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Private Passions (UK, radio)
BBC Radio 3
November 12, 2006

Tori Amos interview

Michael Berkeley: Tori Amos is a phenomenally successful singer, composer, and she also has a rather unusually choice in music as we'll come to discover very soon. But just in case you are not familiar with her work, here's a little taste of it.

("Cornflake Girl" clip)

Michael: That was a hugely successful song, but it gives also an immediate, um. . . little idea of your range and all the things you do with your voice. The whole of music that you have is based I think from quite a wide interest from early on in your life.

Tori: Well, when I was little, my mom would play me something from her music collection. She had worked in a record shop in North Carolina in the '40s. So after all these many years, she kept her collections: the only thing she didn't sell as a poor minister's wife, you know, to put money towards the house. And I was also going to the Peabody Conservatory when I was 5, so there was a mixture of that. . . and then of course my brother who was interested in contemporary music in the late '60s. He was much older than I and he would bring it in.

Michael: And almost all of those things that you've mentioned have fed into your musical psyche haven't they? The minister, in different ways, have come out in quite unusual ways.

Tori: Well my dad has said to me, Michael, that he will look and say, "Look, Tori Ellen. . . if I had been a dentist you would have nothing to write about." And I guess that's. . . that's fair. I think that for all the mixed up craziness that you have to live with: being indoctrinated into such a household that lives and breathes and sleeps it, it's not something that they do. . . It is as you know a belief system; going to church doesn't just happen on a Sunday. It's every waking moment. And they do try and really control what you believe in. You have to believe what they believe. Which I think is why I ran to the piano, because it's the only world I could step into and believe what I wanted to believe.

Michael: Now a lot of your music and your ideas have been formed by dark periods in your life, as with many composers. And, in fact, the first piece of music that we're going to hear is by a composer who perhaps more then any other captured the emotional turbulence of being a human being.

Tori: I've always been drawn to those spirits and I guess when I heard Beethoven there was something in my soul that finally I think began to embrace classical music. You know, as a 5 year old, it's a little tricky when you are listening to the Beatles and you're whistling something and you're seduced by the fashion. You are; and the culture. If I could go back in time to when Beethoven was, you know, dead cool. . . and that is what going to the Conservatory began to teach me. That our perception of who these composers, who they were and what they really were and how they were perceived in their time is very different to people standing around a piano eating stinky cheese making these financial deals now, and not understanding where it comes from at all.

Michael: What does this music mean to you purely in terms of the piece itself?

Tori: Well for me it's the paradox. I see it really as Persephone, Queen of the Underworld having a conversation with Aphrodite. Because there is such passion and I love that, you know, Aphrodite is dangerous and frivolous sometimes and wild. And yet Persephone goes into the underworld, experiences the rape, and then transforms herself, marries Hades, and I like that idea that she goes from being Kore to Queen of the Underworld. And I think that these two women, these two archetypes are really contained in Beethoven's work.

(Pathetique Sonata # 8 in C minor, 1st movement by Beethoven)

Michael: Alfred Brendel played the first movement from the piano Sonata number 8 in C minor the Pathetique by Beethoven. Tori, quite unusually you have chosen, and with no apology, piano music. . . absolutely through this program, in terms of all the classical music. So, the piano really means that much to you?

Tori: It is the center of my existence.

Michael: Because you were going to be a concert pianist at one point, weren't you?

Tori: That was the plan, but you see plans and reality are very different. Especially when you're dealing with child prodigies because you see. . . on the one hand, I think it was just a blessing that my dad was a preacher and there were people in the congregation that were musicians. Because my family didn't come from a line of musicians, my mother's father, who was of Eastern Cherokee decent, had perfect pitch. And so he would sing to me as a little girl when he would rock me to sleep. Other than that, though, there really isn't music on either side of the family, therefore they didn't know what to do. I mean, how do you handle a two-and-a-half-year old who can climb up on the piano and play anything back, anything plays. They really didn't know what to do. And so people in the church that were in the choir and that were working professional musicians said, "Well, you have to take her to the Peabody. Because unless you train her correctly then you have missed an opportunity." So, in 1968. . . you were there. . . it was a very different protocol than it is now. It's funny because the Peabody's asked me to come back and do a workshop on contemporary composition, and I just thought to myself; I mean, what am I gonna do? Show those kids how to straddle a piano stool in a 5-inch heel? I mean I can show them how to do that, but it takes more then the heel. It takes a defiance. And I guess I had to see that I needed to be a composer and that I didn't have maybe that special ingredient that you have to have to play somebody else's music and to allow yourself to become a canvas, a blank canvas so that their soul can embody yours.

