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Sinfini Music (UK, www)
April 19th, 2013

recorded at an unknown earlier date

[listen to the interview]

Interview: Tori Amos
Her return to classical, The Light Princess and her daughter.

Tori Amos talks to Adam Sweeting about her years of classical training at the Peabody Conservatory, her return to classical, her musical The Light Princess which will be staged at the National Theatre later this year, and her hopes and expectations for her daughter.

Adam: So I was going to start by taking you back to when you won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music. You were a child, in fact, and studied classical. I wondered, what main memories do you have of that now, and what have you brought from that time?

Tori: Well, I remember auditioning for it, and my mother had gotten me to learn many musical theatre scores, so I played what I knew: the whole score of Oklahoma! I guess, what was I, five years old when I auditioned? It was nerve-wracking, just because you have a table of people with pens and pencils ready, writing all the time while you're playing, and you're so young; you're not used to that. So that's left an impression on me.

When people come and audition now for the musical, I think about, "Oh my goodness, I don't want to be one of those people that's sitting there, looking down, writing about them." You want to be looking at them and experiencing their performance. So maybe that has had an impact on me my whole life from that time.

Adam: To do that at that age, you must have been kind of a prodigy.

Tori: Well, I could hear music and play it back, and I've been able to do that, my mom says, since two-and-a-half. To be honest with you, I don't really think about it in terminology; it's just what I knew. So I would process anything through song. I had a strange environment -- my daughter thinks it's very strange, my environment, because she chooses what she wants to believe in. I don't force, and her dad doesn't force on her, that she has to believe in this, she has to go to church and believe in all these things. We don't dictate that. But it was very much understood that to be part of the family, you had to have not just a belief, but all these beliefs.

So I think in order to escape somebody else's belief system that I had to just agree with, I would escape into the world of composition. So while my dad would be sitting there reading a paper thinking I was playing my lessons, I'd doing variations on a Led Zeppelin song just to survive, to create a sonic window that I could climb through, and I'd be in the Andromeda galaxy, sitting right there; while they're reading the paper, my mom reading her devotional Bible, I'm free. That's how I looked at it; it was a means of survival. I guess when I went to the Peabody, they thought that, "you have this ear gift, and if you can't read, if you can't incorporate that skill, then you will be dependent on somebody else to read scores for you, analyze them for you. You really need that skill." So they began teaching me that.

Adam: So did you find it difficult, learning to read scales?

Tori: Well, why I found it difficult was because... can you imagine, you're able to listen to music and play really exciting music, music you love, and then all of a sudden they're teaching you "Hot Cross Buns" because in order to read they take you back to the most simplistic. The problem with that is, wouldn't it have been great if they had taken me back to something at least, I don't know, a folk song, something that sparked the imagination, but instead you're sitting there learning "Hot Cross Buns" rolling your eyes, thinking, "Maybe I don't want to read." So there was no inspiration, and it took a little bit of time for me to get to the Minuets and things like that, there were early pieces by Bach and Mozart, that once I began those it was much more exciting. They would put quarters on my hands to keep my positioning, and if they fell off I'd get a little tap, but that was all part of it in the late '60s and early '70s.

Adam: Pretty serious. [Laughs]

Tori: Yeah, it was pretty serious.

Adam: But with printed music, you've got to get it off the page and into your mind, haven't you? It's when it can start to live, because otherwise it's dead on the page.

Tori: Well, there are people that can read, that can look at music and read it -- and that is a skill, and a gift, possibly; a mixture, I think. And then there are people that can read it and then they take it into their being, their soul; they interpret it. I guess what I began to learn to do at the Peabody was [how to] analyze the piece, look at it, look at its structure, understand it from a compositional place, and that was what began building the blocks of my composing skills. Had I not had that, I wouldn't be composing a musical right now.

Adam: So at that point, did it occur to you that you might be a fully-fledged classical musician from the start?

