Tori Amos fixes me with a penetrating gaze. Seen through the extravagantly framed spectacles that she has taken to wearing, it’s a gaze that’s formidable and a little unnerving. “Sometimes,” she says, “the hardest thing to do is just to love, unconditionally – to truly love.”
We are talking about parenting, and the challenges of letting our children make their own choices, and their own mistakes. Amos has in mind her relationship with her 13-year-old daughter Natashya – a close bond that the singer, songwriter, composer and pianist has, characteristically, turned into a song, “Promise”, on her new album, Unrepentant Geraldines. The song is a duet, and Natashya, or Tash, as her mother calls her, gives an astonishingly mature vocal performance as the pair exchange promises. In less assured hands, the song could have been icky; in fact it’s touching, and typical of Amos’s gift for making great art out of her life.
Amos, a slight figure, is sitting with one leg tucked beneath her in a dressing room at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, where she is to perform that evening. A half-drunk cup of something herbal sits on a low table.
Last year, Amos, born Myra Ellen Amos, the daughter of a Methodist preacher and his wife, of part Cherokee descent from the American south, turned 50. Never one to pass up the chance to explore the creative potential of a major life event, she used the passing of the years as the launching point for a series of meditations on time, ageing and the barriers faced by women as time marches on. A still life by Cézanne, “The Black Marble Clock”, depicting a clock with no hands, crystallised her thoughts and gave rise to the song “16 Shades of Blue” from the new album.
“There’s a lot of painting going on on this record,” she says. “I heard that Rilke talked about Cézanne having 16 shades of blue on his palette, and seeing the black clock with no hands, it all of a sudden started to come together as one; about time, about ageing. I was hearing about the different pressures for people of all ages – the pressures on teenagers taking their GCSEs; a woman in New York in her early twenties I met who couldn’t get a job and said she’d taken a wrong turn – for her, the clock had stopped; and then the thirtysomethings who were worried about having families and if they did they wouldn’t get promotions. I was hearing all these things but I wasn’t open to it until I saw the clock with no hands.”
Amos was not “open” to the idea of being 50 until she had a conversation with her 85-year-old mother. “This time last year, she told me, ‘You know, you’re seeing this all wrong. Fifty is an amazing time. Things for me at 50 were the best. You need to be open to being the you that is a bit of everything you’ve learnt your whole life. Until I was 50 I never brought it all together.’ ”
She gives me that gaze again and adds: “She said, ‘Once you know you’re way past midlife, once you know death is there, you can look at all the sweetness and all the lessons learnt, and you become all those things.”
Tash, too, had her input. “She told me, ‘In music, you have to believe that you can be as good as you were when you were 30. Why can’t you be as good? The only thing stopping you is you.’ ”
And, indeed, she is as good as she was when she was 30; calmer, yes – some of her 1990s work, such as From the Choirgirl Hotel, was a kind of artistic self-exorcism – but still a great songwriter and a gorgeous singer. The new album is a return to a more conventional idiom after several years of orchestral work (she made two albums for Deutsche Grammophon), followed by her collaboration on the National Theatre’s well-received musical The Light Princess. It’s a rich collection, packed with lyrical flights of fancy that will doubtless be pounced upon by a community of devoted followers (at the concert that night is a smattering of fans who have dyed their hair red), who spend hours online unpicking Amos and her lyrics. Does she find this Torisphere a scary place?
“I don’t go online,” she says flatly. “I never Google. It’s kind of a rule that Mark [Hawley, her English husband, a sound engineer] and my manager and I had since computers [came along]; it’s just a rule we made, an agreement that I wouldn’t go online. Some people have to be aware of what’s out there, I guess. But it’s not really my business. And if people want to have a chat with me, I’m usually at the stage door.”
Her lack of online activity has not prevented her from expressing her concerns about privacy and the activities of the US’s National Security Agency – not in a conventional protest song but in a jaunty ditty about a pie-shop near her home in Florida run by three women, and the search for, as the song’s title puts it, the “Giant’s Rolling Pin” to “roll the truth out”.
After her recent excursions – she toured with an orchestra, as well as a Polish string quartet, to tie in with the Deutsche albums – this tour is a return to the singer-songwriter-at-the-piano vibe for which she was recognised in the early 1990s. Although it offers greater improvisational opportunities, she says, it’s also a challenge as a solo performer to keep the audience’s attention. How does she keep things interesting, rhythmically?
“It’s to do with a left-hand-heavy arrangement,” she says. “When I was young I studied a lot of Stevie Wonder and bass players too. If you get the left hand right, you have an ability to groove – there are a lot of piano players with great ‘chops’ but no groove. It’s a different skillset.” A second, electronic keyboard also helps, she says, to broaden the sonic palette.
At that night’s concert, she showed that she can still grip a crowd. Seated at her Bösendorfer piano, Amos performed a moving set. “1,000 Oceans” was gloriously wistful; “Playboy Mommy”, her lament for a miscarried child, was exquisitely sad, while two cover versions – of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” and Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” – had a grand, epic quality.
Her piano-playing was a marvel. She caressed and rolled its keys and slapped its side, turning to play the second keyboard, sometimes playing both simultaneously, straddling and rocking and squirming on her piano stool in a manner that was unmistakably erotic.
The use of backing tracks on a couple of encores – “Cornflake Girl” and “Trouble’s Lament” – felt needless: it broke the spell. But the closing song, 1994’s “Pretty Good Year”, restored order. By now the Toriphiles in the front rows were on their feet.
The next day, I check an online Amos forum to see what was being said about the show. “Oh God I’m so excited, I couldn’t even sleep last night,” said one fan beforehand. Afterwards, another, a first-timer, wrote: “It was a surreal, almost out-of-body experience. I cried so much at one point that a nice girl next to me offered tissues and asked if I was OK.” Well: I wouldn’t go that far. But it was strong stuff, and proof of Amos’s ability to keep herself and her music vital while the clock ticks on.
‘Unrepentant Geraldines’ is out now on Mercury Classics. The tour continues across Europe in May and June before going to South Africa; toriamos.com