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PlanetNotion (UK, www)
September 22, 2011
Interview: Tori Amos
Tori Amos has had a busy year. Apart from recording Night of Hunters, her first classical album, she has also co-written a musical for the National Theatre with renowned playwright, Samuel Adamson. Earlier this summer, Amos work-shopped and cast this musical with War Horse director, Marianne Elliott, whilst also plotting her forthcoming world-tour and preparing a celebratory "best of" release to mark the 20th anniversary of her debut album, Little Earthquakes.
Doron Davidson-Vidavski caught up with Tori to discuss these projects for PlanetNotion.
PlanetNotion: How long was Night of Hunters in the making, from the inception of the song-cycle idea to completion?
Tori: In a way, it's been developing in me for a long, long time. But from the day that [German record label] Deutsche Grammophon approached me with the idea for the record, I'd say about a year.
PN: The album opens with "Shattering Sea," which throws the listener straight into the breakup of the relationship between the protagonist and her husband. It's only later, on "Fearlessness," that we learn more about what actually happened previously between them on their journey. Why did you choose to start the story at that point?
Tori: Well, I was exploring all kinds of ways "in" and, knowing that I needed to pick a time-frame and that within that time-frame I could go into flash-backs, I thought that I had to bring us to what was important and that the listener really understood the shock that she was in and get a sense of the relationship -- the passionate side of it but also the brutality that was happening.
PN: On the song "Cactus Practice" you sing "Every couple has their version of what they call the truth." How much of your relationship with your husband, Mark, is reflected in your story-telling?
Tori: [pauses] We obviously work together. For this album, we recorded the piano, the vocals -- everything -- alone, the two of us. Only then other people joined the process but it seemed as if it was such intimate story-telling and the piano-vocal had to go down first -- the raw emotion had to go down first and go onto tape. So we just closed the doors and did it the two of us. You do not have a relationship with someone for as long as we have without experiencing various emotions so I was able to use experiences that I have had over the years, with him, in it.
PN: You're about to embark on a world tour with Polish string quartet, Apollon Musagète. How many songs from your back catalogue have you rehearsed with the quartet?
Tori: Not enough! But the plan is that we are going to rehearse every day on the road [laughs] so that we can expand the repertoire. We had to make decisions and John Philip Shenale [who arranged the strings and woodwind on Night of Hunters] had to do these arrangements for the quartet from the catalogue... so we had to make choices. I can't count how many songs we have right now but we're hoping to add a couple more in the rehearsals before the first show. It will expand and I think that, hopefully, there will be some surprises. We plan to have two segments in the main body of the show and I will have my moments with the audience, playing solo, so that there are more song options from one night to the other. But I think that, in the beginning, for the first few shows... I would say that the changes that happen will probably only be in my solo set.
PN: Your daughter Natashya, who plays the character of Anabelle on the album, has just started school at Sylvia Young Theatre School and so won't be joining you on tour this year. Do you envisage performing any of the songs from this album with her publicly at some point in the future?
Tori: I don't know. It depends -- I think she is really in school mode right now. And she just turned 11. She wanted to go there, auditioned and got accepted and yet she wanted to play Anabelle. She really helped me develop who Anabelle was and then I was able to design what would work for her instrument, as well as for Kelsey [Dobyns, Tori's niece] who played the Fire Muse. And she [Kelsey] is in school as well -- in New York. So, I decide not to do the song-cycle in the same order live without them being able to be there to do it. It doesn't mean that covers can't be done and it doesn't mean that some nights I won't play The Chase [a duet on the album between Tori and the character of Anabelle] and do a cover version of that. But that's one of the main reasons I thought against doing the song-cycle live as it is on the record, unless I cast it and took people on the road to play those roles.
PN: Did you find working on the forthcoming National Theatre musical The Light Princess at the same time as working on the new album distracting or did the projects mutually inform one another?
Tori: I think they informed one another. Having it drummed into me so many times -- "what is the active narrative?" and "what is the motivation for the character?" [laughs]. Those kinds of things that you really get when you're involved in a musical made it possible for me, I think, to approach a song-cycle. It will actually be a different name to The Light Princess, because it's changed now. Yes, it's a story suggested by George MacDonald but we really investigate it from her point of view so it's now become a very different story and, hopefully, the new name [for the musical] will be announced soon.