Tori: Well, they let me know in no uncertain terms there that female composers in classical music, historically, have had a very difficult time, that it's more of a boys' club. Unlike, say, the written novel, where women from the 19th century, many, were able to break through this all-male rugby scrum. They were able to somehow maneuver through that, and I'm not saying it was easy; I'm not saying that. But I am saying that classical composers, female composers, have really had a difficult time. Anybody will tell you that. So I think that drove women in the 20th century to other forms: musical theatre, jazz, different expressions, contemporary music. Therefore, in the late 60s and early 70s, my heart was about being able to compose. So I thought, "Why try and fight something, a mountain, which is completely rigid and not open?" So I was drawn to more, I don't know, modern expression.

Adam: It was a bit freer, obviously.

Tori: At the time, it was freer.

Adam: So your band Y Kant Tori Read is a sort of reference to this hierarchy of cultural expectations that they tried to put on you.

Tori: Yes, I think it was a reference to that, and it was a reference to - in the 80s, there was this campaign, "Why Can't Johnny Read?" You have to reach back and go back a while now to '80s culture, but the idea being that a lot of teenage children couldn't read, and it happened to be a moment in time where my own experience of reading music and people reading the written word sort of collided, and it's not a title that holds up well, because it doesn't really make sense in the 21st century.

Adam: So I imagine you must be able to read fairly well now?

Tori: I read fairly well, yeah.

Adam: Do you work at it quite regularly?

Tori: Well, I have to be able to pick up and read what I've written so that when the transcribers are transcribing the music, say, for the musical or anything else, I have to be able to pick up a score and know what I'm doing, yes.

Adam: So what was it that made you make this return to classical music with Night of Hunters?

Tori: Well, I was asked to do it. I was asked. It wasn't as if I woke up one day and said, "I'm ready for this." It didn't really occur to me. I was approached by this musicologist from Germany, Dr. Alexander Buhr, and he found me, and he said, "How would you like to do variations on classical themes and create a modern song cycle?" And I just looked at him backstage and said, "Could you say that again really slowly? Because I'm trying to process what this is. This is very challenging, and if you get it wrong, it could be incredibly damaging." And he said, "No, but I think you're ready." And I said, "Yeah, but if we analyze this, if you really think this through, people from my world that take on these projects can make a huge mistake, because they don't realize the discipline and the work that's involved."

Just because you're successful in one area of music doesn't mean that you can just, in your sleep, come up with it. You have a routine in your own genre, you know how to do it; it becomes something that's part of your DNA. Maybe it's similar to... I know if we compare it to being a chef for a minute, but if you're used to doing Asian food, and that's what you do, and that's all you do, and then all of a sudden they throw you in the South, and expect you to do Southern cooking, with those ingredients, it's a different world. So I had to begin again in many ways.

Adam: So this guy just came up to you out of the blue?

Tori: He was able to track me down through people. I mean, he called someone I had worked with a long time ago and who was in the music industry, and it was arranged that he would come to a show and talk to me, so we met. But I have to tell you, I had to go away really thinking, "Well, in order to do this, I'm going to have to listen to more classical music than I've listened to in thirty years, twenty-five years. So I have to now study -- set aside three hours a day, just to study and listen -- in order to find the pieces that might, might, might be able to get on a shortlist and become a variation that then might work within a narrative form." So you're thinking, "Okay, the narrative, what would be the narrative?"

That side of the project you're working through, and you're listening for a few hours a day to music, and you're thinking, "That's great, but that has nothing to do with the narrative that I'm thinking about. Is there any place for it? Well, mm, maybe, it depends..." So you start making, then, like I told you, a list of these songs, and then you listen to certain things and think, "There's no way. There is no way, if this were the only piece I could do a variation on... I find no way into this structure. I cannot enter. It's locked to me." I'll sit and listen, upside down on the couch in Florida, and there's no way in.

