John Philip Shenale: In Conversation [Part II]

Earlier this week, Deutsche Grammophon released Sin Palabras (Without Words), the instrumental companion to Tori Amos’ brilliant record Night of Hunters, which came out in September 2011 to much critical and commercial success. While the lyrics and vocals have been stripped away and the instrumental section remastered by Jon Astley, the narrative of the work remains fairly present throughout. This is very much a result of the superlative work done by John Philip Shenale in composing all of the orchestral arrangements for the record.

In Part I of our discussion, we poured over the creative process behind Night of Hunters, starting with the narrative concept and expanding out to the technical considerations required for the album’s orchestrations. Shenale shed light on his collaboration with Amos, both in terms of leading the octet and responding to her aesthetic. Their work together has yielded one of Amos’ most forceful and spirited works this decade, and reveals both her and Shenale’s skillful hands at merging the pop and classical worlds, while still maintaining a decisive stylistic motif.

In this second part of our conversation, we look into Shenale’s history as one of Tori Amos’ closest collaborators. Starting in 1992 as a keyboard player for Little Earthquakes, Shenale developed an early friendship with the singer, which, after a series of events while recording her follow-up Under the Pink in 1994, led to him taking the reins as composer for the album’s orchestral component. Since then, John Philip Shenale has been an integral part in each of her studio recordings, bringing a thoughtful and compelling perspective to Amos’ highly emotionally honest work. We also look at his involvement with the Night of Hunters world tour, in which he’s rearranged a large number of works from Amos’ catalogue and reinterpreted them for the show.

You’ve worked with Tori fairly consistently since 1992, having done programming and keyboards on Little Earthquakes before stepping in in 1994 to complete the string arrangements. So, your collaborations go all the way back to the beginning.

Right. I was working with Davitt Sigerson a lot, for about five or six years before he helped produce Little Earthquakes, so I was doing some synth and keyboard stuff, and while she plays the piano I aided in doing some extra keyboard and synth lines. So, Little Earthquakes happened and we stayed in touch, since we’d developed a bit of a friendship, and then when Under the Pink began, I first went to Taos and helped her with her piano stuff– just going over the technical processes and things. And then that’s when the big fiasco with the arrangements happened. So, she called me in to do them.

Did you hear any of those arrangements before you signed on for Under the Pink?

I know they exist somewhere, and I think they’re still floating around on a DAT in the studio, but the answer is no. I didn’t listen to them, because I really didn’t want to know about them. But, I eventually did come across them after Pink was finished, and they were the most amazing things that didn’t fit at all with what Tori was doing that I’ve ever heard. It would have been great on its own as a solo piece without Tori Amos. It had nothing to do with what she was playing or trying to create. In fact, she couldn’t even recognize them. And all four songs were like that.

The decision to ditch all four of those arrangements must have been one of the hardest artistic decisions she’d made at that point in her career.

God, I remember that day. The recording sessions were over for the strings parts, and we all just went out for a bite to eat and a drink, just to try and figure out what was going on. Everyone was just so unhappy. And it’s understandable. It was such a ballsy move to make, and I think it’s absolutely what she had to do, even though it was incredibly difficult.

On Night of Hunters, did you ever go back to Tori’s earlier catalogue and make any connections with those pieces– any threads that have continued from your end in 1994 into 2011?

I understand what you’re saying, but no I really haven’t done that, because when I work with Tori, I rely specifically on what she writes. If she has references back to other songs, I’ll be with her. But, those references are always reinterpreted, renewed and modified– sometimes extremely. And I follow that lead, so I don’t have a parallel course of referencing back to my work with her. I totally go through Tori, because she’s the one generating the map and the country I’m traveling in. And this country has changed since the last time we were there. In fact, I don’t think we’ve visited the same country ever again, really– it’s always shifting. My job is to continually invent, but vis-a-vis Tori’s vision.

And you know, I’ve worked with a lot of people for a long time, and so it’s interesting for me to investigate building a body of work together, but still focusing on invention. As an example that harkens back to my days as a programmer, I’d never store my patches for a specific project– I’d make up new ones. My whole philosophy is that whatever is happening now is what’s interesting, and that’s what has to be addressed. As a producer, I understand that things are changing every album. And my relationship with Tori, from my historical point of view, is that she represents, for me, a complex, multi-faceted musical talent that always surprises me. And as a result, I love that situation because it’s always challenging and a new approach. It’s a constant question of how to handle the emotional fabric of the songs but still move forward. It’s always something new. And watching her create and invent really inspires me to do the same, so that’s where a lot of the impetus comes from. It’s always a psychological and metaphysical experience with her. She’s one of the deepest artists I’ve ever worked with.

