Tori Amos ditches the orchestra for piano

Tori Amos in 2014. Tori Amos in 2014. Photo Credit: Mercury Classics / Stefan Hoederath

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The past five years have been a grand musical odyssey for singer-songwriter Tori Amos. Revered for her confessional and confrontational solo work, which has encompassed everything from intimate piano ballads to rock anthems, the American-born, Ireland-based artist branched out into orchestral settings with a seasonal album ("Midwinter Graces"), a classical song cycle drawing inspiration from famous masterworks and adding her own words ("Night of Hunters") and orchestral reinventions of her own songs ("Gold Dust"). Last year saw the arrival of her London musical "The Light Princess," and she is working on an official cast recording while on tour.

On her latest album, "Unrepentant Geraldines," out Tuesday, her musical pendulum swings back to piano-driven works with guitar accompaniment, peppered with influences such as blues, British folk and jazz. Visual art also informs the album, including an etching by Maclise, paintings by Cézanne, and a wood carving by Rosetti. The song "16 Shades of Blue," about women of all ages struggling with the concept of aging, is a reference to Cézanne's color palette. The title track, inspired by a Maclise etching of a penitent woman named Geraldine, made Amos think about the separation of women's sexual and spiritual sides and their need to embrace all aspects of themselves proudly and unapologetically.

Another standout track is "Promise," inspired by a flesh-and-blood muse. It is a love song between Amos and her 13-year-old daughter, Tash (short for Natashya). "She and I were talking about mothers and daughters and how some relationships, even before a discussion starts, the walls go up and they refuse to hear each other," Amos says. "Somehow they can't even have the discussion. We were talking about why does that happen and how does it happen? One thing led to another, and we started putting it into a song. I was watching some of her influences -- she loves soul music."

From "Promise," one gets the sense that Amos and her daughter have a strong bond that can weather any storm. "She's great," Amos said, beaming. "She's been brought up in a very open-minded household, although if you curse in our household you better get your grammar correct. If the grammar's fine, there's no problem."

Friction creates great drama, as with the gentle ballad "Wild Way." Despite the repeated lyrical refrain of "I hate you," it is, at heart, a fragile love song. Amos chronicles the stories of many untamable characters, but when one is in love, as expressed here, they become partially tamed, and the song echoes a loss of control that can come from letting someone in that close.

"When you really are in a relationship, you're going to experience all kinds of things if you really love them," says Amos. "You're going to experience all kinds of things if you stay together long enough, and that's OK. It doesn't mean it's not sexy. It's sexy, it's passionate, but it can also be incredibly emotional. I just saw it as the clock -- when things are great, it can be that 11 o'clock, so there are the two ones that are together. Balanced is the 12 o'clock, and that 1 o'clock, that single one all alone, is the extreme of 11. They're not that far apart sometimes."

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Amos is masterful at writing songs that on the surface appear to have one tone but possess a different undercurrent. The sublime "America" is graceful and elegant (two words that describe the album overall) and deals with two different, conflicted Americas, one of which is sleeping. (You can insert the sociopolitical connotations.) "Giant's Rolling Pin" sounds like a whimsical jig about pies until references to the NSA and FBI make it clear that something deeper is being explored. The composer likes that such compositions can be deceptive on first listen.

"I think for this record I wanted to draw people into these paintings, and then they're in the frame," explains Amos. "They're interacting within the frame, then all of a sudden they get to see that there are images in the picture that maybe they didn't notice before they agreed to walk into the frame."

"Unrepentant Geraldines" goes on sale Tuesday.

MORE Amos plays the Beacon Theatre Aug. 12-13. Check ticketmaster.com for ticket availablity.

 

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A fairy tale for teenagers

Last fall's musical "The Light Princess" is a collaboration between composer Tori Amos, playwright Samuel Adamson and director Marianne Elliott that took six years to reach the British stage. Inspired by the 19th century Scottish fairy tale by George MacDonald, the story revolves around a romance between a heavy-hearted prince and a floating princess.

"The original story is a jumping-off point," says Amos. "We wanted a story that would really resonate in the 21st century [with] teenage girls and guys. A lot of fairy tales sometimes work for younger, little children, but we wanted the dynamic between teenagers and their parents within a fairy-tale setting. Getting the story right was key. Sam Adamson and I had to really find out why a gal would float and make sense of that."

While there is no word on an American production, Amos is working on the album. "I'm producing the cast recording right now on the road, which is busy," she says. "It will come out early next year. I wanted to do a proper record, not just the cast recording, but how it used to get done. We got the orchestra in Easter weekend and spent 19 hours recording it. So Mark [Hawley] and I will be editing out on the road on a show day in Europe. He'll find me in the dressing room, and we'll do edits , then get it all prepped for the actors. We will work the actors in between the touring. That's just what you do. This is what the world is now. You've got to adapt."

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