‘Gold Dust’: The Tori Amos Interview

Tori Amos
Gold Dust
Deutsche Grammophon

Why would Gus Van Sant attempt a shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho? Why would Michael Haneke remake his own Funny Games just a few years after the original? Why would Tori Amos go back yet again to revisit and rework some of her most beloved songs? The answer to these questions is the same: by adding variation to the foundations, each artist infuses the basic structure with something new, something more nuanced, something at once distilled and alive.

Tori spoke with PopMatters in September about the impetus behind her newest project, the orchestral retrospective Gold Dust, which features new arrangements and vocals for some of her most enduring songs (“Marianne,” “Silent All These Years”), as well as some more surprising additions (“Flavor,” “Programmable Soda”).

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PopMatters: Just last year, you released Night of Hunters, an album in which you took on classical themes. You said you were “nervous about messing with the masters.” Little Earthquakes is widely considered a contemporary classic. What was the impulse behind re-working your own classics and “messing” with yourself, so to speak.

Tori Amos: (Laughs) That’s funny. Well, I didn’t approach it casually. The idea came from the same person [I worked with on Hunters], Dr. Alexander Buhr, the German musicologist. He was there at the rehearsal with the Metropole Orchestra in October of 2010. I was already composing Night of Hunters and I had been doing that all summer. So my head was in that space. The Metropole had invited me to play with them six months before [the concert] so that the arrangements could be chosen. When I talked to John Philip Shenale, the orchestrator, I was putting together in my mind an evening, a show. And so, that was why I made the choices I did.

In rehearsals, when I was playing live with them, it was the first time I’d ever in my life played live with an orchestra because on all the records, my master take is done long before the string date happens. So you know, you peel your skin off and show your heart. Usually these days, it’s with Mark [Hawley] on the other side of the wall, and since 1995, I have been doing this just with Mark and Marcel [Van Limbeek], and on Night of Hunters, I was literally just singing to Mark. So it’s incredibly intimate when I’m doing the vocal work. But [for the Metropole concert] I was singing and playing with 80 people running around — fifty something in the orchestra and Deutsche Grammaphon was there — I mean, you kind of think “Oh my goodness, I feel like I’m giving birth in Mets stadium, with not even heels on! Not even Louboutin on my feet!

How did you choose the songs that comprised the Gold Dust narrative? It’s surprising to see a more obscure song like “Flavor” come into the mix.

Well, “Flavor” came late in the day. But the thing is, after we did our rehearsals, Alex said to me, “We need to capture this conversation that’s happening between you and the orchestra because something is happening here.” He was in the control room, he could hear it. I don’t think the live show was representative of what was happening in the control room. We hadn’t built in jams, breaths so I could breathe — and I had to learn this in front of a few thousand people! And as it struck me, I started to think “Oh great…” And I know you’re thinking, how could we not think of that? But nobody thought of it! It wasn’t arranged to my live versions, it was all arranged to the original compositions.

So we’ve now rearranged it all [for the upcoming tour] to make space for jams and everything, so it will be somewhat different from the recordings. But once we started to choose songs that would make a more extended narrative for a record, “Flavor” stepped up and said, “Look, my storyline is contemporary and with the election that’s going on in 2012, I need to be there questioning the universe: what in the world do we look like?” And with some of the comments that have been made about women’s bodies, illogical comments by politicians, “Flavor” just said to me, “I have to be there because I am current.”

The Beekeeper and To Venus and Back are notably absent. Did they simply not fit into the narrative?

There’s no real reason [for their exclusion], but “Flying Dutchman” had to come on. She was a b-side. B-sides had to be represented too. “Snow Cherries from France” had to be there too. “Ribbons Undone” was being considered and it came very, very close. It’s not a slight for either album. It’s a big catalogue and I wasn’t thinking about representation of albums. It wasn’t about a democracy. It was about songs as individuals as well. I could have made different choices, no question about it, but it was about narrative. I thought “Gold Dust,” which was written about Tash when she was in utero, that was the Tash song, so I thought that embodied also what the record could be about more than “Ribbons Undone.”

Is there a particular song off Little Earthquakes that you feel is, at this very moment in our time, more relevant now than it was 20 years ago?