PN: What was it like working with playwright Sam Adamson on the musical?
Tori: He's incredible. An incredible playwright. He's taught me so much about theatre, narrative and story for over five years. If I hadn't been exposed to that and worked with Marianne Elliott -- she's been there, you know, really pushing us and certainly pushing me... and when you have people like that pushing you then I do think that you gather skills and sharpen them up. I would say that I approach things very differently to how I did before I worked on the musical and that's what helped me to even broach the idea of a song-cycle.
PN: Have you been to see anything at the National Theatre recently?
Tori: Yes. I saw London Road [Alecki Blythe's musical about the serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich]. I found it very intriguing. It's unusual and sometimes the musical theatre genre can become clichéd, which is something you always want to avoid and they did by finding a unique way of doing it.
PN: In a recent retrospective review of your album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, you were described as having a "largely unsung influence on today's singer-songwriters, both male and female." Do you mind Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell exclusively getting all the "influence" credit?
Tori: I don't mind! [laughs]. Look, I just keep creating -- that's what I stay focused on and if it inspires other people then that means more people creating -- I think that's what it's about. And, ultimately, you want them to judge you on your work as a composer. All I know is that there are a lot more piano players than there were in 1992! [laughs].
PN: Speaking of From the Choirgirl Hotel -- can you settle an old rumour: is it true that the album was originally going to be called Confessions of a Choirgirl?
Tori: Possible. [hesitates] It's possible. [more decidedly] Yes. And it's also true that Under the Pink was very close to being called God with a Big G.
PN: And why did you decide to change those names?
Tori: It just didn't resonate. It has to work for more than a day. Or a week. And if you think "hmmmm... it's not staying with me" then the idea isn't right. It's one thing being a soundbite and another being a title.
PN: Recent albums such as The Beekeeper, American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted to Sin have been criticised for being too long. Might they have benefited from having shorter track-lists?
Tori: You know, they were really designed as double-albums and maybe if we still mainly used vinyl and you could touch it and feel it, you know -- side A, side B, side C, side D -- then you might have seen it at its different form. So it was not necessarily experienced in the way that it was designed. You see, I like a double album. But again, I am able to hold it and, to me, it felt as if that's what I was involved in, a double album, as opposed to one long thing.
PN: Earlier in your career you made prominent use of the video format to accompany the story-telling in your songs, working with the likes of directors Cindy Palmano, Big TV and James Brown. But you've put much less focus on this side of things in recent years. Why is that?
Tori: [pause] Well, I made a choice to put the money into the still photography and the packaging. I think if you look at the special packaging for the album -- it really is very different and we spent a lot of the resources, the budgets for the project... to make sure that this side of it was really, really special. So, yes, I focused more on the packaging than I did on the videos and the videos are now more, kind of, about live performance because that's what I'm known for.
PN: In January Little Earthquakes is going to be 20 years old. What can we expect for this anniversary?
Tori: We have re-arranged a lot of the songs with John Philip Shenale and recorded them with the Metropole Orchestra. The songs are from different albums including Little Earthquakes -- probably more from that album than others. We recorded that not so long ago and that will come out in 2012. It's a different approach to the songs and with new arrangements. I guess it's a retrospective of the twenty years. And that will be out on Deutsche Grammophon as well.
PN: Before Lady Gaga began calling her fans Monsters and other pop stars jumped on the "collective fan nickname" bandwagon, you started the trend by fondly referring to your fans as "Ears with Feet" as early as the mid-1990s. How did that come about?
Tori: I don't like the word fan. I mean, I'm a fan of certain things but sometimes I think the word can be denigrating. It depends how it is used and who is using it. Even though it can be used respectfully... I don't know, I feel that the mutual agreement of people coming and forming a relationship with the artist... deserves more. [pause] It was just an expression of the time.
PN: Finally, going back to the new album, on the last track ("Carry") you sing: "Your name is sung and tattooed now on my heart. Here I will carry you forever"- here, at the end of this journey, is the protagonist addressing the memory of her husband or Anabelle, the Changeling who has guided her through this song-cycle? Or -- is it both?
Tori: Well I think that's for you, the listener, to decide. All the possibilities exist...
Tori Amos tours the UK in November. The album, Night of Hunters, is out now on Deutsche Grammophon. The musical The Light Princess (Working Title) is expected to premiere at the National Theatre, London, in April 2012.
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