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A Feminist-As-Ever Tori Amos on Her Latest Album and ‘Penetrating’ Classical Male Composers

Tori Amos.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Tori Amos’s new album, Night of Hunters, is that it’s literally impossible to imagine anyone else having created it. Commissioned by the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, the album infuses familiar Amos themes — religion, female empowerment, spiritual journeys — into an orchestral song cycle, harking back to the singer’s childhood as a classical piano prodigy. With Amos’s solo debut Little Earthquakes approaching its twentieth birthday, Night of Hunters takes her full circle: On both albums, the singer is coping with a broken relationship, but while the younger Tori was bitter and angry, the narrator of Hunters seeks reconciliation, looking to Irish mythology for a deeper understanding of what went wrong. And if you think no one was clamoring for a mythology-based classical song cycle by an iconic nineties singer-songwriter, think again. The record made Billboard history by debuting in the top 10 on the Classical, Rock and Alternative charts, and Amos just announced today that she’ll release an instrumental version of the album called Sin Palabras next week. She took a tour break to speak to Vulture about including her (amazing) daughter on the record, the reason she’s so happy to leave her thirties behind, and her “sexy” affairs with dead male composers.

First of all, I owe you a thank you for getting me through my high-school breakup. I credit my survival to Little Earthquakes.
Awww, I’m glad I was there for you!

I’m guessing that’s not the first time you’ve heard that?
Well, no, not the first time. But when you hear something like that, you begin to realize that records, music — it is important. It can really be a friend to people. And the songs always told me that they have relationships with people that I have nothing to do with. I’ve been told to stay out of the way. [Laughs.] So I do.

You have always explored broken relationships in your work, including on Night of Hunters. But by all accounts, you’re currently in a happy, healthy, supportive relationship [with sound engineer Mark Hawley, her husband since 1998]. Why return to that theme now?
I think even in a good marriage, especially if you stay together long enough, there are going to be events that happen. I remember the birth of our daughter, and the first year of having a baby was really challenging. We were able to conquer anything, we thought, tour the world and do all this, and we figured, Oh, it’s just a little baby! We don’t need any help! We can do this by ourselves! Ho, yeah right. Let me tell you what that little baby taught us! And so little earthquakes like that that happen in your life, whether it’s an outside force or an inside force, whether it’s a death in the family or one of the couple losing their job; all kinds of events can put one of the people in a relationship into a state of depression where they start reacting and acting out. 

How did your 11-year-old daughter, Natashya, who sings the shape-shifting spirit guide Annabelle, come into the project?
She’s been acting and singing for many years, but she would ask me about the story and we would talk about Annabelle. And she would ask me things; mainly things like, “Why do grown-ups not address their problems and drag children through them?” I said, “Oh my goodness, you’re like Annabelle.” She would look at me and say [lowers her voice], “I am Annabelle.” I thought, Okay: nature coming through the eyes of a child, but a wise child, worked for the story. So I made the choice as a producer. The mother in me thought, Is she ready? I don’t know, because it’s very demanding.

You studied classical composers while you were researching this piece; historically, that’s a very male genre. And this album is from a feminine perspective. Were you very deliberate about bringing a female energy and viewpoint to these songs, or did you trust that it would just happen?
The idea was that I’d take male masters, not female, and then permeate and penetrate them as a woman. That was exciting to me. Because they’re dead. If we were going to create a new being, they became the egg and I acted as the penetrator. But in the most loving way! I fell in love with these men. I fell in love with their work, I fell in love with the energy. To the point where Husband would say, “Wife, are you going to come out on the deck and have a glass of wine?” and I’d say, “Honey, I’m with the dead guys!”

Originally, I considered women composers, but as I talked about it with the German musicologist [Alexander Burh, her classical music consultant], so few people know the work, so doing a variation on the theme doesn’t have the same impact. Permeating and penetrating another female, it’s not as sexy to me.

Another of the album’s themes is creativity versus self-destruction. Is there a time in your history when you felt that battle was playing out in your own life?
Yes, in the mid-to-late nineties. I was fighting it in the mid-nineties as well, and then turned it into creativity with Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. But then I was fighting a different kind of patriarchy, which is the music business patriarchy. And I have dear friends in the music business patriarchy, but there are men within the music industry who are not friends of any female artist. So yes. There were times that I needed to go to battle, but how I went to battle wasn’t always the best way in. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a Trojan horse with me. I should have. But at the time, I would maybe deal with things very emotionally and not really think them through.

You started out so young in the public eye and have obviously matured so much as an artist and a person. Was there a fundamental shift at some point?
I think having a child can really change you if you’re open to it. Also, becoming 40 was wonderful. Being in your forties — any woman who isn’t there yet, I just have to say to you: Euphoria is coming to you. You begin to become a classic car. And I like being a classic car. You’re slower than the new cars; that’s fine. You have something that new cars don’t have, and that is the experience of being a classic car. And you might have dents and all that stuff and the fender falling off, but that’s okay. That’s part of it.

A Feminist-As-Ever Tori Amos on Her Latest Album and ‘Penetrating’ Classical Male Composers