Before releasing her new album Unrepentant Geraldines earlier this year, singer-songwriter Tori Amos had been dabbling in classical music and working on The Light Princess, a musical. She had all but given up on making pop records. So what made her return to the pop rock world that she left behind with 2009's Abnormally Attracted to Sin?
"Well, the songs came first, I guess," she says via phone from New York. "They became my sonic panic room in order to deal with all the other projects I've been involved with, which were exciting but really involved. Some of them are still going. The Light Princess, which I'm producing, will be out next year. It's 33 songs and an orchestra and a cast of actors. We're doing that between tours. That project has been going on for years and is in its next phase. But these songs came to me quietly and privately to survive all those other experiences."
In other interviews, she's said the songs came to her "in secret."
"It's the only thing I could do in secret," she explains. "I'm surrounded by an orchestra on the one hand for Deutsche Grammophon. For The Light Princess, I'm surrounded by the British National Theatre and my writing partner Sam Adamson, who is great, and this collaborative team of thespians. There are hundreds of them. They're an army. The only place to escape is with these songs that would take my hand and steal me away."
For Amos, turning 50 ended up being a landmark moment. She says 49 was "not good," and 50 was an even more difficult bridge to cross. Her teenager daughter intervened to put things in perspective, encouraging her to record Unrepentant Geraldines and to take on all those younger sensitive singer-songwriter women playing emotionally overwrought music. A preoccupation with growing old comes up on the album, and she even drops the line "50 is the new black" on "16 Shades of Blue," one of the best songs on Unrepentant Geraldines.
"Basically, my daughter confronted me about it and told me that I had to get my head around it; and if I didn't, the message I was telling her was an awful one," she says. "She said that I was telling her that in the music industry, if you're a woman and you're 50, you're done. I said, 'It isn't great.' She said, 'Mom. That sucks.' She said, 'You've dealt with other things in your life; go figure this out.' She said, 'There's all these other piano players, so you need to prove it to yourself.'"
Amos didn't want to compete with younger and seemingly prettier singers.
"I said, 'I'm not competing with people in their 20s,'" she says. "She said, 'No. Go compete for yourself.' She said I needed to go and find the fire. That was enough to shake me awake. This is before we recorded the album."
Visual art inspired many of the songs."Maids of Elfen-Mere," for example, was inspired by a wood engraving by Dante Rossetti. Amos says that exploring the visual art world helped her visualize her own music in a different way.
"Sometimes, as a musician, you go to different works and you begin to hear in different ways because you're throwing yourself into a medium that is not your own," says Amos. "Not that I want to paint. I have no interest in being a painter. When you come back your sonic world, you're painting sonically."
Photographers from the 20th century were another source of inspiration, and the album's opening track "America" includes a reference to photographer Diane Arbus, who was famous for her photographs of deviant and marginal people.
"Realizing that she had a tragic end to her life in her late 40s and being aware of that, I immersed myself in all her incredible work and realized she was an artist who left us a lot," says Amos when asked about Arbus' influence. "But I started thinking that if she had lived, what would she have left us? Through her work and her story, both compelled me to immerse myself in her work, which led me to other painters and artists and that took me back decades and decades, tracing it way back."
Amos' career stretches back to 1979. After winning a teen talent contest, she released a single and then formed a pop group Y Kant Tori Read before issuing her terrific solo debut, 1992's Little Earthquakes and following it up two years later with the equally impressive Under the Pink. So what has she learned from all those decades of touring and recording?
"[I have] realized that listening to people helps you gain a lot of ideas," says Amos. "It's where you can grow. In my 20s, I might have thought there'd be a day when you get it and it all comes together. The more you live, you more you realize that's not what happens. If you stay a student, you're there with other students walking around and exchanging what is learned. You're not trying to get somewhere. You're trying to be really present where you are. That changed over the years."
The current tour is a solo tour; it marks the first time in years that Amos has performed without accompaniment (though if you saw her in the '90s, you know it was common for her to simply sing and play piano). So what inspired the old-school approach?
"This goes back to the conversation with my daughter," she says. "She said, 'You have to do this because you can. And happy 50th.'"
Tori Amos with Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou
7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 7, Evans Amphitheater, 14591 Superior Rd., 216-371-3000. Tickets: $45-$55, reserved/$30 lawn, cainpark.com.