20 Years On, Tori Amos Redefines The Classics

Dec 25, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 7:32 pm

Genuine, passionate, powerful — that's as much of an introduction as Tori Amos needs. But for the past two decades, she's introduced her fans to plenty. She helped turn the piano into a rock instrument, showed that she can create big hits in different genres and challenged every critic who ever tried to put her in a box. And her 12th studio album, Night of Hunters, is no different.

After signing with the classical record label Deutsche Grammophon, Tori Amos was given a challenge: Create a 21st-century song cycle with variations on centuries-old classical themes. It was a daunting task, even though she was no stranger to classical music, having attended the Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory of Music for five years.

"When you are going to mess with the dead guys, then you cannot take it casually," Amos tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

Amos says many things didn't work, and that the process was frustrating at times. But as soon as the first song, Schubert's "Star Whisperer," worked, the rest of the songs started to encircle her, she says.

"I was having love affairs with these composers to the point where truly my husband would come and say, 'Okay, isn't it time for a nightcap and look at the stars with your husband?' And I would say, 'I am still with the dead guys,' " she says with a laugh.

The Story Cycle

Night of Hunters tells a love story about a pair who face a transformational night.

"They've just crossed the Atlantic on his sailboat, and she is from the New World, he is from the Old World, and once they get to the Old World everything explodes," Amos says. "They have a confrontation, and there is glass everywhere and blood everywhere, and he leaves and she is left there with herself, trying to figure out what has just happened and how did they arrive at this place."

At this point, a shape-shifting creature named Anabelle takes the heroine on a mystical journey.


The voice of Anabelle is provided by Amos' young daughter, Natashya "Tash" Hawley, who appears on an album with her mother for the first time.

"She was asking me a lot of things about the story," Amos says. " 'Why do grownups wreck things so much that they do not talk about it and deal with their problems until they ruin the kids' lives?' "

Those conversations with her daughter helped develop the character of Anabelle, Amos says: "She decided that she knew what Anabelle needed to be, so we developed her together."

Hawley's strong vocal performance came as no surprise to her mother.

"I was hearing it in the shower," Amos says, "and one of her cousins said, 'Is Bessie Smith hanging out in the shower now?' She was 9 when she discovered the blues, when she discovered Sam Cooke and Billie Holiday, and that's really her path now."

No matter the album's theme, Amos' ability to connect with her audience is undeniable.

"I get so much information from the people who come to the shows," Amos says. "That's where I get a lot of my information about life, emotions, what people are really going through. [My songs] are energy forces, and they want to reach other people, and I have to try and not get in the way of that."

Amos' next project, The Light Princess, is a musical set to open in London next year.

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our next guest needs little introduction, and yet she has introduced us to many things over the past two decades since she became a solo artist. She turned the piano into a rock instrument. She showed that you can create big hits in many different genres and she's challenged every critic who ever tried to put her in a box.

Now, with millions of albums sold worldwide, Tori Amos has taken on another adventure: reinterpreting classical themes for current times. The result is her latest album, her 12th studio album. It is called "Night of Hunters," and Tori Amos took a short break from her busy U.S. tour to stop by our studios here in Washington, D.C. for performance and some conversation.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TORI AMOS: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me. Hi, everybody.


MARTIN: I really want to say welcome home since this area's home for you.

AMOS: That's right. Stomping ground.

MARTIN: Yeah. What's it like to be back? Do you find yourself reverting to bad teenage behavior?

AMOS: Well, bad piano bar behavior because I was passing by places I used to play. Our tour bus was coming in and I'm touring with the Polish Quartet and I was pointing to these places and I said, I used to play the Lions Gate Taverne. And they would say, no Lion Gate Taverne. That's not what it says. And I thought, oh, no, no. It's called something else now, but that was in the '80s. I played there. And I was playing on 16th and K and remembering Tip O'Neill sat next to me at a Christmas party and I played. He wanted "Bye, Bye, Blackbird." So you remember those things.

MARTIN: Did you play it? Did you know it?

AMOS: Of course, I played for him.

MARTIN: Oh, good for you. That is very nice of you.

