“Lighting, sweetie, lighting!” is Tori Amos’ theatrical retort to my compliment about how she’s still looking as radiant as she did at the launch of her career just over three decades ago.
Amos is now 50, and with her 14th album, Unrepentant Geraldines, she’s facing age head-on. Candor isn’t unusual for the composer; from rape to religion and even her MILF status, she’s approached a bevy of topics too controversial for most artists.
That same directness extended to our recent conversation, during which Amos chatted about the LGBT influence on “Promise,” a duet with her daughter; being the muse for the big Frozen ballad, “Let It Go”; and the gay fans who share their “traumatic experiences” with her.
CA: How did your last several projects – Midwinter Graces, Night of Hunters and Gold Dust – reenergize the contemporary songwriting heard on Unrepentant Geraldines?
TA: All of them fit into giving me fresh perspective. Starting with Midwinter Graces, I was thrown into the deep end, studying carols from the last few hundred years and just immersing myself in a different genre. It’s almost as if it became a baton hand-off, from Midwinter Graces to Night of Hunters and Gold Dust, back and forth with The Light Princess (a musical written by Amos), which was floating between all these projects, because she’s been in development for five years. All of them were giving inspiration to the other. Each one was giving some kind of spark.
The spark linking all of those works is very evident.
They’re very interconnected, and The Light Princess cast recording – I’m producing that for Mercury Universal. That will be out globally in early 2015, and we’re making the record on the tour, so this album (Unrepentant Geraldines) will be affecting that. They all gift each other something. I don’t always know what it is when it’s happening; you just get energy from one that propels another.
(For Unrepentant Geraldines) there was a freshness, a new perspective, that I was able to bring to contemporary writing because of all these other projects that had shown me different possibilities in structure and different possibilities in line. In that way, I feel like I’ve been rejuvenated by these other projects. When these songs were coming, they were coming not for me to make a record; they were just coming so that I could process what I was going through. And I didn’t share them with anybody. They were for my own private notebook.
What do you think people expect from you at this point in your career? Do you keep tabs on that?
No, because you can’t keep tabs on that. You have to stay true to the muses, and you have to push yourself. I think to be a visionary means you have to keep pushing yourself, and you don’t even know sometimes in which direction you’re pushing. How can you and I know? You don’t know what book you’re gonna write in two years’ time. You don’t know what you’re gonna write, but you trust that you’re committed to making exciting art, and that is your priority. Your priority cannot be success. Your priority has to be greatness.
Which direction are you currently pushing in?
Along with the 80-city tour and the new album, what we’re doing is recording the cast recording for The Light Princess while we’re touring. I wanna do something on the level of Jesus Christ Superstar, when it came out in the ’70s.
When I hear how they do cast albums, I say, “Yeah, no. We’re making records. We’re making rock fucking records! That’s what we’re doing!” And everybody’s just, “Well, there’s no budget for it anymore.” But you know, who cares.
My husband is on my team, so that’s just what it is – we’re gonna work during this tour. While we’re doing these shows, we’ll be working on the other record because that is the way that it has to be done. That’s just the way the music business is now. There’s no luxury to take a few months out and make that type of record unless you’re doing another project. So, we did the orchestra Easter weekend in London for 19 hours, and then we’re gonna be picking up the recordings of the actors as we travel, then editing them and mixing it in September and October.
There’s so much baton-twirling going on right now in your life.
But that’s the thing that you and I are talking about: Being an artist is a discipline and a devotion. You’re devoted to it, and you serve the muses.
And sometimes the muses serve other people. According to Gregory E. Miller, who interviewed Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the New York Post, you were the inspiration behind the Frozen megahit she co-wrote with her husband, “Let It Go.” They had you in mind when they wrote it.
Oh, really? That’s so great. How wonderful is that type of exchange? You don’t even realize that that’s happening, and I think that’s when art is really working – when the muses are working. I get inspired by something that I’m hearing or seeing, and then it’s that baton passing like you and I talked about. We’re tapping into this force that’s creation – the muse creative force – and it gets passed around, so the well never gets dry. You see, the well keeps getting filled up because people keep giving back to it and energizing each other. It’s really great to be a part of that type of process. Thanks for telling me that. That’s a great feeling.
I’d like to talk about how you’re 50 but look 35. How much pressure do you put on your looks?
