Tori Amos was just five when she started at Baltimore, Maryland's Peabody Conservatory of Music, 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 string quartet, and Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic.
"Yes, it's gratifying", says Amos of the work that sees her write new 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 what she can usefully oversee herself.
"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. American Doll Posse saw her develop and inhabit five sharply contrasting female characters in 2007, while 2002's 18-track concept album Scarlet's Walk was a discursive US travelogue exploring everything from Native American history to actress Julianne Moore's character in porn-industry drama, Boogie Nights.
Night of Hunters, too, is dense and many-layered, its song-cycle centring upon the troubled relationship of a present-day couple that has sailed across the Atlantic to Ireland and settled near Kinsale, County Cork. The story also 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 really thickens, though, when you consider that Amos just happens to own a Georgian house near Kinsale, County Cork, scene of her new album's opening conflict. Might the romantically challenged pair 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."
"The reason we bought a house in Ireland in the first place is that my paternal great-grandfather John Craig was from Cork. He emigrated to Virginia and fought in the revolutionary war, and my father still has a bible that belonged to him that he keeps in a lockbox. North America is isolated in all its gigantic-ness and Native American mythology isn't really taught there. I think that makes the mythology of a magical place like Ireland very appealing to Americans."
Amos says she read The White Goddess, Robert Graves' essay on the nature of poetic myth-making, over and over during the making of Night of Hunters. "The book assimilates different European myths and explains how they interact," she adds, "so that was percolating in my brain." This might help explain one of the most striking tracks on the new record, "Battle of Trees", a clear nod to the Welsh medieval poem of the same name. In Amos's hands, it becomes an epic song arranged for vocal, piano woodwind and strings, its opening motif borrowed from Satie's Gnossienne No 4, "Lent".
What, though, of songs such as "Snowblind" and "Job's Coffin", wherein Amos's daughter Tash all but duets with her? Did she and Mark Hawley have to tread on eggshells when recording their child's performance?
"Tash has grown up around music", says Amos, "but she's sees herself as an actor first. She's been accepted at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and she starts in the fall. Mark was on the other side of the glass, recording, and I stood by her at the mic... it was sometimes tricky for her to know where to come in.
"When I'm out on the road and a bit out of sorts, Tash and her dad will look at me and say, 'it's tough at the top'," Amos goes on. "There was one session with Tash where she'd been at the mic for two hours, and it was like, 'OK, one more time'. She looked at her dad and said [tearfully], 'tough at the top'. We melted, of course, but she did a great job... It was something Tash wanted to do and I felt it brought an authenticity and closeness. My niece Kelsey [Dobyns] is on there too, singing the part of The Fire Muse on the title track. I thought having their energies on the record made sense, because that's who I would turn to on a dark night. Tash and Kelsey are very close even though Kelsey is nine years older."
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 Grammophon
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