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Between the Lines (US)
October 8, 2009 (Issue 1741)

Tori Amos talks 'Midwinter Graces'

Piano banshee tells BTL she's recorded one of her most 'upbeat' albums

By Chris Azzopardi

Tori Amos gravitated toward sin on her last studio album. Her follow-up then, a seasonal LP dropping Nov. 10 - only a few months after the release of "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" - seems like an appropriate, cleansing shift. Earlier this week, Amos spoke to Between The Lines about "Midwinter Graces," which includes a couple of original cuts among a band of old carols she used to play in her Methodist minister father's church. Before the complete story comes out early next month, read what the queer-adored musician had to say about the upcoming project:

I'm curious about the emotions that you feel now when you play the songs versus the emotions you felt when you were a little kid playing them in your father's church.

When I was little I started to question why the carols were sounding musically different than some of the other hymns. And as I got a little older, in my teens, I started to research where this music came from. For instance, "Away in a Manger" is a different melody in Britain than it is to the one that we sing. And as I started to learn more about it, I realized that there were some songs that were originally drinking songs or sea shanties (from) hundreds of years ago or Pagan songs such as "The Holly and the Ivy" (that were) Christianized, so I was tracing - as I got older through the years - where this music came from.

Describe the process of taking apart some of the traditional material and reimagining it.

I was in a very tricky position because I had (Universal Music Group bigwig) Doug Morris - who's Jewish and 70; he's quite a character and I have great respect for him. He has been a mentor to me since I can remember; I was signed to Atlantic records in the '80s, and he was chairman then. I was sitting in his office after playing Austin in March and he said, "Tori, I can't stand all this King of Israel stuff. I like the season, but it's driving me crazy." And I said, "Well, there's a lot of that in this music," and he said, "I like parts of it, but I wish I could enjoy it. It's so exclusive. I find that the carols are very, very exclusive unless you believe in it and it should be inclusive." (Laughs) I started to think, I've got Doug on my left, wanting less of all that Christian dogma, and then people like my parents, and (to them) it's very sacred stuff. I started to think to myself: Well, I've spent all of my life exposed to the Christian story, I know it pretty well, and I've spent a lot of my life learning as much as I could. Although I'm a musician - I'm not anything but a musician - I've tried to research this, and so I went back through all kinds of sources - "The Oxford Book of Carols," which talks about where parts of the melodies and lyrics come from. I began to realize that "The First Noel" was from southwestern England - it's not from France - and the original spelling was n-o-w-e-l-l, and that they believed that that music is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old, and that it probably came from a whole other sort of lyric, and then it was embraced as a carol and became the one that we have heard today. I changed it again because it's just part of a tradition of variations on the theme and depending on what age and what their religious beliefs are at the time, these songs get twisted and turned around. So that was how I was approaching it.

Holiday albums are typically considered joyous and happy. Tori albums aren't. How would you describe the vibe and emotional nature of this album?

It's a very beautiful work. It has a lot of full orchestra, and there's a big band track and there's harpsichord and concert bells, tubular bells, timpanis, concert bass drums. I would say that it embraces the idea of the rebirth of life. Within that, though, people get nostalgic and you have to acknowledge that there are people that aren't with you anymore, so there's a song that does that. But for the most part, for a Tori record, it's pretty upbeat.


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