One bright Cornish Friday morning in the month preceding the worldwide release of Tori Amos’ latest album, Gold Dust, the US-born singer/songwriter is sitting in her home studio as life bustles along upstairs, in the main residence.
“Up there,” she says, with a sigh and a gentle laugh, “I think all hell is kind of currently breaking loose!”
She elaborates: “We’re at the husband’s place in Cornwall, just back from Florida, where it was warm and we all got tans, and it’s sunny here today, it’s bright, but it’s English sun, it’s not Florida, you know? We had to come back to get Tash ready to head off back to school.”
“The husband,” of course, is Amos’ husband and long-time sound engineer, Mark Hawley, and “Tash” is their 12-year-old daughter, Natashya, now a full-time boarder during the school year at London’s prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School.
Before I can ask whether Tash shows signs of following in her mother’s inimitable footsteps, Amos laughs again and, unbidden, answers the question for me.
“I have, for a long time, dreamed of playing with an orchestra, but I could never imagine it actually happening.”
“I suspect she might, though differently. She’s the most wonderful mimic. She could meet you and ten minutes later, on your way out of the room, you’d hear her taking you off! Believe me, she does great take-offs of me! She knows which buttons to hit and, well, I wonder where she got that from, huh? I can’t imagine!” she guffaws.
For the past 20 years, 49-year-old Amos has been proudly pushing buttons left, right and centre with her feisty, singular songs. Hers is deeply confessional music, nearly all of it characterised by her confronting and personal lyrics, sensuously unbridled live performance manner and unbridled honesty in interviews.
In 1992, she released her brilliant debut, Little Earthquakes, and Gold Dust marks what she calls the twentieth anniversary of “ripping the pages out of the diary and pushing them under the door, out into the wider world, to see if anybody would read or relate or react.”
Read, react and relate we did and, in the intervening years, she has released a further 10 studio albums, each as ambitious and uncompromising as the next.
From the 1990s through the 2000s, each of Amos’ albums is the musical embodiment of the very qualities that have both amassed her a loyal following and driven some clueless, spiteful critics to label her everything from “utterly insane” to “astonishingly inappropriate” – her honesty and her purity of creative vision.
Coming less than a year after her last effort, the ambitious classical opus that was commissioned by revered classical music label Deutsche Grammaphon and released as Night of Hunters, the Gold Dust album sees Amos continuing to explore what it is to work within an orchestral setting.
This time around, she has revisited various songs – which she refers to as “girls” – drawn from her extensive back-catalogue. Amos has rearranged and reinterpreted each of the album’s 15 tracks, rerecording them with the famed Dutch Metropole Orchestra.
“The crazy thing is that the idea for Gold Dust came as Night of Hunters was coming,” Amos explains. “It was very confusing at times because I’d be trying to work with one girl and, you know, another would be poking her head around the corner, trying to get my attention and, for a while there, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, so there were times I’d wonder what was going on until it all started to become a little clearer,” she says with a hearty laugh.
In many ways, she concedes, there would be no Gold Dust without Night of Hunters.
“The Metropole had invited me, months ago, this was some years back, to come and play with them. They were doing a week of guest artists and, during the rehearsals, Dr. Alexander Buhr, the musicologist from Deutsche Grammaphon was there and he saw what was happening – what was happening was that I had never played live with an orchestra ever. My recordings were always done privately, behind closed doors, so that the emotion can happen and then, if I wanted orchestral elements, they played to my recording,” she reveals.
“That guest appearance was the first time that I was playing with an orchestra and being able to respond, no different than when you have a conversation, and Alex saw what was happening and told me that we had to make a different sort of context and collaboration happen because, from where he stood, something really very magical was happening, something I wasn’t able to see because I was in the thick of it, if you see what I mean?”
In conversation with Amos, who is as wonderful, witty and engaging a conversational partner as one could hope for, both “If you see what I mean?” and “Do you see what I mean?” are oft-invoked refrains.
And, frankly, given the number of times lazy journalists have painted her as what she sardonically and sarcastically summarises as “the bat-shit insane redhead waif, shivering in the fucking forest as she plays her piano and talks to the faeries” who can blame her for wanting to be sure she’s properly understood and not wilfully misrepresented or misinterpreted?
Amos is first to admit that she doesn’t craft music that is easy listening. But nor, she says, would she want to. She has long tackled the sorts of subjects that are considered uncomfortable or taboo, raising the ire of those who have accused her of plumbing the depths of her own misery for material.
What such critics miss, however, is that for Amos writing songs about her repressive and conservative religious upbringing, teenage masturbation, rape, relationship breakdowns, miscarriages and struggles to, as she puts it, “simply be a woman in the world” isn’t a cheap ploy for sympathy or attention.
Indeed, she describes it as “the way I deal, the way I process, the way I start a dialogue. If you’re not interested in the conversation I’m starting, walk away. You don’t have to talk to me, you can just keep moving.”