I’ve been going over a lot of the old catalogue, and there are some reinventions going on now even with the older stuff in her work. Some of it is just the nature of converting from the orchestra to the quartet for the tour, but also in the nature of this being a whole new show for Tori. So, even with stuff that’s been written and formed, we’re working to bring it on a new journey and with new sounds. You know, it’s one thing to reinvent a simple pop song, like something you’d find on a Britney Spears album or whatever, but it’s a whole other thing to try and reinvent work that has multiple levels of meaning to it. That’s what was so inspiring and compelling about Night of Hunters, because there’s so many levels musically and narrative-wise.

What happens when you and Tori disagree? How do you reconcile the parts where you don’t see eye to eye?

It’s more misunderstandings than anything else, and I have to say that they haven’t happened too often. There’s definitely some questions occasionally, but overall everything has been mitigated before it becomes a problem, just in asking questions and refining and working alongside each other. But once you lay out the basic approach to a song, it’s pretty much settled and we know what needs to be done.

I’m compelled to ask, just because that big red delete button was used so judiciously on Under the Pink

(laughs) OK, ok so now I see what you mean. Yeah, well, I think about “Baker Baker,” for example. I’d written a part to it at the beginning– just a little bit, a couple of measures. It didn’t get on the record, but it ended up on the A Piano box set. I don’t know who decided to do that, but things like that have happened, where I’ve written a part and then it hasn’t been put on. But recently, we’ve pretty much been on the mark with everything.

In the beginning years of working with Tori, or at least starting after the fiasco with the strings arrangements on Under the Pink, did you feel you had to prove yourself?

Well, let me think about the Pink songs… there was “Yes, Anastasia,” “Baker Baker,” “Cloud on My Tongue” and “Pretty Good Year” that I worked on. She heard me arranging, and she really liked one of the movements I was working on and asked me if I could simplify it and then lengthen it out. So, she definitely makes suggestions, and she’s good at that sort of objectivity. She really has an ear for shape, and that helps me to know how much to expand and contract. And she was right with that movement, so that strengthened our position of swapping ideas.

And as a producer, she has this ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of things, whether it be with players, me or the people around her, and she can utilize them, thereby bringing out the real strengths in what people can offer to the work. It’s an amazing capacity to integrate everything and everyone’s ideas into a whole, cohesive project.

The Apollon Musagete Quartet is a fairly young group that played on Night of Hunters and is also touring with Tori. What’s the dynamic been between you and the four of them, considering you’ve been doing this for so long and have such a relationship with Tori’s music?

In the case of the arranger and the player, the arranger writes the music they’ll be playing. When dealing with a multitude of instruments, the composer/arranger has to write in such a way that he can articulate the emotions he’s trying to communicate with the piece, and often that’s done by noting it on the page. And it gets to a point where the articulations are only shown enough to give an idea or an implication of what’s needed, and then they need to come up with their own bowing, because each player is different. So, that’s where their interpretation comes in. But I give them the notes and the dynamics, and in many ways the style and feeling, but it’s up to them to implement it.

Certain composers, like Shostakovich, did not put any decrescendos in a lot of his work, assuming that the player will know it. Sometimes things are highly articulated, and some composers mark absolutely everything on the page. But basically I’ve found that through words and articulations, through notes marking the dynamics and play of tempo, these are all enough for a player to be able to get an idea of what’s going on, and then they add the extra emotional push that takes the song off the ground.

If you listen to the same version of let’s say a Shostakovich quartet, by Emerson or someone else, it’s amazing how different they can be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re unrecognizable, but truly you often wonder, “Are they reading the same piece of paper?”

These guys are really great, and they’ve interpreted what I wrote really well, and they play with fire. You can’t ask for anything more than that.

Were you conducting at all during the recording process?

No, because they’d already done a pre-recorded and prepared piano line, so the conducting I did do was done in rehearsal of sections, where I’d make notes and/or comments, and also aid in clarifying the score. In the recording process, there’s a click track the players hear in their ear to keep tempo, and there’s also her piano playing through, so that’s what they recorded along to.

But a conductor, when it comes to an ensemble, be it classical or not, is often so vital in pulling out an emotional depth that maybe is only hinted at without that sort of encouragement.

Absolutely, and during the rehearsal process with the octet, we spend quite a bit of time going over dynamics, intricacies of the score and discussing the emotional veins of the pieces, so we definitely had that conversation going on, but when it came to recording and moving them through the songs like that, it wasn’t necessary for me to be there.

At the Metropole sessions, there was a conductor– Jules Buckley. A major part of that project is herding that massive group of instruments around, and he did incredibly well. He wasn’t a guest conductor, too. He knew those instruments and the players personally and musically, and that knowledge made him perfect for the gig, and Tori worked really well with him. And that’s definitely a time when you need a conductor. It’s a 56 piece collective, so it’s a feat. But then again, the Metropole are really good, and I just love working with them. Just like the Apollon Musagete quartet, too. They’re definitely classical, but they’ve done excursions into other kinds of music, so I think that was a reason not only why they were good for the project but they really brought a breadth of background to the project– just like the Metropole, who have played with a bunch of different acts, like Antony and the Johnsons, for example.