Someone recently said to me, “Go back and look at those lyrics [to “Precious Things”]. ‘So you can make me cum/that doesn’t make you Jesus.’ They were shocking then, and they would be shocking now.” But they were in a certain context. And I know it’s not from that first album, but “God,” especially in the religious climate that we’re in right now, I think the songs themselves as energies are relevant. There’s a timelessness to them. They still mean something to my life. The meanings might have changed, though. But I think sometimes the old recordings, and technologies have moved on so much, they might sound of a time and dated so that’s why with Gold Dust, we made the decision to re-record everything. We’re lucky right now. You can use microphones from the ’50s, and that’s how they were recording the orchestra, and still use the Pro-Tool technology too, but it was important to have that balance.

This record was somewhat challenging too because people have a relationship with those earlier recordings. It’s a very dangerous thing to do. I had been warned about doing this. People often just stop me in places and they’ll say “I heard you were doing this, but you need to think about this because so and so did an orchestral record and it wasn’t very good, was it?” And I’ll say, “I don’t know if I agree with you, but why do you think it wasn’t very good?” And they say, “Well, it didn’t retain the spirit of the original pieces and it didn’t bring anything. It just wasn’t as good.” So you see, doing something like this, it is in the subtlety. Subtlety is difficult to achieve. And it shouldn’t diminish the originals. The originals are still there.

Is there one record you consider your “masterwork”?

I don’t like that word, but in terms of something that really holds up, I think Scarlet’s Walk.

We were sad to learn you wouldn’t be doing any orchestral shows in the United States…

Well, you have to explain this to everyone for me. I couldn’t fly half of Holland over here. I’m sorry, that’s a big check to write, you know what I’m saying? The reason I’m not doing it is because I couldn’t get a day rehearsal with an orchestra because of union rules and how much it would cost. I was going to do it, but I could only rehearse at soundcheck. And even the Dean at the Peabody told me, “Well, that’s music suicide.” So I would be crying in the middle thinking people are watching us rehearse and we suck. I’d start running off — you’d see Tori Amos on YouTube running off from the Greek Theatre into the night, never to be seen again!

We spoke with Adrian Belew, your guitarist on Strange Little Girls and he commented that, during the recording of that record, your voice — or voices, as he put it, were unlike any he’d ever heard. Over 20 years, how has your voice, both literal and metaphorical, changed?

Well, I don’t smoke. And that’s the only way I can still sound like a faerie on crack.

And yet you don’t smoke the crack.

Right! It has changed over the years. And it’s still going to change. As you age, it’s something that will happen. I’ve lost some register on the top but gained some on the bottom, and sometimes certain keys don’t work as well so I might put something in a slightly different key. And I’m open to that. If a key isn’t working, you change the key. I think not smoking honestly has been one of the life choices that have been so important for me.

Touring and traveling and singing these songs and then hearing people’s relationships with the songs — the reason I stand by that stage door and talk to people before soundcheck, is that you learn a lot. When artists don’t do this kind of thing, I just think, “Well, you’re not very clever are you?” They are so filled up with their own importance that they are not having an active experience. It’s a passive experience with the people coming to the show. They think “Oh, they are coming to see me.” And you have to realize, “No, no, no,” they are coming to have a relationship with the songs. I am here to hold space for the songs to come through. Over the years, it has become very clear that my role is one of a vessel. You need to get out of the way, get your ego out of the way, when you take stage. The composer doesn’t go out there. The composer rarely gets seen in life. She takes herself off.

Has all this intensive collaboration you’ve been doing as of late — the Metropole orchestra, the musical, the Apollon Musagete Quartett — been making you think about inviting more people into the studio, such as other musicians, producers?

I don’t know. All kinds of musicians, yes. All kinds of musicians for sure. Co-producers? I don’t think so. It’s not a democracy in my world, honey.

Matt Mazur is a New York-based film publicist and strategist who works on campaigns for independent, foreign language, and documentary films, as well as awards. He has worked with Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, David Cronenberg, Penelope Cruz, Kirsten Dunst, Zac Efron, Vera Farmiga, Michael Fassbender, Jane Fonda, Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, Melissa Leo, Major League Baseball, The Marley family, and Viggo Mortensen on various projects.

Joe Vallese‘s creative, academic, and pop culture writing appears in Southeast Review, North American Review, Field Notes, VIA: Voices in Italian-Americana, and on PopMatters. He is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee, and was named a “Notable” in Best American Essays 2012. He is Language Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, where he received his MFA, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. His favorite Y Kant Tori Read song is “Fire on the Side”.