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October 24, 2012
Tori Amos talks Gold Dust
by Heidi Maier
One bright Cornish Friday morning in the month preceding the worldwide release of Tori Amos' latest album, Gold Dust, the US-born singer/songwriter is sitting in her home studio as life bustles along upstairs, in the main residence.
"Up there," she says, with a sigh and a gentle laugh, "I think all hell is kind of currently breaking loose!"
She elaborates: "We're at the husband's place in Cornwall, just back from Florida, where it was warm and we all got tans, and it's sunny here today, it's bright, but it's English sun, it's not Florida, you know? We had to come back to get Tash ready to head off back to school."
"The husband," of course, is Amos' husband and long-time sound engineer, Mark Hawley, and "Tash" is their 12-year-old daughter, Natashya, now a full-time boarder during the school year at London's prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School.
Before I can ask whether Tash shows signs of following in her mother's inimitable footsteps, Amos laughs again and, unbidden, answers the question for me.
"I suspect she might, though differently. She's the most wonderful mimic. She could meet you and ten minutes later, on your way out of the room, you'd hear her taking you off! Believe me, she does great take-offs of me! She knows which buttons to hit and, well, I wonder where she got that from, huh? I can't imagine!" she guffaws.
For the past 20 years, 49-year-old Amos has been proudly pushing buttons left, right and centre with her feisty, singular songs. Hers is deeply confessional music, nearly all of it characterised by her confronting and personal lyrics, sensuously unbridled live performance manner and unbridled honesty in interviews.
In 1992, she released her brilliant debut, Little Earthquakes, and Gold Dust marks what she calls the twentieth anniversary of "ripping the pages out of the diary and pushing them under the door, out into the wider world, to see if anybody would read or relate or react."
Read, react and relate we did and, in the intervening years, she has released a further 10 studio albums, each as ambitious and uncompromising as the next.
From the 1990s through the 2000s, each of Amos' albums is the musical embodiment of the very qualities that have both amassed her a loyal following and driven some clueless, spiteful critics to label her everything from "utterly insane" to "astonishingly inappropriate" -- her honesty and her purity of creative vision.
Coming less than a year after her last effort, the ambitious classical opus that was commissioned by revered classical music label Deutsche Grammaphon and released as Night of Hunters, the Gold Dust album sees Amos continuing to explore what it is to work within an orchestral setting.
This time around, she has revisited various songs -- which she refers to as "girls" -- drawn from her extensive back-catalogue. Amos has rearranged and reinterpreted each of the album's 15 tracks, rerecording them with the famed Dutch Metropole Orchestra.
"The crazy thing is that the idea for Gold Dust came as Night of Hunters was coming," Amos explains. "It was very confusing at times because I'd be trying to work with one girl and, you know, another would be poking her head around the corner, trying to get my attention and, for a while there, I wasn't quite sure what was going on, so there were times I'd wonder what was going on until it all started to become a little clearer," she says with a hearty laugh.
In many ways, she concedes, there would be no Gold Dust without Night of Hunters.
"The Metropole had invited me, months ago, this was some years back, to come and play with them. They were doing a week of guest artists and, during the rehearsals, Dr. Alexander Buhr, the musicologist from Deutsche Grammaphon was there and he saw what was happening -- what was happening was that I had never played live with an orchestra ever. My recordings were always done privately, behind closed doors, so that the emotion can happen and then, if I wanted orchestral elements, they played to my recording," she reveals.
"That guest appearance was the first time that I was playing with an orchestra and being able to respond, no different than when you have a conversation, and Alex saw what was happening and told me that we had to make a different sort of context and collaboration happen because, from where he stood, something really very magical was happening, something I wasn't able to see because I was in the thick of it, if you see what I mean?"
In conversation with Amos, who is as wonderful, witty and engaging a conversational partner as one could hope for, both "If you see what I mean?" and "Do you see what I mean?" are oft-invoked refrains.
And, frankly, given the number of times lazy journalists have painted her as what she sardonically and sarcastically summarises as "the bat-shit insane redhead waif, shivering in the fucking forest as she plays her piano and talks to the faeries" who can blame her for wanting to be sure she's properly understood and not wilfully misrepresented or misinterpreted?
Amos is first to admit that she doesn't craft music that is easy listening. But nor, she says, would she want to. She has long tackled the sorts of subjects that are considered uncomfortable or taboo, raising the ire of those who have accused her of plumbing the depths of her own misery for material.
What such critics miss, however, is that for Amos writing songs about her repressive and conservative religious upbringing, teenage masturbation, rape, relationship breakdowns, miscarriages and struggles to, as she puts it, "simply be a woman in the world" isn't a cheap ploy for sympathy or attention.
Indeed, she describes it as "the way I deal, the way I process, the way I start a dialogue. If you're not interested in the conversation I'm starting, walk away. You don't have to talk to me, you can just keep moving."
Amos has spent much of her career playing the piano in a wildly unconventional manner, straddling the piano bench, legs akimbo, and "sometimes, yeah, kind of shitting all over the perception of it as an instrument associated with one kind of music -- the stuff of dead composers."
As Night of Hunters showed, Amos certainly has a reverence for classical music and the "dead composers" with which it is often associated, but she also has a disdain for the oppressive, restrictive strictures of formal music training.
She has famously been playing the piano more-or-less constantly since she crawled up to it as a toddler and started tickling the ivories. For a time, Amos was enrolled in the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music in the US city of Baltimore.
