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Vanity Fair (US)
September 22, 2011
Q&A: Tori Amos on Going Goethe on Her New Album, Night of Hunters
By Marc Spitz
For two decades Tori Amos has been modern rock's greatest eccentric, an American Kate Bush with an equally obsessed fan base. She returns this week with Night of Hunters, a song cycle, released on classical-music powerhouse Deutsche Grammophon and drawn from pieces by Satie, Bach, and Schubert. Set in an ancient Irish mansion where Amos is visited by shape-shifters and fire muses, the album is as enchanting as it sounds, and best played on stormy nights. Here, Amos discusses its creation as well as '90s rock's tricky but vital legacy.
VF Daily: This record awakened my sleeping teenage Goth.
Tori Amos: Our approach was a Gothic approach. Goethe. That kind of emotion and that feeling drove me story-wise.
How much of the story did you actually write out before you started? Obviously all songs are stories, but this is a full song cycle, with characters recurring throughout.
First, I studied another song cycle by Schubert. I always identified with him. He was the master, the original songwriter.
He went crazy, didn't he?
Didn't they all? The syphilis didn't help. I think Schumann went a bit bonkers, too. He tried to jump off a bridge when he was writing his piece, the one I do a variation of. A German musicologist said Schumann thought that he was hearing Schubert's ghost playing and he jumped off a bridge. He didn't die. He finished. I studied that, and what it told me was the form is very much about a personal crisis. The protagonist moves from that personal crisis into a worldly crisis. So that's what I had to sort of build this cathedral around.
What about the playing? Did attempting this change the way you play the piano?
I had to practice my butt off. I don't know if you can say "butt" in Vanity Fair.
You can say "ass" if you want to.
I practiced my ass off.
So Deutsche Grammophon commissioned the song cycle as part of a new record deal?
I'm doing two things with them. The other is with the Metropole Orchestra. Arrangements of songs from the last 20 years, for the 20th anniversary of Little Earthquakes in 2012. I wanted to do something active, not passive, so we recorded a bunch of things, re-arranged for a 54-piece orchestra. That was really fun, doing precious songs from the catalogue over 20 years.
Speaking of, what is your take on this ongoing re-think when it comes to major '90s artists? The re-issuing of Nirvana's album and discussions about what it meant, and the new Pearl Jam 20 documentary that Cameron Crowe made. Do you ever ponder the 90s and how things have changed in two decades?
Being able to still make records is a privilege. I don't take it casually. Looking back, I think that there was a time when the idea of developing an artist was still supported, and now it's usually very much about the next new thing. Not always, but the idea of making 12 albums is not something that record companies go into with an artist anymore. They're looking to get a couple of records out of somebody and then move on to somebody else. The '90s was a time when it was still a philosophy: you're an artist for life. It's not work. I don't see music as working. It's a very different time now with all the reality TV shows.
So where is the industry heading?
You're not gonna have a musician culture. You're going to have a celebrity culture that's fixed by technology. You won't have a Jimi Hendrix; you won't have a Joni Mitchell. What I found really exciting with this record was the idea of pushing the boundaries and doing something dangerous. I realized that messing with the masters could really make me want to crawl under a rock for the rest of my life if I got it wrong.
At this stage in your career, it's good to have something that still scares you, no?
You're right. I needed that.
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