Michael: Nevertheless, um, in other people's music, you found structures and skeletons upon which you could build. And in fact that next music in particular, Bach, foundation of so much.

Tori: Well, I remember I was about 7 when these were sort of my, um, fundamentals. And I was seeing shapes when I would play his music almost as if it came as a light frequency. And when I would hear it, I could step into this realm of light that was multi-dimensional. And, whether I was sleeping or eating, these patterns would go around and around in my mind and I think it became really part of how I started to compose. Things revolve around patterns that show up again when you don't even know it. I think when it's ingrained in you and you're so young, no different then your accent, how you talk, this was sort of like a musical accent for me as a composer.

(Two Part Invention # 1 by Bach)

Tori: Michael, the funny thing about that when I was hearing is the left hand: that's where I think I really began developing my left hand. The conversation that comes from the left hand as a piano player sometimes is subservient to the right hand, especially in contemporary music, but that. . . here it's the dominant one, for me anyway. I think that it started to really be the beginning for me.

Michael: And fascinating how even a little piece; he'll take a phrase in the right hand for example which will end on one note, then he'll repeat it more or less in the left hand and that takes you to another note and so there's an equality there if not a dominance as you say. We heard Angela Hewitt playing the Two Part Invention #1 in C Major by Bach. I was listening to one of your songs yesterday, and you were talking about contemporary composition, and I was very fascinated, and I wondered how many pop singers or pop artists would do--- where you take just one note and you sing around it, and this note keeps going, and you make yourself build something out of that. And then just as so to say, "This is what you can do with something incredibly economically very simply." Are you interested in looking at taking things not only to their maximal, which we often do with studios nowadays with all the possibilities, but actually looking at very simple tiny cells?

Tori: Well, it is in the microcosm where the macrocosm shows itself I think. Sometimes I have to strip it all back and in that moment I really do think that it's very complicated. You can get it so wrong just working with one note. Or you can really step into, you can pioneer something for yourself.

Michael: And in a way, a limitation can be a strange liberation. If you confine yourself to a smaller pattern, as with Bach, you actually had to be more inventive.

Tori: Yes, and it forces me to be disciplined which I think sometimes because pop music doesn't have strict structure, it really doesn't, it might think it does, but so many people just do whatever they want that sometimes you let yourself get away with things that you shouldn't. Because you can. Apposed to, you know, you have to follow a blueprint. So sometimes I'll design a blueprint that I have to follow and work around that.

Michael: Now, we were talking about entering the Peabody, (laughs) we're now going talk about leaving it--

Tori: (laughs) Not very gracefully either.

Michael: And that takes us into this pop piece soon enough, too.

Tori: Well, I wasn't the right character. I didn't have the kind of, um. . . I don't know. Maybe I was just burning up with an idea that the Beatles were as important as anything else they were teaching, and I would say to them, "People are snoring in theory class, they're falling asleep." People around me were much older, and I'd say they'd been partying out the night before, they'd been trying to get in to see Jimi Hendrix; why don't you at least bring a frame of reference that they're interested in and somehow making a parallel to these great composers because I'm telling you right now, these guys you're teaching would be rolling over in their grave on how you are, well, turning everybody off.

Michael: And ignoring what's going on.

Tori: Yeah. And they would want to know what's going on. So, they said to me, "This music will not last and you really don't know your place."

Michael: Are you trying to tell me you weren't conforming? (laughs)

Tori: (laughs) I wasn't, no. Imagine that. Yet again. It's so obvious with me, isn't it? So there I was, kicked out of the Peabody at age 11. And my poor dad, I really have to say. . . he cried. He really cried because his whole idea of what I could become, which was a really good classical pianist, was just crashing down. And I would say, you know, "Chin up dad. It's gonna be alright."