Do you see? That's where learning structure came in as a young child, because when I listen to a piece, I see the whole architecture. And sometimes, yes, I'll just say, "Get me the written music so I can really look at it and make sure that I'm right." Sometimes I would find a way in by looking at the written structure. But I had to approach it with study and discipline that I learned as a child.

Adam: But there's obviously something about the idea that appealed to you and sort of drove you on, otherwise you wouldn't have put all that work into it.

Tori: Well, I guess the one thing that this musicologist knew is that I'd been working on a musical for seven thousand years now, and I think he figured if you've been doing this for so long -- narrative with music -- you must have learned something, surely, in all this time! And the one thing that I did learn was that narrative and music, it's pretty tricky stuff, because what works in dialogue form, story, doesn't always translate to music -- or it can feel forced -- and it just doesn't sing. So it was then trying to figure out, well, what would the narrative be? And going back and forth with a think tank -- of course the musicologist was involved; I brought other people into the think tank -- just to talk about story.

I listened to Winterreise by Schubert many times, looking at how a song cycle operates, how it works. Then I went to mythology and picked a place, thought, okay, Ireland, that makes sense to meó more than anything, because I've been there and I have a connection with it. I understand it. I think that if you're moved by something and are motivated, that's a good place to start writing. Really tricky, writing about something... I mean, I've been called to work on projects where I have no idea about what they're talking about. I've never felt that feeling in my life, and I'm thinking, "I am the last person that should be writing music for George of the Jungle." I mean, I don't know anything about George of the Jungle!

Adam: Well, yeah, I suppose, traditionally or historically, composers were sort of 'jobbing composers,' weren't they, and they would write to commissions about whatever somebody wanted them to do, so I suppose that's a modern version of that, really.

Tori: It is a modern version, but you have to know, there is a thing called music suicide. And I mean, come on, there are things that, commissions, that... Well, I took this one on from Deutsche Grammophon, I took it on, but I also had the freedom to choose the subject matter, and they were keen for me when I talked to them about a female protagonist, and blood all over the floor, and a breakup, glass everywhere, and he's gone, and then a mythological figure comes in from ancient Ireland, a shape-shifting creature -- because with Irish mythology, it contains all that -- and that then this woman takes an elixir and goes on a supernatural experience to over a thousand years ago into ancient Irish mythology -- therefore, think of the music you already can justify now, all these different structures -- and that this creature, Annabelle, takes this woman into her past and the relationship with this man, and tracks it for the last few years, many years, to how they got to where they were that night when it all crashed around them. So I thought, "Okay, that's a story that I've lived, and that I can understand. So let's find the music that pulsates with it, that has that passion, that has the magic." This commission, though, allowed me to write that story.

Adam: So you mentioned various composers that you'd sort of looked at and studied music of -- Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert... Bartok? Is he one of them?

Tori: Love Bartok. One of my favorites. His music wasn't included in the Night of Hunters story. It's not because he isn't a huge inspiration, it's just because at a certain point, certain songs were chosen specifically because they worked within a narrative. The Satie piece worked because I was desperately trying to get to ancient, ancient Ireland and tell a story of the battle of trees and how poets would war with each other before a physical battle, and I needed music that would work with that, that somehow had the components that I could manipulate to bring a poetic battle that could have been set during that time, and I was being really left empty-handed by certain traditional composers. I wasn't able to manipulate it like that.

So once I found the Satie piece, which was sent to me by this German musicologist, I thought, right, there's the battle of trees. Then I had to manipulate it, and that took many, many months, to figure it out, and I had to study. I studied The White Goddess, the book that was written, what, many, many years ago -- forty years ago -- that talked about ancient Ireland and this story, the battle of trees; it talks about it.

Adam: Amazing. Did you listen to any Wagner? Because that's quite a heavy mythology of its own. Did that appeal to you?

