Looking out across her lawn, watching the River Bandon slowly rising with the drawing in of the tide, Tori Amos takes a deep breath. “There’s just something about this place,” she says, exhaling in that familiarly slow, serene way, as if she’d just reclined into an imaginary bubble bath. “There’s a sense that you reclaim a part of your soul when you come here.”
She’s calling Wears The Trousers from her home away from home on the outskirts of Kinsale in County Cork, a Georgian sanctuary she bought in 1995 and described in her 2005 memoir Piece By Piece as a place she likes to go to remember tales of her family’s past. It’s also where she made some of the early recordings for her ambitious third album Boys For Pele, so the house has form for bold, dramatic storytelling – a tradition that Tori has breathed new life into with her latest album Night Of Hunters, a recording so audacious in its scope that you can’t help but sit up and take notice.
On paper, admittedly, it sounds a bit of a mess: a contemporary song cycle based in Irish mythology and inspired by four hundred years of classical music starring a shape-shifting fox named Anabelle, a Fire Muse and Tori as ‘tori’, a woman whose life comes apart at the seams and who, in search of healing, takes a spiritual journey with the aid of an hallucinogenic elixir made from the juice of a cactus. Yeesh. Factor into that a series of duets with her daughter Natashya Hawley, who was only ten at the time of recording, and nineteen year old niece Kelsey Dobyns, and the idea alone might well be enough to send you scurrying back to 2009′s all-over-the-shop Abnormally Attracted To Sin with forgiveness in your turtle heart.
But wait! Hold on just a minute and savour the sound of a hundred critics humbly munching on their hats, for Night Of Hunters is really quite a spectacular undertaking. By grabbing the works of some of history’s most lauded master composers respectfully by the cojones and recontextualising them with sympathetic new arrangements to suit her own ends, Tori sounds not just reborn as a pianist but revived altogether as a creative force. From the rumbling tumult of ‘Shattering Sea’ right through to the acutely poignant curtain call of ‘Carry’, there’s such beauty and coherence to the songs that it’s hard to shake the feeling that Night Of Hunters, as unwieldy and unfashionable as it is, is exactly the kind of album that Tori Amos should be making in 2011.
Writing for NPR, Piece By Piece co-author Ann Powers went so far as to say that this is the album Tori was “destined to make”. Is that how Tori sees it? “Well, I don’t know,” she laughs. “Back when I lost my scholarship at the Peabody and my dad was giving me a hard time, saying that I was ruining my life and what was I going to do with myself – go to that devil music? – I never would have thought that I’d end up doing variations on classical themes and a twenty-first century song cycle for Deutsche Grammophon!” She pauses. “But was I destined to make it? I hope so.”
Deutsche Grammophon, for the uninitiated, is the world’s oldest surviving record company having been around the block since 1898. Approaching Tori just weeks after she left Universal Republic having fulfilled her contractual obligations with 2009′s winter solstice-themed album Midwinter Graces, the label (which, incidentally, also belongs to the Universal Music Group) put the basic premise of Night Of Hunters on the table and offered Tori their full cooperation to spur her creativity. Working closely with musicologist Dr Alexander Buhr, she set out to rediscover classical music some thirty-five years after being kicked out of the Peabody Institute for wanton composition of her own ’70s rock-inspired music.
On the good doctor’s recommendation, Tori spent some time studying the Franz Schubert piano-and-vocal song cycle Winterreise, from which she could establish the ins and outs of the classical form and then use those as a springboard. “It was pretty clear that first there needs to be a personal crisis, then there’s a worldly crisis, and usually nature represents itself, sometimes in death and demons,” she explains. On Night Of Hunters, the first requirement is expertly fulfilled by ‘Shattering Sea’, in which our lowercase protagonist introduces herself with the weighty intonation “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor / that is not the glass that I threw before,” while the man she loves and loses (and possibly regains) is given voice through the instrumentation alone – and remains a wordless figure thereafter.
The piece is based on a nineteenth-century prelude by Charles-Valentin Alkan named ‘Song Of The Madwoman On The Sea-Shore’, but Tori had other ideas. “When I realised what the title was for that piece I thought, okay, with my reputation I can’t have the word ‘madwoman’ in the title!” she laughs. “But I do think that when a relationship is at a crossroads and there’s blood on the floor and broken glass everywhere, there is a madness there, so I decided to harness the melody of the piece and take it to another place, to bring his voice in as well. Lyrically, I thought it was a good opportunity to explain what their forces were; his comes from the tide and wave and hers comes from fire, and unfortunately they are at a place of brutality.”
While thinking about how nature was going to represent itself more centrally within the song cycle, Tori felt drawn back to a mythology she first explored fully on the much-maligned (though some would say deservingly) ‘Ireland’ from 2005′s The Beekeeper. “Both my parents have Irish blood in their family and Irish mythology is something which has interested me for years,” says Tori. “I’ve never been able to utilise it in a whole project before, and I thought it would inform the poetry. So I start the story at the old Georgian house – that’s where the shattering takes place.”
