Announced earlier today (September 20), Amos’s 16th album ‘Ocean To Ocean’ is a record that helped to pull the classically trained artist out of what she calls a “tough place mentally”. Written while the ‘Cornflake Girl’ icon was holed up in Cornwall during the UK’s third COVID lockdown, it’s driven by a fierce and at times feverish sense of imagination. “I’d swim to New York State from the Cornish coast of England, for even just a day,” she sings longingly on ‘Swim to New York State’.
Speaking to NME, Amos described the sense of loss she felt when the pandemic thwarted her ability to perform live, and reveals how hitting rock bottom ultimately fuelled some of her most evocative songwriting.
Hello Tori. When did you start writing this album?
Tori Amos: “I was writing a very different album that was supposed to be out before the American election last year. Because of the pandemic, I had to pull plans for not one North American tour, but two – and that’s never happened to me in my career. Then the third lockdown hit this January and it became clear to me that the songs I was writing pre-election just weren’t resonating with me any more. So I threw them all out and started again. The songs I had [before] didn’t have the energy I needed to get out of my despondency at that point. The third lockdown really took me to a tough place mentally.”
Was writing these songs healing for you?
“Yes. In my life, I’ve found the only way to get myself out of some kind of mental health [issue] is to write myself out of it – whether that’s with [my 1992 debut album] ‘Little Earthquakes’ or [2002’s] ‘Scarlet’s Walk’. When I’m in that place, I can’t just step out of it. I have to find the tools or the sonic elixir to get out of that space. There’s a line from a song I put out in 2005 [‘Barons of Suburbia’] that goes “I’m piecing a potion to combat your poison,” and that’s really what happens. I get out of certain situations by writing myself out of hell.”
Did anything in particular about the third lockdown put you in this tough place mentally?
“No, I think it might have been the straw that broke that broke the camel’s back. For those of us who live to play live music, it’s our lifeblood. It’s not a job – it’s a privilege. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without playing live and I think that had something to do with it. But I wasn’t analysing all the myriad circumstances that were going on [at the time] because I had [my husband and daughter] Mark and Tash around and I didn’t want to be destructive. But at first, I didn’t have the energy to create.”
So how did you find a way out of it?
“I had to kind of sit with myself and accept where I was. I started reading all kinds of things – about people having taken trips into nature, people having big travelling experiences, all things written before the pandemic – and that was the beginning. And then the songs started coming because I started to invent where I was. I’m not somebody who’s suffered bouts of depression in my life: not that I know about anyway, it’s not part of my story.”
The album features a really interesting range of electronic sounds as well as your signature piano. At what point did you realise that’s what the songs were wanting in terms of production?
“Well, they wanted it from the beginning. ‘Metal Water Wood’ is the first song I wrote for the record. Once that song came, it seemed like, ‘OK, this is the palette we’re going to be working with and I have to be willing to be open’. It was like the song was teaching me because a lyric from the song says: “He knew me as fire.” And I’ve worked a lot with fire during my life – whether it’s [the line] “just say yes, you little arsonist” from [my 1998 album] ‘From the Choirgirl Hotel’. I’m always burning something and I do think there’s a side to me that’s a secret arsonist. When I say that, I’m talking emotionally, not about destroying anything physically.
‘Devil’s Bane’ feels like a song only Tori Amos could write. Where did that come from?
“I’m a Minister’s daughter so that kind of imagery is in my DNA. I understand how with someone charismatic, not necessarily someone religious, one can fall under their control. During this last 18 months, there was somebody [I knew] who had been groomed into thinking that they weren’t the amazing person that they are. And [for me] it formed itself into this story of how you can almost lose yourself and your self-worth if you need somebody’s validation.
“It takes a lot of courage to walk away from that situation, and not everybody is willing to do that, but this person had the courage. I would say we’ve all been there at some point. I couldn’t have written about it had I not experienced it myself. I’ve drunk from that devil’s bane, my friend, so I understood it. And by then, I had some energy again and my pencil was sharpening, so the song came.”
Did it take a while to write a song like ‘Spies’, which has playful surreal imagery and an almost jaunty beat?
“Yes, I had to work towards that. That’s me coming out of a really dark place and being able to deal with bad dreams, knowing that they’re benevolent. [I’m exploring the idea that] from Cornwall to London, up to Aberdeen and over to Dublin, on these isles there are well intentioned beings who are trying to help and protect people who can’t sleep because of their night terrors. There was about a week when Tash was having all these really bad dreams, and so I was inspired to write something that would make her laugh.”
Lorde said in July that she doesn’t want to explain her songs from now on. As an artist and a songwriter, is that something you can relate to?
“Yes, well, I can understand where she’s coming from. [REM frontman] Michael Stipe was always very much coming from that place. Michael would never talk about any of his songs [in interviews]. That’s an artist’s choice and of course I get it. But sometimes I have a conversation with a journalist and it’s not explaining what a song is about, but giving you a tasting menu around it, so you understand perhaps the inspiration or what drove the song.
“I do think songs are there for people to make of them what they will. So last week, once the mastering [of the album] was done, I sent these songs out with a good bottle of tequila and realised they’re going to have relationships with people that are out of my hands. If people get what they’re what they’re about, then great. Sometimes people will come up to me and tell me one of my songs has a meaning to them that I’ve never even thought about. But do you know what? That’s valid too.”
Tori Amos releases ‘Ocean To Ocean’ on October 29 via Decca Records, before a UK and European tour follows in February and March.