Tori Amos -- The Interview

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Photo: Victor de Mello
Night Of Hunters is the most unique album in Tori Amos’ catalog, yet it feels like the project everything else in her career has been leading up to. It’s also not an easy one to explain, which is why Tori’s advice to just hear it without reference guides makes a lot of sense.

Released last September, Night Of Hunters is Tori’s first album for the classical-centric Deutsche Grammophon label. Recorded with classical musicians, NOH is a song cycle about a fractured relationship as seen through the myths of different epochs. The song cycle as a compositional construct has always fascinated and eluded me, and if there was ever a contemporary musician that could engineer and direct the song cycle, no question Tori would be at the top of the list.

This was my second conversation with Tori in the past few years. After hearing Night Of Hunters I came up with about three pages of questions about the album. Realistically I could have talked to Tori for two hours about this sole project. But we only had twenty minutes or so when we spoke on the phone late last summer.


PP: Can you talk about the inception of this album?

Tori Amos: At Deutsche Grammophon, there’s a doctor of musicology by the name of Dr. Alexander Buhr. He kind of tracked me down out in the world. I met up with him and he proposed this idea: Would I consider doing a 21st century song cycle based on classical themes? I kind of looked at him, and said, “That’s a very, very tall order, and a very dangerous one.” If you get it wrong, you get it really, really wrong.

He said, “You’ve been doing this musical – you need a challenge.” And I said, “That’s the least of my problems – working with the masters is a whole other thing.” We made a deal that he would send me endless amounts of classical music so I could expose myself, not just to what I grew up listening to, but all kinds of things. That was one of the key beginning elements that brought it together.

What composers that he sent to you really stood out to you for the first time?

TA: Quite a lot of them are on the record. Erik Satie, (Enrique) Granados – I wasn’t really familiar with their work. Once I discovered it, it just demanded to be a part the project. Mussorgsky ended up in the duet of “The Chase.” There were certain pieces I didn’t grow up knowing, or that I didn’t grow up playing, that just commanded my attention.

All the ones that really stepped in and took over my life are on the record, except for Franz Liszt. His energy was very much there – his music was there, I was developing something. In the final hour, story-wise, it just went in another direction, and it went down the Scarlatti path instead. That was for the title track. It wasn’t as if Liszt’s presence wasn’t there or that I didn’t learn a lot from studying his structures. Part of this is really studying how song cycles work. Dr. Buhr gave me Schubert’s “Winterizer.” I just talked to Germans awhile ago, and they were saying, “It’s Vinterizer” (laughs). That was the song cycle from Schubert, and sort of a benchmark for me about how they operate.

How would you explain the concept of the song cycle for someone who’s coming to it through “Night Of Hunters”? How did it fit your story?

TA: (Long pause) Well, a song cycle works in a way that narrative has to be sort of the foundation. The story doesn’t have to be understood in a linear fashion, but more from an emotional place. It’s not a play that’s set to music. It’s abstract in some ways, because it’s not dialogue set to music. That can be done in a musical format.

Night Of Hunters isn’t really dialogue. It’s more about your protagonist and what they’re feeling within a set of circumstances. The set of circumstances isn’t necessarily what’s being sung about. Whereas in certain musicals you hear about certain circumstances. That’s where the forms are somewhat different.

With some song cycles you can get a back story that the composer gives that’ll be all over the map. People in the beginning that I was testing this out with said, “Don’t give me the back story. I don’t wanna know. Eventually I will look it up, but I wanted to experience the emotion on my own.” That was the reason we only sent the back story to journalists, and you can get it on the net. But that won’t be in the album package.

How did you convey the narrative to the musicians and the people you were working with? Did they get the back story?

TA: (Laughs) It’s funny – no, the musicians never asked. They just listened to the song and the lyrics and got it.

Ah, professionals!

TA: But it’s not that they’re smarter than anyone else. It’s because they understand the form. They’re listening to it from an emotional level, they’re not listening to it as playwrights saying, “Well, is this an active part of the story?” You’re not getting a dramatist talking to you, you’re getting musicians who are understanding the emotion from the rhythm, the chord progression, the melody. Music is the language to musicians and everybody working on it.

The fact that they went from new world to old world didn’t really affect what they were listening to. What they were listening to was what she was reacting to in “Shattering Sea” when she sings “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor.” That’s all they needed to know. And then they played the shit out of it. They don’t need to know, “Well, did she come from Florida or Nantucket?” They don’t fucking care. They don’t care what they ate. They know that something happened once they got to wherever they were. They didn’t even care that it was in Ireland. They said, “Whatever. Wherever they are, we understand the emotional explosion of this couple.”

