Tori Amos goes classical; next, she'll look back to her breakthrough
For an artist who's thought of as something of a fearless risk taker, it's surprising to hear Tori Amos talk so matter-of-factly about being pretty close to terrified as she entered the writing process for her new album, "Night of Hunters."
The reason? After chasing her muse through years of piano confessionals, electronic and avant garde arrangements and even a covers album where she channeled bellicose rapper Eminem for one song, the veteran songstress headed into the classical music realm for her latest release. That decision meant a higher degree of artistic difficulty than she's ever encountered before, and dealing with material and themes her fans might find off-putting.
"My thinking was 'I have to get past this intimidation' and I have to feel like I have something to offer if I'm going to be having deep conversations all the time with these dead guys, because they're very much alive through their music," Amos said by phone last week .
"When the people at (classical label) Deutsche Grammophone suggested this I said 'Hold on. Because no matter what happens you will survive this, but I may not survive this if I don't do it right.' Thankfully I was able to train with some of the best people in the world and we put in an incredible amount of time, research and energy in making a song cycle that did something really worthwhile with the 200 years of musical history we were working with."
The end product of Amos' classical experimentation (which she said is likely just a one-time flirtation) is a lot less intimidating or difficult than its artistic conceits make it sound at first. Strip away the back story and it's pretty much an early vintage Tori Amos record, loaded with bold piano and accusatory lyrics and embracing the simple spirit that put her toward the head of the class of the mid-'90s bumper crop of female singer-songwriters such as Alanis Morissette, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair and Sarah McLachlan.
There are strings and woodwinds, and like lots of classical works the album as a whole follows a titular theme, which in this case means lyrics featuring lots of "prey," "victims," "hawks" and assorted other raptors of both the bipedal and quadruped varieties.
Using classical instrumentation refocused Amos in another way as she prepared to take her new album and chunks of her existing songbook on the road; she's at Bass Concert Hall on Wednesday. Touring with a string quartet for the new material meant re-imagining old songs like "Precious Things" in a new way since even loyal fans who embrace her artistic daring will want to hear familiar material live.
"It's been an adventure because any time you start changing arrangements there's an edge that's created, but I'm drawn to that and I know you have to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to make it all work so we're doing a different show along with the back catalog," Amos said. "The good thing is that the people are screaming their heads off like it's '94. I had no idea what was going to happen when we re-did all this old material, so I kind of made a dive and I wanted to see how they would react, and they're really responding to these two worlds marrying even though lots of them have never seen anything like this before."
Reworking old songs in a classical milieu also has prepared Amos for her next creative adventure: marking the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough record "Little Earthquakes" by revamping material from her entire career for a new recording.
Asked about the idea of concentrating solely on "Little Earthquakes" for an update instead of her entire catalog, Amos said the effort is intended as an overview of her entire career and the growth she's made as an artist during those years.
"Just doing that one record alone, that didn't interest me because this is about 20 years of work and we wanted to take songs from all those albums and some B sides and do them a little differently," she said. "I get into those old songs as easily as I get into recent ones, and there's no time lapse for me ... you just walk right into them. You can't think too literally about songs when you're talking about their sonic architecture. You just have to go into them and see if you can make them new things, and that's what we're going to do with a lot of them."
Tori Amos with Jesse Woods