AMOS: And I was 14 at the time.

MARTIN: Wow. In a bar, playing in a bar. I don't know, Tori. We'll have to talk about that.

AMOS: Well, different laws in D.C. at the time.

MARTIN: Different time.

AMOS: And, of course, my father, the minister, would chaperone me. He would sit and drink ginger ale and eat popcorn in the corner and the first job I got was at a gay bar, which was Mr. Henry's, and it was the only place there was no room at the inn anywhere else in town, except the gay bar.

MARTIN: Yeah. Mr. Henry's, still famous for the careers that it launched.

AMOS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, yours, Roberta Flack's. Still famous, so - well, let's hear something.

AMOS: "Edge of the Moon."

MARTIN: "Edge of the Moon." OK. Here it is.


AMOS: (Singing) Here on the edge of the moon, running from our future. As I look back, your heart grabs my hand asking me to remember a vow you made that would always take me to the edge of the moon, circling pictures of you. The time you sailed under the diamond eye or for the dolphin who, for a song, had crossed night to bring back your bride. Under a warm Tuscan sun, no cliff was too steep for us. Here at the edge of the moon, I surf a curve thrown by you. Did you teach me to fly past your marmalade sky? So that after the waning and waxing of love, you could find me at the edge, here at the edge, me at the edge of the edge of the moon.


MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with acclaimed singer-songwriter Tori Amos about her new album, "Night of Hunters."

This is your, as you mentioned, your twelfth studio album. But this is your first album for Deutsche Grammophon, which is a venerable classical label. I understand that the executive producer had the idea for a song cycle. But what about the story behind it? Was that your doing?

AMOS: Once I accepted that we were going to do this - and it's quite something to realize you're going to do variations on themes by master composers. But once we understood what that was, then I began thinking about the architecture of it and I listened to other song cycles, particularly Schubert's "Winterreise." And so once I understood the shape, I decided I needed to put it in a place that I loved and understood. So I've always loved Iris mythology, and I decided to set the story there.

MARTIN: I'm just fascinated by your willingness to throw yourself into such an ambitious project, particularly because - I mean, obviously, you're known as being a remarkable musician, but I don't know how many people remember now that your roots were in classical music. You were classically trained at a very young age, but your parting from the Peabody Conservatory was not the happiest. And I don't know about you, but oftentimes when we revisit a place when - let me just - I'll talk about me and let you listen, when, you know...


MARTIN: ...when I, you know, when I revisit a place from which I had had an unhappy parting, sometimes it takes me back to something I don't really want to revisit. And I wonder whether there was any hesitation on your part.

AMOS: Yes, it was hesitation, because when you are going to mess with the dead guys, then you can't take it casually, and you have to really be ruthless about it - but a delicate ruthlessness, is what I said. And many things didn't work, and it was getting very frustrating. And once the first piece worked, which was "Star Whisperer," then it seemed as if the others started to circle me, and I was living a life. I was having love affairs with these composers, to the point where, truly, my husband would come and say OK. Isn't it time for a nightcap and look at the stars with your husband? And I'd say, I'm still with the dead guys.


AMOS: And he'd say, they better stay dead.


MARTIN: Well, let's hear something - I think "Nautical Twilight."

AMOS: Yeah, this is a variation on the Mendelssohn piece.

MARTIN: Could you just tell a little bit about it, for people who aren't familiar with the complete - with - I know, it's hard. It's hard, because it's layer upon layer. But...

AMOS: Well, the story is simply a woman who is facing a transformational night when her lover walks out, out of the Ballywilliam in Kinsale County Cork. They've just crossed the Atlantic on his sailboat, and she's from the New World. He's from the Old World. And once they get to the Old World, everything explodes. And so they have a confrontation, and there's glass everywhere and blood everywhere. And he leaves, and she's left there with herself, trying to figure out what has just happened, and how did they arrive at this place.

And a creature by the name of Annabelle, who's a shape-shifting being, comes to her, and then takes her on a journey.

MARTIN: All right. There it is.


