Arts & entertainment
9 min

Power principle

Tori Amos on being the Helen Mirren of rock and roll

Tori Amos sitting pretty in a publicity shot for her new album, Unrepentant Geraldines.

Credit: Amarpaul Kalirai

Tori Amos is one of the most influential and prolific songwriters of our time. Since her stunning debut, Little Earthquakes, in 1992 she has sold more than 12 million albums, staged 16 tours and left an artistic and musical imprint for generations to come.

At 50, she has written and staged her first musical, The Light Princess, dropped Unrepentant Geraldines, her most impressive record in over a decade, is in the middle of an 80-city world tour, and is producing the cast recording for the musical while on the road.

Xtra spoke with Amos by phone ahead of her upcoming Toronto show.

Xtra: Congratulations on the success of your musical and your new record. You didn’t let anyone hear the new material before recording; is that a common process for you?

Tori Amos: No, I don’t know if it is because I waited so long to play anything to anybody because I’m doing these other projects, so everybody was hearing those things, and I kept these to myself and walked with them through the process. You know, they kept me company through everything.

Did you plan on releasing the material that’s become Unrepentant Geraldines?

Not necessarily. While I’m out there, out and about in the world — and I travel a lot — I guess it’s part of processing things, figuring things out, how I feel about things. The muses tap me on the shoulder, and the songs come to visit. They took about five years to come. It is just a secret kind of conversation; it wasn’t a conscious decision, and it’s just happening, quietly, privately. Because it’s what I’ve been doing since I was a tiny little girl, two and a half or something. These are just my little friends.

After so much struggle between your albums Y Kant Tori Read and Little Earthquakes, what did it feel like when you finally started to break through? Was it surreal?

Yeah, it was surreal. It was. But because of the struggle and those years from Y Kant Tori Read and what it took to make Little Earthquakes, I mean, that was quite a few years there, ’88 to ’92, before it really happened. But there was a huge gift in having to climb that big mountain, and that means when success was coming, then I didn’t take it for granted because it was very, very difficult to get there. Many battles were fought, and many battles had to be fought after that and are still being fought. Not with the label, necessarily — where I am now at my age. It was a different battle I had to fight over the last year, and that was with myself and realizing that being 50 and older as a woman in this business, we’re not getting as many of the contracts as the men are, and that’s just true.

Can you talk more about those challenges over the last year or so?

So, the battle has been, “Okay, then how do I change that?” Change always has to start with the self. I had to really confront how our culture projects onto men 50 and up. Look at George Clooney! He’s at the height of his magical powers. And if you look at women who are his age, not all of them are the objects of desire in film. So, as much as I love Helen Mirren and all those ladies, you can’t think, “Okay, I’m going to be the Helen Mirren of rock and roll.” I would love to be, however, I have to say to you.

Storytellers are telling stories at all ages, and I was very aware that the culture accepts men talking about certain subjects as they get older because there is that salt and pepper, lines on the face, beards, aphrodisiac sexy thing. So, we have to be fair about it. Women have to find their own power and then have to take it out there. There are not a lot of women 50 and up that are really impacting people. You need to really think about it. I’m not talking about the big songs I did in the ’90s; I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about writing things now. Getting out there and being powerful, powerful now.

You’ve been living in England since the early 1990s. Do you still find your Southern US roots playing into your music and your writing?

Oh yeah. I would say definitely. Just because you’re in a place doesn’t mean . . . That’s where things can be deceiving. I think that your blood flows through your veins and has certain rhythms that it’s drawn to. We’re taking trips and travelling and getting inspired by travelling with different sounds, different stories and different tastes that awaken certain rhythms.

Your new single “Trouble’s Lament” has that Southern Gothic sound, and it seems you’ve personified trouble in the song?

I think she’s a very important friend to have. And I think you’ve got to make sure you know where she is on most days. Wherever she is, you’ve got to have an awareness of where she is. You can let her in, I don’t think there’s any fear in that, but you have to know what you’re up for and what you’re not up for metaphorically, if you see what I mean. Because trouble doesn’t have to be pejorative; it doesn’t have to be a negative. Trouble can bring things to people’s attention that can set them free. It can be liberating, but you have to decide how you’re going to have her in your life.

You’re such a prolific songwriter, and there are many B-sides that are just as well known as your official album material. Is it difficult leaving those songs off your records when it comes time to deliver the final product?

Oh yes. I have realized, though, that there seems to be a culture for the bonus tracks and the B-sides; therefore, it’s nice to know that people will go and listen to those, even before they listen to the A-sides sometimes. So, knowing that they’ll have a life, those songs, does make it somewhat easier.

