When Tori Amos set out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her seminal debut album (Little Earthquakes) by recording orchestral versions of songs from throughout her career, she knew she was taking a risk. “Your heart sinks and you’re petrified,” Amos says about the process of recording with the renowned Metropole Orchestra, “because you realize, if you get this wrong, you can never face anyone in the music world again. Pop musicians can really get it wrong when they step into the classical world or opera. The graveyard is filled with that.”
Amos needn’t have worried. Unlike most so-called crossover efforts—think of the punky Elvis Costello collaborating with the Brodsky String Quartet on The Juliet Letters—Amos’s Gold Dust (out Oct. 2) sounds less like a radical break from her work than the next stage in its evolution. A refugee from Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music (she was invited to attend at age 5 and expelled when she was 10), the 49-year-old Amos has made a career out of crafting intricate songs that add classical flourishes (along with flashes of glam-rock theatricality) to the piano-based style of Joni Mitchell and early Elton John. Amos says that she spent many years “running from” classical music. But in preparing for this album she chose to “sit myself down hour after hour after hour and immerse myself in these masterful works,” from Bach and Chopin to Stravinsky and Prokofiev. “It was humbling to see how their minds worked. I had a love affair with each of those dead guys.”
The result is emotionally gripping—and about as far away from contemporary pop music as you can imagine. “Don’t think I’m not singing along when [12-year-old daughter] Natashya has ‘Call Me Maybe’ on the radio,” Amos says. “But we sing ‘Kill Me Maybe.’” While today’s record companies and producers gravitate to what Amos describes as “formulaic songwriters,” things were different when she was starting out 20 years ago. “Songwriters were encouraged to be searing and talk about issues, emotional things that shake people up,” Amos says. “If I were starting out today with the subject matter I was singing about then, I don’t know if I would have gotten a record deal.”
It is that subject matter, at least as much as her skill as a tunesmith, that turned Amos into a feminist icon, made songs like “Crucify,” “God,” and “Cornflake Girl” staples of alternative radio in the ’90s, and helped her sell 12 million albums over the years. Little Earthquakes was filled with songs about women standing up to oppressors, demanding to be heard, and refusing to punish themselves for abuse they’d suffered, usually at the hands of men. (“Me and a Gun,” Amos’s haunting a cappella account of her own rape, is no less chilling now than it was two decades ago.) The theme of sexual defiance runs through all of her albums—and fuels her work with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a nonprofit organization she cofounded in 1994. It has also inspired a certain category of female songwriters—among them Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Beth Orton, and Regina Spektor—to contend frankly in their lyrics with topics of sex, shame, power, and violence.
Asked if she thinks she’ll push further into classical music in the future, Amos is noncommittal. Listening so closely to the old masters has, she says, “changed how I see everything now, how I hear,” but she also views herself as still “carving out” her place in music history, and “not choosing to define it yet.” After a brief European tour with the Metropole Orchestra to support Gold Dust (an American leg would be “too expensive”), her next goal is to complete work on The Light Princess, a musical inspired by West Side Story. And then perhaps, “if the muses come to me,” a new album of pop-rock songs. The important thing is to keep taking risks. Working with an orchestra “was dangerous,” she says. “And I like a bit of danger.”