes the walls go up after we have an argument,” she says. “Tash will take the whole let-me-make-my-own-mistakes tack, and I’ll counter with: ‘Okay, but what if the consequences are so dire from that mistake your life is changed irrevocably.’” I get the feeling it’s Amos senior who tends to come out on top in such encounters.
While the performer has always been close to her own mother, her sometimes fraught relationship with her father, a Methodist minister who’s now in his mid-eighties, has been well documented. Although they’ve clashed on spiritual matters over the years, she’s happy to see he and Tash have forged such a close bond. “She and all his grandchildren have an amazing relationship with my dad, which fascinates me because of how he and I disagreed so vehemently while I was growing up.”
Mum might have Tash well-schooled in the harsh realities facing up-and-coming musicians today, but Amos herself has not just survived the vicissitudes of the pop industry but thrived, and is making music as pertinent, shrewd and unpredictable now as at any point in her career. As she sets off on a new world tour – playing solo for several months with just her piano and dulcet vocals for accompaniment – I wonder if she ever gets tired of being tireless? “I love to play music,” she laughs. “Like the old artists of the 19th century focussed on creation, I believe in marching forward, playing and making music for as long as I can. If inspiration strikes once more, what a blessing; it would be very sad for me if it never came again.” With her track record to date, that seems highly unlikely.
Unrepentant Geraldines (Mercury Classics) is out now.