Tori: I did, but he was way ahead of me in that he was already turning mythology into song cycles, so I really couldn't take from a song cycle. I had to work, and make marriages with, composers that hadn't turned their composition into a song form yet -- that didn't have lyrics -- and I sort of felt that he had done that so much of his life that I was a bit shy to do that with his work.

Adam: So you needed music that you could somehow inject or infuse your own imagination with what was there already.

Tori: Yes, and that they hadn't done it with another lyricist already, so that there wasn't a narrative, a written text, there. There were some that if I had had more time I would have explored, but you can only tell a story for so long. There has to be an ending, or you lose your audience.

Adam: So I saw an interview where you were saying that today, people tend to look at traditional composers like Brahms or Beethoven as kind of conservative and old-fashioned when in fact at their time they were very revolutionary figures, artistically. Do you think it's very important that you get young people to take this fresh view of those composers so they can see they are relevant?

Tori: Okay. How do I get a fourteen-year-old gal, say, for example, who is really, I don't know, googly-eyed, tongue hanging out, heart panting, over a few boys that are singing the most inoffensive music that my dad, who's a Methodist minister, would click his hands to and say, "Oh, that's really nice. Those are nice, clean, sweet boys." I wasn't interested in nice, clean, sweet boys when I was sixteen years old; I was interested in bad boys. So, at a certain point as I was investigating musicians, I was fascinated to see the radical views of some of the composers of the 19th century. Now, sometimes, some of our musicians, their music is so watered-down, and they're not going to threaten anybody, much less the patriarchy. Sometimes I think they are the establishment. Some of the young men and women today, not all of them, but some of them are not writing things that are challenging not only the mind or the narrative, but they're not challenging musically. They sound like somebody else's song from a month ago. Everything is so derivative.

Adam: They are somebody else's song from a month ago.

Tori: Well, exactly! I've told certain young composers, when they say, "Do you have any advice?" And I say, "Well, if you want to expand your music vocabulary, go study. Go just listen to something. One a day. One piece a day. But you have to go back. You need to go back and get out of the pop genre, because if you go listen to The Beatles, that's fine, but everybody's been watering down their music for the last 50-60 years. So many people have been to the Beatles; that has been traversed. So go back and investigate -- I mean, it's endless, some of these composers, Liszt, there's so much you can find with these composers. People aren't looking at these chord progressions, they're not looking at the rhythms, they're not looking at the structures, and to me, that's where so much information is.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, you often hear that, because of technology and computer games and iPads and everything, nobody's got time to really apply themselves and study. They don't have the desire, in a lot of cases.

Tori: Yeah, they don't have the desire. It's a choice, isn't it. It's a choice if you choose to be distracted by all these things or if you try to advance yourself as a composer and an artist. Doing the musical, there are all kinds of people coming in and out and crossing my path, and so I learn a lot by just listening to what they're up to. And some of them are working really hard trying just to pay their rent and get a job, and yet you do hear that so many people are busy sending messages to each other. And I understand that seduction -- believe me, I understand it -- and yet they're not filling themselves up as creators with information, with other music from other times, and I think that if certain composers would do that, they would expand as composers.

Adam: So your daughter, Natashya, is she musical? Is she into classical music?

Tori: Natashya has been seduced by the blues. She loves the blues. And there's something in her; I can't explain it, because I didn't play it for her. She's drawn to it, and it's in her soul, and it just is. I don't have any explanation for it. But it's in her being.

Adam: So she has the soul of a 70-year-old bluesman.

Tori: Yes, she does. [Adam laughs] No, she does. She was taking a shower, and one of her cousins walked in -- we were visiting -- and the cousin said, "Is Bessie Smith in that shower? Who in the world is in that shower?" And it was Tash coming out of the shower that was singing the blues in the shower. And my niece looked at me and said, "That's the strangest thing I've ever seen."

Adam: So you think she's going to have a musical career?

