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Rip It Up (Australia)
September 22, 2011

Tori Amos: The Keys Girl

by Scott McLennan

Twenty years ago this month, Tori Amos was working from a London apartment and awaiting the October 1991 release of her debut solo EP, Me And A Gun. The Maryland native had relocated to the UK earlier in the year to assist in winning over the English media with her unique and confrontational piano pop, but at 28 she'd already tasted failure.

As frontwoman for forgotten '80s hair rockers Y Kant Tori Read, Amos had already been stung by industry ridicule.

"I knew what failure was like and I had made a commitment to myself about which direction I needed to take, no matter what people thought of it. It was liberating, but it took a lot of shedding. It took four years from the end of Y Kant Tori Read for the process to get to its next stage, which was being known for Little Earthquakes rather than being known for a failed record."

During her four years of metamorphosis from 'bimbo' rock chick to one of the most transfixing voices of the '90s, Amos was involved in numerous low-key musical endeavours. The vocalist recorded the original demo for Days Of Thunder's theme tune Show Me Heaven for her friend, composer Hans Zimmer. Considering the song was a global smash for Maria McKee in 1990, how different would the career of Tori Amos have been if she'd had her first hit with someone else's song before she made a name for herself with Little Earthquakes?

"Now that's a very good question and my mother has also asked me that. She's said to me, 'Wouldn't it have been the most disastrous thing for you if you'd been successful singing things that don't reflect who you are as a musician?'. I don't know what path I would have taken."

New album Night Of Hunters has emerged as a song cycle concerning a female protagonist being lead by a shapeshifting sprite on a mythical trip to rekindle love and life forces.

Winning a full scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory while still in primary school, Night Of Hunters finds Amos returning to her classical roots by re-interpreting the works of composers such as Bach, Schubert and Debussy.

"When I was at the Peabody they would say to me, 'You're going to be a concert pianist -- is that your goal?' and I would say, 'Oh no, I'm not going to be playing someone else's music for the rest of my life -- women have a voice too'. When I was approached by Deutsche Grammophon to do variations on classical masters, what woman has been given this opportunity? Even if I have to stay up for a whole year figuring out how I'm going to do this, I'm not blowing it like I blew it on Y Kant Tori Read."

As with 2010's festive Midwinter Graces album, Night Of Hunters finds Amos sharing vocals with her daughter Natashya Hawley (playing cosmic force Anabelle) and niece Kelsey Dobyns (breathing life into the Fire Muse). Given this link, as well as the fact both albums have roots in classical compositions, Amos agrees that Night Of Hunters was partially informed by its predecessor.

"Well I think Midwinter Graces definitely showed the way for me in how to work with variations on themes, so having done that record -- and with Tash and Kelsey being involved in that as well -- I think that there was a healthy force calling me back. Tash was very collaborative with me with her part, she was very much about developing Anabelle, and we bring Kelsey in to record wherever we are. When we were recording Midwinter Graces we were on the road in the States, so we'd fly her into Chicago or wherever we were. "She's now in New York studying -- she's a woman now," Amos giggles. "She's at Cap 21 in New York City studying theatre, acting and dance, so she's very much called to the footlights I think."

Having taken part in the ceremonial use of ayahuasca, a vine with psychedelic properties, in the 1990s, Night Of Hunters' Cactus Practice finds Amos alluding to the use of the similarly ritualistic drug peyote to reach a different state of perception.

"Yes, it is inferring that. I think because that in particular is a ritual, I wanted to take this to a ritualistic place instead of an experimental and hallucinogenic place. Tash said, 'You know, Mom, the song cycle's protagonist, Tori needs a bop on the head or something -- maybe one of those pomegranate margaritas Dad makes'. I said, 'You know what, that's not far away from what we're doing'. Tash understands Native American ritual and that it's very different from drug experimentation -- you approach it completely differently. I need to make it clear that we're not encouraging her to do that -- she just turned 11 last week -- because to approach that kind of thing it's not really rock'n'roll partying, it's more about reclaiming parts of her soul and pieces of herself have to die to make that happen."

Given her past lyrical output has covered personal topics including her miscarriages (Spark), teenage masturbation (Icicle) and sexual assault (Me And A Gun), Amos has never shied away from presenting her own affairs in her lyrics. Having suggested that the complex storyline of Night Of Hunters looks at the "dying embers of a relationship", Amos admits she talked through the lyrical concepts with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, before recording her latest cathartic tracks. Hawley, who has been married to Amos for 13 years after first working with her on 1994's Under The Pink tour, has always played the silent partner.

"He doesn't care what people think about him -- he's a persnickety British person and he's into his motorbikes and being in the studio. What we did on this project, we closed the door to the studio and I sang to him and only to him on the other side of the mixing desk, because it was all so raw, getting to the emotion of this Night Of The Hunters woman and taking it to that place. Whether some of it was inspired by moments from the last 30 years of my life, well of course I'm going to be pulling from my own experiences. Mark clearly would have recognised some of those experiences better than anybody else, but that's why I felt like we couldn't have anybody else there when I was putting it down -- it was me singing to him.

"He thinks it's great to be a muse," Amos laughs. "It amuses him."

Amos has paid stirring tribute to her brother Michael, killed in a car accident in 2004, on the closing tracks of both 2006's The Beekeeper and 2009's Midwinter Graces. Despite the complex storyline flowing through Night Of Hunters, the lyrics to concluding song Carry again feel influenced by his death.

"I think that a loss like that affects you differently over the years and makes you sometimes think about the time you have with people when they're here. When they're gone, it's difficult walking back into those pictures and feeling like you remember every part of the moment. Sometimes those moments get a little hazy -- it's not as if you can walk into them anymore. 'Carry' was very much about those that have gone."

Having ticked off Christmas album (Midwinter Graces, 2009), Julia Roberts film appearance (Mona Lisa Smile, 2003) and cereal commercial (Just Right, 1988) on her list of things to do, Amos continues to search for new challenges. Interested at the prospect of a duets record, would the songwriter look to new collaborators or call on old mates such as Robert Plant and Trent Reznor?

"Well my old mates are always fun and seeing people again you've worked with, you can grow and take a different step from someone you're just meeting. I'm not sure what the next original project will be, but my musical The Light Princess is also looming for the Royal National Theatre. For a long time I have put everything I have into it -- it will be six years in 2012 -- and it's the longest gestation period of any being on earth. Whales are two years, but musicals are longer."


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