Where a lesser artist might take this as free license to cram a tin whistle, fiddle or bodhrán solo into every song, Night Of Hunters is made of sterner, classier stuff, recruiting a talented young string quartet from Poland and four distinguished woodwind players, plus Andreas Ottensamer of the Berlin Philharmonic, who joins Tori in the piano/clarinet instrumental duet ‘Seven Sisters’. Long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale handled all the arrangements, but how did he feel about being given such a mammoth task? Tori laughs coyly. “Um, well. Ha. I remember it kinda going something like this: ‘Philly, I have this great idea…’
“I think he was thrilled to be honest, but the amount of work!” She lets out an exaggerated sigh and laughs. “You know, it got to the point where when any of us would hear about the project, whether it was the sound team or Philly or anybody, there was just one of those looks that you’d get back. A look that said, ‘This is dangerous. Exciting, but dangerous.”
Still, it’s not the first time that Tori has re-edited and put a fresh interpretation on centuries-old songs; Midwinter Graces did a similar thing with a variety of Christmas carols. There are links here, too, with her ongoing work on stage musical ‘The Light Princess’ with the use of conversational lyrics and call-and-response to drive the narrative. “I don’t think this could ever have happened without either of those projects,” says Tori. “I think I cut my teeth on variations on a theme with Midwinter Graces: figuring out how to look at a blueprint of another work, how to enter into that work without damaging it, how to extract the part I needed and to expand upon it to reach a new expression. But when you’re messing with the masters, it’s a bit different from messing with a Methodist minister who was writing carols.”
Of course, Tori being Tori, she couldn’t help but give a bit of a nod to her rulebreaking days at the Peabody Institute when writing the album. Both ‘Your Ghost’ and ‘Edge Of The Moon’ refer to The Beatles (who arguably belong among the modern masters), the latter even inserting a brief piano part from ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ into the ‘Siciliano’ movement of Bach’s sonata in E-flat major. “It was irresistible,” she laughs, clearly very pleased with herself. “I think a lot of people feel Bach is so intellectual and there isn’t always a lot of humour when people analyse his music. Or romance for that matter, so I thought I’d do a variation where it’s not about the head, it’s about the heart. I felt ‘Edge Of The Moon’ really needed to be about the depth of love the couple had, and that there was still a possibility for them. The Beatles were perfect for that.”
Perhaps inevitably, the only one of Night Of Hunters‘ fourteen songs that’s not a variation on a classical piece is also the album’s most instantly accessible piece. Cited in the credits as being inspired by the following ‘Nautical Twilight’, which takes Mendelssohn’s ‘Venetian Boat Song’ as its blueprint, ‘Job’s Coffin’ is infused with “a New Orleans-influenced spiritual sound”. It’s also the only song that’s given over mostly to another character, Anabelle (Natashya). “There was a beat missing between ‘Star Whisperer’ and ‘Nautical Twilight’,” Tori explains. “Anabelle had to set up the circumstances for the woman to explain to us how she turned her back on her own force and abandoned it. Not confronting the woman – I think that word’s too strong – but I thought it was important that Anabelle got to express herself at some point.”
And Tori means that in more ways than one. ‘Job’s Coffin’, it turns out, was written specifically for Natashya, partly inspired by the newly-enrolled Sylvia Young Theatre School student’s love of the blues. One of the many mother–daughter anecdotes that Tori loves telling, with an endearing proud-mum tone to her voice, is of Natashya’s discovery of the blues at nine years old and turning to Tori and proclaiming, “It’s all beginning to make sense.” Having been singing from a very young age, Natashya’s voice has already achieved a richer timbre than one would expect of a ten year old, with some individual quirks already creeping in. Reviews of Night Of Hunters have likened her voice to that of Adele, Joanna Newsom and Sia, among others, but it was with a version of a Nat King Cole song that Miss Hawley impressed the notoriously hard-to-please admissions panel at Sylvia Young. “She’s inspired by a very different kind of music to what I was brought up on, and I think that’s great,” says Tori. “She seems to be loving it there.”
It may have been penned for Natashya, but ‘Job’s Coffin’ is Tori Amos through and through with its lyrics preaching female empowerment and feminist theology inform the lyrics (“There exists a power of old / who wanted Earth to be controlled / but she and she alone is her own”, “Since time why do we women give ourselves away / we give ourselves away / thinking somehow that will make him want to stay”), the bluesy, spiritual sound bridging the link between Job’s Coffin the constellation (Delphinus) and Job the Biblical character. And even if, musically, it feels a tiny bit anomalous with the rest of Night Of Hunters, thematically it achieves its aim of bridging the sweeping, ten-minute indulgence of ‘Star Whisperer’, in which ‘tori’ in her cactus juice dream state communicates with the spirit of the man she’s lost, and the pirouetting scores of ‘Nautical Twilight’, in which the turning point comes and the woman resolves to reunite with her ‘force’ as the night gives way to the dawn.
