Music Interviews

Tori Amos: “The message was clear – wear very high heels, and make your point!” – Interview

Tori Amos

Tori Amos

Given her musical career path to date, it makes perfect sense that Tori Amos should make an album where classical music is involved. Yet it also makes perfect sense that with Amos it should not be quite as straightforward as that. Night Of Hunters, her 12th studio album, takes classical music as its starting point, but weaves its thematic material into a sound that could only be from the pen of the versatile singer songwriter. So when we meet on a bright, late summer’s morning, she perches at the end of a sofa to recount the album’s genesis.

“When I first heard about it, it was the doctor of musicology at Deutsche Grammophon, Dr Alexander Buhr, who approached me,” she recounts. “I thought about it, and the way he put it. Would I consider doing a 21st century song cycle based on classical themes? I looked at him and thought, “Oh my goodness, you can get that so wrong!” I started thinking the condition would be that they supplied me with reams and reams of music in order to have enough to stoke the fire, and if I had enough to choose from I felt that I would find the original themes to work within a narrative.”

Her choices are not obvious classical themes, which suggest she had a lot of source material from which to choose. “Yes,” she answers firmly. “I listened lots – and also listened to Schubert’s Winterreise, just to get a blueprint of how a song cycle can work. There needed to be a personal crisis, and a worldly crisis, and the protagonist has to face or chooses to look at outside their own personal crisis.”

Did she find her own distinctive style of piano playing fitted in with the overall concept? “I had to make some shifts, but some of the way I play has been inspired by being brought up playing classical music. I’m more of an early 20th century inspired player – Debussy trained – than I am Jerry Lee Lewis trained. There is nothing wrong with being Jerry Lee Lewis trained, or Little Richard, but it’s a different lineage.”

To complement the Debussy influences she has recently taken Stravinsky to heart. “John Phillip Schenale (her regular collaborator) and I would talk in depth about would we go with the full orchestra, what was the best way. We would listen to the small section works of Stravinsky, and the intimacy that was created here was really the way forward for us. Then the key question was what should the instruments be, and John Phillip went away thinking about the characters, and what instruments would best represent them. We felt the clarinet and the cello would be very much the instruments to voice the emotions from the male protagonist.”

The story for Night of Hunters is Tori’s own, and she has worked on it alongside her upcoming musical The Light Princess. To the observation that the song cycle holds attention in the way carefully structured classical pieces do, she nods approvingly. “I think the musical has put me through my paces about motivation, and story, and that a story can be told in different ways, but it needs to be active. Even though we go back 3,000 years in time, Battle of Trees (the cycle’s third number) is active, instead of us going back in the past and feeling the mustiness of something, and not feeling that it’s tangible. Wanting to make that come alive became a modern Iowaska trip that I was taking for weeks, only I didn’t have any Iowaska! I had that Robert Graves book The White Goddess that was talking about Ireland, and how the different tribes had invaded. It seemed to me that if I could make this couple fight on the same side at one time, then they were turning their words as poets against an invading army, and not against each other.”

She rewinds the story slightly. “We first meet the man and the woman where they are wounding each other, and then I wanted to backtrack for a moment, with Annabelle (a childlike creature who confronts the woman). I thought we’ve got to go way back.” In the same sentence she shifts back to the album’s writing. “Being on the land and being there in Ireland, sometimes I just have to walk out from the old house. I’m going there tonight, and if I squint my eyes enough I can imagine there are people on the hill making music. I hear ancient sounds, and there is a very thin veil in Ireland from now to ancient times, trenchant past the whole Catholic era. Although we tackle it on the record, in Night of Hunters itself, I felt that we needed to go way back. So that was the choice, to do that.”

For Night of Hunters Amos has involved her two daughters, adding an extra personal dimension. “I’ve worked with Tash and Kelsey on Midwinter of Graces, but as I was developing the story I was concentrating on what the nature spirit should be. The first one that began to develop was this Annabel character that I felt would be fox-goose, shape shifting, nature personified, in this way. Tash and I would talk a lot about it, and she became part of the development of Annabel, therefore it seemed only right she would play it. She’s an actor as well, and so I started to design around her vocal instrument, knowing that I had to have variations on themes. She’s a blues singer, so I had to really do some weaving there! Kelsey is very trained, therefore putting her on the Scarlatti variation was an obvious choice.”

“We’ve had a lot of years together, Mark and I, and I think he finds it amusing that he is my muse” – Tori Amos

Given the story lines, and the theme of relationship that runs through the cycle, it is tempting to assume Tori has drawn from personal experience of her own marriage – though she is careful not to give too much away in the songs. “Well we’ve had a lot of years together, Mark and I, and I think he finds it amusing that he is my muse. But I’ve always been careful over the years about the details, and I’m careful still, because I don’t think that helps anybody, the details. I’ve put it in a frame that I thought would speak to people and yet it didn’t happen exactly like this. Usually with writers, you get inspired by events, but then you have to sculpt them. When Deutsche Grammophon said to me it needs to be a 21st century song cycle, I thought the one thing that keeps coming up is that marriage and relationships can be so disposable now. I don’t think you should try and work on something if it’s abusive, but if it just seems like it’s at a crossroads then I don’t know why you would throw gold away.”

