Innerviews, music without borders

Tori Amos
Inclusive variations
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2009 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Tori Amos

Across her 21-year career, Tori Amos has always sought to take listeners out of their comfort zone. Her most riveting songs have explored topics including female empowerment, redefining religion and spirituality for the modern world, and the demystification of sexuality. Sometimes subtle, sometimes confrontational in her approach, Amos has never been afraid of telling the world exactly what she thinks about sensitive issues.

Growing up as a Methodist minister’s daughter in Baltimore, Maryland during the early-to-mid '60s played a paramount role in shaping her songwriting proclivities. Much of her output has served as a reaction to, or been informed by, her formative experiences trying to meet her father’s expectations. Her two albums in 2009 particularly highlighted how her childhood continues to influence her muse.

Abnormally Attracted to Sin, released in May, explores the intersection between religion and spirituality, with an eye towards challenging Christianity’s definitions of sin, as well as recasting several of those meanings in a new light. Given that album’s focus, her choice of a follow-up album has raised eyebrows. Midwinter Graces, released in November, is a seasonal recording with Amos’ unique take on classic Christmas carols, in addition to a few of her own complementary, original songs. Several of the pieces came out of Amos’ own experience during Sunday services and Christmastime as a kid. However, she chose to dig deep into the songs’ origins, and used musical and lyrical content that significantly veers from the conventional versions most people know. She also augmented some traditional lyrics with her own, to expand on—or in some cases recover—their significance.

Amos stretched her musical muscles on Midwinter Graces too. In addition to using her core band, consisting of drummer Matt Chamberlain, bassist Jon Evans, and guitarist Mac Aladdin, she chose to work with a big band, an orchestra, and arranger John Philip Shenale. The result is an epic, finely-honed album that Amos considers a career highlight. She went deep into the considerations and motivations behind the album during this intriguing discussion. 

What inspired you to record a seasonal album at this point in your career?

As a minister’s daughter, I figured I had an inside viewpoint and I understand how Christianity informs it. But what’s important is that people don’t feel excluded from that viewpoint. A lot of people who aren’t religious seek to align themselves with the commercial aspects of the season. But right now, with materialism being very thin, I hope the spiritual side could be embraced by anyone, whether they’re Christian or not. That’s because the rebirth of light isn’t exclusive to Christianity. Jesus was a metaphor for that, but there were other solar deities before Jesus that were honored at this time of year by our ancestors. So, I felt as a minister’s daughter that I could walk a very delicate balance in which I could open up the circle to all of those who might not want to embrace Christianity, but who have a spiritual feeling about the time.

It’s surprising that you’d follow up a dark, charged album like Abnormally Attracted to Sin with Midwinter Graces.

Well, if you really think about it, there’s only one way to follow up an album called Abnormally Attracted To Sin, isn’t there? [laughs] Abnormally Attracted To Sin was about redefining what sin is. The greatest sin is that the early church fathers defined sin in such a way that it divided women from their bodies and chained them for hundreds of years. So, I chose to make a record that doesn’t denigrate the feminine. On Midwinter Graces, I acknowledge the great motherly energy and the fertility story that goes back to our pagan ancestors. So, I think it’s important to say to you that there’s beautiful, strong feminine energy on this record that honors the birth of the sun—that’s S-U-N, as well as the birth of the son—S-O-N, which was personified in Jesus Christ to the Christians, and Adonis to the ancient Persians. I think the birth of light means different things to different people, but the whole feminine perspective embodying the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional is the core of motherly energy and it comes through on this record.

This is your second album in 2009. What motivated you to make another one so quickly?

Doug Morris, who heads up my label Universal Music, looked at me last March and said “Tori, I’m 70. I want you to do this. You’ve been doing it your whole life.” I said “Yeah, but I’m about to start a tour.” He responded “You can do this. I know you can. You can do it from your own perspective and record the songs the way you would like to hear them.” I responded “It’s a little bit more of an involved process than that.” But I left that conversation inspired. He’s been able to have these conversations with me since the mid-'80s and Little Earthquakes. He’s been in my life so long and he’s still sharp as he ever was. When you have someone in your life that really understands what you do and appreciates it, but also challenges you, it can be quite motivating. He couldn’t accept the idea that I couldn’t make this happen this year. I ended up saying “Yeah, I can do it, but I am kind of booked.” Then he said “If you don’t have something else to do, you’ll lose your mind.” I thought about it and one thing led to another. I ended up in Florida where it was 100 degrees and my daughter Tash came running up to me in a bikini saying “Are you playing Christmas music, mommy?” And I said “Yes.” [laughs] And that was that. I began writing this during spring break this year. We spend a lot of Christmases in the heat in Florida, so I didn’t need it to be freezing cold to get the spirit.

