Artist: Tori Amos
Album: Ocean to Ocean
Number of tracks: 10
Label: Decca Records
Release Date: October 29, 2021
“You need to write yourself out of this private little hell,” Tori Amos tells me, of her despair during the third UK COVID lockdown, and the message she’d received that led to her newest album Ocean to Ocean. “I think I threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s where the songs began to meet me, where they said, ‘Let’s come from you’re feeling despondent, and you feel like you’re in your own private little hell because you do. You need to write from that place.’”
As if by magic, Tori consistently manages to spin a thorny yarn into something artful and exquisite. From her signature crimson locks to her star sign, she isn’t a woman who’s merely walked through fire, she’s made from it. You can feel that fire from song to song on Ocean to Ocean.
In a powerful conversation we had around this time in 2020, Tori was still processing the loss of her mother from the year before, anticipating the presidential election, and hopeful for a post-pandemic world. She tells me that “there was a lot of time for reflection—almost too much self-reflection,” and she imbues all of those deep and sometimes dark feelings throughout the new songs on her sixteenth studio album. From grief and loss to kinship and love, Tori invites us into this deeply personal journey. Still, in a career that spans nearly three decades, giving so much of herself at every stage, Ocean to Ocean feels like something stylistically new—big, sweeping, mythic—with a nod to her Little Earthquakes-esque earlier work.
I spoke with Tori on a sojourn in London (“busy feels good right now…”), where promoting the new album took her away from her home in Cornwall for the first time in well over a year.
SPIN: What was the inspiration for your album?
Tori Amos:I think that third lockdown here. I don’t know if the Americans really realized how severe it was here, but it happened after Christmas. It happened in early January. For London, it happened before Christmas, but we were down in Cornwall when they started locking the country down by different counties, but then everybody got thrown into this severe state. Hand on my heart, to try and be fair about this, I think hubby and I did pretty well on the first one with Tash and her boyfriend, Oliver, who thought he was coming for two weeks and stayed for five months.
Which song came first?
I think “Metal Water Wood” came first, and it acknowledged where I was with being fire and useless as a fire creature. It was just not working for me. The message from the muses was: Be like Bruce Lee, be like water. You need to then not do things like you’ve always done them, in that what you thought might work for you, what energy you thought would bring you to a place of a different frequency. I didn’t like where my energy was. I was like “I don’t want to be in that place of negativity and anger and destructiveness or victimhood.”
That was the beginning, and nature called me outside. Even though it was winter and cold, but once I got out there and started watching how nature was just, I don’t know, going through her cycles and paying attention and listening to it, I started to feel different things, and it started to shift my energy. The song started to say, “You have a choice to make, T. What energy feel do you want to be in? You need to sonically create it and step into it, and we will help you do it, but you have to make that choice.”
Was it a difficult process to go through?
I wish [my daughter] Tash were on the call. [laughs] She would tell you that there was a moment when she’s like, “I need my mom back. What do we need to do to do this?” She said, “Look, I’ve got you as my audience, so you’re going to get to watch my favorite documentary.” What was hard was getting out of that chair. I think I got to a place of emotional paralysis, because, again, we’d marketed the book (Resistance, released in 2020), we’d done a Christmas EP through the first lockdown and we did a virtual book tour from the studio we were working in that way, not playing live. We were doing all these things.
The messy part, that’s always the tough bit, and it’s not very glamorous or gracious, it’s when it’s the messy bit. I think before the beauty, for me anyway, comes the mess because you have to sit in the depression, in the sadness, in the grief, in the loss of– If you talk to, and I’m sure you have, to live musicians who couldn’t go out and play and to people whose lives are on the theatre stage, it was a very different reality for us.
I tried shaming myself out of it. That didn’t work. That’s why the music said, “You got to write. Start from on your knees. Write about it.” By writing about it, that will shift and then you’ll need to write about something else and another song will come and take your hands.” Another one did, and this is how the process kept drawing me outside to nature, to the cliff, to the water, to showing me. It was very humbling because the Cornish coast, yes, it’s beautiful, but it’s ferocious, ancient, and powerful. It’s like it’s a creature.
You use the word ancient, and I feel like there’s so much of that in the music here. There’s an innate history. Do you agree?
I hope so because I started revisiting Cornish mythology, not just Cornish, but the whole area. I think that had a big influence because it’s the longest that I haven’t been to the United States in my whole life. It’s the longest that I’ve been in one place in my whole life.
Once I pulled my head out of staring at my navel and realized, “Okay, what’s around you?” Hearing other people’s stories…a treasure trove of letters got sent to me through somebody who comes to the show. I got letters from all over the world about what people were going through. They just sensed that maybe I needed to share that. Normally, when I’m on tour, people bring me their letters and they share with me what their experience has been. That’s how then music becomes collaborative and the shows are collaborative.
