[19 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic filmed fable The Night of the Hunter has always been a film I credit as one of the key works that altered my perception of film forever, much in the way Tori Amos’ work shaped my perception of music when I first came to know her landmark work Boys for Pele. They both left lasting marks on me. Amos melded these two worlds, the musical and the cinematic, when she posed as a righteous woman in a rocking chair with a shotgun on the Pele cover precisely the way Lillian Gish did in the film as Rachel, salt-of-the-earth savior of wayward orphans John and Pearl. I remember thinking anyone who references Lillian Gish on their biggest CD to date must have solid brass cojones. That was before I even heard one note of the staggering harpsichord banshee hinjinks that were waiting on the disc, with such Tori classics as “Blood Roses”, “Father Lucifer”, and “Professional Widow”.
On that epic record, Amos covers much of the same territory that John and Pearl do as they float down a glittering black river, lost in a cruelly stark landscape with a demonic, serial-killer stepfather—who has just slit their mother’s throat and left her at the bottom of the very river they’ve escaped on – out to murder them. This man, played by Robert Mitchum, is a Christian preacher with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. On her newest record, Night of Hunters, Tori finds herself in this familiar, often-perilous milieu, at the intersection of the spiritual, the supernatural, and the feminine. The thing that The Night of the Hunter has in common with Night of Hunters is that both have a deceptive quality about them, and both are unexpectedly dark visions with serious subtext and nuances to them that take much more time and thought than the typical music press is allowed time or space to properly unpack.
Those critics should rest assured that there are moments on the new record that evoke Pele‘s many elements of surprise, the unexpected awe-inspiring moments in Tori’s music that made me a fan in the first place. “I think the thing that just astounds me about Tori is that she can take a bit of something like a melody or harmonic sequence for some of these pieces that were the inspiration and create something truly her own, showing how truly powerful her own creative stamp is,” said long-time collaborator and arranger John Phillip Shenale. “I think of Night of Hunters as a 70-minute song with 30 pieces of music held together by 13 sets of interlocking lyrics. Now that’s composing!” Indeed, the new album is a towering achievement of composition, tightly-wound, and thrilling in scope, vision, and execution, much like the film that serves as one of Tori’s many inspirations was.
Music aside, Night of Hunters is truly a lyricist’s triumph, with Tori creating a mythology all her own in her own beautiful language. Amos’ florid style of writing, with tales of hot house flowers, white horses, and Gothic Romance, is but one of the three key stars – composition and vocal delivery are the other two – of Night of Hunters, which is, to borrow from Kanye, a “beautiful dark twisted fantasy.” One of the things that inspired me to be be a writer, aside from being inspired by great cinema such as Laughton’s film, was the way Tori Amos used language in her lyric writing, using words to create highly personal worlds in a distinctive, unmistakablevoice.
The new record is a savage fairy tale in every sense and stunningly uncompromising in its strict, coherent tone and themes. Amos’ compositional chops here could shatter stone, and her often sinister, evocative songs here are at turns breathtaking, emotional. “Tori was able to keep the narrative in my head at all times, very articulated and intricate,” said Shenale. “T would make sure I totally got it, explaining every facet and background info in just amazing detail. The story became flesh and blood, for me as it was for Tori.” Marching to her own drummer as always, Amos descends into the underworld like a pissed off Eurydice, emerging in the end not vanishing woman but equal parts Hecate and benevolent oracle hovering in the salty sea air. To that end, it could be said that Night of Hunters is a record about strength and versatility, but above all else, about woman’s place in a predatory world that often insists their voices are unimportant.
This is a dangerous work, steeped in classicism and high art, with a decided artistic complexity and, to quote journalist Ann Powers, who wrote the book Piece by Piece with Amos, “integrity” that might actually be too smart for many music reviewers who go for quantity and not quality of reviews, often to their detriment. It will be no matter to Amos, who is no stranger to dividing the audience (including oftentimes her own fan base). Whether suckling a piglet in the art for Boys for Pele, proclaiming herself an “M-I-L-F” while wearing a sequined American flag jumpsuit and playing a character called “Tori” on her 2007 world tour, or taking back the title of queen of the fairies as she does on Night of Hunters, nobody does dramatic quite like Tori, as proven right from the first notes of “Shattering Sea”‘s aggressive, formal stomp. The song is disciplined, tight, with a lush, dare-I-say-it Under the Pink-esque landscape full of broken glass and mystery.
Songs like “Star Whisperer”, in terms of texture and instrumentation, definitely evoke her 1994 impressionist masterpiece with interesting shifts in tempo and instrumentation, and riveting arrangement. “I have to confess that it was bliss working with T on Night of Hunters,” said Shenale. “We talked for at least one hundred hours about this record. The amount emotions and deliberations and ponderings and weighing was incredible. [This is] the most complex project I think I personally have worked on, from musical/dramatic perspective for sure, but what was evenheavier was the emotional investment—the dreams, the considerations of narrative. Every few bars mood changes slightly, very little is repeated.”
