Then Tori Amos composed herself

Tue, Nov 8, 2011, 00:00

As a child at the Peabody Conservatory, it was ingrained in Tori Amos that female composers didn’t have the same opportunities as men. So when a one-in-a-billion chance came her way, she couldn’t resist . . .

SHE IS, as they say, a different kettle of fish, altogether. For some, American singer/songwriter/performer Tori Amos is many things: a firebrand of individualism, a torchbearer for idiosyncrasy, a beacon of light for those wavering between independency and soul-selling.

To others, she is the oddest side of odd: the woman breast feeding a piglet on the cover of her third solo album, Boys for Pele;the woman who unabashedly engages with songs that explicitly reference events from her life (rape, religion, sexual awakening, marriage, miscarriage, gender issues) as well as topics not usually covered by a female pop star with a piano (misogyny, homophobia, masochism and . . . beekeeping as a source of female empowerment).

Amos is at it again, but this time her new record is another utterly different kettle of fish. Released on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, Night of Huntersis a concept album comprising a 21st-century song cycle inspired by classical music themes.

Autobiographically set in a rambling Georgian house on the outskirts of Kinsale, Co Cork, any resemblance to Amos’s house there is quite likely deliberate: “It’s a safe house. I flee situations, experiences and people to get there; it protects me, and helps me reinform myself.” The record’s themes touch on mythology, conflicts, tolerances and resolutions within marriage, and the dual nature of what she refers to as “the hunter” and “the hunted”. It is, all told, an incredibly ambitious piece of work by a virtuosic artist at the height of her narrative and musical powers. It’s also a bit mystifying, outdoing Kate Bush and leaping over Joanna Newsom in terms of theme, execution, quirk and charm.

Here, in the baroque, brothelesque basement of a London hotel, Amos is smaller than you might think, smarter than smart, a 48-year-old mixture of petite, pithy and panache.

Deutsche Grammophon approached her, she starts: “They have a doctor of musicology, and he made a point of seeing some of my live shows. Along the way, he asked me how I felt about 21st-century song cycles based on classical themes. I said: Tall order, easy to get wrong, but too tempting to say no to.”

It was also a challenge that Amos, a former child prodigy, couldn’t resist; by the age of five she was composing instrumental piano pieces, and a short time later she won a full scholarship to the Preparatory division of the Peabody Conservatory of Music at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. By the age of 11, the scholarship was rescinded; her precocious interest in pop and rock, and her dislike of reading sheet music, spelling the end of her classical training.

“They said, ‘What do you want to be?’ and I said, ‘I want to be a composer.’ They said, ‘A female composer? Be a concert pianist: you have a chance, maybe one in a billion. Unless, of course, you want to go to the pop world.’ So I thought, one in a billion? I’ll take those odds one day.”

Presented with the opportunity of the song cycle, Amos agreed to forge ahead, albeit with certain conditions: she needed the tools with which to work, and they had to supply her with all the music. Deutsche Grammophon’s executive producer, Dr Alexander Buhr, then provided her with extensive biographical details on some of the great composers of the past 400 years, as well as recordings. Amos then applied “a very studied devotion, and a delicate ruthlessness” to poring over the works of, among others, Schubert, Debussy, Satie, Bach, Chopin, Granados, Mussorgsky and Schumann. Was she familiar with all of the composers?

“No, but that was okay,” she says. “I listened and my ears told me what I needed to know; everyone got a fair shake.”

Through a typically audacious blend of fearlessness and melody, Night of Huntersworks as much as a song cycle as a highly intelligent pop album (in other words, you don’t have to have an in-depth knowledge of classical music to, you know, dig it). It arrives at a point where it can sit comfortably alongside pop music’s more offbeat offerings; it is, in effect, a real work of intensely personal musical creativity by a bona fide artist.

“The real danger would be to have done a prog rock/classical hybrid,” Amos says, “which I think would have diluted the work. I would love if people got the background, because if you are taking on board a classical form, like a song cycle, it’s got to work as a piece of sonic architecture; it has to have a certain amount of plinths in order to make it work, so that it’s not just an exercise in merging styles. What I’d hoped was to walk a very thin tightrope with all that’s connected with the record.”

