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'I Wanted to Go Into a Magical Space': Tori Amos on the Spellbinding 'Ocean to Ocean'

Thursday, 28 October 2021 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Desmond Murray

If anyone ever manages to write a book that comes close to being the definitive history of humanity, then it’s safe to say the past few years aren’t exactly going to be among its most uplifting chapters. Whether you’re talking about shocking political events, the Covid situation, or continued occurrences of institutionalised racism and misogyny, there has been a relentless onslaught of negativity to contend with. It has left many in desperate need of the relief provided by Tori Amos’s spellbinding new album ‘Ocean to Ocean.’ 

During the UK’s third lockdown at her home in Cornwall, where she was isolated alongside husband and sound engineer Mark Hawley, their 21-year old-0daughter Tash and her boyfriend, Amos found herself in an increasingly claustrophobic emotional hole. Denied her usual method of processing trauma by way of travelling, the painful effects of both her mother’s death two years earlier and Donald Trump’s turbulent Presidency had taken hold.

From purging formative demons courtesy of 1991’s ‘Little Earthquakes,’ to processing the seismic fallout from 9/11 via the sprawling ‘Scarlett’s Walk’, Amos has always found a way to translate hurt into sonic gold dust. The 16th album in a hugely successful recording career that’s been as eclectic and groundbreaking as it has been visceral and spiritual, ‘Ocean to Ocean’ certainly doesn’t buck the trend.  

Gorgeous and tenderly sculpted, it’s the American songwriter’s most consistently accessible record in years and the kind of crossover affair that, without compromising her artistry and vision, will enchant casual fans who miss the sound of her earlier, comparatively more straightforward work.

We caught up with Amos to discuss both that new album and last year’s politically charged songwriting book Resistance, which now feels like a precursor to ‘Ocean to Ocean’, while also discovering how reconnecting with nature inspired perhaps the most elemental offering of her career.

‘Ocean to Ocean’ has a strong universal appeal. Why did the songs ask to be presented in such an accessible way?

At a certain point during the lockdowns I realised that where I was at the end of January was, like other people, just [being] tired of America. I love America with every cell of my being, but what we’d gone through during that 2020 election, to the insurgency, to the reaction from the leaders not wanting to uphold the constitution, a lot of us hit the wall.  Friends of mine I was speaking to, and some that are British that have an interest in what happens in America, because they think it reverberates. It’s such a big old place, a big old creature.  

So I hit a wall and everything I’d been writing up until then I surrendered, walked away from and began to listen to other people, where they were emotionally, what they’d been through the last 18 months or however long it had been. It seems like a thousand years.  People wanted to step into something that wasn’t so negative. How to do that? I had to be honest with where I was. Once I was able to do that the songs came from a place where I wanted to go. I wanted to go into a magical space.

Was there one specific moment that tipped you over the edge after what must have been a cumulative build up? 

Yes, you’re right about that. It was a build up. I know during the first one [lockdown] some people were really lonely, but we were a full house down here in Cornwall and doing a virtual book tour. We were supposed to do the Hay Festival and a book tour of the United States. Then the musicians were set to come and record and we would have been out [touring] in October 2020, before the election. So, on one hand my life was rolling very fast but, by the third time and not seeming like there was an end in sight, compiled with all the other things, I got into a place of emotional paralysis.    

After your early years playing hotel lounges a few blocks from the White House, and bearing witness to ‘something dark occurring’ as you listened to lobbyists and consultants for Big Corp and Big Oil, do you think democracy actually exists or is it an illusion to make us feel we have a voice when it’s really money and power that shapes our society?

It’s very complex, isn’t it? Very complex. I think it’s been tested from 2020 into 2021. It was pushed off its wheels and clung on for dear life, barely. It showed all of us that some people are willing to do anything for their own gain and even compromise our constitution.  That, first of all, was deeply saddening to me and disappointing.  