AMOS: (Singing) As the day gave way to nautical twilight, I turned my back on the force of which I am made. I abandoned it, rupturing the delicate balance when I left my world for his. Day after day, cities all betrayed, at the earth, these songs lay bare blade. She is boundless, but by them she has been frayed. As the night gives way to nautical dawn, I can see I must activate the force of which I am made.


MARTIN: We're speaking with acclaimed singer-songwriter Tori Amos. You just heard "Nautical Twilight." That's from her new album "Night of Hunters." Lovely.

AMOS: Thank you.

MARTIN: You have a very special artist featured on this album.

AMOS: Yes. My daughter.

MARTIN: Your daughter?

AMOS: My daughter and my niece. Yes.

MARTIN: And your niece. Natasha, your daughter, sings the shape-shifter character, Annabelle. How did that come about?

AMOS: Well, she was asking me a lot of questions about the story. And she would say to me: Why do grown-ups wreck things so much so that they don't talk about it and deal with their problems until they ruin the kid's life - all in a British accent, of course.


AMOS: And said, OK, I don't know why we do that. That's a very good question. And she was going through her friends, and I think it was troubling her. And so I thought that Annabelle was being shaped by Tash in many ways. And she decided that she knew what Annabelle needed to be. So we developed her together.

MARTIN: She has a lovely voice. Did you know that she had such a lovely voice?

AMOS: I was hearing it in the shower...


AMOS: ...and one of her cousins said, what, is Bessie Smith hanging out in the shower now? And I said it's very odd. She discovered the blues when she was nine, and decided life made sense when she discovered Sam Cooke and Billie Holiday. And that's really her path now.

MARTIN: You know, I did want to ask: You have many loyal fans, and as you know, all around the world. Only a few of them are here today, and they're attracted by so many things - not least of which is your fearlessness in talking about things that need to be spoken about. And one of the things I think also characterizes your work is that you never sacrifice topicality for intimacy, or intimacy for topicality. They're both there. Like one - I was talking to a friend of mine who's a very devoted fan of yours and who's just gone through a very difficult period, and she said there was one song from the new album, "Carry," and she said it was as if you were in the room with us. And it involves the loss of a child, and so we won't go further, because it's very painful.

But I did want to ask: How do you find that information? How do you find both that intimate place and that place that connects to what people are thinking about on a global scale?

AMOS: Well, you listen to people. When I hear that artists don't sit and talk to the people that come to their shows or they take a picture with them and don't even say hello, I get very confused by that because I - you're missing an opportunity to learn what's going on. And I get so much information from the people come to the shows. That's where I get a lot of my information about life, emotion, what people are really going through. And I have no idea by reading the paper what's really going on. I know what's happening around the world because I stand outside backstage - when I can - and people will come bring letters and tell me what's happening.

But I've always said - and people don't - I don't know if they believe me, but it's true: I'm very blessed that the songs give me the copyright and the publishing rights, but honestly, they find me. They're a consciousness. They're beings, and they've chosen me to come through. But I don't write them all myself. They are energy forces, and they want to reach other people, and I have to try and not given the way of that.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for taking some time with us. I understand that you're going to give us one more? You're going to play one more for us?

AMOS: Yes. Whatever you'd like to hear.

MARTIN: Everybody in this room has a favorite - has something that they would love to hear. You know, everybody's got a favorite. What do you want to play?

AMOS: Well, I'll give you one of the big requests that I get...


AMOS: ...especially at this time of year.



AMOS: (Singing) Snow can wait. I forgot my mittens. Wipe my nose, get my new boots on. I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter. I put my hand in my father's glove. I run off where the drifts get deeper. Sleeping Beauty trips me with a frown. I hear a voice: You must learn to stand up for yourself, 'cause I can't always be around. He says: When you gonna make your mind up? When you gonna love you as much as I do? When you gonna make up your mind? 'Cause things are gonna change so fast. All the white horses have gone ahead. I tell you that I'll always want you near. You say that things change, my dear. Never change. All the white horses.


MARTIN: This is singer-songwriter Tori Amos. Her latest album is at "Night of Hunters." She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. for a special performance and conversation.

Tori Amos, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AMOS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.