It’s so like the religiously ambiguous Tori Amos to elude all the churchy mumbo-jumbo and trace popularized carols back to their non-worship roots. She does just that on her new holiday album “Midwinter Graces,” out Nov. 10.
On it, she re-works songs she sang as a wee one at her Methodist minister father’s church and includes a few new seasonal tracks, like the bittersweet “Our New Year” and big band-y “Pink and Glitter.” “Graces” is the follow-up to “Abnormally Attracted to Sin,” released in July. How exactly do you come off of an album about damnation?
“You think,” Amos says during a press conference, “let’s go to the church.”
The gay-popular piano banshee took us there over the phone, chatting about recording one of her most “upbeat” albums, embracing her spiritual side and leaving Satan out of it.
What inspired you to create a seasonal album?
As a minister’s daughter, I figure I have an inside viewpoint – and I do understand how Christianity views it – but what I think is really important is that other people don’t feel excluded from this. A lot of people that aren’t “religious” seem to align themselves with the commercial aspects of the season.
I felt that as a minister’s daughter I could open up the circle to all those people who might not want to embrace Christianity, but have a spiritual feeling about the time.
Holiday albums are typically considered joyous and happy. Tori albums aren’t. How would you describe the vibe and emotional nature of this album?
It’s a very beautiful work. It has a lot of full orchestra, and there’s a big band track and there’s harpsichord and concert bells, tubular bells, timpanis, concert bass drums. I would say that it embraces the idea of the rebirth of light. Within that, though, people get nostalgic and you have to acknowledge that there are people that aren’t with you anymore, so there’s a song that does that. But for the most part, for a Tori record, it’s pretty upbeat.
How would you compare playing these songs now versus when you were a little kid playing them in your father’s church?
When I was little, I started to question why the carols were sounding musically different than some of the other hymns. In my teens, I started to research where this music came from. For instance, “Away in a Manger” is a different melody in Britain than it is to the one that we sing. As I started to learn more about it, I realized that there were some songs that were originally drinking songs or sea shanties (from) hundreds of years ago or Pagan songs such as “The Holly and the Ivy” (that were) Christianized. So I was tracing – as I got older through the years – where this music came from.
Could you talk a little bit more about the confidence you need in approaching a project like this and the pressure you feel to tell these stories that are so old?
Being a minister’s daughter, it gets pounded in your head every day of your life what the belief system is, and there are aspects of Christ’s life (that) are beautiful and are included in this. But, again, the thing that always shocked me was that the Christianity I know is very exclusive. Not inclusive. That’s always not sat well with me because I thought Jesus’ whole message was to include; therefore, I approached this with that in mind – what I’ve been taught and what I don’t necessarily agree with.
Do you think your father will approve of these songs?
He wanted me to do this. I think the fact that I didn’t write “She’s a Hussy, Merry Christmas” will make everybody really happy. There’s no mention of Satan or dancing with Satan or anything like that. There’s nothing disrespectful on this record; it’s really beautiful.
Describe the process of taking apart some of the traditional material and reimagining it.
Although I’m a musician – I’m not anything but a musician – I’ve tried to research this. I went back through all kinds of sources – “The Oxford Book of Carols,” which talks about where parts of the melodies and lyrics come from. I began to realize that “The First Noel” was from southwestern England – it’s not from France – and the original spelling was n-o-w-e-l-l, and that they believed that that music is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old, and that it probably came from a whole other sort of lyric, and then it was embraced as a carol and became the one that we have heard today. I changed it again because it’s just part of a tradition of variations on the theme and depending on what age and what their religious beliefs are at the time, these songs get twisted and turned around. So that was how I was approaching it.
What do you think we could learn about the things you’re trying to express on the record?
I don’t know if anybody wants to know any of this stuff (laughs); they might just want to put on the record and have a nice glass of champagne and have a dance to “Pink and Glitter.” And that’s just fine. The record contains a lot of story and beauty, and it does transcend some of the shame that gets attached to some of the music even during the season, because if you really study the Christian version of the “The Holly and the Ivy” the crucifixion is all in there, and once you get to verse seven – or whatever it is – it all comes back to this little baby (dying) for your sins. So you can celebrate, but you should really feel bad about celebrating.
There’s a side to the record when you listen to it that talks about what is the gold – what really is that? It’s valuing whom you have in your life, the relationships you’ve built. It’s not just about success – or it just isn’t all your material possessions anymore – it’s how you live your life, and that’s all included in the music.
What do you like most about the winter season?
That everybody takes a break. Things stop. We have a time out from our routine, and it’s so freeing. Certain businesses close down; certain people aren’t in their office – which is kind of great because they don’t call you either. Sometimes I just think, especially in the states, we’re such a driven group of people to work; it’s part of who we are. The Europeans have an amazing way of just – especially in Italy – taking time out, and sometimes as Americans we don’t get to take much time out. We just don’t.
Why did you decide to make this record so quickly after the last one?
Doug (Morris, Universal Music Group chairman/chief executive officer) looked at me – it was March – and he said, “I’m 70, and I want you to do this. You can do this. You’ve been doing this your whole life.” He inspired me. He’s been able to have these conversations with me since the mid ’80s. He pushed me to start writing “Little Earthquakes,” so he’s been in my life for so long. (Before July of last year), I hadn’t seen him for 14 years. And even though he’s 70, he’s as sharp as he ever was.
He challenges me, and he couldn’t accept that I couldn’t achieve it. He said, “You can do this. If you don’t have something to do, you’ll lose your mind.” So I thought about it, and one thing led to another.
I left him and ended up in Florida and it was 100 degrees and Tash came in running in a bikini saying, “Are you playing Christmas music, mummy?” And I said, “Yeah, I think I am.” (Laughs)
What was the intent of the album cover?
We have all the elements represented – air, fire, water and earth. I wanted to include the cycle of nature within this record because that’s part of the story as well, with the solstices and the equinoxes and the precessions of those, and how we go from one season to another.
What were you thinking when that shot was taken?
Why can’t I have these shoes?