So there are people who are just working on and off of the emotion this woman had towards this man, and what you began to get his energy from different songs, they began to hear it in the lyric and how she was approaching it from the music and the lyrics. That’s all they needed to know.

The album begins in Ireland with the Celtic tradition, and references the ogham tree language. “Cactus Practice” cites Aztecan mythology and shamanism. You could even say the sea passages refer to Norse mythology. Was it a conscious decision to draw from various mythologies, or was that a coincidence in service to the story?

TA: The work itself was driving certain things. Sometimes, as a writer, you cock your head at certain signals and signs saying, “Well, why are we dealing with the nine underworlds of the Maya?” Why are we doing this?

Little did I know at the time, but I discovered that Granados, the composer, had made a trip to the New World. He was from Spain, and this song was from Spanish dances. Originally I was trying to somehow pull Spain into this, because they have quite an influence on Ireland and landed there – there’s a whole history there from hundreds of years. The crazy thing is, they would stop there – they’ve been there a long, long time – but they went in and settled the New World.

Granados made his trip, and everything in that song was saying you have to take this to the New World. He played for the President, which made him change his passage back to the Old World. He had a great fear of boats – water, really – so that on the way back, they made it back to England, but on the way back to Spain their boat went down. He was rescued, but he saw his wife drowning in the distance. He dove off the boat to save her and they both died. So “Fearlessness” was being driven by the song itself, and I didn’t really know the circumstances until the song was done. Dr. Buhr said to me, “Do you know the story of Granados?” I had no idea. He picked up on all the references.

I was going to ask if you knew about the Granados story.

TA: This is where you get to this strange moment of who’s driving who. I think the songs drive me to find them. It’s a very fine line: Am I writing it, or am I just translating a consciousness that’s already there?

It was very clear, hand on my heart, that this wanted to be called “Fearlessness” with his melody, and it had to be about water. And them being out on the water, our couple, Tori and this guy – it tied in with somehow the soul and consciousness of Granados. That was sort of the prerequisite. If I was going to use his melody, somehow there had to be a link with his journey and his story.

"Battle Of Trees" has an interesting precept. The battle itself takes place 3,000 years in the past, and you explain that poets actually fought alongside militants, and that the two factions were originally on equal footing as warriors. But then the poets had to insulate themselves with words, as you say. It's hard not to imagine that division happening today. Can the role of the poet ever be noble again, or will it take a total decimation of the earth for that to happen?

TA: I don’t know. (pause) I was reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which was kind of a guiding light through this whole project. I’ve had it my life before but it’s such a hard read for me personally because it feels like a textbook. In some ways I guess it is, because it goes through mythology from ancient, ancient times, but it explains how it came to Ireland, and also the British Isles, and the inception of it all. I don’t know if he believed we would ever see poets acknowledged in that way again.

But also, as he said, to be considered a poet of great standing you had to have such an understanding of ancient myth. And it seems like our culture doesn’t encourage our writers to know mythology. Neil Gaiman, he’s my spiritual brother. He’s one of the few writers that I’ve known that 20 years ago was talking about how essential mythology was to his palette. I don’t really know what Neil would write without his mythological references. That’s been the thing for me – I wouldn’t have many ingredients in my garden coming from the piano if I didn’t have mythology at the core.

After hearing this album, I began to think about my own relationship with my wife, and what our mythology would be. As “Night Of Hunters” gets heard, is it something of a goal to have other couples think about the story of their relationships?

TA: Paul, if that actually made you do that, then I’ve accomplished what I wanted to do. Because we get so distracted by the traumas that are happening in the world. It’s not as if they shouldn’t command our attention. But our own relationships, our personal lives, have to command our attention as well. If there’s no healing within the sacred relationship of the home, then there’s no way we can have peace outside in the world. That’s never gonna happen.

So couples have to start valuing that they have something special to hold onto and not just throw away. It’s such a disposable society now. People throw things away, just toss them aside. If it’s not working, then forget it. I’ll do another job, I’ll do something else. That’s one thing when you’re talking about jobs, it’s another thing when you’re talking about people. And of course, some relationships have a natural end, as you and I both know. They’ve done what they need to do, you’ve gone to school together, and you go your separate ways. It doesn’t mean you hate each other, it just means you’re going separate ways. But if you have a wife or a husband, a lover or a partner that you care about – isn’t that gold? Isn’t that more precious than gold?

That’s why I thought the myth concept would be helpful – it’s a way to interpret our lives that might take work, but it would reveal whole new layers.

TA: What an adventure that would be for couples. I think couples get stuck in the grind and forget the magic that is happening – the alchemical magic between two people. Finding your myth that’s special just to you two? To me there’s nothing sexier than that.

Thank you so much, Tori, I appreciate your time.

TA: And say hi to your partner, yes?
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