The way I made this record while I was touring isn’t something I necessarily recommend to anyone. We did strings in Los Angeles, lead and background vocals in Chicago, more vocals in Toronto, brass in New York City, and basic tracks at Martian Recording Studio in Cornwall, England, where we also mixed. It was quite a whirlwind to make this happen.

In 1994, you recorded a version of “Little Drummer Boy.” Did that also plant the seeds for the new disc?

I had fun making that version years ago, but that was an exact cover. I didn’t want to do an exact cover of the carols for this album, because that would have defeated the purpose. The purpose was to be part of a tradition from the 15th Century onwards, in which people created variations. So, I had to put my classical hat on, because if you’re gonna approach these ancient carols and then put your own perspective into them, you really have to understand their history and go into it with confidence.

Midwinter Graces is a very diverse collection, both musically and lyrically. Describe the elements you sought to weave together.

I think this album is a really beautiful piece of work. It has an orchestra, a big band, harpsichords, concert bells, tubular bells, tympanis, and concert bass drums. I think what was really freeing about this project was knowing I didn’t have to structure things for the contemporary side of the music business. I didn’t have to appeal to that side. But what that meant was pulling out every composing chop I ever had from when I was studying different musics in my life. I had to make sure I was creating songs that could have arrangements that could be expanded on.

Lyrically, the album embraces the idea of the rebirth of life. With that, you get nostalgic and acknowledge that there are people who aren’t with you anymore. There’s a song that does that on the record called “Our New Year,” that I wrote. There’s also a song that talks about that stuff called “Candle: Coventry Carol.” I wrote my own introduction to it. It was probably originally sung at court in the 1400s. I went back to the earliest version I could find of that. It tells the story of King Herod and his order to slay the young children. You might cock your head and say “That’s not very Christmas-y.” And it’s not to people at this time. But see, what I’m trying to say is people have been celebrating this season and telling stories of this time for thousands and thousands of years. And I’m trying to include the different types of stories that might be told. For instance, the pagan belief depicts the birth of the Oak King, and then the death of the Holly King. So, that’s what’s important—that our ancestors, depending on when they were living, would celebrate midwinter with their own rituals and stories.

Tell me about the process of taking apart the traditional material and reimagining it.

I was put in a very tricky position. Doug Morris is Jewish and quite a character. I remember sitting in his office after playing Austin, Texas last March and he said “Tori, I can’t stand all of this King of Israel stuff. I like the season, but that stuff is driving me crazy. I said “Well, the thing is there’s a lot of that in this music.” He said, “I like parts of it, but I wish I could enjoy it. The carols are so exclusive, unless you believe in them. I think they should be inclusive.”

I started to think “Okay, I’ve got Doug on my left, wanting less of all that Christian dogma, and on my right, I have my people like my parents, who feel this is all very sacred stuff.”  Then I thought “I’ve spent a lot of my life exposed to the Christian story. I know it pretty well. At this point, I’m not anything but a musician, but if I tried to research this and went back to the sources, like the Oxford Book of Carols, maybe I could figure out how to do this differently.” Once I started, I realized where parts of the melodies and lyrics came from. For instance, the “The First Noel” was from Southwestern England, not from France. And the original spelling of “Noel” was “Nowell.” Yet the French believe the music was hundreds and hundreds of years old, but it probably existed with a whole other lyric, and then it was embraced as a carol and became the song we know today. I changed it again, because I felt I was continuing the tradition of creating variations on a theme. Depending on what era and the religious beliefs of the time, songs were often getting twisted and turned around. So, that’s how I approached it.

I understand this was an extension of an interest that began when you were a child.

When I was little, I started to question why the carols sounded musically different to some of the other hymns I knew. As I got a little older and into my teens, I started to research where this music came from. I realized things like the fact that “Away in a Manger” has a different melody in Britain compared to the one we sing in America.  As I started to learn more about all of this, I found out that some of these pieces were originally drinking songs, sea shanties or pagan songs that were used as the basis of the carols hundreds of years ago—things like “The Holly and the Ivy.” They were Christianized. I remember thinking “We Three Kings” was written in the 1800s. But when I sat in church, I would think “Where are the Persians? I don’t see any when I hear this tune. There aren’t any coming over the hill.” And when I heard “Star of Wonder” I felt “Where are the Magi?” As I’ve been exposed to other cultures, I’ve also realized that so many of them have celebrated the birth of the sun—again, that’s S-U-N, not S-O-N—for thousands and thousands of years. It started to make sense to me that this music hadn’t just been created by people a hundred years before.