Amos has not written such complex, baroque piano lines in a long time, so dense and chewy, that they should please even the most ardent critics who all but charged her with blasphemy when she went full-out rock and roll on the under-appreciated American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted to Sin. “Job’s Coffin” happens to be an eloquent summation of her departure from that universe, with a gorgeous vocal from her eleven year old daughter Tash. It’s a bold move to open your kid up to the kind of intense scrutiny that both critics and fans of Tori Amos can sometimes known for, but I’d like to report that the young Ms. Hawley acquits herself beautifully, even quite soulfully, on this track and again on “The Chase”, going to some surprising places with her mom, evoking the duality of John and Pearl’s naivete and grit in Laughton’s film with her delivery on the track.
“Battle of Trees” is a standout on an album of ambitious, cinematic tracks, featuring an expressive vocal from Tori. The song rightfully reclaims for her the mantle of consummate storyteller that perhaps got lost in the sparkly rock and roll shuffle of the past few years. “As far as style, and that would include harmonic choices and variations, melodies and variation, Tori has used this language since we first worked together,” said Shenale. “What has changed is her intensity, the refinement of this language, centering on the narrative. This , I think, is the driving force behind all of Tori"s music, and on this record for Deutsche Grammophon, she can use all of of her creativity, unbounded and without the restraint of ‘pop’ convention to make a extended multidimensional narrative, dramatic and compelling,and this includes her vocal and piano performances.”
While Night of Hunters never directly references Tori’s previous work there is still plenty of space for bruised heroines, history, art, wacky pronunciation, and man’s relationship to the violence of nature, and there are more than a few winks along the way as Amos tells another story about fallen angels and the devils that push them out of heaven after clipping their wings. I recently spoke with Tori—who was stateside planning an ambitious fall tour in Europe and the US with a quartet for the first time—about this brave new world she’s constructed.
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I know this is probably not going to surprise you, since the 1955 Charles Laughton film The Night of the Hunter is one of my favorite films ever made and you know my penchant for cinema, but I think we need to begin this interview by talking about this film’s influence on you, from Boys for Pele‘s cover to how it may or may not be related to this new album’s title…
Because the story’s set in Ireland, and we made Pele in Ireland, I felt like it was time to start weaving those threads together from 1995. The fact is that yes, I was portraying the grandmother [figure], the older woman with her gun, but as a younger woman… what she possibly would have been like at 30… 32 or whatever, protecting those children from the predatorial, patriarchal authority, whoever it was. Whether that was the face of one man in your life or a group of different people, depending on what we’re talking about. Whether it’s church fathers who have been judgmental against people or if it’s just one person whose had authority and abused their authority in their life.
It was a choice to mix the real dark force in the record, a force that wanted to invade children’s dreams. Then the Fire Muse goes into that, those details with Tori as the night is closing in all around her. And once Annabelle goes to wake up with her forces, to remember their forces and their power – yes this woman is having her own personal struggle but she needed to look at the macrocosm and what that struggle is, and that there is a bigger issue that is happening in the world and that is that there those are hunting power and to invade children’s dreams. That is probably the core, that snaps Tori out of it and wakes her up to the fact that not only does she have to reclaim her force and empower herself for herself and her own life, but she has a responsibility and wants to do something more important in her life.
What other kinds of cinema or art informs this record?
I had a lot of dance in my mind when this was being built. I would watch Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I had a chat recently with Steven Hoggett, who is the choreographer of American Idiot and of Black Watch, and he’s the choreographer of the musical I am working on right now [The Light Princess] with quite an amazing creative team. I said to him ‘I want you to hear the new record, because I was imagining dance with every note.’ We were just talking about how story can be told through dance music in such a magical way, so that was in the back of my mind with every note and every word.
So a moment of honesty: when I saw that Tash was on the record, I got a little nervous. My mind immediately went to “children’s record” which scared me as a long-time fan. Then I was very pleasantly surprised at how distinctive and textured her voice is and how it fit into the often dark landscape of the record. How would you address someone criticizing your decision to have your daughter sing on the record?
I don’t know that I would address it. I think I’m a pretty savvy producer. I make things work or they don’t make the record. I kind of recognized Tash’s acting ability which is uniquely her own. I knew that I needed to have a shapeshifting creature and I thought I could design something for her acting repertoire. She has quite a sense of humor but she also has, for ten years old, she’s very in touch with—I don’t know—a 1930s quality in her vocal. She discovered the blues when she was nine and if you talk to her, she’ll tell you that it changed her life. I thought that I could build something that would work.
How did you work with Tash on “Job’s Coffin” to get her to go where you envisioned the song going?
I studied her, what she does when she’s walking around in life, singing. I think I heard her when we were in Florida, just walking around and singing and I thought ‘ok, I see where it’s going to go’ and there needed to be a point in the record where she talks about a power of roles, who wanted to control earth. There had to be a point where Annabelle addresses when the woman just let her power go. I needed a kind of early 20th century, New Orleans-meets-European arrangement.