Would you ever consider packaging the B-sides into a compilation and officially releasing them?

Oh, I don’t know about that. Just because I don’t know if I’d do that yet. See, maybe in the very end. Not while I’m still working on other projects. You know, you gotta keep moving forward. I know that compilations happen. I can see that if there is a compilation, say, of a time frame. I don’t know, just say of a time frame of ’92 to ’94, for example, that if there were a compilation of that time that it would be great to try and include the B-sides from that time. That would be really important.

Can you talk a bit about your working relationship and friendship with Kevyn Aucoin?

It was one of the most beautiful. He was beautiful inside and out. And the thing about him was he was always trying to open people up to different art he would discover, whether it was a TV show or other music, and he was always sharing other people’s art with other people. He was trying to connect people, particularly women with other women, so they wouldn’t be threatened by each other. And he had a real sense of that because he felt there were too many barriers between women and too many were competitive with each other, but that’s because the business can do that. The business can kind of make it seem as if you’re being pitted against somebody else. And that’s really not healthy, for any of us. So, you have to combat that, and you have to work your way around it. You really, really, really do. Because when you’re being compared to other people and they’re getting thumbs up and you’re getting a thumbs down, you’ve got to really do your work spiritually to be magnanimous and not take it personally. And to up your game, if you need to up your game and not feel as if you’re competing because you can always compete with yourself. But working with him and talking these things through all the time, it helped me grow a lot as a person.

You’re in the middle of your 17th tour. Do you ever find yourself experiencing stage fright at this stage of your career?

Live is very different than any kind of . . .  When you’re doing TV, that’s a very, very different thing. You’re walking into a very cold room, even if there are people there to see you. The temperature of the show, the narrative of the show, you’re just there walking in as an entertainer; therefore, you’re not having an experience like you’re having at a concert. See, people have come to have a specific experience if they’re coming to your, whoever you are, your show. So, I take that really seriously. That people have made their plans, they’ve changed things around to come and have an experience, and you can never take that for granted that people are doing this. Perhaps early in your career. Everybody has their moments of, if you’re in the industry, you have your moments of being the hot new thing. Now, you can be a hot thing, but you’re only the hot new thing one time. And if you’re the hot new thing, it’s possible if you’ve been out on the road for months and months and months that you can maybe just not see it’s never an entitlement that people are coming to see you. And you can’t think because they’re coming now they’re going to come in 10 years, 20 years; it doesn’t work like that. Therefore, you always have to be focused on the audience in front of you, the show in front of you. Even if it’s a half-packed house, you just have to find ways to bring the energy to a place where there’s transformation for everybody so there’s a place of magic. And that means you’re focused on that show, if that makes any sense. And sometimes you’ve got to be really present with yourself, so when you talk to me about being nervous, when you’re really present with something you begin to not think too far ahead; you’re just in this experience. So, do you see, when you screw up, you screw up. You can laugh about it and you start again. Now, if you’re with a big orchestra, the stakes are higher, you see, because it’s not such a little thing to fix. You’ve got to stop 50, 60 people, and they all have to start from a bar. I mean, that is a fucking mess. So, you want to avoid that at all costs, okay?

You performed in Russia recently. What was it like looking out at the audience and knowing what Russians are going through with gay rights and human rights violations more broadly?

It’s humbling. It’s completely humbling to be in Russia. And the audiences; the people are unbelievable there — the Russian people, the Russian soul. It touches me deeply. The thing is, they’re real people there. Whatever you see on television with leaders and people making certain decisions. You know, all nations have leaders that make decisions the people aren’t always proud of. So, you have to think of the Russian people different than necessarily what a leader is choosing to do or not choosing to do. And the people there, it’s hugely challenging for them, and they’re choosing to continue to light the flame, be strong. But it’s very disconcerting what they have to deal with on a daily basis. And what I’m talking about is not being able to be honest with who you love, what you feel, what you believe because if you are it’s very possible you might lose your freedoms. They can make life very difficult for you there. Pussy Riot is out touring, and the fact that they continue to live in Russia and yet are activists and are out there touring — it just has to be recognized what courage it takes to be a Russian and speaking out like that and then going back and living in Russia. My goodness gracious, I have the utmost respect. And they should be supported by the community. I’m sure they are. I’m just saying I am motivated and moved by what they are accomplishing. When you spend time in prison and after what they’ve been through, I just have no idea what that path is like. I can’t identify with that because I can’t tell you I’d have the balls to go to jail for two years. I mean, I don’t know, I’m not Russian. So, the fact that they’ve done that and they’re out there now after having been through that? Jesus. That’s an activist. Checkmate, motherfucker.