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December 18, 2009
Tori Amos Shares Her Own Brand of Holiday Cheer With 'Midwinter Graces'
By Lauren Brown
It just doesn't feel like the holidays until you hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" a few hundred times on the radio. Mariah, Bon Jovi, U2 -- they're all artists you'd expect heartfelt holiday singles from -- but Tori Amos? Not so much. And, accordingly, her first seasonal album, Midwinter Graces, isn't exactly your traditional Christmas album.
Tori's the daughter of a Methodist minister and grew up performing in the church. She also questioned her religion every step of the way, so this album is, of course, a magical and controversial homage to her upbringing -- and she has a lot to say about it all.
You were on tour for your record "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" while recording this album. How did that work?
Tori Amos: The basic tracks were recorded in Cornwall, England, but Mark [Tori's husband and sound engineer] warned me and said, "If you really think we're going on tour, and you're going to have this album done, then you are not living in reality. I'm going to give you the bad news, or we're going to get divorced." He said, "We'll be recording this across America." I said, "We won't." He said, "We will," and he was right. We did the strings in L.A., vocals in Chicago and Toronto, and brass in NYC.
How did you put your own spin on some traditional songs?
TA: You get to the third and fourth stanza of the carols, and you're back to the crucifixion. I researched this from my late teens into my 20s because I was frustrated when I would ask questions as a minister's daughter about what would they do before Jesus came along during this time of year. You would always be met with, "Pagans -- we don't talk about them."
And the word pagan is a pejorative to Christians, which is just wrong. A new religion is always built on the shoulders of the one before. Sometimes when you're growing up and asking questions, no one wants to acknowledge where some of the traditions come from.
Well, they come from other sources... A lot of carols actually started out as sea shanties or folk songs or drinking songs. What was key to our early ancestors from Europe were the winter and summer solstices and the [fall and spring] equinoxes. And they would then make Christian celebrations around the ancient celebrations.
Would you say then that lot of your songs on this album really pay tribute to the winter solstice rather than Christmas?
TA: I chose songs that I thought I could bring an inclusive instead of an exclusive ideology. Christianity says to remember this guy died for you and that shame comes with every moment of joy. I wanted to edit out the shame.
We're not denying what happened but this is midwinter -- this is the rebirth of life. And what it was supposed to be the rebirth of the S-U-N, but then it became the S-O-N. This is a moment to reflect, to be nostalgic and also to look ahead and embrace.
What does your dad have to say about this album?
TA: My dad loves this album. He knows what I'm doing. The great thing is he's not a right-wing Christian -- thank God -- but we have them in the family, you know, they're there. His mother was extreme, and he can kind of admit it when you get him to that place if he knows she's not listening -- but she's way dead.
She was a missionary teacher from the Church of God. She has a degree in literature, so she knew Byron and Shelley and Dickinson like the back of her hand, and she could turn it on you. You never knew what was coming. She told me as a little girl, "You give your soul to God, and you give your body to your husband." And I said to her at 5 years old, "Well, what do I get?" I got stood in the corner with the Bible, reading, and said, "You have bought this hook, line and sinker, Grandma, and you're the enemy."
How did you know to say this at 5 years old?
TA: I knew. I don't know pretend that I know much, but that was instinctive. As a child, you either get brainwashed or you realize, OK, um, I am in a family where some of them I really like and some of them are really misguided. There are sides of Christianity that are so extreme, and I think are so far from what Jesus's message was.
Women were prophets -- this is documented -- and people like my grandmother chose to see that the body is shameful and that it is dirty. I have made a career of trying to embrace the ancient feminine before it was subjected to some male authority. And some women are very much a part of the male authority.
What were the holidays like for you growing up in a church?
TA: I was in the choir, and then when I was a teenager, I was playing the bar room six nights a week, but I was also directing the children's choir in red leather pants.
Do you believe in Santa Claus?
TA: Someone busted the Santa myth for me [when I was little], and I've hated them ever since ... But my mother talks about Nicholas in an historical way -- that he existed. And it's no different than Jesus.
He doesn't get born every year -- except in the hearts of mankind that we talk about on the record. It's the idea that children are born every year and they carry for us that light of the world.
Does your daughter still believe in Santa?
TA: My daughter is 9 years old and she still believes in Santa -- and so does Mark. And I believe in fairies. My daughter will say, "Dad, do you believe in fairies? And he'll say, 'I married one!'"
What do you want for the holidays this year?
TA: Less stress. There's a whole other generation coming up, and you just wish that they could learn the lessons without so much pain. It's just so hard sometimes -- it's hard out there to be given a chance. I don't regret that I'm happy I'm in my 40s. I wouldn't want to be in my 20s right now. I'm 46 and I love it. I'm happy to be 46, and that my husband likes to shag me a lot.
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