I think that a lot of people who grow up in church are intimidated to approach some of these things, because they were part of the woodwork as a child. If you’re told some of the songs you held dear had an origin that wasn’t religious at all, that can be disconcerting. But we grow up thinking these things are sacred cows. So, my thought was “How do I make this record for beliefs that aren’t part of the patriarchy anymore?” After all, a lot has changed since then. They were sung at a time when women didn’t have any rights at all. So, this record acknowledges where we are today, in an energetic way. Being a minister’s daughter gets pounded into your head every day of your life, and I do believe there are aspects of Christ’s light that are beautiful, and I have included them in this record. But the thinking that’s always shocked me is that the Christianity I know is very exclusive and not inclusive, and that has never sat well with me.

Has your father heard the album?

Nope, he hasn’t. But Doug has and he’s over the moon, so that’s one down. I think my dad really wanted me to do this. And the fact that I didn’t write “She’s a hussy, Merry Christmas!” will make everyone really happy. [laughs] There’s no mention of Satan or dancing with Satan or anything like that. I really sat down and thought about that. It’s a very delicate line to walk for those people that believe what they sing in church is all there ever was. It’s hard to tell them “There’s a completely different version of ‘Away in a Manger’ that they sing in another country.” It’s hard for people to accept that “What Child Is This?” has a melody stolen from a pop song in England called “Greensleeves.” They don’t play “What Child is This?” in England, because it’s an insult that we took their melody. Once you take all this on board, you can be open to it, but if you can’t be open to it, you might not even allow yourself to enjoy the beauty of the variations we’ve spoken about. I think it says a lot about who you are if you really understand the tradition and variations on those themes. It’s part of a long tradition, but some people aren’t open. I would like to think my dad, as long as what I do is respectful, would enjoy it.

Provide some insight into the lyrics of your original piece “Pink and Glitter.”

The song is a celebration of the birth of a little girl. As we know, at this time of year, little boys get a lot of press, and that’s lovely, and they do get an honorable mention from me. But the joy in this song is about this couple who have been blessed with a little girl. The joys they’re talking about aren’t about getting a present. It’s about rethinking what our “gold” is—what we value. For this song, the birth of their daughter was a great gift and changed their lives for the better. So, I’m thinking, this year let’s shower the world with pink, if you please. [laughs] The record in general talks about that in a bigger context too. What is it that you really value in life? It should be the relationships you’ve built. It’s not just about success or material possessions. It’s about how you live your life. Having said that, you and I are having a chat. You’re a writer. I’m a writer. I don’t know if anyone wants to know any of the stuff we’re talking about. They just might want to put on the record and have a nice glass of champagne and have a dance with “Pink and Glitter,” and that’s just fine. [laughs]

If you believe the media, the world continues to get more and more polarized when it comes to religion. Is there an element of commentary on that situation in this album?

You are so right. That’s why on one of the songs, “What Child, Nowell,” I’m talking about some of the ideas that are core to my parents, but I wanted to also write and add things so that every voice was singing a new “Noel” with a new approach that didn’t involve wanting to hurt someone else because they believed differently. I wanted it to represent people who could sit in the same room together and maybe even like each other as people, even though they don’t believe or worship in the same way. If you asked me when I was a little girl in the late '60s “When you reach mid-life or age 45, what do you think the world will be like?” I would never have answered “We’ll be in the middle of another war that has religion at its core.” Yet, here we are. So, yes, I am driven to try and put this magic idea of rebirth into the album and have it be lit in everybody. Everyone should have access to that. This is the one record of mine where there’s no anger in the work. I’m really just a scribe for the music that came through me. When I listened to it, I would say “This is so loving and giving.” There’s no confrontational anger that you might find sometimes at a Tori concert. There isn’t a fight with patriarchy. It just has so much love and there was no need for any confrontation. Doug looked at me and said “You know, the strongest thing you can do is make the most beautiful thing you can make. The fact that you don’t need to shock anybody will be shocking in itself.” And that’s what I tried to do.

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Tori Amos