On the cover of her new 14th set, Unrepentant Geraldines, adventurous singer-songwriter-keyboardist Tori Amos is standing before a wall-size mural, a paintbrush clutched in her right hand, as if she's just put the finishing strokes on her latest primary-colored masterpiece. But don't read it too literally, she cautions.
"It's metaphorical," reassures Amos. "It's sonic painting — I paint with sounds. So no visual artist has to worry about losing their day job to moi. It's just a nod to the visual artists that we all know and love."
It's actually Amos' musical and conceptual palettes that have undergone transitions of late.
Her 2011 outing Night of Hunters was her first classical recording. Like its 2012 follow-up Gold Dust, the album was a symphonic reworking of back-catalog chestnuts, issued on classical music's most prestigious audiophile imprint, Deutsche Grammophon.
But Unrepentant Geraldines, which was issued on Mercury Classics, finds Amos returning to her patented esoteric-pop style. Proclaimed by NPR as her best in 20 years, its songs, she says, are inspired by specific painters and their works, as well as influential art movements in general. "I've gone to museums all over the world over the last five years, and I also buy art books and take them everywhere," explains Amos. "I travel with them! And when I can hear a painting, then I'm beginning to get it."
The new album's airy, minor-chord musing, "16 Shades of Blue," proved to be a turning point for the Cornwall, England-based composer. The song was inspired by Cézanne's "The Black Clock," a stark still-life featuring a lemon, a teacup, a conch shell, and a timepiece. Each time she went back to stare at it, the less she understood it.
"But then I was looking at 'The Black Clock' one day, and I started hearing it, hearing the rhythms which became '16 Shades of Blue,'" she recalls. "And I began to open up to it, where I hadn't been open to Cézanne before." Initially, "16" concerned her conflicted feelings about the recent milestone of turning 50 — but it later expanded to address challenges from every age. "I started to hear from different ages what those challenges were," she adds.
Meanwhile, a delicate minuet entitled "Weatherman" was inspired by the Impressionists of the 19th century, and their innate love for nature, Amos says. The lilting madrigal "Maids of Elfen-Mere" harkens back to the Pre-Raphaelites, and in particular a sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the same name. "I saw the drawing and I started to think, 'OK, you have a tale to tell me.' And the song began to grab me by the hand and say, 'Yes, we do have a tale to tell you!'"
Now that Unrepentant Geraldines has been released, Amos says she'd like it if listeners were to close their eyes and add their own fluorescent flourishes to each of its tracks.
"My impression is only a jumping-off point," she says. "It's just the beginning, just the first impression."