The musician: Tori Amos has been writing about sex, religion, power dynamics, and the power of myth for more than two decades, and she’s still game for a new challenge. She’s currently writing music for a theatrical adaptation of George MacDonald’s 19th-century fairy tale The Light Princess for The Royal National Theatre, and she recently released her 12th studio album, Night Of Hunters, her first release for the classical label Deutsche Grammophon. Amos worked with a musicologist to do research for Hunters, an orchestral song cycle about a woman’s spiritual struggle and rebirth based on compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, and others.
“Battle Of Trees” (from 2011’s Night Of Hunters)
The A.V. Club: This references “Gnossienne No. 1” by Erik Satie. What about Satie’s piece inspired you?
Tori Amos: When I heard Satie’s piece, I started to be taken to this ancient place for some reason. And it developed over many weeks. But it was clear that I needed to tell the story of the poet’s place in ancient Ireland through his original musical theme. That’s how music works in my life. It’s very demanding. It pushes me in a direction and it gives no quarter sometimes. I could not get away from thinking about that sound and that melody and the ancient Irish alphabet. They just were married in my world. And I would look at it, thinking, “How the hell am I going to figure that out? It makes no sense.” And yet it was day after day after day of trying to decipher what the poets were talking about, and the power of the trees, what each of them held, and the prose of that.
AVC: Your origin myth, as it were, is that you were at the Peabody Conservatory in your adolescence, but you didn’t feel it was who you were. And now you’re going back to classical music for inspiration.
TA: At the time, the way they looked at music, from what I understand, is very different from how they’re teaching now. They’ve changed over the years. But in 1968, when I went there, they were very closed to anything but classical music. And yet I don’t think they were doing classical composers a lot of favors. They didn’t make it come alive. To be honest with you, it didn’t come alive for me until I started listening to the music that was sent to me by this musicologist. I started to hear it for the first time. Most of these pieces on this record, I’d never heard before except for the Debussy piece.
AVC: Were you searching for new inspiration?
TA: Deutsche Grammophon approached me with this idea, to make a 21st-century song-cycle based on classical themes. And I looked at them and said, “This is a very, very tall order.” But they said, “You’re working on a musical, so understanding narrative is something you should be open to.” I said, “I’m open to it, but that’s not what worries me the most, although it’s a worry. What worries me is doing variations on themes by master composers.” That’s something you really have to… I use the term “delicately worthless.” And you have to be! It’s a very thin line to walk. If you’re too intimidated by the music, then you’re useless to it, but if you have hubris, then you can’t hear how the ancient melodies want to be utilized, because you’re not listening, because it’s about you. Then it’s going to be defective. It’s a give-and-take all the time.
“Crucify” (from 1992’s Little Earthquakes)
AVC: This was one of your earliest singles. When did you first get a sense that you were starting to find an audience?
TA: I think at the time, I was responding to looking at the world without rose-colored glasses anymore. I think there’s a time as a writer when you want to see the best things in life, and you go out wherever you go with your dreams as a writer or a composer. After a while of getting jerked around, you realize what the business is really made up of. Which are a lot of, frankly, judgmental people. They equate greatness with success, and you and I both know that a lot of visual artists and writers and composers, like Schubert, weren’t really known until their death. And so this whole way about how artists are treated based on how many pieces they sell has nothing to do with their ability. Not really, and you’re a writer, so you know exactly what I’m saying. And after that kind of treatment, I said, “Right, then. I’m going to sing about things that I’m burning to write about, and I really don’t give a fuck who praises it, because I have to save my own soul, which I sold out to please these people who don’t give a shit about me, and I don’t even know who they are.”
Out of that, [former Atlantic Records executive] Doug Morris kind of turned around and he did see what I had created. He launched Little Earthquakes around the world. And “Crucify,” it wasn’t the first single in England, but it was one of the frontrunners in the United States. But I didn’t write it to relate to people at radio, I wrote it because I was sick of… whatever it was, the entertainment industry or religion, people who say things and they’re just lying to you, right to your face.
AVC: They would try to marginalize you.
TA: Yeah, and I think it’s very hypocritical, religion. They point the finger at everybody, and that has nothing to do with Christ-like behavior. When you try to please these people, whether it’s those people or anybody in your life, that’s really what “Crucify” was talking about.
