Tori Amos left Peabody at the age of 11, after five years at the Conservatory. Amos, who grew up in the Baltimore area, was the youngest student ever accepted at Peabody, and she’s still irked by her departure from the school. “We certainly had a disagreement of philosophy,” Amos tells me, during a phone interview. “I was listening to other music, and they kept telling me that the Beatles wouldn’t be around in 30 years—that no one would be listening to them.”
Amos pauses to let the enormity of that erroneous prediction sink in. “I think I won that one,” she says. “Clearly, they were wrong.”
That said, Amos acknowledges she couldn’t have composed the classically inspired music on her new disc, Night of Hunters, if she hadn’t gone to Peabody. “Without question, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that training,” she says. “As a child, I was taught about the structure of classical pieces and how to look at them. I had the tools to write a 21st-century song suite, because of what I learned at Peabody. It was great experience for me.”
Night of Hunters was commissioned by Deutsche Grammophon, the German classical label that, coincidentally, owned Polydor, the Beatles first label. “The idea came from a German musicologist [Alexander Buhr], who had studied my work and tracked me down,” explains Amos. “He wanted me to do a 21st-century song cycle based on classical themes, 400 years of classical music. That sort of thing can be a blessing or a curse. If you get it wrong, all the strides you’ve made over the years can be tarnished. But you can’t tiptoe around—you need to have a bold approach. For me, the dead guys were the seed, and I knew I’d have to penetrate into their structures to bring it back to the 21st-century.”
So she studied Schubert song cycles and wedded the form to an original story that’s mythic in scope and steeped in female empowerment and Celtic lore. In it, a woman named Tori loses her creative spark after a failed relationship, but undergoes a powerful personal transformation—with help from the Fire Muse and a shape-shifting character named Annabelle—and comes roaring back to life. “In this day and age, so much attention gets put on war and that sort of trauma,” says Amos, “but I wanted to look at another kind of trauma that’s relationship based. War is Raw spelled backwards, and this song cycle deals more with raw emotions. So much happens emotionally and brutally behind closed doors, and these things can happen slowly, over time.”
Amos points out that the story isn’t autobiographical. She and her husband have been together for 17 years and are happily married. “I adore my husband,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Amos also notes that her 11-year-old daughter, Natashya, sings the part of Annabelle. “She approached it as an actor would,” says Amos. “We’d talk a bit about this woman, Tori, and Natashya’s questions informed me about who Annabelle should be. We developed Annabelle together, and she did such a great job. I couidn't be prouder.”
Natashya’s presence influences her mom’s music in subtle ways, most notably on “Job’s Coffin,” a tune constructed around a gently swinging blues melody. “[Natashya] discovered the blues around the time she turned 9, and it changed her music path,” says Amos. “She listened to a lot of Billie Holiday. It’s her soul that relates to this music—she has a British accent, braces—and her singing comes from an honest place.
"Something needed to be designed around her instrument, and the key was Mendelssohn. I was able to link `Job’s Coffin’ into that. I also thought it was important to have an element of Negro spirituals in this piece to remind everyone of the power of that music.”
She also wrote variations on Bach, Schubert, Debussy, and even Satie for the new album. Her old professors at Peabody would be proud.
Amos mentions possibly reconnecting with her old school; apparently, Peabody Director Jeff Sharkey reached out and may attend Amos' December 5th show in D.C. “He tells me things have changed over there,” says Amos, who sounds genuinely pleased when I tell her Miles Davis/Herbie Hancock alum Gary Thomas teaches improvisation and runs the jazz department. “It sounds promising. That sort of thing certainly wasn’t happening when I was there.”