PREMIERE: Listen to "Amphibiava" from Tori Amos's Musical 'The Light Princess'
We talk to the boundary pushing singer about revisiting her first two albums, the importance of questioning authority, body shaming, and more.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Tori Amos, whose own visionary discography draws so heavily on mythologies both traditional and invented, would wind up adapting a fairytale for the stage. Not that the process of bringing writer George MacDonald's 1864 coming-of-age tale The Light Princess to London's National Theatre (where it opened to critical acclaim in 2013) was simple. Nor was it an easy journey to finally releasing the full cast album this month. Seven years will have passed since Amos first started work on the project, in which time she's released five of her own albums and completed three world tours.
Indeed, The Light Princess was mixed and mastered while on the road for the last of these, in support of 2014's Unrepentant Geraldines. It was during this period that she also revisited her earliest solo albums, Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, ahead of their reissues this year. Amos—who more than once has observed that her music scares the hell out of straight men—has never been entirely accepted into the male-written critical canon. Looking back on old reviews, it's telling how many of them focus on her resemblance to critics' ex-girlfriends rather than her complex, vivid songwriting, otherworldly experimentation, and confrontational performances. But two decades on, their echoes can still be heard in the work of artists from Owen Pallett to Angel Haze.
Below is the premiere of "Amphibiava" from The Light Princess, plus we caught up with Amos to discuss revisiting her earlier work, questioning authority, and what piques her inspiration after so many years in the game.
Noisey: It's been seven years since you started work on The Light Princess. How does it feel to finally get to the final stage of the project in the form of the album?
Tori Amos: Well, I just can't wait to get it into the hands of that girl in Ohio or that boy in Wisconsin and all around the world. The challenge was that I wanted to make a proper album when Universal approached me to produce it. To put out a record like I have done myself for many years. I didn't want to approach it as many musical albums are approached, where the producer sometimes has to do it in a week. I wanted to work with the cast and pull my team into doing it; and Sam [Adamson], my writing partner, was involved in working with the actors as well. We wanted to have an album that was a piece of theater—that was our goal.
A lot of great musicals have taken a long time to develop—it's about whatever it takes to make it great. My focus as we walked into the commercial world was that we didn't dilute the story or dumb it down. Sam and I have held very firm to our beliefs to not homogenize the story or take it to a G rating. I think there are fairytales out there that speak to very, very young children and they do it very successfully, but I didn't want to betray the teenage experience and the challengers teenagers face.
Fairytales in various forms have played a huge role in your own work: The Light Princess was originally intended as a satire of the form and you've called your adaptation a "feminist fairytale." What role do you think fairytales play in the wider culture, and how did you seek to honor or subvert them?
I think that fairytales can do a lot of things—there are certain subjects in The Light Princess that you'd recognize as 21st century issues, but metaphorically, we were putting them into fairytale language. Death, self-harm, suicide, the fact that her father brings her down by force and his father controls his life and shoots him, these are all types of violent issues that we felt that teenagers today could relate to. We felt they were topical now.
The reaction I've seen has reminded me of the reaction I received in 1991 and 1992 to Little Earthquakes. I don't think this will be the only musical I'm ever part of writing, but it's probably the only one that you could say resembles Little Earthquakes in its themes. They mirror each other. I'm not the protagonist in The Light Princess where I was on Little Earthquakes—but we are going down many of the same emotions.
Early in the musical, the heroine Althea declares that she's "not queen material," and there's a twist in the ending in that she abdicates the throne to become a marine biologist, leaving the ruling of the country to a democratically elected female prime minister. Are you a royalist?
Well, I'm American and Sam is Australian. He'd call himself a republican—the old world sense, not the American sense—and I'd call myself a… patriot. Fairytales and royalty, that's part of the story, but we felt it was important to bring democratic values into the conclusion. We have a world where the mothers are gone—so with that nurturing gone, out of the way, we have two kings in authority who are out of control. The King of Sealand—he reminds me of a few leaders that are around today. He's quite typical in some ways. When his son starts to question his authority, everything goes off the rails because that's just not acceptable. That is a side to not just people in power, but parents and children—when a parent believes they know what's right for their child and anything other than that has to be stamped out. We wanted to explore that type of parent.
I also found it interesting that you referred to other myths and stories, from Scheherezade to King Lear, throughout. Was that interweaving something you thought about much?
That was very much Sam's hand at work, actually. He's a playwright first, he and I were co-writers on this. We were very much collaborating the whole time, but there are moments when you definitely have his style in the songwriting and others when you get mine.
The Light Princess at National Theatre.
Having written by yourself for so long, what was the process of co-writing like for you?
You learn as you go. I wanted to make sure we were bringing the story along and telling the story musically, not just lyrically; so the music had to give us information. Every note of every bar was looked at and re-looked at by me and by Sam—every note is there not to fill space but to tell the story. I'm hoping that when people are able to spend time with it, put their headphones on and take a walk; that they're able to focus on the detail after the seventh listen.
You revisited your first two albums, Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, this year for their deluxe reissues—complete with all the B-sides of those eras. Was it strange listening back to them from such a distance?
How I feel about them was strange, because I was doing that as we were mixing The Light Princess. And there were moments on songs like "Winter"—the energy I feel on those records, some of the songs on The Light Princess reminded me of. It's the energy of a girl trying to find her voice. So although it's 25 years since it came out, the similarities struck me while I was mixing this and hearing those remasters.
Which of your older albums is most shocking to you now, looking at it from your 2015 perspective?
I guess Boys For Pele—there was a real anger that I had. I was fighting all kinds of things at the time. Confronting how the record industry operated and the control—hey, we're back to control again. Authority out of control. As I've gotten older, you deal with it differently. When you're in your early 30s you're in a different place to your early 50s.
This seems to be a thread running throughout your career that you really make explicit on The Light Princess—the importance of questioning authority. As a parent, how have you taught your daughter that?
Well… we have a saying, which is: be smart, not right. And through the years there have been situations whereby I thought it was more honest to confront things head on. I had to learn that not everybody is at a point to deal with an issue head on. If somebody is not able to listen or look at an issue you have to find different ways to deal with it. That's why, I guess, I write songs. Being part of a musical that deals with confrontation: I want people to walk away from it and feel empowered to tackle things that may have been difficult to deal with.
Looking ahead, what in the world at large is inspiring you creatively now?
I think that the world is in a place where a lot of people don't know what's going to happen in the next year. There are environmental changes, like the drought and the fires in California. From day to day there are concerns over governments, elections, what type of people are gonna be running the big countries. What is their agenda? Are we looking five generations down from now, are corporations going to want to take responsibility and help this world? Right now I'm in Europe, so I'm seeing the migrant crisis, and it looks different to when I speak to people in America, where it's not as tangible. However, what's happening now—this type of mass flight from war and terror—hasn't happened for a long time, not like this.
I also hear teenagers talking about issues in a way that makes them worried about their future. You have to look at the body shaming that's going on—what does a normal girl look like? These are questions that come up all the time because a lot of them can't compete with what you see in magazines. To be a natural girl is not what is considered acceptable any more. So these issues about who they are, how they feel about that, all these things drive me to look at how to empower somebody to stand up and say: This is me, this is who I am. It's very difficult for a teenager to have the support now to do that.
Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist living in London. He's on Twitter.
Amos's first musical, The Light Princess, will be releaese as a two CD set on 10.9 via Mercury Classics/Universal Music Classics.