Midwinter Graces DVD interview transcript

Tuesday 14 June 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

On inspiration

« I guess in a way I’ve been putting this together since I was a tiny little girl having to go to church many days a week and being part of the festivities at Christmas. That’s how it started. And then as I got a little older, I started researching what other cultures would do at this time of the year. I was talking to Doug Morris in the States a few months ago — it must have been March — I’ve known him since the mid-80’s... and he is really been sort of a musical father for me. And he said, "I’ve always wanted to know what you would do with a seasonal record." And he said, "I’m telling you, I have hundreds of records that are here. Look around you! I have hundreds of them, of people doing carols exactly like they should be done. I have commercial Christmas records of people doing popular songs that we all grown up with as well." And he said, "I want you to do something different. I want you to go being Tori." And that’s what I wanted to hear. And my brain is clicking as I’m sitting there. And he said, "I want to hear carols like I never heard them before. But get me all the good bits." »

On updating classic songs

« I had to really think very quickly and pull on a training that I had for many years on variations on a theme. People get very, I think... sedentary when they think about the word Christmas music. They don’t think about anything except what they know. They don’t think of all the possibilities. And if you haven’t been exposed then you kind of think, "Oh, it’s pretty much the same thing! I know this. And I know the music. And there’s nothing new here." I remember somebody making a comment that had come from England that said, "Well, this is ’Away in the Manger’" and I kind of thought they were nuts saying "No, this is ’Away in the Manger’". And they said, "No, this is not the right song."

And then I began to learn that a lot of hymns from England are very different than the ones in America. But it became something that I wanted to join together. I started to immerse myself with The New Oxford Book of Carols which is a book that came out of England. And it’s really so informative about trying to be honest where the music came from. And some of the music is so ancient that they can’t even tell you where it comes from. They would tell you that they know that there is a record of it when the Church got a hold of it or when a choir would get a hold of it.

But there was a tradition in England of the folks song. And yet the folks song was taking from wassell songs. So, or drinking, you know, drinking songs. And that starts to make a lot of sense because you think, "Well, the Anglican Church was around for, what? The middle of the 1500 or something like that. They had no music unless they took the Catholics music and they weren’t gonna do that. So they took drinking songs. Drinking songs, sea shanties and they would change the words and put their ideology into it. When you think about it, I’m just doing what they did. So I’m really part of this wonderful tradition of bringing forth a point of view of the time that the song is being sung. I would say to you that my point of view is probably much much more closer to the original than what the Methodists probably did with it. And, you know, I have a good giggle with stench (?) Methodists because I understand them very well. Vetty Toddle (?), I can give them great juice, I respect all that, I lived with it, I understand it.

And yet what I think they would be fascinated to know is that a lot of this music is very ancient and there is a marriage that needed to happen, I think with the idea of rebirth. And the season was really about the rebirth of light. And of course, for the Christians, that’s Christ is the poetic representation of that. So, unless you’re happy for meddling like me, then you wouldn’t have the music that you have today. But Doug and I had this conversation that was very direct and he said to me, "If you’re going to do this, would you just get rid of all this King of Israel business. Because I’m Jewish and I really love these songs, but this whole thing, this whole religious thing is making me nuts."

And so I started to think, well then there’s my mom who is a minister’s wife, and the whole King of Israel business is the center of her life. So you’re kind of going (weighting with her hands): Mom, Doug, Mom, Doug, Mom, Doug... And then there’s Dad, Dad being a minister. And the funny thing about him is, he’s an enigma. He’ll say, "Tori Ellen, ’What Child is This,’ they stole that from ’Greensleeves.’" I said, "Yes, that’s right." That’s another melody. And the word ’stole’... in those times it wasn’t really thought of as stealing. And in England, I’ve learned the song, the carol "What Child is This" is not really sung there anymore because that’s sort of like singing, um... I don’t know... a song about Jesus to "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson (laughs) and it’s just too strange. »