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We speak to piano-pounder Tori about her unlikely Christmas album, Trent Reznor, Neil Gaiman, and her forthcoming musical.
By Eleanor Goodman
You have a Christmas album coming out, Midwinter Graces. I know you were asked to consider the project by Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music. What made you take it on?
Doug broke Little Earthquakes worldwide, he had signed me, and I've known him a long, long time, so you could say he's my mentor. He turned 70 recently and he said to me in March when I was visiting him in New York, "Look, I'm 70, I've always wanted to know what you would do with a seasonal album. You're a minister's daughter so you grew up with this stuff, but you're also a feminist." A lot of this music was written when things were really puritanical and women didn't have any rights, and so there isn't a lot of embracing of the feminine except with the Virgin Mary, if that makes any sense. Because he and I were talking about music that goes back, a more pagan style of music where there seems to be a place where goddesses were honoured if you go back into antiquity. And he said, "I'd really like to see you have a perspective on the carols and write some of your own."
And so that was how it all started off. And I said, "When do you want this?" And he said, "Oh, it needs to come out this year." So that was quite a tall order, just because we ended up doing basic tracks at Martian which is my husband's studio in England, and then we started realising that we needed to record on days off all through the States, and we would record almost every day we got off in America, and then came back to mix it in England at Martian.
What's your most vivid memory of Christmas, from when you were growing up?
There are so many. My father would always give so many services around the advent season, so my whole life until I was 21 years old, I went to church a lot. I've gone to church enough for everyone in Britain - I really have! When I was a teenager I directed the children's choir when I was 15, and that was in a church in Rockville, Maryland, at the United Methodist Church Of Rockville, and I would teach in red leather pants. But you know, it was the late 1970s. And you know, I'd always be so proud of them when they'd sing their hearts out, and I would always try and bring them interesting music.
So yes, I've grown up on the Methodist versions of the carols. I don't know if you know this but in England, your carols are very different to some of the ones in America, and that's because different denominations would change from the Church Of England, from what you all grow up with. Our "Away In A Manger" isn't like your "Away In A Manger", so they changed it to make it in order to make it their own. And Doug was really saying to me, "Change it again!" And I said, "Well why do you want me to change it?" And this is something I forgot to tell you, and it's really important, he said, "I think sometimes these songs exclude a lot of people, because there's just too much King Of Israel and Virgin stuff for me." And I said, "That's part of the story." And he said, "That's only one story. Our ancestors have been celebrating this time of year for thousands and thousands of years, and he said, "You know, you're right." So it's about the rebirth of light.
And as you know, some cultures had the sun deities before Jesus, and the Christian fathers did not choose to appropriate this to Jesus until 200 and something AD. The important point here is that any "religion" has to have a sun deity. It must be done, whether it's Mithras, Adonis... the ancient Persians had Mithras you see, Zeus was born at Midwinter, so each kind of ideology had to have a sun deity. What we get a lot of times is only the Christian sun deity. The one thing that Doug was fascinated with, he said: "Look, I know you can bring the multicultural thing." Because my ideology is much more expansive than Christianity. I'm not a "practising" Christian; I practise more of a spirituality if that makes sense. But he said, at the same time you can't upset your mother, and so that was the key. Because I'm a minister's daughter I know the theology really well, so I was trying on one hand to open it up to other people who aren't overly religious, and yet not have my mother upset, who is very religious.
What's your favourite moment on the album?
I think the big band is my favourite moment because I've never done a big band track before on one of my records, I've done it for film before but I haven't done it with my own compositions. I wanted to write something in a style that would work. When all the brass players came up to me and said, "This tune is perfect for us as a section, and you wrote it in the styles as it should have been written." I felt that that was my goal, and it was a magical moment.
"Pink And Glitter" is amazing, it sounds so big!
Thank you! I have to tell you, we had a blast doing that. All of a sudden you're back in the 1940s in your mind, and you start thinking, "Oh I want to put on a gown, and look like Veronica Lake!"
Will you put on a gown when you play it live?
Are you kidding? Yes! I'll be doing promo in the States for it, and do you know Bernard Chandran? He's a designer; he's shown in London Fashion Week quite a few times, he's making a gown for me to wear when I play that song. I'm very excited. I think the idea was to bring something really beautiful to people, at a time when we've had a couple of hard years as a world, and to have something that's beautiful and joyous and not based on commercial things. I think the song, "Pink and Glitter"; our joy isn't about a present or a grown-up motor toy. The idea that this little girl that's come into their life has brought them so much joy. I wrote it about my daughter, who's just turned nine.
So Christmas is still very much magical for her.
Yes, and so is pink! Everything is pink!
What has she asked for this year for Christmas?
You won't believe it if I tell you. She wants a mannequin, like a proper mannequin you'd see in a store, full-size, so she can dress them and play fashion! But they're very expensive! I checked it out, and they're really expensive! Like 0 in America. And I'm thinking, "Yeah right!" Next she's going to ask me to feed it and get it a credit card and everything! I'm thinking, there's no way, I don't want another boarder! I just told her, "Talk to your dad."