While I was immersing myself with Cornwall and Cornish mythology in the angst of the land, and its power and being, again, humbled by it and realizing, “Okay, how do I approach this? I need to really ask permission of the land to show me her secrets.” I got stories from people all over the world, and these stories, Liza, what’s important, for the most part, people were having to come to terms with something. Everyone was pretty much challenged out of, I don’t know, 100 letters. Maybe two were going, “I’m an introvert. I’m winning. Can this last forever?”
Most of them were…somebody worked on the front line, now trying to dealing with testing, and trying to help people and what they were having to go through on a daily basis in their hazmat suit getting sadder, getting cursed at. It was just taking on board what people face.
It was such a transformative time for you.
That’s right. It was, “Okay, if you want your life to change, then just change it, but you’ve got to start from the inside.” It’s so cliché, I know, and we know.
You talk about nature and the power of nature and immersing yourself in nature. What I feel like you’re talking about is the healing power of nature, but also the healing power of connectivity. I’m curious what the album title Ocean to Oceanmeans to you?
That we’re all facing some pretty serious challenges. Yes, the pandemic and what that did, some people would tell me their marriage fell apart, or their partnership fell apart because the pressure cooker was too much. Those were the terms some people used. That there might have been love there, but they just realized the thing that was holding them together, that string on that instrument broke. In some cases, it was just irreparable. What people went through, I think, in some ways, was quite traumatic, and we’re still processing it because we couldn’t process. Normally, when you get into it with somebody or you disagree, I would just jump on a plane to the States.
Or people would just jump in their car and go. You couldn’t do that here. If you understand, Scotland would not let you in. Police were stopping people coming into Cornwall [laughs] at a certain point. If you understand, that’s how they felt they needed to tackle the health crisis and the variant that was exploding. When you’re talking about the connectivity, yes, I think it was people realizing that we were all experiencing this thing in different ways. The challenges for each person, I do think were unique.
That was fascinating to me. With Ocean to Ocean, of course, two things here. Like I said, Tash had me…not trapped, but she’d rub her hands together and say, “You’re watching this today.” She would bring me documentaries, things that I didn’t realize were happening, I didn’t realize about what was happening on the level to the ocean that is happening. It [Seaspiracy] opened my eyes in ways that—I have to tell you—it made me flee to the piano and start writing “Ocean to Ocean”,the song itself.
You talk about nature, andpower, how do you feel about the fact that most people think of youas a force of nature?
I tap into that…and I tap into it hopefully when I play live and when I record the records. I have to hand that back. As the wife, the mother, the friend, you’re a pal, as a human woman, I have to hand that back once I’ve worked with it. I surrender it back and thank them because there is no confusion, I am not doing that by myself. I am not. I’m co-creating with them and I’m very happy that they will show up, but they took a long time to show up this time. [Laughs] I think they wanted me to sit with the tragedy that was happening, they wanted me to feel it, they wanted me to have empathy for different people’s circumstances and stories..
During this time, Oliver was playing me music that I hadn’t heard before. He’s been studying jazz, based in the Guildhall in London. He was playing music every night that I hadn’t heard before. Do I think that that helped influence me? Absolutely.
That was really cool, and I wouldn’t have had that. Usually, when somebody pops down for two weeks, you don’t have that time to have the night around the table, eating dinner, then it was all Oliver’s tracks is what we called them. He plays them and it opens me up. When you talk about the force, they’re all kinds of forces around us, and everyone carries their own creative force. I was really able to learn from the documentaries from Tash and from Oliver’s tracks. They were 20 and 21 respectfully at the time.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
Oh, that’s really difficult because they get mad at me when I choose. They’re listening. I will say my niece was a big inspiration as well because she was in New York going through this. Hearing what she was going through and that I really couldn’t get to her, she jumped on a plane before Cornwall was not on a lockdown yet, she just came in the window before and then was able to get back to New York around Christmas time.
I was very moved by her story and what she was dealing with in her late 20s when you’re supposed to be at that place in your life when there are all possibilities open to you. I understood her sadness and she inspired “Additions of Light Divided” and “Birthday Baby”.
What inspired “Speaking with Trees”?
My mother, really, I am hiding her ashes in a treehouse in Florida.
That’s “Speaking with Trees”. Getting out and being able to talk to the trees in Cornwall thinking that they’re the network, the worldwide web that lives under the trees. There’s a book about it by a Canadian, brilliant woman who’s been doing the research about how trees communicate with each other [Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forestby Suzanne Simard].
For Ocean to Ocean,the music would leave Cornwall and get to Matt Chamberlain in LA and then come back from him. He’s eight hours behind, of course, timewise, and then we would get it, and then record and send it to John Evans in Boston. He’d send it back, and then we’d do more. And they would go back to the valley in California, digitally, of course, and then come back at Martian Engineering, which is a studio in Cornwall, and then we would finish it. The tracks were traveling from ocean to ocean.
That was your underground network, just like the trees.