“Silent All These Years” (from 1992’s Little Earthquakes)
TA: I’d been playing bars and lounges for about 13 years, so that when I was able to put out this music on Little Earthquakes and play it and people would be responding like they were, sometimes I wouldn’t know what to say when somebody would just be crying there in front of me. But I had to realize it wasn’t about me, it really wasn’t, and it isn’t. I began to see that people were having a relationship with the songs, and I was really kind of a scribe for the consciousness of the songs to express themselves. And it took me a while to get it, but once I did, I found it really freeing. Because I thought, “You know, you’re a part of this, people aren’t directing this at you, don’t be confused, you don’t need to feel strange. This is people having a relationship with the song, and they’re choosing to tell you about it. They don’t have to tell you about it, Tori. So feel privileged that they are confiding in you.” And that took me a little while to get, but once I got it, I must tell you it was great feeling, like you’re part of a community. When I play live, it’s a conversation that we’re all having with the song, and the audience… their response and relationship with the songs is as valid as my relationship with the songs.
“Past The Mission” (from 1994’s Under The Pink)
TA: I was living in New Mexico at the time, and I think I was really inspired by the history there, and the native people, and how the missions influenced native culture. And that being the backstory and the history, it became more of a personal relationship that this woman was having. I don’t want to guide the listener too much, but I was inspired by the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. And this was in ’93 when I wrote it, so it was a little before Dan Brown, so I think it’s okay to acknowledge that.
AVC: How did you end up working with Trent Reznor on that song?
TA: I just thought that his voice would go perfect with it, and we were friends, so it seemed like it would be a really great pairing.
“Cornflake Girl” (from 1994’s Under The Pink)
TA: I had read Alice Walker’s book The Temple Of My Familiar, and before we get into what that book was about, and inspiration, I felt that women betraying each other was something I was investigating at the time. The idea of that, and how quote-unquote friends can really hurt each other deeply, and the idea that the enemy is out there somewhere, but really, where we get hurt usually comes from people we are close to. So “Cornflake Girl” really was about two women, that one felt that the other had really betrayed her. In the book, they talked about how young girls would be taken to a place for female circumcision, whether it was out in the desert of Africa or what have you, usually by somebody they trusted. A mother, a grandmother, somebody they loved, and of course the person that was doing this to them, taking them to the whatever you want to call it, the hacker or the mutilator, thought that they were doing the right thing, or else the girl wouldn’t be able to get married. They justify their betrayal, and that was really what prompted the idea of “Cornflake Girl.”
“Professional Widow” (from 1996’s Boys For Pele)
AVC: That has one of the angriest, heaviest harpsichord riffs ever.
TA: Yeah! [Laughs.]
TA: Well, I love Tool’s music, and I felt like the harpsichord had the ability to slash some teeth. It just had to be about the strength. I threw my body into playing it, and I won’t lie to you, I was a little bit angry at the time. And I think I was just expressing it.
AVC: There were lots of rumors about who that song was based on. Do you care to comment now?
TA: No, I don’t really care to comment, because I think sometimes rumors should get to stay rumors, whatever they are, and you can’t really dignify them. I will tell you, though, that album was really about me questioning the patriarchy and the male authority in the church. Those that felt they needed to be the link between a human being and God, as if you or I can’t connect to the Goddess, God, whatever you call the great creator, or a creator force, or many forces. So I had a real anger. Also, the song is dealing with more than one issue, with women that then act like the patriarchy, when women are very much a part of it, and are controlling other people. All for their own benefit and personal gain, and it isn’t about what the other person’s needs are. So yes, I was exploring the abuse of the male authority, but then I was exploring the abuse of female authority, and that’s why “Professional Widow,” I think, has that kind of angst and confrontation going on.
“Raspberry Swirl” (from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel)
TA: This was a time frame when dance music and clubs were having a real impact on culture, and it had an impact on me. I think I was motivated by a lot of these mixers, and there was a guy at Atlantic Records who exposed me to this kind of music. He brought in Armand Van Helden and a lot of others who worked on the Pele remixes. So I wasn’t really aware of some of these great artists, and once I heard it, I was inspired to do my version. I wasn’t trying to do their job, I was trying to do my variation on the idea.
“Cactus Practice” (from 2011’s Night Of Hunters)
AVC: You sang with your daughter on this one. Whose idea was that, yours or hers?
TA: Well, when she knew that I was developing a song cycle and that it would have characters and that it was a narrative, she would start asking me about it. We were on tour and traveling around, and I was exploring it and what it should be. We would have many conversations about the woman and what she was going through, and Natashya would say things like, “Why do you think, mummy, that grown-ups allow things to get so out of hand that they can’t fix their problems? They leave it too late. Why do they do that? It’s quite stupid, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, it’s pretty stupid. But we do that sometimes.” And the more we would talk about this woman and what she was going through, the more I began to see [the album’s protagonist] Annabelle being formed through the way Tash sees the world. So that was my light bulb, and I was able to design Annabelle around Tash’s ability.