Tori: I hope not. I hope not. Because having a career in the music world right now, it's a very different time. I don't know if you would wish it on anybody. I don't know. I mean, if we're being pragmatic, I wish she'd be a veterinarian or something. But she would really have to love it. You have to love it beyond all love to want to do it, because again, as you well know, a lot of musicians that I know are having to find day jobs, very capable musicians, people I know that are in orchestras, that are having to leave the orchestra because it's being shut down, trying to find jobs. So the fact that she loves the blues and she loves music, that's something you wish everyone to have in their soul. What she chooses to do, though, she will do. It's her life.

Adam: It is. So, The Light Princess -- why is this process being so interminable, getting it onto the stage?

Tori: Well, I guess, maybe writing a musical is probably -- what is that thing that they say? The musical graveyard is a very busy place? And getting a musical, a new musical on the stage, and working, where the music and story are integrated, I think there are very few that do it well. So it's been arduous, no question about it. But we're getting to a place where everybody knew that the last thing we wanted to be doing was during preview week rewriting the whole thing. We wanted to be able to get to rehearsals knowing what the story was, feeling like the songs and the story were fully integrated, and the musical is, I'd say, 70% music and song and 30% dialogue, so there's a lot of music and song there. And my writing partner, Samuel Adamson, who's book writer and co-lyricist, he and I have just really had to roll our sleeves up and do what we need to do to get it to where it is.

Adam: So would you have been able to do this, had you not had this classical background?

Tori: No. There's no way. I couldn't. Not this musical. But it's not just a pop musical. It doesn't have a band in the pit; it's not guitar-bass-drums in the pit. It's maybe an octet in the pit, more of a Night of Hunters-type grouping of musicians; a little variation on that, but similar.

Adam: So have you had to, over this progression of it, rewrite stuff a lot of times? Has that been a problem?

Tori: I think you have to welcome rewrites, and you welcome them for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes you realize, once when you get along in the process, that it can be a staging process, and once the visual side enters and they explain that they need the scene to take place in a different location than it had been written, then you have to sometimes make tweaks on where things are. And sometimes they'll say, "No, but we need her off the stage thirty bars before you have her - so she's still singing - and we need her off the stage, because we need her here, to enter for the next scene." And you think, "Okay," so Sam and I go back and sharpen our pencils, and that's just part of what a collaboration is.

But the creative team is an incredible creative team. Marianne Elliott is the director; she's one of the most incredible directors in the world right now in theatre, and she's brought in her whole team. Ray Smith is the visual designer, who was visual designer of War Horse. So we have an incredible team with Nick Hytner, who runs the National Theatre, who's been our creative producer and mentor, and he has been a really tough taskmaster. I'm not going to lie to you. But he'll say to me, "This has to be better than good. Nothing less." And I would say, "Yes, you're right."

Adam: Well, I'll let you know that if it's good enough for him, it's good enough.

Tori: That's correct. Because he has no problem postponing it, as he did, and he was right. He was right. It is a different piece, and I was in the middle of the Night of Hunters tour when he did that, so I had all that experience in my blood and bones, and then Sam and I, after we had to take stock and realize where the piece was, where it could go, we embraced where it could go. And it could go to a much darker place, a much more dangerous place.

And that's the amazing thing about working with someone like Nick Hytner. He would say, "Oh, no, no, I want you to turn the darkness up. Don't turn it down. I'm not asking you to do Disney. I'm not asking you to make this for five-year-olds. Au contraire, I want you to do a great piece that works for the National Theatre, that challenges people. And if you need to be twelve and over to come, then that's what it is." And I would say it has a piece that has tragedy, and it has, um, well, it has all kinds of things in it. But teenagers go through this. Teenagers -- girls and boys -- go through this, with their fathers, particularly.

Adam: So it must have been quite thrilling, then, to be pushed to take it further.