I kind of thought of composers who were emerging at that time, styles that were emerging at that time, 1910, 1918, that kind of died. “Job’s Coffin” was the spiritual meets, you know, a European arrangement.
When I listened to the instrumentation on Night of Hunters, I immediately wondered about how much room is there for spontaneity when playing with classical musicians?
OK, well the truth is, that a record like this needs to be really, really strict because the composition is, you know, it’s not a jam session. It’s different when you’re making a rock record and you just want to kind of jam together. I worked really closely with John Phillip Shenale, who arranged for the octect. All the piano and vocals had to be done first. I was locked away in the studio with Mark [Hawley, Amos’ husband and collaborator] for weeks. Whereby nobody heard anything. There were moments of real brutality because I would have to take off the artist hat and sit in the room with him and listen back with the producer hat back on, and it is tricky. I won’t lie to you, Matt, when your skin is off, and you’ve just performed something and you’re listening back with somebody you trust, who wants you to win, who wants you to get it right, but has to kind of look at you and say ‘you know, we don’t have it, we’re not there,’ then you kind of realize that ‘hey, I’ll try again tomorrow, I don’t have the right emotion, I haven’t taken it to where I need to in the performance.’
I spent a lot of time writing it while traveling. I was assembling it over many, many, many, many months. But the compositions were very, very tight once they went to the arranger, and then he and I would be in touch with each other, we’d would talk every day, he’s in L.A. , wherever I was in the world. We would talk at least an hour every day about the energy and what they instruments needed to say, how they needed to express themselves. Which instrument was the man in what song? A lot of times the clarinet would be the voice of the man, the energy of the man and that was played by Andreas [Ottensamer] of the Berlin Philharmonic, an amazing addition. Sometimes it would be the cello that would really pick up the man’s energy. So we were aware at all times of the octet and who they were in the story. When they played, there was very little room, they had to follow what was on the page very strictly. But classical musicians are trained to do this, you see, it’s different than pop musicians who I think sort of work on a more improvisational sort of landscape and do really well with that, as do jazz musicians. They do really well when you say ‘ok, we need to find a new chord, let’s just jam.’ Classical music doesn’t work that way. In a way, that’s why the record is what it was, because every note was written down.
How will playing with these guys affect the spontaneity of the live show and the older songs?
Well, we decided that it would be really great to choose songs from different records and give them a new arrangement with the quartet. Some songs, like “Baker Baker” aren’t so far away from a quartet, because the original arrangement had an element of quartet within it. Songs like “Girl Disappearing”, which we did with the Metropole Orchestra last year, that’s not hat difficult to rearrange for a quartet. The tricky ones are ones that have never had any kinds of arrangement, except maybe a band arrangement, and those take a lot more time. We’ve chosen a mixture of things and we have A, B, and C group. That doesn’t mean A group are our favorites, it just means in the A group, we just have to have enough songs so that we can have a repertoire for the first show in Finland. In the live show, there will be moments where I just play alone at the piano. In those groupings, I can change every night what goes into those slots, you see. I can apply what songs work for that mood and that audience that night and they can be different. But the other songs I play with the quartet, our repertoire will only be so extensive by September, we only get five days of rehearsal, that’s all we get! By the time we hit America, we’ll have our B group of songs arranged, as well as our C group.
I won’t ask you where the American Doll Posse tour DVD is, but I will say that there is an image from that tour that still really sticks with me and that is when you were performing in character, not playing, just singing. What was that experience like being separated from the keys and is that something you’re keen on repeating?
I had so much fun with that! I miss Pip!
So, it wasn’t traumatic being separated from the piano?
If I had been Tori separated from the piano, it would have been traumatic, but because I was taking on this other energy, that wasn’t really a pianist and thought differently… I mean, I had to stretch in many ways. There were sides of my personality that I didn’t even know existed until I allowed Pip, and Santa and Clyde and Isabel into my life. I had no idea that those sides really existed! I wish all women could have that experience, to allow themselves to really investigate. Look, I was fortunate, I had great hair and make-up people and photographers and stylists who could really help me to develop and push it, but then I had to do the internal work as well. As you know, I fashioned them on Greek archetypes, and I had read a lot of books about how most women kind of confine themselves to one or two of those Greek pantheon archetypes. Yes, you know, it is a generalization that most of us are one or two or a combination, but I thought ‘fuck that. What if we’re a bit of each one?!’ And to allow yourself to feel that, that’s really what that record was about. And it did change me. I must say, there are sides of myself that I hadn’t nurtured until I did American Doll Posse. And I’d like to think that there’s a little bit of Pip, and Clyde, and Isabel and Santa that shows up every night.
Are people still constantly asking you where these characters are?
(laughs) Noooooo, not constantly. I mean, husband likes to know!
He just liked the rubber!
Well, I kept the rubber! I still have it! (laughing)
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Night of Hunters will be released on September 20th by Deutsche Grammophon. Tori’s European tour will kick off in Helsinki Finland on September 28th. Amos will hit the United States beginning in Atlanta on November 29th.