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December 14, 2009
A Very Tori Christmas: Amos' Highly Inclusive Holiday
By Chris Willman
If you've followed Tori Amos at all since her early '90s breakout, you know her Christmas CD won't be fitting in right between Bing Crosby and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Midwinter Graces is at once both highly reverent and highly irreverent: Its spirituality is far more deeply felt than the average Christmas pop release, but there are subtle variations on exactly what that spirituality is, with some lyrical changes that make the familiar carols less Jesus-centric.
I chatted with Amos shortly before she went on David Letterman's show last week to find out just how Christmasy or non-Christmasy a mindset she was in when she recorded this unlikely seasonal effort.
Q: Some people were surprised to hear you were doing "a Christmas record." But looking at what your fans are saying about it online, the reactions are just about all pretty positive, and seem to break down along two lines: "Well, of course we knew it would really be a Tori record," and... "If Dylan can do one, she can do one."
Amos: But I think we did it in a very different way.
Q: Of course -- Dylan's is very 20th-century traditional, and yours is taking the pre-20th-century traditional and tweaking it, thematically. In fact, knowing where you're coming from somewhat, spiritually, I wondered if it might be "A Very Tori Solstice" and just leave out Christmas altogether, or as much as possible altogether. But you didn't do that either. You've said that Universal head Doug Morris had asked if you could do an album that would "get rid of the 'king of Israel'" stuff, but you didn't leave Jesus out entirely.
Amos: I tried to find the balance. The Christian summer deity is Jesus, and they have been the religion that has the biggest population celebrating mid-winter, after some time in history. I was fascinated by all the other cultures that celebrate at this time and how other summer deities were celebrated and acknowledged during this rebirth of the S-U-N, which was personified by Adonis and then many others and now Jesus. So I wanted to be more inclusive than exclusive.
Q: I've had interesting talks with non-Christian artists over the years about why they've recorded Christmas albums. Linda Ronstadt is an atheist, but she was really interested in the song tradition of the season. But you were looking to go back centuries, not just to Tin Pan Alley.
Amos: Yeah, and also to be part of the tradition. The carols that we know, not all of them, but a lot of them came from somewhere else. "The First Nowell" they believe was Cornish, not French. NOWELL. And they believe it could have been a sea shanty or a drinking song, and Christology was put to it. No different than "What Child is This," which as you well know is "Greensleeves," which is a folk song. "What Child is This" is not popular in England, because "Greensleeves" still is; therefore it's sort of an insult.
I decided to again do a variation on a theme: tie them together and add yet another layer of ideology to it. That is part of the carol tradition. When people think "Oh, you're meddling with a sacred cow," they do not know their history at all about the carols. At all. Even my father -- who is a Methodist minister -- will tell you that Charles Wesley would take music from the Anglican church and add the Methodist take on the song, so that it would not be the Anglican perception on the song but the Methodist perception. But they have this tradition -- because I don't like the word, um, "stealing." It was very different in those days, how it was looked at, (adding) variations on the theme. But this is what they would do. Some people don't realize that, and I've tried to let people know what the tradition was, so they try and understand the spirit which I was making the changes in.
Q: Do you feel like you satisfied everyone, in terms of having a record that a non-believer like Doug Morris, who didn't want to hear about Jesus, can listen to, and that your father can as well?
Amos: Well, I feel like I satisfied what I wanted to achieve, and that history will see it for what it is, in 30-40 years, when records are being looked at for the ground that they broke. And I'm aware of what it's doing. I'm aware that it's adding new ideology, that the (touchstones) are feminine, the sacred mother. Not the virginal mother only, but also the goddess mother is part of the narrative. When you look at "The Holly, the Ivy and the Rose," the tradition of the holly king being king in summer and the winter queen, that was included in "A Winter's Carol," as well as "Holly, Ivy and the Rose." I went back to old translations of "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming," because the church fathers on this side of the Atlantic could not have "by ancient sibyls sung." They had "as men of old have sung." So I would go back to certain translations, so I went in a different way, or included them in the story, other than as a virgin/mother. And that was very important. Along with the original songs that sort of support where the ideology is now for many people, who are not just a practicing Christian as in the old, Victorian way, but maybe a more expansive Christianity. I don't call myself... I'm not part of any religion. I'm inspired more by I guess the native American tradition, and many other cultures that I've experienced around the world. So I'm kind of a mixture. I'm a busy pigeon.
Q: When it came time to what existing material to cover, you were certainly more attracted to sacred material than "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or "Winter Wonderland."
Amos: Well, there's nothing for me to... There's not a perception that I can bring as a minister's daughter that's very intriguing to that. I had something to bring as a minister's daughter to songs that were written before the suffragette movement, for example. A lot of these songs were written before women could even vote. So again, because I could be part of that baroque tradition of variations on the theme, in the 21st century I could bring something to these carols. No different than the men that brought their Christology to the carols, I could open it up to a more expansive read. And that to me was important. Not a lot of people have done that -- not to these carols in this way. And as a preacher's daughter, I kind of felt like I know the Christian theology. I don't claim to know much, but I get it, I know it. And I also know how a lot of people feel that differs from that. So I wanted to include this more expansive view, rather than a myopic view.
Q: You liked church music growing up, or at least had an immersion in it that gave you an appreciation. You said there haven't been many records that have done what you did here. But were there any holiday records you've liked over the years at all?
Amos: One in particular that I really liked was George Winston's December, and Winter Into Spring. They don't have lyrics to them, but he was doing variations musically on holiday music, particularly with December. I think that came out in the '80s [1982, to be exact]. That was an inspiration. I didn't really like church music. I liked carols. But as Doug (Morris) said, usually by the third and fourth stanza, you got into the torture. So the birth of this little son -- S-O-N -- became the crucifixion by stanza three or four, and you were in it hook, line and sinker, or you had to just kind of say "Oh, I didn't buy into all this when I started the first verse."
Q: And then you were able to bring in the romantic elements and even some daughter elements in original songs like "Silent Night With You" and "Pink and Glitter."
Amos: Yes, exactly. Yeah, I wanted to cover that side of it, too, because we get nostalgic at the holiday season. And sometimes certain things come up -- how you were in other holiday times in your relationship. And "Silent Night With You" ends in a happy way -- which is unusual for me! [laughs] But I thought that it wanted a happy ending.
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