Michael: And it was, as it comes. But this piece you've chosen represents that period, and of course, it's a wonderful song in the way it tells so touchingly such human story.

Tori: Yes, and I was trying to tell the people that were teaching at the Peabody that, "If you can't see how this music is flirting with some of the other things you're teaching -- Debussy -- if you cannot see that, then you are going to lose so many of your students." And that, to me, was criminal. And they disagreed with me and said this music would not be around in 30 years time.

("Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles)

Michael: "Eleanor Rigby" and The Beatles. Of course it's so extraordinary to hear, at that time, string quartets.

Tori: Yes! Right! In this way, with that voice and with this Sylvia Plath kind of lyric, it was the marriage, the combinations, and this is where, to me, contemporary music made such a huge shift from where we had just come from out of the 50s and the Crooners, and now we were into something completely different.

Michael: Well there you were saying how you needed to do your own thing really to realize yourself that working with other composers didn't release those juices for you, if you like. But, some of the cover versions you've done are very original. I'm thinking particularly of a wonderful Eminem number.

Tori: One day, I had heard Eminem having such an effect on my nieces and nephews. And talking about women in a way that was just really making steam come out of my ears. And I am all for non-censorship; I believe it. However, I think that if you put something out there, then somebody can respond to you. Therefore, when I heard his song "97 Bonnie & Clyde" where he's murdering his woman and telling his little girl about the death of her mother, I decided in my version that the mother wasn't yet dead. She was in the back of the trunk, the boot, and you hear her version of what's happened with a sort of a Serge Gainsbourg track that we created around it.

Michael: Not often on Private Passions have people described Prokofiev as being the equivalent of their hussy period. . . (laughs)

Tori: (laughs)

Michael: . . . but I think that's the way you see it.

Tori: Well, you know, I don't know what happened, Michael, maybe it's hormones; I was a teenager and the idea of playing Prokofiev in a tight black dress. . . there was nothing better for a minister's daughter to do to break away from the church. And maybe I thought that I was meeting the Dark Prince in doing that. Little did I know, I was trying to become the Dark Prince and I guess if I'm honest if I had put a lot more time in my chops than I did in my look, then I would have had a much better recital. But at the same time I think I was really learning about theater in composition and how to apply it into my language and dealing with the Russians was glorious for me. I didn't do them justice; I can tell you right now. However, it was not in me, masquerading as a great pianist . . . it was me learning as a composer from them.

(1st Movement of Sonata #4 in C minor by Prokofiev)

Michael: The 1st Movement from the Sonata number 4 in C minor by Prokofiev played by Peter Demetrief. Do you think also in the Russian composers, and I think particularly in the next piece which I think inspired you in one of your songs, that there is that kind of yearning melancholy, that deep romanticism?

Tori: Sometimes I wonder if the bleakness of what they have to deal with just with earth, those winters . . . how can it not affect you? Yes, of course I know the whole political thing, but then there has to be something to be said for not getting a lot of light. There just has to be.

Michael: It was this piece, wasn't it, this Rachmaninoff -

Tori: Yes.

Michael: -- that inspired you.

Tori: Yes, it's this piece and I remember hearing it and going back to my little apartment in Hollywood and I lived behind the Methodist church on Highland. . . Highland and Franklin, and I would go back and I would pass this sign that would say "Leave your weapons at the door." And the street people could go in at night and sleep there, and I was 20 paces back behind them, and I had heard this Rachmaninoff piece on the way home I think in the car. And I was just drawn to the piano and this song about my father came out; about a girl and her father. And it's called "Winter." It made Little Earthquakes and there was a string arranger there that had worked with Frank Sinatra who arranged the strings and you and I were talking earlier about how the string arranger is so, so much of why a piece works or not when you're bringing in orchestra and sometimes I've got it right and sometimes I've got it wrong. And we were talking about how important George Martin was with The Beatles because it is much more than, we can't just say, well the ideas are The Beatles' or Tori's or--- without the string arranger it just wouldn't be the marriage that it is.

Michael: It bring the colors, I mean slight, it would be like looking at a monochrome picture and then suddenly these instruments bring the colors to it, don't they?

Tori: When you said to me how to bring two worlds together, this paradox, this is what sometimes keeps me going. The idea that you have the beauty and the contemporary with antiquity.

