The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

We Held Gold Dust In Our Hands: Tori Amos Interviewed
Erin Lyndal Martin , October 3rd, 2012 04:09

Tori Amos gets deep into her the genesis of her latest album. Erin Lyndal Martin takes notes

What intimidates Tori Amos? She's filmed a music video (for 'God') in which she is covered in rats and dances with a snake, performed a song on US national television about masturbating in church, and delivered a song ('Me And A Gun') while holding a knife and then a gun to herself in Chicago, IL in 2007.

In short, she does not seem the sort of woman who scares easily. What does intimidate her, however, is an orchestra. Specifically, the thought of revisiting her past 20 years of work performed live with an orchestra, in this case the Netherlands' Metropole Orkest (under the baton of Jules Buckley), with whom Amos previously played a concert on October 8, 2010.

"I think it’s dangerous because if you get it wrong, people can feel as if you’ve lost the soul to the song," Amos recently told the BBC.

Despite her fears, she saw the project, entitled Gold Dust, through to completion. This included daring "makeovers" of songs like 'Flavor' and 'Precious Things'. Additionally, she fleshed out songs that already featured string sections, masterfully arranged by her long time collaborator John Philip Shenale.

Shenale and the Orkest worked together to add woodwind and brass to tracks that originally only featured strings. Amos also layered the vocals on many of the songs, an effect that's particularly haunting when used on the chorus of the new version of 'Cloud On My Tongue'. This, her 13th album draws tracks from her entire career, although songs from Little Earthquakes (including the b-side 'Flying Dutchman') dominate. Only To Venus And Back and The Beekeeper are absent from the track-listing.

Amos has also released a video for the first single, 'Flavor'. Directed by Danielle Levitt, Amos has said the video, which features her interacting with the people of New York City, was inspired by the work of photographer Diane Arbus. Amos will also be playing a limited number of dates with the Orkest, including one at Royal Albert Hall tonight (October 3).

Let's start with 'Flavor'. This new version is so different than the one on Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Do you consider it to be telling a different story now?

Tori Amos: When you have an opportunity to work with an orchestra, you stand back and speak about casting. Casting songs and designing them for this creature. And so 'Flavor' stepped forward. She had a very different read than on Abnormally Attracted To Sin. She was willing to have a makeover. So was 'Precious Things'. Certain songs were more willing than others to get reinvented. Certain structures can handle it, whereby they benefit, as opposed to giving a song a makeover and having them lose their soul. The goal was to retain their soul, but to design something that would work with the orchestra.

Were there any songs that you tried to do that you couldn't make work?

TA: Well, there were songs that were considered but I didn't even try. Something like 'Cornflake Girl' would lend itself for a big band approach, but if it were not that set-up, I didn't think it would work because her roots are reggae. It was really about looking at the catalogue as a whole and seeing what songs can structurally handle this instrumentation, and then picking songs that cover the story of the journey of 20 years in my career.

I saw a handful of shows on your last tour and was blown away by the new arrangements for songs like 'Suede', 'Cruel', 'Spring Haze', 'Hey Jupiter', and the list goes on. You even had a lot of songs that didn't have string parts made over for work with the Apollon Musagète Quartett. I was expecting more of that with the songs you chose on Gold Dust. Was it a matter of songs not stepping forward for work with an orchestra?

TA: A quartet is one thing. Fifty-six musicians is another thing. You can contain things with four people. It was about picking things that could work for a big section.

Did you walk the whole orchestra through the emotional landscape of the songs, or did you just communicate through Jules Buckley or Shenale? How did you express your vision?

TA: It was matter of making sure JPS [Shenale] was on board with what I was hoping to accomplish, and then when Jules was brought in, we were explaining to him what the vision was. The three of us, plus the engineers, Mark and Marcel, were all on the same page. That was the think-tank.

I was reading an interview with Jules Buckley last night, and he was discussing [Valery] Gergiev and some other non-traditional conductors who would use a toothpick or switch between hands and batons. What about his conducting style works for you?

TA: What I think is that he embraced the compositions and understood how they operate. Because of that, it's not his way or the highway. There's a marriage. He's my dance partner, in a way. He's my dance partner, and then the orchestra follows his lead.

On Night Of Hunters, your song 'Battle Of Trees' was inspired by an Erik Satie song. I'm a huge Satie fan, and I know that he would give really bizarre performance instructions. Have you seen that?

TA: No, I haven't seen those. What did he say?

He would write things like "Don't go outside!" or "Postulate within yourself!"

TA: [laughs] I didn't know that.

In light of that, I wondered if you ever write any notes that are abstract but make sense to you.

TA: When I'm talking in the mix room, I put things in a visual context, and sometimes I'll talk about materials so that they can understand. Glass or copper. When you talk about EQ and sonics, it's always a challenge finding a language of common ground. These are very technical people who talk in EQ and kilohertz, and I'm not talking in that language. I might give them more material references, things that are tangible. Or show them artwork. Because it's common ground. Believe it or not, that's been working since 1994, since the tour, when I first started working with Mark and Marcel.

I think Philly and I, JPS, are like two old men who would be sitting in Vienna together, watching beautiful women go by. Of all ages, because we both love women so much, in our 19th century suits smoking our cigars. I'd be smoking a pipe, not a cigar. We'd be sitting there in Vienna, outside in our coats, seeing these beautiful creatures, these women, and we'd be going and writing things and seeing who could write something better, probably. We believe we've been collaborators for many lifetimes.