She remains aware of the temptation of the short term – though will not be entertaining that idea herself. “Sometimes with all the trauma that’s happening in the world, and the stresses, I talk to my girl friends at times and it will be the idea of something new, with no attachments or responsibilities – it’s a fantasy. I don’t know if that fantasy really appeals to me, because with that deep love for somebody, I don’t know if it isn’t more of an 80s evening! So I really wanted to have the song cycle inspired by a relationship, and what happens in the story is really up to the listener, because I think it really reflects what they want it to be. If people are getting a divorce and they want that relationship to end, I’m sure it will in this story!”

The resolution at the end of Night of Hunters, however, feels like a strong and largely positive one. “It depends what you want it to be,” she says. “In my mind I feel that they say what they say to each other by the end of Edge Of The Moon, and that is left up to the future. It’s hard to know what the future will hold for them, but there is a possibility, because I feel that they are able to see something passionate and loving in each one. Then we go into a different issue, which is with the global, worldly trauma, with the chase in Night of Hunters and Seven Sisters, and that is the invasion of children’s dreams. That is why Annabel is really there, to wake this woman up and get her to claim her force, to be conscious and do something. So Carry is a moment of gratitude for those people that had some in to her life, and she hadn’t had a lot of gratitude for anything really in her life. Whether he’s included in that or not, it was really up to the listener to decide.”

Has the experience of writing a song cycle awakened her curiosity to do more writing through the classical medium? “I don’t know,” she responds. “I think I’ve got to deal with the musical now! With DG for my 20th anniversary we’ve recorded with the Metropole Orchestra variations on songs from different albums from the 20 years. I enjoy rearrangements of things, because you find that a song has different sides to its personality. Both are valid – the original album version and the live version – and I thought this was the best way to not be clichd and put a greatest hits out, taking the old masters and throwing them on a new form. The record companies own the masters, and can do what they want, but I wanted to do something that was creative and had a new twist to it.”

She is adopting the same approach with her forthcoming tour, which will feature string quartet accompaniment to many of her songs. She winces though, aware of the work ahead. “We have a lot to do. We’re busy! We wanted to have rehearsal time, but it’s at a good place, and we won’t have the whole repertoire ready by Finland because we could only arrange and rehearse so much. We have tried to focus on what we have, and then we’ll build a song every few days at soundtrack to work in on an encore. I figure if it doesn’t work then, we’ll rehearse it again until it does.”

Will they perform the whole of Night of Hunters in order? “I don’t think so. I think Shattering Sea is a very important statement for this record and for language, the use of how you use your words and the brutality of them. I can imagine that being a core of the repertoire every night, and I’m just working on how that will fit, how that will work. I do think that other songs need to weave in and out to create a different psychological explanation in each city. I don’t have Tash or Kelsey available, they’re both in school. I’ve taken Tash out of school for so long that she said to me “I need to go to school Mum”. Can you believe that?! “I’ve been around the world on six world tours Mum, and I need to go to school.” I completely got that.”

In a promotional video for the album Tori admits to knowing “more about shoes than classical music” when she started writing. Is the balance of knowledge closer? She laughs at the recollection. “It’s getting closer! The truth is you need to be a sonic architect if you’re going to do something like this. A director is a director – and if you’re a good one you’re a good one. Marianne Elliot who I’m working with on The Light Princess won a Tony for the directorship of Warhorse – and she’s never done a proper musical. She’s a great director. The fact she hasn’t done a musical, she’s done so many works on stage and understands how the construct and the foundations must be built for it to work on a theatre stage. A sonic architect – whatever you’re building, a skyscraper, a cathedral or a chalet, you’ve got to know how to build. This happens to be more like a sonic cathedral – but so is the musical. The key component with being able to do this was working for five years in a musical theatre, with narrative. The arc of that, the fact that instead of Sondheim and Bernstein being my touching stones, that it became Schubert, you know – to me, believe it or not, those are details – you have to know how to build. If you know all about classical music but don’t build you cannot do variations on a theme. It is about being an architect.”

Are musical challenges still a necessity to her craft? “Yes,” she nods thoughtfully, “but I think that’s when you really come alive, and although it feels insurmountable, the project, at times, you find a way because you’re inspired by it. You can feel frustrated and intimidated – there are times – but if you’re too intimidated then you can’t be any good, you can’t be useful to the project. I found at a certain point with the composers, the energy of the dead guys, it would be “don’t walk on eggshells. Don’t come if you’re going to do that, because you need to be a collaborator, and it needs to come into your world. The message was clear – wear very high heels, and make your point!”

The new Tori Amos album Night Of Hunters is out now through Deutsche Grammophon. She will play five UK dates this autumn, beginning at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 2 November 2011.

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Tori Amos: “The message was clear – wear very high heels, and make your point!” – Interview
Tori Amos – Night Of Hunters