She was a gifted student, one of the youngest ever admitted as a pupil, but she was also a rebel and a questioner, both qualities that eventually saw her expelled from the conservative institution.
For Amos, the process of working on Gold Dust was one she considers to be both rewarding and challenging. The project was exciting because it offered her the opportunity to marry a relatively recent discovery -- the joy of playing live with an orchestra -- with the elements of her past that revisiting songs from her back catalogue represented.
But she concedes that it was also "completely terrifying at some points, so much so that there were definitely moments when I wasn't sure if the project would ever see the light of day, even though I see now, in retrospect, that feeling the fear was just part of the process."
"We recorded live with the orchestra and that was amazing but also really scary. I normally sing without anybody much listening. That's how it's been before now and probably will be again. That's how it's been since the husband and I have worked together since 1995," she says.
"At most, there would be two people in there. But this time, it was the orchestra playing and me singing with them. We were in separate rooms, but in the same building, playing together. In the past, the overdubs on the vocals were done separately, the strings or whatever added later, but, this time, I played and sang live with them and I was actually responding to them, so it was truly very magical. There they all were, you know, 60 people with their headphones on."
As a musician who has often toured with a small band but not, until 2010 and 2011, collaborated with an orchestra, Amos says that she found the process "utterly transformative and life-changing on so many levels -- it was just alchemical."
"I have, for a long time, dreamed of playing with an orchestra. I do remember, when I was first playing tiny shows and touring Little Earthquakes, wondering what the songs would sound like with an orchestra, but I could never imagine it actually happening, you know?" she says, the awe at having at last realised that dream palpable as she speaks.
"When you play with an orchestra, and most of this was just with them and the one conductor, the wonderful Jules Buckley, you're feeling each other's push-and-pull and responding to that. He's very young, in his thirties, so he has a really youthful sensibility about him and he'd immersed himself so thoroughly in the music. He knew it, he understood it, it was truly like I was having a conversation with him and with the players. It was absolutely alchemical."
And what of the songs themselves? Now, when she sings a song like 'Winter,' which she first recorded in 1991, does the song feel like it hearkens back to a distant version of herself? Or does it still resonate?
"For the most part, the songs continue to feel very current to me, but they have also somewhat changed in shape and meaning. So, 'Winter,' for example, is current to me, but I don't just see pictures of myself as a little girl. When I heard 'Winter,' as it is on Gold Dust, as we were mixing the record, I see pictures of Tash running in the snow in Austria with her father, falling on the ice and him picking her up. It's things like that, changes like that. I don't just see me going back in time 43 years ago, when I was a little girl," she muses.
Over the years, Amos has also been vocally outspoken on various political and social issues. She founded RAINN -- the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network -- in the US in 1994 and works closely with the organisation in its efforts to prevent sexual abuse and assault, assist victims, and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.
Another topic about which she is passionate is the fight for gay rights and marriage equality. Amos has many fans in the LGBT community and says, unhesitatingly, that she considers herself to be "the hugest kind of ally to the community, yes, absolutely yes."
With a nod to the looming US Presidential election, Amos and I discuss a number of topics, among them women's reproductive rights, healthcare and the controversial comments made about "legitimate rape" by Republican Todd Akin.
In speaking about abortion rights, Akin infamously said: "From what I understand from doctors, pregnancy from rape is really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
On this topic Amos, herself a rape survivor, becomes audibly upset and understandably angry.
"I think these sorts of people should have to attend a meeting with survivors. Not where they can talk, they're not allowed to talk, they need to listen and be forced to listen. They need to do this every single day for a year. That's what they need in order to not be ignorant. Unfortunately, what people like Akin maybe don't understand is that they have just turned thousands of women's heads and hopefully had them say, 'What a barbaric and foolish man.' That's how an intelligent woman should respond," Amos says, fury colouring her voice.
"Any woman who is a Republican, who condones or agrees with his comments, just shows that she is filled with nonsense, that she has been brain-washed by the militant stupidity, misogyny and ignorance of the right, and, frankly, that she has no intelligence. To me, this election is bringing up all kinds of these issues. The reason 'Flavour' demanded to be on this record, and the reason behind the video we made, which is about representing all sorts of different people, is because that song asks essential questions."
Amos pauses, asks: "Are you with me?" and takes a breath before continuing.
"The lyric asks: 'Will you choose fear? Will you choose love?' You have people professing to be Christian and you know me, I'm a minister's daughter, so I more than understand how the church operates, and what shocks me, despite that knowledge, is the ignorance. The hateful ignorance of people who don't believe everybody is entitled to the right to marry the person they love, the person with whom they want to spend their life," she says.
"My mother is Christian. She has a deep faith and also proudly calls herself a feminist and respects all people and feels they deserve the same rights as she does, but many so-called Christians are aligned with the right-wing side of the political spectrum and choose ignorance and fear. Their beliefs are based in ignorance and in fear. They're not based in love, or acceptance, or respect. There's none of that consciousness in what I've heard from someone like Todd Akin, Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan.
"It frightens me, frankly, that people will go with fear. We had eight years of that with Bush and the last thing we need is another four."
For now, Amos is working on her long-awaited, much-delayed musical, but hasn't ruled out another run of shows in Australia.
"You know what I'm going to say! I want to come! I love it down there! I absolutely love it. We're playing shows in Europe with the orchestra, but I adore Australia so, yes, I do hope something is sorted out so that I can be coming there in the near future."
Gold Dust is out now on Deutsche Grammaphon through Universal Music Australia.
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