It takes a lot of discipline, it takes a lot of hard work, all that stuff. But, again, you're back to [the fact that] he was a physicist first. And music is my first language. Then he moved over to music from physics. He approaches it differently than I do. I think it's good. That's why it works. We have a very different approach to music.

If I can take you back to the title track, I'm curious about when you wrote 'Gold Dust'. It's so perfect that I wondered where you were when you wrote it and how it came to you. Was it birthed all at once?

TA: I was pregnant with Tash. Through the pregnancy, moving from being an independent woman to having another being lovingly squat in your being, and realizing that your relationship to your mother will change because you're becoming a mother. That's a real crossroads, being pregnant. You're gathering photographs of experiences that you had as a child, hoping to learn from them as a mother. But until you become a mother and you're dealing with a child's response to life and seeing the world as they see it and reacting to the world. It's hard to know how you'll respond.

So 'Gold Dust' is really many things. It's embracing the past and the future. But also there's some advice and a warning that is being given to her [Scarlet, the narrator of Scarlet's Walk] by the character Alfie, the spirit of Alfie from a movie where the child didn't work for that character. When I was a child, that song and movie [sings "What's it all about, Alfie?"] was very much a part of my repertoire as a child. I'm referencing it as a woman. When the voice says "somewhere Alfie smiles/ and says enjoy her every cry/ You can see in the dark/ Through the eyes of Laura Mars", it's a warning that there will be dark times. And you can look through it. He's saying to her that you'll look back. It will go so fast. Then you will realize that you had the opportunity to be a mother and have this experience.

Did the lyrics come first, or the melody, or the music?

TA: The piano music was coming, the intro, and then everything started to follow.

I'm so glad you included that. It's wonderful to hear with an orchestra. I love the Scarlet's Walk arrangement as well.

TA: I think that was just for strings. The idea of adding the brass and woodwind and timpani to expand it to a whole orchestra excited me. Sometimes it changes. Subtlety is a real art that isn't often appreciated. I guess I could have done the most shocking versions of songs. One could do that as an exercise. But sometimes it's more challenging to have a subtle shift. To do a complete makeover of somebody can be easier in some ways because it's a different kind of task. That never works. Doing 'Cruel' with the quartet, knowing that it could be contained with four players, we knew it would work. But if you expand that to 56 people, the worry is that it's not tight. It's not contained. It's not precise. You have to think about all these things as you're designing. As a producer, you have to think that way. Just because something works in one context doesn't mean it will work in another.

I was reading an interview with Shenale where he was talking about a clarinet on 'Seven Sisters' because you wanted a male force on Night of Hunters. Where is the male force on Gold Dust?

I'd say the cello and the bass. The deepest parts of the Earth rising up. Because 'Gold Dust' is the making of a child, we needed the male and the female, and that was something Philly and I talked about extensively.

It's very alchemical that way.

TA: I think that it became the title track because when it was being recorded, there was a magic in the room. I was performing with them, which meant that Jules, again, was being tugged and pulled in both directions and still maintained to hold it all together because he is the link. If there's a dragon, he is the mind, the brain of the dragon. When you're riding the dragon, the piano, you're traveling through dimensions with him on the back of a dragon. Many things were not to click track, you see. In order for it to breathe, we would be off the click in many places just so there could be that tug and pull.

I noticed that with the vocals, there's a lot of layering. What went into that decision?

TA: I felt like there were so many voices in the orchestra. The producer side of my mind felt like there needed to be more of a balance and there's something organic about doing it physically instead of just having machines to do the work. There are some delays happening on the record. They are there. But by doing it, actually singing it, I like the organic quality that that brought to it, and it achieved a multidimensional vocal. And it emphasizes certain lines.

'Yes Anastasia' is so changed by cutting out the more Debussy-esque first half. Can you tell me more about that choice?

TA: The idea of the Russians coming over the snow excited me. I liked the more Prokofiev approach because it's with an orchestra. I felt a minute of piano [and] vocal in the front wasn't appropriate for this collaboration.

That makes sense. On the album, you hear the orchestra right away.

TA: When you're working with a collaboration, it's always essential to think, "What is this project?" [Performing it] live will be different again because some songs will extend themselves live. There will be more orchestration. The orchestra will be playing more. But having maybe a minute and a half or two before a song starts on an album might not read like it can live with the lights and the ambience and what that setting is.

Was it difficult to come up with the order of the songs?

TA: It was a consideration. There's no question about that. I've been looking at things as albums, always looking at things as albums, not as something that people pull a track off of. I'm looking at the complete work. The fluidity of moving from one to the other - I thought that was really essential. Being able to sit there and put it on and have an experience, even story-wise.

And it ends with 'Girl Disappearing'.

TA: 'Girl Disappearing', I think, is more of an epilogue.

How do you see it as an epilogue?

TA: I refer to these songs as girls, and I think that the idea that I can still see them after 20 years, and they're evolving. And they're evolving with other people who see them. And people's relationships with the song/girls are valid. It's different from my relationship. The idea that as you get older and certain experiences seem to fade... I'm finding that the paradox is that some of the songs are very present with me.

How do they stay with you?

TA: They resonate with experiences that I have now. I don't know how some artists look at the songs from the past. I don't see the songs that way. They're not frozen in time. They're changing all the time.

You'll be playing Royal Albert Hall. I've never been there, but I hear it's magical. What's it like to play there?

TA: I can see it in the distance right now from where I am! Energetically, when you walk in there, it seems different than being in other places you play. I don't know if it's the history of the place itself. It's a very special place to play and a privilege to play there. I think people like going there too.

Gold Dust is out now. Tori plays the Royal Albert Hall tonight, Wednesday 3rd October.