Well, first, thank you for saying that. I have had really great people around me. Kevyn Aucoin – he was part of the gay community (Aucoin died in 2002) – was talking to me years ago about skincare. This was well over 15 years ago, and so I am very disciplined. Also, my husband has kidnapped me on and off for the last 15, 16 years, so I don’t get to see the sun much. And it rains all the time in England! I’m very disciplined, if I’m honest with you. I really watch what I eat too – except I did have two pieces of pizza today! I feel like, “Oh my god, it was my cheat day.”
You’re allowed maybe one cheat day a week.
But that’s all we get. Those French women, man…
Yeah, but only meals. They don’t graze. They just have their meals.
To many people in the gay and lesbian community, you’ve been a source of strength – a lifeline, even. What parallels do you draw between you and the gay and lesbian community? How do you explain this affinity?
Well, I write a lot about emotions and things that I might not say or be able to say to somebody directly. In a song, though, I’m able to talk about things that I’m not able to talk about in linear terms, just because they’re too personal. I do think a lot of my friends in the gay community keep some of their feelings very private and they protect them, so therefore music and art is a way to express those feelings.
I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that I’m told. I am told a lot of stories and written a lot of letters from the gay community, from females as well as males. It shocks me sometimes some of the traumatic experiences (I hear about) – the abusive situations that some of the gay guys have told me that they’ve been through, being taken advantage of and getting involved in over their head, if you see what I’m saying. Not realizing what they’re getting involved in, thinking that they’re being appreciated for who they are and in reality they’re kind of being groomed for god knows what situation. I’ve heard quite a bit of these stories from young men. Then they’re quite shattered and have to go through the shame of what they’ve been through. They have to find their spirituality and their sexuality and a balance in that, they have to find how to integrate those two and how to forgive the self. How to forgive the self for getting involved in a situation that they didn’t realize would be perverse – perverse to their soul. Some people don’t realize that they’re getting involved in situations whereby they’re not loved at all; they’re just desired and manipulated. I get a lot of letters about young men coming to a big city and having to realize how to protect themselves, how to protect their soul, how to look after themselves.
There’s a line on one of the new songs, “Promise,” that you share with your daughter Tash: “Promise not to judge / Judge who you love.” Was that written with the LGBT community in mind?
Yeah, she and I talked a lot about that. We talked a lot about her friends who are gay and having issues being accepted within their family structure. We were talking about the difference between what somebody has to go through when they’re not supported by their family, and why does this have to happen? If a parent really has unconditional love, that has to mean unconditional love. It was something thereby we were realizing with each other – and she was teaching me! You know, as she does so much. Because it’s about sharing. It’s not about, “I’m the parent so I know.” No – I’m the parent and I can learn as well. So we were saying how there aren’t a lot of relationships that are unconditional, where you say “I love you, not because of this or that.” We were talking about that with friends, peers groups, teenagers – it can be quite something. So, we did talk about the idea of being gay. Tash and I have been talking about that for years because we have gay and lesbian people in our crew.
When we chatted a few years back you told me Tash said to you, “Mom, I’m not a lesbian. Black guys are hot.”
Yeah, she thinks black guys are hot. That’s what she said: “Black guys are hot.” All the gay men (on our crew) were saying, “Right on, Tash.” But I think “Promise” is really about, Can we listen to each other even though we think we know the answer for ourselves? When do we realize what’s right for me is not right for anybody else but me? And when do I not need to think that I know what’s right for you? My god, the arrogance in that! So we were beginning to really turn over stones based on what kind of promises we wanted to make to each other.
Musically speaking, you’re known for eliciting some pretty intense emotions. What’s a song of yours that still makes you cry?
The truth is, it depends on the mood. And sometimes it depends on if somebody’s asked me to play something and they’ve told me their story – then I hear it in a completely different way. I see it from their perspective, and I hear the song for the first time even though I’ve played it hundreds of times, and that’s the exchange.
At this point in your career, are you able to reflect on what you’d call your best work?
No, I can’t. I’m too close to it. I have no objectivity. Run into me in 20 years when I’m doing my granny rock…
Granny rock – how exciting!
Yeah, and in heels! That’s what Tash says: “Come on, you’re only 50 – go rock! When you’re a granny, you gotta do granny rock, but you’re not a granny, so no.” But we made a deal: not too much flesh on this tour and no interpretive dance. That’s the promise. (Laughs)
So, get back to you in 20 years and you’ll tell me what you think is your seminal work?
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.