The final track, "Our New Year" sounds quite uncertain. What was your intention with it?
I think at this time of year you think of people that might not be in your life anymore or who've left the planet. I get really nostalgic at Christmas, I don't know about you, but I do, and memories of other times with other people who you might not have heard from in a long time can cross your mind.
Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you were writing it?
I did... but we'll leave it there.
Is there any one message you wanted to get across on Midwinter Graces?
Yes. That this time of year if you're in our hemisphere is about the re-birth of light. But light means knowledge, light means consciousness. Everybody can attain that and have that in their life. Consider the idea that it's inner God. It's in every child that's born; every child carries this ability within them. And I like that sentiment.
You and Neil Gaiman have referenced each other in your work. Are you still friends?
Oh yeah, he's like my little brother.
When did you last see him?
He flew into Toronto when I was on my way to Montreal to tour this past summer. He flew in and came to a show, and we hung out for a couple of hours before the show and had a nice little visit.
What do you usually do when you get together?
What do you talk about?
Oh God. Well, we... you know. When you're really good friends, you obviously know everything about... for 18 years, you know each others' worlds, people and each others' lives, and things that a lot of other people don't know. So it's an opportunity to confide about what's going on, what happened with certain situations, and certain people that might not be in your life anymore. It's also a good sounding-board when you have a good friend, and there's trust there, because we both know that you could never drag... no-one's going to... I'll be taking some of that stuff to the grave, and he will too. That's just what good friends do - you don't talk out of school.
Will you work with him, or write with references to him in the future?
I'll write with references to him. I think the worry about working together - he's less worried than I am - he thinks we should do something together and maybe he's right, but the worry I have is we're such good friends, I don't want anything to affect that.
I know you used to have a very good friendship with Trent Reznor, didn't you?
Yes, but that was, I think, you know, sometimes you grow apart just because of touring. And nothing happened there that stopped the friendship, it's just that he kept touring and I kept touring. I became a mom, and your life changes. We didn't fall out because we worked together or anything like that. Neil and I have a really close relationship, like brother and sister, you know.
Neil's going out with Amanda Palmer. In one of her blog posts she said she follows your work closely and agrees with you that women should stick together. Have you met her? Are you friends?
I've met her. And she's lovely. I think because they're together now... I'll see more of her. But it's one of those things where... you know when one of your good friends starts dating somebody, of course you get to know them as well. But I've met her one time. And she was very sweet. And I was making sure that she was really falling for him. You know, I was being protective. But she's a wonderful gal. And they're really sweet together - you can just tell! It's magical. When you see one of your dearest friends falling for somebody, you just want to make sure that the other person's falling back.
You've covered Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill". Would you ever cover Kate Bush again, or work with her?
I think she's such an amazing talent. I'd be open to something like that, but it's hard to know where people are in their lives. Sometimes once people have children they get in a different space in their lives, but for me, from my point of view, it'd be a privilege to work with somebody like that.
Have you ever approached her before about working together?
No... I'm shy in that way. Usually things that happen, happen because you run into each other somehow, somewhere, or somebody gets a message through to me, usually an agent, that kind of thing. I'm not usually the type of person... I don't usually do that. Don't ask me why, I'm a recluse and pretty shy, except when I'm touring, but I'm not the type of person to go up and say, "Do you want to do something." It's just not my way. So when I've worked with Victor Krauss, and the things I've done, they approached me, for the most part. If I'm developing a project I'll approach somebody on it. So while we were developing the musical, for example, we approached different people and finally felt that the National Theatre really understood what it needed to be. So in that kind of context I can approach, because it's not a human being, it's not personal. But when you're approaching a person... Neil Gaiman called me all those years ago. I don't want to intrude on somebody's space.
You're working with playwright Samuel Adamson on a musical based on George MacDonald's 19th century fairytale The Light Princess. When will it be finished?
It's in its second draft, and we're busy working away in-between. I'm going to Australia for the next leg of the tour, and then I start promoting Midwinter Graces in the States after that. And we hope to turn in our draft early in 2010. And then we'll see... it has to of course go to workshop and take its next step. And you know, the truth is, you know when you're developing something that at any point people might turn around and say, "Well, this is not quite right for us." There is that potential and you know this at every stage you get to. I was told that more musicals don't make it to the stage than any other form of art. And I'll leave you with this thought - this is a musical from scratch. You know how the Green Day musical's just come out? That's based on their work. This is a composition from the ground up. So it's a very different kind of thing. Westside Story is my benchmark, and Cabaret. They're my favourite, with all the dancing, and the big orchestra. Listen, let's make a deal, if it gets that far, if it gets to the stage, you'll have to come and I'll do an interview, and it'll be fun.
You were voted most likely to succeed in school. Do you think you've succeeded?
There are days that I think I have, and then I find a new challenge, and then I need to succeed at that. So I'm always setting new goals for myself, and that's really important to do that. So once you achieve certain goals, you set new goals for yourself. And in that way, you don't stop creating. You continually create.
Midwinter Graces is out now.
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