The Metropole had been in somewhat dire straits, both politically and financially, during the Amsterdam 2010 show with Tori. Is that no longer the case?

They have an extension of 2-3 years. They’re doing OK. They’re doing shows and still sounding good. I have to say– it was inspiring to be there during the rehearsal time for the project, because the environment is just so overwhelmingly great. First off, the three-story building is massive– there’s three different orchestras in it. The music library is as good as the UCLA library, and this is just private government funding, basically. There’s even a radio station there. There must have been over 150 people working there other than the orchestra. To see The Arts be so supported was amazing. And in the old days, we used to have that here in the United States. Many of them were commercially oriented, but Bell Labs, of the Bell Telephones, had a large orchestra and in the back had facilities that worked 24 hours / day nonstop. There were all these companies that had their own orchestras, so it wasn’t totally publicly funded, but there was a definitely breadth to The Arts, especially musically, and it really worked and was great.

For the tour, the string quartet (Piotr Skweres, Piotr Szumiel, Bartosz Zachlod, Pawel Zalejski) will be accompanying, but none of the woodwinds. Have you reconstructed your orchestrations for the tour? How are you compensating for not having the other instruments?

Integrating a clarinet or oboe solo into the quartet is fairly straight ahead, with certain adjustments having to be made for the translation, like trills and articulations changed somewhat. But integrating the woodwind section is definitely more problematic. By using various techniques, like double and triple stops, scordatura (retuning the cello to cover the bassoon and double bass parts) when needed and consolidating inner lines, we can get an emotional and exciting performance that doesn’t exactly make up for a missing woodwinds section but actually creates a wholly new and different experience.

In choosing what to prepare for the Night of Hunters tour, were there considerations to include potentially more “obscure” songs for the shows, given the nature of Tori’s fan community and the depth to which they follow her work?

I’m thinking of the word “obscure” here, because it’s a relative question. Night of Hunters absolutely is obscure, when taken in the normal role of pop music. And when it came to doing the orchestrations for that, I couldn’t think about the outside perspective to the work. I had to focus on mining the honesty of the pieces and bringing out their voice. So for the album, it wasn’t really a consideration for me, because I think that sort of expectation or deliberation would be absolutely detrimental. You have to think primarily of the narrative and expressing as much emotion as you can, thereby reinforcing what’s in these songs. You can’t have considerations like “I’m going to be trippy!” or obscure, or even overly arty about something. I think those ideas undermine the structure you’re building.

But when it comes to the tour, the fans are the focus. And it brings up an interesting question. You finish your job for the album, and so that work of art is done. It’s created and it’s a totally personal experience. But once you go on tour, the work becomes something else. It’s a very different story, because the songs begin to live outside of you, and Tori’s really responsive to that. Her tours change day to day because of the people who come to the show. The climates are totally different, and so the people who come to the shows affect that and that forms the narrative. And of course, the tour is a work in progress for us, because we’re working up songs as we go.

The amount of information that Tori can remember is just astounding. Not just in terms of the tours and the songs– considering she has such a massive catalogue– but also things like the narrative of this record, which is extremely complex. Every morning, she’d call and we’d talk about the day’s work. She’s a great producer, too.

For both of you to look at such a broad catalogue of work and then write variations on them is pretty astounding, considering how much you also had to coordinate with a new narrative for the piece and then the actual construction of the album. It’s not easy to take someone else’s work and recreate it in your own vernacular.

That’s exactly the dilemma when working with work that others have created, and yeah– it isn’t easy. There is a part to Tori, though, that absolutely loves doing that. Personally, I find Strange Little Girls (2001) to be a brilliant piece of work, and a perfect example for why Tori is who she is as a musician. She took full on the composer hat for that entire project, in that she worked with other people’s ideas, but she turned them all on their heads and made it distinctly hers. The ability to modify and still maintain your style is really enormous. And with Night of Hunters, I find it to be the culmination of that process, and yet another entity entirely.

That’s one of the most fascinating things about Tori. Watching her create over the years, when using the language of others– that sort of unexpected twists and turns just brings me so much joy. There’s always a challenge, or new insight and angle to get into an aesthetic.

John Philip Shenale has contributed his talents as a composer, arranger, musician and/or producer to over forty Gold and Platinum albums, both domestic and international, and over thirty Top-40 singles. His work has been associated with 21 Grammy nominations and includes albums by Tori Amos, Jane’s Addiction, Janet Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Diana Ross and Billy Idol. For more information, please visit his official website.

Related Content

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide