Ahhhh Tori. How she likes to keep us guessing.
The creatively restless singer, who released current album “Night of Hunters” in September on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, is touring the complex concept album now with a show that brings her Monday to Washington at her usual concert spot — DAR Constitution Hall, where she played for her “Sinful Attraction Tour” (2009) and “American Doll Posse World Tour” (2007) among other jaunts.
Tickets were still available as of Blade press time. Prior to leaving on the tour, which kicked off in late September in Finland and has found her in both Russia and South Africa in addition to her usual European stops (she opened in the U.S. this week in Philadelphia), Amos, 48, spent time by phone from her Florida home to talk about the album, the tour, her gay fans and how she maintains such precision at the piano.
WASHINGTON BLADE: After many years with Atlantic, you’ve recorded for several big labels in the last 10 years or so and now, rather unexpectedly, this new album is for Deutsche Grammophon. Is this industry tumultuousness, logistics, your choice or what?
TORI AMOS: A lot of people have common bonds who were at these labels and what’s funny, well, not funny, but Doug Morris who was running Atlantic when I was there, so he would say, “Tori, I didn’t leave, they forced me out.” He left this year to go to Sony, so I think people do jump around depending on who the people are at any given time. For me, I’d fulfilled my commitment to Universal and … Deutsche Grammophon kind of tracked me down and Dr. Alex Buhr said, “Look, I know you’re working on a musical, but I think you should consider a 21st century song cycle based on classical themes.” I was like, “Are you serious, that’s a very tall order.” He said, “Don’t you want a challenge, don’t you want to do something different?” I said, “Well nobody has approached me,” so he said, “Deutsche Grammophon wants you to try this.” I thought how many times in life do you get offered something like this with the support of one of the great classical labels of all time? I said, “OK, you’re going to have to send me lots and lots of good music, loads of classical music.” So “Night of Hunters” is really based on themes from classical music over the last 400 years.
BLADE: What kind of instrumentation will you use for the tour?
AMOS: We’re going out with a string quartet and that just seemed to make sense. They play with such a high caliber that it was really quite tempting. And yet they’re very young, in their late 20s and early 30s so they’re very passionate about their playing and I thought this would be a good balance. They’re so passionate about classical music and early 20th century music and they played on the record. So then I thought why not arrange some of the catalogue just for strings, piano and vocal and so we’re doing some of the older songs in that configuration. We’re just starting some of that now. Once we get to America, we should have more in our repertoire.
BLADE: You’re well known for varying your set list from night to night. When you have songs like the ones from this new album or, say, another concept album like “Scarlet’s Walk,” is it problematic sequencing them with others into a live show that will flow either musically or thematically?
AMOS: When I’m traveling, I think the key is that when you go into a city, you really have to take stock of the emotional temperature there, so for instance, when things have happened in the world like the Oslo tragedy and you’re playing a show there that night, the people are in absolute shock and grief at that level of violence so then there’s an opportunity for something healing to happen and to work through the shock of an experience like that together through music. Or if you’re not in that city but you might be close by, you might still form a connection with current events … I design the sets based on the energy of the city I’m in and what they’re responding to and if there’s something that seems especially appropriate, I mean except for like “Datura,” I can pretty much do a version alone at the piano even if it’s not something the band or in this case the string quartet has worked up. Or I can do a cover. I see all songs as part of the palette and it’s about changing something every night so that it’s unique. Some songs are just part of the basic repertoire and you’ll find I’m playing them at almost every show. They’re kind of our building blocks and we go from there.
BLADE: These songs are more classically oriented than anything else you’ve done. Is that dictated by the arrangements and instrumentation or is there something in their basic lyrics and chord progressions that makes them inherently classical in nature? Could they have worked with drums and bass in theory?
AMOS: With this project, I knew I couldn’t make it too obscure in dealing with classical themes. I didn’t want it to sound un-contemporary. I wanted people to listen to it and say, “Oh, that’s the Tori I recognize.” I didn’t want it to be “Tori goes classical.” And so while there are some ancient melodic elements here, it’s really worked into a 21st century framework and so it’s not that they aren’t really built in a pop structure, but I think there’s a fusion that is happening and I told somebody yesterday you have to approach something like this where you’re using a master classical work as a base, there’s a delicate ruthlessness you have to apply because a lot of these pieces are very beautiful in their original form, but for a lot of people, unless you’re really into the classical arena, they haven’t been exposed to it all. So I would say to the masters themselves and their energy, “OK look, if you want to be part of this, you’ve got to let me know.” And each one would hunt me down. I’d just be walking around and it was like popcorn, “OK, I’m the Chopin piece, I’m in.”
BLADE: Tori fans are known for their extreme devotion. Do some fans take it too far with the massive collections, tattoos, following you around on tour, etc. Does that level of fandom ever freak you out?
AMOS: I think to some degree, that isn’t really any of my business. People have their own relationships with the songs. What maybe gets confusing is when people start trying to read so much into the songs that they think that I’m leaving my husband and child and running off with somebody from the planet Saturn and joining a cult and that’s just not happening. And so the songs can have heartbreak and all kinds of emotions but especially if you’re a writer, you write about it but you also have a private life and some entertainers don’t hold their private life very sacred. I have to walk a delicate balance because you want to be open with your emotions and let that into the music on one level but also present it in a way that transcends the particulars of what’s going on in my own life.
BLADE: As your early career was taking shape, it was clear you weren’t accepting history and religion from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Did you and your father (a Methodist minister) talk about such things? Did your parents consider your lyrics and imagery sacreligious?
AMOS: Yeah, there were some conversations years ago, like before the turn of the century, there were many discussions and he would say he thought I was being a little hard on the big G and I would say, “Well, you know Dad, writers have to be able to have their say and it’s important because it’s from a different perspective.” I would never tell another writer what to say or not to say. They have to have their own musical expressions. I don’t always agree with other writers or other theology, but it might really motivate me to ask questions on my own. I think that’s what a good writer does, motivating others to ask questions. Not to tell them something, but to find out what it is they believe.
BLADE: Why do you think gay people exist? Is it to fulfill some evolutionary or biological role? Does it matter?
AMOS: Well, different people have had different information over the years that I find very fascinating. I’m sure you’ve been reading. Some of it sounds very iffy but it sounds like the science is very supportive that this is not something you just choose and I think the religions really need to hear this from the scientific community. I do think the judgment that is against people who are gay is so misinformed and cold. I’ve met quite a few young people who have been really tormented by other teenagers and they’re not being accepted even in the 21st century. I think in some ways the world has become more judgmental. It’s almost a world of extremes and then you have the center, we see this even in Congress, trying to find some balance and logic amidst these extremes. I mean, I don’t know what it would be like to be a teen today and realize that I’m gay. I don’t know if it’s any easier than it was, if you’re in, say a very conservative household. I mean what happens when somebody in a tea party household realizes this?
BLADE: You play the piano with such precision. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you hit an obvious wrong note. Is this just from years of playing? How do you manage this? Don’t all pianists hit wrong notes sometimes?
AMOS: Well part of the whole thing is that my core is very aligned and it might not seem like I’m moving around much but my core is pretty anchored, I kind of balance myself on the high heel and it gives me a stance.
BLADE: So the heels aren’t just for the glamour? They factor into how you play?
AMOS: Definitely. If I have a flat foot, I don’t have the same kind of core or if it’s anchored too high, then I wobble, but if it’s just the right height on the foot, it’s a huge support to the core because you play from your core, not from your hands. It all comes from the center, your solar plexus.