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The Arts Desk (UK, www)
September 24, 2012
Interview: 10 Questions for Tori Amos
Bewitching songwriter celebrates 20 years of recording with a new orchestral compilation
by Lisa-Marie Ferla
The past few years have seen the anniversary reissue, or concert tour in which classic albums are performed in their entirety, become something of a standard. Not so for Tori Amos, who this year is celebrating two decades since the US release of her debut solo album Little Earthquakes. To mark the occasion, she is instead collaborating with the Netherlands' renowned Metropole Orchestra to rework and recreate some of her best-loved songs in an orchestral setting.
The resulting album, Gold Dust, will be released next month and accompanied by a limited run of dates with the orchestra, including one at the Royal Albert Hall. It is the songwriter's second recording for Deutsche Grammophon, the classical label which released the critically-acclaimed Night of Hunters last year, and is a staggering work - particularly for those of us who found that particular song-cycle a little too opaque. Gold Dust features 14 new recordings spanning Amos' entire career, from "Winter" and "Silent All These Years" from her debut to a triumphant reworking of "Star of Wonder" from the 2009 seasonal album Midwinter Graces. In some cases the reworkings are organic, building on existing string arrangements (John Philip Shenale, who arranged the orchestral parts, has been collaborating with Amos since 1994's Under the Pink) while others undergo more dramatic transformations.
Amos spoke to theartsdesk ahead of the release, discussing how she selected songs for inclusion in the project and her changing relationship with her "girls" over time.
LIS FERLA: Night of Hunters was your first "classical" album. What attracted you to this approach?
TORI AMOS: Well, they approached me. Dr Alexander Buhr, a German musicologist with the label, had the idea that I do variations on classical themes. In 2010, while I was composing Night of Hunters, I was preparing to play with the Metropole Orchestra and during rehearsals there was an obvious chemistry that was happening - so we decided that we should collaborate and create an album together. That became Gold Dust.
How did you choose the songs that would be reworked for inclusion on the album? Was there anything you had to leave off, or maybe changed your mind about?
Some of the songs were already built to handle a big arrangement. It was a balance: some songs that were originally designed for strings or orchestra, such as "Winter", "Silent All These Years" and "Flying Dutchman", received a subtle makeover while there were others - like "Precious Things" - that wanted a big makeover. That song was open and game for something really different, as was "Flavor".
Do you plan to do the same with other songs in the future?
There will be some songs explored and added on the tour - songs that didn't quite make the record, or where the arrangements hadn't been built yet. So the live show might have some new songs for the orchestra to play that we will work up in rehearsals in a few weeks. I don't really know if there will be anything more formal. I think this is a specific moment in time, because this is acknowledging the journey of the past 20 years - 21 in the UK - since Little Earthquakes came out.
How does it feel to be performing these songs - your "girls", as you call them - that you wrote in your 20s? Have they changed in meaning over time?
The thing is, they take on an aura of their own as other people's stories become a part of their history. They've been traveling around the world for a while now, and other people have had experiences with them that are all a part of who the song has become - her lineage. So when I play them they are transforming all the time, because of the stories people tell me about their relationship with the songs.
That actually preempts my next question: how does it make you feel when your fans identify with songs - like "Me and a Gun" for example - which are about very personal experiences?
That song has definitely taken on a life of its own. She did not want an orchestral read. Pip [one of the "characters"] covered her on the American Doll Posse tour with the band - that was a conscious choice at the time, and it was what the song wanted to explore, but she did not step forward during the casting call for an orchestral read. Neither did "Cornflake Girl" - I think the message there was that if it was a big band, rather than an orchestra, she might consider it. And yes, I would have loved to have been able to record many more but you only get so much time with an orchestra and I got more than I normally get when I am doing string dates.
What are the particular challenges of touring with an orchestra?
Well, the first thing you have to understand is that they don't improvise - orchestras don't jam. You have to build that into the score, which is something I had to learn on the job. The recording process is a different context and has to work as an album - two minutes of intro music, for example, might be considered convenient but a live show with lights, where you are watching everybody play is a very different backdrop.
My vocal performances are always recorded privately when I record with a string or brass section, just so I can unzip the song and get to the heart of it. Playing with an orchestra, as was the case with this recording, is very much like having a dance partner - although the dance partner would probably be the conductor, because the orchestra is one entity. They're an ocean, and the piano is dancing with the conductor's baton.
Are you planning to tour the album any more widely than the five dates you have booked for October?
I'd love to, but the reality is that taking a portion of Holland with you is a very expensive exercise. They could commit to a short amount of time as part of the collaboration, so that's why we could only do a handful of dates. I hope it will make those dates special. In the States, we'll be doing something with a smaller section at a few choice events.
What was it like working with your daughter, who had a singing part on Night of Hunters?
I think the producer and the mother had a struggle, and the producer won - which was good, because she was right and she knew that Tash could do it. The mother can become protective, and I had to make sure that she stayed out of the studio because being overprotective in that pressured environment doesn't really help; it can hinder. It was important to treat Tash as a professional and to keep the 'producer' hat on. She felt safe, but she wasn't working with her parents. She is now boarding at the Sylvia Young Performing Arts School in London, exploring and discovering her own muses. She's very drawn to acting and comedy.
It's struck me that you've never embraces social media as a means of connecting with your fans in the same way that friends such as Neil Gaiman have done. Has this been a conscious decision?
I had three projects on the go with Night of Hunters, Gold Dust and The Light Princess - not to mention being a mom, and being a wife - and there isn't a lot more my brain can take. I'm not saying Neil, who is my spirit brother, isn't a busy guy, but one chooses to put their focus in certain places. Keeping my chops up as a pianist too takes time.
Time is only part of it, though. I feel that if you start something and you're not going to be consistent and follow through with it then that's difficult for people too. Neil is consistent, and has made that commitment. I'm happy that people haven't given up on me - they can do the talking for me, and I can put out the work and the music for people to discuss and hopefully make relationships with themselves.
Finally: how is the musical, The Light Princess, coming along?
We will be doing a read-through in October, right after the Berlin show. The idea is to prepare the rehearsal draft and score. Samuel Adamson, the bookwriter and co-lyricist, and I have been working on the latest draft for the last nine or ten months. It's one thing to tell a fairytale, but to tell a fairytale that's relevant and resonates with young people and their families in the 21st century has been a challenge. But I feel like we're there now. Cross your fingers. I hope that we will be taking to the stage before the end of 2013.
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