Then I decided to write myself out of those energies and into a different energy where different people are operating now. Where I think creation is. I wanted to raise myself, my frequency, into something that made people feel good about themselves so that they can create themselves and change their lives. That’s where the focus can be. I put so much energy into writing the book, I stand by the book, but then I needed to find a record that was very different from that. 

You’ve written your way back to the light in a way that strikes the right balance between depicting grief and offering salvation.

Songwriting has always been about finding the feeling and expressing that feeling. Finding it, sometimes, is key because the true feeling can be elusive. There can be defensive feelings about what’s going on that keep me from finding the true feeling because you don’t want to open up the wound again. With each song on this record, it was vital to understand ‘is it going to take somebody to a place in line with despondency?’ Which Metal Water Wood does, but it’s also about getting you whole and moving towards and through that, which was quoting the Bruce Lee line ‘be like water.’ Being able to be fluid with wherever you are. 

You had to be creatively fluid with this album because you were forced to change your usual approach and write from imagination, rather than going out and seeking inspiration. Are there any particular songs that feel unique because of that?

Devil’s Bane is very much that, because it has a sort of southwestern sermon feel to it. I couldn’t tap into that so had to tap into what I know and what I remember. I have travelled extensively before, so I have those touchstones in my mind. I could feel it. I could feel the desert and could write about that from the lush fields of Cornwall.

Many artists struggled to write during the pandemic because the trauma made it hard to tap into their creative well. With reference to the ‘Muses’ that inspire you, what might have been blocking their creativity?

Well for me, if I had a patch of not writing, and wanted to write, I would travel. I’d take myself out of my routine, whatever that was at the time, and would go somewhere that forced me. My observation levels, I would find them more keen because I’m at a new coffee shop and don’t know the people. It’s all new or different from what I’ve been experiencing. 

So because of that act alone you’re trying to coax the ‘Muses’ to life and yourself to life.  Not being able to do that [makes it harder], having to find different coping mechanisms with this idea that we were under a type of house arrest and what that brought up in people. Then our field, the live music field, has taken such a battering compared to the sports field, and been on its knees. It’s people’s livelihoods and how some pay their rent.  We need to remember that.

Should governments have done more for the arts during the pandemic?

Of course. Of course. It didn’t filter down to a lot of the artists. I understand the dark tunnel musicians were looking at, and a lot of theatre performers who don’t have TV work, and playwrights whose work could not be staged, a whole industry full of crew people.  There’s so many that are depending on that and grieving a loss of that. And also the communion, the community, the collaboration that you have with a live audience that’s so unique to itself. 

Your fans have always written to you and told you their stories. What’s that relationship been like over the past 18 months and what have you learnt from them?  

Everybody faces their challenges and some of the challenges were very different. Nurses and paramedics on the frontline who would get spat at trying to help, but unfortunately some people felt they could take out their frustration on those workers. I’ve gotten letters from that to people who lost everything. Their relationship, their job, everything had to change. Being aware of those different challenges made me empathetic and able to understand all the different things people faced. 

You were writing yourself out of your own kind of hell, but did so in a way that, by mirroring other people’s experiences, will help others heal.

Well, that was the goal. At a certain point, once I realised I needed to shake myself out of this—yeah, I called it ‘my own personal hell’—then it was a case of ‘OK, so where do I want to go and how am I going to get there?’ Little things would help. Going outside, finally being outside, being in nature, who was not in lockdown but seemed to be regenerating, was inspiring. To see mother Earth’s beauty in her cycle, going from winter into spring, I realised that’s where I want to be. I want to be regenerating. I didn’t want any negativity or argument because there was so much of that out there. I had to step out of that and into something that has fertility and creation to it.    

Tori Amos’s ‘Ocean to Ocean’ is out on October 29 through Decca.

Tori Amos Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri March 11 2022 - LONDON London Palladium
Sat March 12 2022 - LONDON London Palladium
Mon March 14 2022 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Tue March 15 2022 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Thu March 17 2022 - CORK Cork Opera House
Fri March 18 2022 - DUBLIN 3Olympia Theatre

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