(Etudes-Tableaux #8 in G minor by Rachmaninoff)

Michael: That was the Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux number 8 in G minor from the Opus 33 set, played there by John Lill. Now, Tori Amos, if we had unlimited time it would be lovely to have done the song you wrote as a result of that piece. But it might be even more interesting to play another one of yours which I think you feel displays the importance of that sort of early training to you. One of the ones that is perhaps closest to all of the music that you are absorbing.

Tori: This piece that I've chosen was written while I was pregnant with my only child and I had gone through a few miscarriages so this pregnancy was. . . it took over my whole being. I couldn't do anything else. Now, I would play piano for hours and hours a day because, again, I was under doctor's orders; I couldn't do a lot. I was high-risk pregnancy, therefore I would play as she would kick inside. This piece started to come to me while I was pregnant as this essence, and it's called "Gold Dust."

("Gold Dust" clip)

Michael: Interesting, because one of the things I think you've definitely absorbed from classical music is a very long line because very often, I mean, in popular music can you have these very short phrases. But that one grows and grows and there's a very beautiful twist when you get to the apex, comes twice.

Tori: I think that's why I always dread having to play some of the songs on my records for the record company, because they're listening to it in a completely different way. And I have to remind them I'm masquerading as a pop artist and that I'm the mistress on the side they can flirt with that isn't quite what they need her to be. But again, Michael, it's one of those things where I always add more songs than I'm contracted to do because then I can explore and not have to have things that can get, quote un-quote, "played on a radio." If I didn't do this, I would die; you know the long line's my passion.

Michael: Well, that was "Gold Dust" from Tori Amos. Now, it perhaps won't surprise you, Tori, that when people choose a jazz musician, and we've now done over ten years of these programs, there is one composer/player who always emerges as the front runner. And that of course is Miles.

Tori: Yes.

Michael: And for you?

Tori: Well, when I was pregnant I would listen to this every day. I would wake up knowing that Tash and I would live. I would listen to this and knew that we would make it. And this holds such a place in my life for hope and timelessness. I think with this piece I walk into any time I need to walk into.

Michael: And we were talking about arrangers, which has been an interesting thing it's come through this conversation, and of course Gill Evans was a wonderful arranger. He brought a kind of magisterial side to what he was doing which complemented the shear genius that was happening on the trumpet at the same time.

Tori: Well I think what I'm really just being able to talk about is collaboration even though you might be the "sole composer," quote un-quote, on paper. However, who brings, even the drummer that walks in the room, how the changes of rhythm and the accents that they bring, it does make it come alive and of course it shifts it and changes it so--

Michael: That's why it's like chamber music in a way, isn't it? It's that conversation between--

Tori: Well, I've never thought of before, but yes, it has to be. Being able to collaborate, when you choose the right people, and you might not get along very well when you're not dealing with music, I have had that experience where for whatever reason you've got nothing to talk about, but sit us down at an instrument and my god. . . there's a love affair happening.

("Sketches of Spain" clip by Miles Davis)

Michael: That was an excerpt from Sketches of Spain Concierto de Aranjuez, Miles Davis of course with the orchestra arranged and conducted by Gill Evans, the final choice of Tori Amos. I suppose Tori, the singer that perhaps you must look to so much and that you remind of a bit is Billie Holiday.

Tori: I've studied her a lot and I did a cover of "Strange Fruit" years and years ago. Getting up at 4 in the morning because I wanted to try and achieve this almost numb state; talking about the bodies hanging on the trees. And to be able to do that, I just wasn't able to find that tone in the vocal, so I was frying some bacon just to get it -- some of my soul sisters would always say to me, "Ja. . . you need to fry yourself some bacon and you'll be alright."

Michael: (laughs)

Tori: And I think also the heat, I was in New Mexico at the time, and how you see time if you are in 100 degrees--

Michael: Like all the jazz players were a lot of the time.

Tori: That's right. If you haven't spent time in New Orleans especially before there's air conditioning, and even now after everything that's happened, when you go there you get such a sense of how you're conditioned as a musician. You walk different, your body, everything is balmy.

Michael: Tori Amos, thank you very much.

Tori: Thank you, Michael.

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