She Is Not Sorry: Tori Amos on Songwriting, Motherhood, and Her New Album

Over her long and storied career, Tori Amos has worn as many faces as musical styles. After all this time, the core of her multi-instrumental, narrative-driven style persists on her latest album, Unrepentant Geraldines.

Amos' Geraldines are the everywoman, and according to Amos, they've no need to apologize for their thoughts, changing, or aging. Though Amos' music is known for its wide dynamic range, she notes that Geraldines focuses on bringing out the fullest mid-range possible. This foray succeeds as much or more as her experiments with a fully plugged-in band (From the Choirgirl Hotel) and the downright abstract (Strange Little Girls).

Standout tracks, such as "The Maids of Elfen-Mere" and "Trouble's Lament," reveal a hitherto unseen fey and almost flamenco flavor, and Amos' dialogue with the world feels more direct and less metaphorical than ever. Listeners might not hear a completely new voice from Tori, but they will hear her in her most naked form. They will hear the Tori who is looking back on her own life, Tori composing alone, and even Tori having a private conversation with her daughter.

AmarpaulKalirai/MercuryClassics

One of the most highly regarded live performers in the world, Amos often changes her set lists nightly. Fans should expect no less from the Unrepentant Geraldines world tour, which started in early May in Cork, Ireland, and continues to North America this summer. Ahead of her show next week at Oakland's Paramount Theatre, we spoke with Amos about creative process, motherhood, and what it takes to make music that still resonates with a worldwide audience after 20 years.

SF Weekly: How would you characterize your fans in the Bay Area compared to your fans worldwide?

Tori Amos: There's always been an open-minded, liberal group of people that read a lot, have points of view that they share with me, make requests, those kinds of things. They're usually very politically aware.

Many of your albums reference a central female character: Pele, Venus, or Scarlet. Where do you think the Geraldines fit into your greater narrative, and is it significant you speak of the Geraldines of the world instead of one character or goddess?

Well, Geraldine for me is any woman. I began to see Geraldines in all of us. The key word for me was "unrepentant." There comes a time when, even if you realize that you might think something different next week compared to where you are now, you have to be willing to hear another person's viewpoint. That might change what you thought previously, and you don't have to apologize for growing and changing.

Speaking of changing, you've remarked on writing these songs privately, without some of your usual collaborations. What effect has that had on the album?

My world opened up working with all of those creative people. I kind of got thrown in the deep end doing the Deutsche Grammophon projects as well as the National Theater Project (The Light Princess) simultaneously. Because songwriting is such a solitary artform unless you have a collaborating writing partner, a lot of my world, particularly composing, has been done in isolation. On the go, traveling, that type of thing. With these projects, I was able to observe how many creators operate, got inspired, and how they resolve challenges. That was a real eye-opener for me, and it lasted for several years, and I'm changed because of it. I feel like I've been given a huge gift being able to observe that.

On Geraldines, I feel a hearkening back to the chamber music style of some of your earliest work. How do you think your composition has changed recently? Over time?

I think that the narrative was focused, mainly because of working with Samuel Adamson, the playwright that I worked with on The Light Princess. His attention to story and utilizing song to move the narrative forward; he's meticulous about that. His influence I think you feel a lot. I would imagine him on my shoulder when I was writing these songs. "Oh my God, how to move the narrative to drama! Bring the dramatic arch forward!"

You've mentioned that you had quite a few multimedia inspirations in the album, e.g. Cezanne's The Black Marble Clock, an old drawing of the repentant Magdalena, a Rosetti woodcut. You've also described the album as a collection of "snapshots" from your life. It seems there are a lot of themes at play.

I've written it over five years, and during these five years, I had exposure to a lot of different ways of creating and telling stories, working with an orchestra, working with actors, working with the musical theater world.

In "Promise," you worked with your daughter Natashya. What was your process like for crafting that song? How did it feel to record a song with your daughter?

I realized the structure for "Promise" had to operate a certain way. I needed to go to her world, and I had to create structure where I wouldn't sound dishonest. The structure had to bridge her world and my world, for it to be honest.

We were talking about mothers and daughters, and [how] it is a challenge sometimes. She's at boarding school, and she was telling me that some moms and daughters get along well and some don't. For some, it isn't because one of them is a bad person; usually they're both great people, and you can see that if you're talking to them on their own and they're really engaging and have great qualities. But sometimes when you put some mothers and daughters together, neither listens to the other. They can't hear what the other one's saying. They get into confrontation very quickly. It's usually, "You don't listen to me," "But you don't listen to me!" So she and I were saying that we needed to do a song where we start promising things to each other to try and communicate in order to hear each other.

 
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