But doesn’t she walk a thin line most, if not all of the time? “Yes, well, I try things out, but I was trained at the Peabody Conservatory and, for all the slagging they get, the upside to it is that some things were ingrained, and one was that female composers didn’t really have the same opportunities as men. So something like this is just irresistible.”

It’s 20 years since Little Earthquakes, her debut album, was released, and from then to now, one imagines, she has been dragged through the hedgerows and back again. “There have been tumultuous times,” she says, “because in creating there has been, can be, a delicious, excruciating process in composing.

“It’s a very lonely experience – it isn’t like jamming with people – and you push yourself sometimes to feel things, in a way as a writer, that perhaps other people would want to deny or conclude too quickly. Instead I say: this happened, so let’s go back into it and investigate. You need to go back in because you really need to find out how you feel about it. No sentiment, either – get out of that frame of mind.”

Where does she see herself, in terms of pop music? Does she view what she does as being in competition with the likes of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, for example? “Oh, no! They’re great at what they do. I could be Gaga’s mom, I suppose, but being where they’re at, commercially, is not a good place to be. As for where I dwell in pop culture, well, I don’t think about it, to be honest. I reckon it’s more fun to keep creating, to be a creative force.

“I’d like to see myself known as a composer, and I think my work will move more into that. I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I’d like to think I’m carving my own niche for what feels right at the time.”

Does she agree that she has one of the most distinctive back catalogues of the past 20 years? “There’s a lot there, for sure,” she says, “but I own my own publishing and copyright, and I’ve had that for over 20 years now. I remember all kinds of people would approach my father, who has looked after that side of things for me for a long time, and they wanted me to sign away my publishing and copyright for very little and for a long time. But my father said, ‘If so many people want my copyright why shouldn’t we want it, too?’ I have to thank him, every day, for the business nous to question that. So it’s all about the catalogue: to do good work with it, build on it, find different perspectives with it.”

Continually altering perspectives have maintained Amos’s enriching creative output over the past two decades. We’ll see her and her string quartet embrace her ever-changing moods and music when she arrives in Dublin next week. “If you start repeating yourself,” she says, amid the burgundy chintz and ornate curlicues of the hotel’s dungeon, “then it’s the beginning of the end.” Which is, she muses, a different realm altogether, a place where what she terms “important work” isn’t undertaken anymore.

“It becomes a kind of clinging on to a career maintenance, instead of carving out new territory. But I’m Tori Amos, so I’m drawn to carving out new territory pretty much all the time.”

Tori Amos by year

Bornin Newton, North Carolina, August 22nd, 1963

Age fiveStarted to compose instrumental pieces on piano, winning a full scholarship to the Preparatory division of the Peabody Conservatory of Music

Age 11Peabody scholarship discontinued because of reluctance to read from sheet music and an increasing interest in rock and pop music

Age 14Began playing in piano bars, chaperoned by her father, Reverend Edison Amos

Age 21Following several years doing the rounds of the piano-bar circuit in the DC area, moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music career

Age 25Releases the debut album Y Kant Tori Readfrom her band of the same name; it has long been out of circulation, with no sign of it being reissued

Age 27Releases Little Earthquakes; sets out her stall with songs about sexual assault, identity crises, religion and sexual awakening

Age 33Causes something of a fuss with the album cover of Boys for Pele, which depicts her breast feeding a piglet

Age 38:One year after her daughter, Natashya, is born, releases the concept covers album Strange Little Girls, which features songs about women written by men (including 10CC’s I’m Not in Love, Eminem’s 97 Bonnie and Clyde, and Slayer’s Raining Blood) yet sung from a female perspective

Age 39Concept album Scarlet’s Walkexplores topics such as pornography, misogyny, homophobia, masochism and Native American history

Age 45 Comic Book Tattoo: Narrative Art Inspired by the Lyrics and Music of Tori Amos,edited by Rantz Hoseley, wins the 2009 Eisner Award

Age 48Releases Night of Hunters,a song cycle featuring variations on a theme, paying tribute to classical music composers such as Schubert, Bach, Satie, Debussy and Chopin


Night of Huntersis on Deutsche Grammophon. Tori Amos performs in the Waterfront, Belfast, tonight, and in the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, tomorrow