tori Amos was just five when she started at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, in Baltimore, but everything crescendoed when she auditioned to renew her scholarship for a sixth consecutive year. Taken with Led Zeppelin as well as Bach, the rebellious youngster, now 11, thought it prudent to impart a rockier sensibility to her Beethoven. Alas, the Peabody bigwigs disagreed and she was unceremoniously turfed out.
Some 35 years on, it seems Amos will have the last laugh, however. Her new album Night of Hunters is a 21st-century song cycle that saw her head-hunted by prestigious classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon, the label pairing her voice and piano with such esteemed players as the Apollon Musagete Quartet, and Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic.
"Yes, it's gratifying", says Amos of the work that sees her write songs around themes by composers such as Satie, Schubert, Granados and Chopin. "I mean, how often does a woman get to fiddle with the masters' source material? I wanted to do it for womankind, but I also knew the stakes were high. If you get this wrong you can't shrug it off like a bad night at the karaoke."
These are busy times for Amos. Her diary is block-booked until May 2012, and we've met in a Mayfair hotel on a Sunday morning at an hour when most folk would still be lounging around in tracksuit bottoms. Amos, by contrast, is alert, immaculately made up, and wearing a silver-grey designer dress. Rehearsals for her stage-musical adaptation of the George MacDonald fairy-tale The Light Princess (due to open at The National in 2012) are running parallel with promo for Night of Hunters, but you sense she isn't one to delegate. "I'm not asking for a gold star, but I haven't missed a day of The Light Princess workshops," the singer says when I flag up the gestation glitches that plagued Bono and The Edge's musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. "I respect U2, but unless you are in that theatre every day people are going to make decisions for you."
Amos's fierce work ethic has also been visible on the often thematically complex albums she has released to date. Night of Hunters is dense and many-layered, its song-cycle centring upon the troubled relationship of a couple that has sailed across the Atlantic to County Cork, Ireland. The story has folkloric and magic realism elements, the main protagonist, Tori, seeking guidance from a shape-shifting, time-travelling creature named Annabelle, then journeying into Ireland's mythic past to discover what is ailing her relationship.
Intriguingly, Amos's 10-year-old daughter Natashya voices the part of Annabelle, hence mother and daughter share lead vocals on songs such as "Cactus Practice", wherein a peyote ritual leads to enlightenment.
The plot thickens, though, when you consider that Amos just happens to own a Georgian house in County Cork. Might the couple in the story actually be she and her English-born husband, sound-engineer Mark Hawley, I wonder? Are the couple doing OK these days? "Yes, we're fine," says the singer with a smile. "Mark said, 'Jesus, wife! The press will have us divorced after the first week's promo!' but the truth is I'm crazy about him. We've weathered a lot of storms and outside forces, but we've been together 16 years." Next year sees the 20th anniversary of the release of Little Earthquakes, the debut album that put Amos on the map. Our time together almost up, I remind Amos of another landmark, namely the 1994 Q magazine cover that saw her photographed alongside Björk and PJ Harvey under the caption "Hips. Lips. Tits. Power."
"You know, Q got it absolutely right" Amos concludes, smiling at the memory. "I think of Björk and Polly as my creative compatriots – we were going strong then and we're all still going strong now."
"Night of Hunters" is out now on Deutsche GrammophonReuse content