(Vancouver Sun – July 11, 2014)
Tori Amos’ new album is about the triumphs and traumas of turning fifty, but it was a teenager who set it in motion. Unrepentant Geraldines, which critics are calling her best in decades – it’s definitely the catchiest and most accessible – was inspired by Amos’ now thirteen-year-old daughter Natashya, who was not impressed when mom started musing about life for female artists fading at fifty.
“She did kick my butt. Hugely,” said Amos, who’s performing at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on July 16th. “She told me I had to get around this fifty concept and that if I didn’t what was the message to her. “It’s a terrible message you’re giving me mom, you’re saying you can’t rock as hard as you did when met dad during Under the Pink twenty years ago. I say wrong, because I see you play every day.””
Talking to the Sun on the phone from Istanbul Amos shares Natashya’s butt-kicking advice. “You need to go out there — no orchestra, no band, you go out there and prove it to yourself. Because if you don’t your message to me is CRAP.” Amos hits the word with an actor’s emphasis, then continues. “It means at fifty I’ve got nothing to look forward to and honestly mother that’s just unacceptable.” Amos laughs, then finishes her comment with a musical build. “And I thought okay right, alright, RIGHT!”
Amos responded to her daughter’s challenge by crafting her 14th studio album drawing inspiration from both her age and her favourite visual artists. Songs include 16 Shades of Blue which features lyrics like “fifty is the new black,” the infectious single Trouble’s Lament and Promise, which Natashya sings on.
The American-born artist, who’s now based in Cornwall, is famous for writing lyrics that are as raw, confessional and personal as they are poetic. With her 1992 breakout album Little Earthquakes she went beyond standard confessional fare about break-ups and bad boys and sung about missed mestrual cycles and being sexually assaulted. She’s also (in)famous for her onstage relationship with her Bösendorfer pianos which verges on the carnal. And as ethereal and esoteric as her songs and concept albums can get she’s always had an earthy sense of humour in concert where she’s known for performing her own spins on classic pop cover tunes.
As a former child piano prodigy who was invited to Baltimore’s Peabody Institute at age five (and expelled at 11 for spending too much time improvising) the “big five o” wasn’t Amos’ only big birthday drama. Amos recalled another traumatic birthday just under halfway to her half century mark when her debut album Y Kant Tori Read “tanked,” with Billboard magazine dismissing it as “bimbo music.”
“That birthday wasn’t great because I was thinking if you’d asked me when I was five where I would have been at 24 I would never have answered what the reality was. So that was a bit of a wake up call.”
Amos turned her failure into fuel. “Being publicly humiliated by Billboard was a great gift and I thank them, silently, daily. I kind of say “yay, thank you for that” because never again, never again.” Then she explains what she’s so thankful for. “Those were the building blocks that made Little Earthquakes. So in a way, without Y Kant Tori Read it’s very possible I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
Little Earthquakes didn’t just cause a tectonic shift in her career it also rocked the music world because until then the idea of a pop album featuring a woman playing piano was pretty much unthinkable.
Amos says that’s how her first album happened. “I wasn’t going to get to make a record by putting the piano in the centre, so I had to play the game in order to have a record deal. But because of that I did not stay true and so I followed what they thought the image should be for all kinds of things. And it wasn’t just one thing, it was the culture.”
When Amos initially delivered the album that became Little Earthquakes her record company wasn’t interested. “It was rejected when I first turned it in. I turned in four more songs for it to it. And it took another year for it to come out.”
Part of the delay was a fight over the former piano prodigy playing the piano. “When I first turned it in they wanted to take all the pianos off and put guitars on and I had to stand strong. But I was able to stand strong Mark and fight for the art I believed in because I walked down the LA rock chick thing in the mid-80s in order to get a record deal and so I understood what the consequences to that were and I said, “never again will I not listen to my muses. Ever.””
Now her muse is the teenager who encouraged Amos to carve out a space for a woman who wants to rock out in her fifties. “In the music industry you have to remember it’s not as if we can go off and become Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep. Now they’re in the next generation, but roles are created for their age appropriateness. In the music world you’re singing about all kinds of things. And it’s a little bit different than the country industry. The pop rock industry is its own thing. If you’re a dance artist or an icon you get the young hipsters and they write the songs for you and blah blah blah and you’re an icon and then you work with the hot, happening producer-writers. But if you’re the storyteller you have to be able to tell the stories and be vital NOW. And strike the chord NOW,” says Amos.
“Now that’s a very different path up the mountain. I was talking to the guys at the label and they said, “no it’s true, it’s right, there aren’t as many contracts being offered to women fifty and up as there are to men. It’s true.” And I said “WHY?” And they said, “we’re only here to supply the demand. Nobody’s banging down our door.” I said, “well fuck that, they need to be, because we’re still sexy.””