‘Star Whisperer’ may be the longest song that Tori has ever committed to record, surpassing even the exquisite ‘Yes, Anastasia’ from 1994′s Under The Pink and her 2001 cover of The Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, transformed into a blistering indictment of modern-day America, but it’s not Night Of Hunters‘ only epic. ‘Battle Of Trees’ comes in just shy of nine minutes, riffing on Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 4 (‘Lent’) and indulging the album’s mythological framework with a very Tori-like reinterpretation of an ancient Celtic poem she discovered through reading Rupert Graves’ The White Goddess, where a familiar trope rears its head in the lyric “When the church began to twist the old myths / they built their own Tower of Babel from Ulster to Munster”. Here, we find the central couple embroiled in a war of words, side by side until their union comes undone when they turn their garrulous tongues upon each other, shattered by “the blade of a vowel”.
For Tori, the concept of shattering is absolutely central to the project – and, by extension, to the accompanying live show. Without wanting to give too much away, she reveals that ‘Shattering Sea’ will be one of those fortunate songs on each Tori tour to get an airing every night. She’s got her work cut out for her though; while the song is “big fun” for Tori and her touring string quartet to play, she admits it’s very challenging and requires lots of practice. “It means you can’t drink too much coffee because you can’t lose your sense of time, and there’s certainly no room for even a tipple,” she laughs. “Not that I would ever tipple before a show, but this is not the one to try it.”
Likening the live show to the journey taken by ‘tori’ in Night Of Hunters, “if you choose the right songs”, Tori draws parallels between her character’s spiritual emprise to the audience experience. “Although you’re doing it with a couple thousand people, you’re all travelling together on this… I don’t know, almost elixir of music. You don’t have the cactus, like she does in the story; Anabelle doesn’t give it to you. Although I’ve always thought some people in the crowd are on some elixir that I kinda wish they’d blow my way,” she says, those final words with an audible wink. “But then I might fall off my piano [she playfully pronounces this 'pianni'] stool, so I think twice about it.”
Unless she digs out some of the more killer heels from her vast collection of shoes (it’s no accident that Tori guested on two tracks on David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Imelda Marcos musical-album Here Lies Love last year), keeping balance could be the least of Tori’s challenges on the tour when it kicks off in Helsinki on Wednesday. With only five days’ rehearsal time with the quartet beforehand, she’s planning to expand the repertoire of back catalogue songs as the tour progresses through its forty-six shows.
“It’s really about casting where the songs go,” she says. “There needs to be enough time for when tuning needs to happen for the quartet, and enough time for me to improvise. When you improvise, it’s about chasing an energy that you’re finding and feeling in the moment, which is important because then you’re communicating, actually having a conversation with the people that are there. So the challenge is to make sure that there are moments carved into the evening where that can happen.”
Those concerns aside, playing with just four string players should be almost a breeze compared with last October’s performance with the entire cast of Amsterdam’s Metropole Orchestra in the Dutch capital, which she describes as “a huge learning curve”. For a perfectionist like Tori, the show was always going to be a risk and she admits that, in hindsight, it wasn’t her finest moment. “I was so overwhelmed,” she sighs. “I was so used to jamming with Matt [Chamberlain, her drummer since 1998] and Jon [Evans, her bassist since around the same time] and there was no jamming going on. I was playing so hard and fast, and sometimes I didn’t have time to breathe before we went into the next song.”
Learning from that experience, Tori felt compelled to give the collaboration another shot and has since been in the studio with the Metropole to record an orchestrated ‘greatest hits’ type album, not unlike Joni Mitchell’s Travelogue, to accompany next year’s re-release of her debut album Little Earthquakes, which celebrates its twentieth birthday in January. “We’ve done ‘Flying Dutchman’ and some of the obvious ones from the album,” she reveals. “And we got ‘Precious Things’ right, which we didn’t in the live performance. I thought we’d do songs from the whole catalogue. That way it’s about twenty years, not just twenty years ago.”
With ‘The Light Princess’ musical finally opening at London’s National Theatre this Spring, 2012 looks set to be yet another watershed year in Tori’s long and varied career. Five years in the making with writing partner Samuel Adamson and Tony-toting director Marianne Elliott (‘War Horse’), it’s been a real labour of love for her. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear ‘What’s the motivation for the character?’ and ‘Is it active or passive?’ any time I see them – words that have been ingrained on my brain by the thespians.
“If I ever got a tattoo on my forehead it would read ACTIVE.” And on her bum? “Hopefully PASSIVE,” she retorts with a lightning flash of humour.
In the twenty years since breaking both ground and taboo with Little Earthquakes, through a dozen often brilliant, sometimes frustrating releases, Tori Amos has played her hand at being everybody else’s girl. With Night Of Hunters, she once again sounds like no one’s but her own. Who else would even attempt it?
Night Of Hunters is out now on Deutsche Grammophon. Tori returns to the UK and Ireland in November for a run of shows. Catch her at the following venues:
02.11.11 Royal Albert Hall, London
03.11.11 Hammersmith Apollo, London
04.11.11 Apollo, Manchester
06.11.11 Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
08.11.11 Waterfront, Belfast
09.11.11 Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin
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