Tori: It's become thrilling. At first it was a little bit shocking. It's shocking when you're told you're not there, and maybe part of you knows that you're not there, but it also depends on the producer you have. Think about this a minute. If you have a producer that is just thinking about the commercial stake, then they're always thinking, "What is the demographic? How do we play to the most people possible?" It always isn't about the art first. But Nick Hytner is about art first, because he believes if the art is great and strong, the people will come. Maybe not all people, but the people that want to see this work. So we're finally getting there, and no, it hasn't been easy, but that's okay.

Adam: Alright. But I think you were saying before that the new record you're working on will be moving back from the classical dimension a bit.

Tori: Well, I think I'm affected forever. Wherever I move forward, I'm changed because of working with these classical greats, studying their structures for over two years, then applying that to the musical The Light Princess. Those two projects alone have taken up so much of my life. How can I write anything now without being influenced by it?

So no, the record won't be with an orchestra or with strings. The piano is there, very much there, very much central. And somebody said to me, "So are you going to rock out now?" And I don't really see myself needing to run to the other extreme to justify where I've been, to justify another work. You don't need to make a new work and say, "Okay, I've just been with an orchestra now, and with a quartet and with an octet, so I need to go run to the other extreme." That's not how I'm seeing it. I think there's an organic progression that that I'm discovering, and I guess the core of it is story -- writing songs that tell a story. What the arrangements are, the songs will demand what that will be.

Adam: So I believe, technically, your singing voice is mezzo-soprano. So I was wondering what classical musicians have inspired you particularly, and are any of those mezzo-sopranos?

Tori: Well, do you know, to be quite honest with you, I've always been more of a musical theatre... as far as singing goes, I've listened to that music more than classically-trained singers. And if I'm really being fair about this, I'm listening to instruments. So studying clarinet, oboe, what it does, viola, what it does, and how to use the voice in a way that instruments use their voices. I think it's dangerous sometimes to study another singer too much, because you can acquire their affectations. Therefore when I listen to an instrument, because this is going to be different than a reed instrument, then I can listen to what it's doing and think, "How can I apply that, as a singer, to this phrase?"

Adam: So are there any classical instrumentalists you're particularly inspired by?

Tori: Well, I have a very difficult reputation in the pop world where I don't name names. And I've been doing this for over twenty years, where I don't name names. I'll name composers; I'll talk about composers all day. But I don't name certain artists over others, usually, because there are so many that I listen to that to highlight one almost makes it sound like that's the one I'm listening to when it's one of many. I don't listen to just one person a lot, or just one instrumentalist. I listen to many different ones, because we have a huge collection of records. We've been collecting for, well, thirty years, and we've been able to put it all on the computer, so we're able to access it at any time, everything we've bought over the years. So we have a really good library, and we continue to buy to contribute to that library. So I'm able to access things all the time, and I can access it wherever I am. So being married to an engineer has been very useful in that way. So I can listen to anything at any time.

Adam: So your personal musical "cloud" follows you, doesn't it?

Tori: Yes, and it helps; it's an incredible reference for me. But composers, um, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev. Watching Romeo and Juliet. I've always said to people who really feel as if, "I don't know if I can listen to classical music." I say, "Well, go see a ballet. And if you don't want to go, watch it. Get the DVD. Listen, and watch it, together." Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. If you need visuals, maybe that's a good way in for people, to watch the marriage of music and dance together. Sometimes people do need a visual.

Adam: So if you like ballet, and you're working in musical theatre, what about opera? I mean, that must appeal to you to some extent.

Tori: No. It's not my thing -- and I don't know if it's because everything is sung, mostly. I haven't given it a chance, though, if I'm fair about it. I've never been to one.

Adam: Really?

Tori: Really. I've never been to one. So it just hasn't been something that I've been exposed to. Maybe that's something I need to do in the next couple years. Just take myself, and find somebody who wants to go, maybe somebody who understands it, and go with somebody who can explain it so that I can enjoy it more. I haven't gone because of ignorance on my part.

Adam: Get Nick Hytner to take you.

Tori: [laughs]

[transcribed by Paul McCulloch (SweetOnes from toriphorums)]

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