Just six months after the release of her most recent full-length, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Tori Amos is back with Midwinter Graces, her first holiday album in a career that has spanned two full decades. While the concept may seem a familiar one, Amos’ approach is far from it. Rather than simply put her spin on traditional holiday tunes, the piano woman radically reinvents the standards she takes on, rewriting music, adding and changing lyrics, and making them entirely her own. Supplemented by a number of new originals, the tracks here add up to far more than a Christmastime afterthought — this is an album that can stand up to any of Amos’ studio work, marked by complex arrangements, live orchestral contributions, and even the recording debut of the singer’s nine-year-old daughter, Natashya.
We caught up with Amos during a brief respite at home between tour legs to talk about the new record, her views on religion versus spirituality, and her upcoming musical, The Light Princess. Read our exclusive interview and listen to the new album after the jump.
Flavorpill: How did you approach making this record? What makes it different from other holiday albums?
Tori Amos: I’ve been reading about the solstices ever since I was 12 or 13 years old, and I asked a lot of questions about how our ancestors would celebrate this time before Christianity. I was really fascinated. It’s just been one of those things that I’ve been collecting different information about for over 30 years. So all of that served me when I embraced the idea of a seasonal album. And my mom and dad have been asking me to do something like this for a long time.
What I tried to do was make work that’s inclusive and not exclusive, so that you don’t have to be a believer to embrace some of this beautiful music. And some of the music is new, so that it doesn’t have any of the Christian mythology in it. It’s more about the rebirth of the sun, the birth of light.
FP: Being that you were raised in a very religious household, have you thought about doing a project like this before?
TA: This is the first time it was something I really thought about. I mean, it’s one thing sitting around at Christmastime and playing things for people because they’re your friends, and it’s another thing to say, “Okay, I’m going to put out a major release.” Because when you’re going to do something like this, and you’re me, I’ve been developing and questioning certain ideologies for my whole career.
FP: What was the first step in the process? How did you decide how to tackle the songs?
TA: It was very much about realizing that some of these songs used to be drinking songs. Certain carols used to be sea shanties or drinking songs, and then certain religious people would put Christology to it. They would just take sort of the hit song of the day and then put religious words to it. Charles Wesley from the Methodist Church did that a lot, John Wesley’s brother. My dad will tell you that. And they don’t see anything wrong with it. As a minister, he would say, “It makes sense, because if you have people in the barroom, and you want to get them to come to church and leave the barroom, then you bring the music they’re singing, but change the words.”
FP: So do you consider Midwinter Graces to be a religious work?
TA: I would say spiritual, because religion is a word that you and I go back to that usually doesn’t include the masses, but excludes people. If you don’t agree with it, then it judges you. So I would say that what it does is embrace what our ancestors would do at midwinter, across the board, from pre-Christian to non-Christian to Christian.
FP: Your daughter sings on the album, on “Holly, Ivy, and Rose.” How did that come about?
TA: It just sort of happened; but her cousin, my niece, sang on “Candle: Coventry Carol.” There’s a whole family representation going on. And in the artwork, my nephew is a model in New York, and he plays the angel. So the next generation is represented.
FP: You’ve also been working on a musical adaptation of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, which was illustrated by Maurice Sendak. With all the recent Wild Things hype, this seems like a good time to get an update on that project.
TA: It’s in its second draft now. And it’s really been a fascinating experience. I think, to do it right, it takes more work. I’m not afraid of work, as you know, if you can put out two records in a year. A lot of the recording for this record was done on the road on days between shows. So before the Radio City date, we were recording brass in New York City. And around the LA date at the Greek, we were doing live strings at the studio there. We recorded in Chicago and Toronto, just to be able to get it done on time while we were touring another record. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but I think my point here is that writing a musical, if you’re going to do it right, and really put the time in that it needs to develop the story and the characters, it truly is a commitment.
FP: Well, we’ll be looking out for that next year! In the meantime, how will you be spending the holidays yourself?
TA: Santa will be coming on a surfboard pulled by dolphins, and with any luck, it will be blazing hot outside. My mom will be bringing fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob with homemade cornbread.