'Gold Dust': The Tori Amos Interview

Matt Mazur and Joe Vallese

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, as well as some more surprising additions.

Tori Amos

Gold Dust

Label: Deutsche Grammophon
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: 2012-10-01

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”).

* * *

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".

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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