Sailing “Ocean to Ocean,” Tori Amos Searches for Magic and the Muses

"I was drowning in a foot of water, in a puddle of tears," says the beloved piano siren.

Has it actually been a pretty good year?

That is one of the many questions beloved singer-songwriter Tori Amos wrestles with on her new album, Ocean to Ocean, her first since 2017’s Native Invader. The fiery piano siren had previously teased a new album last year, aiming to have it out by the 2020 presidential election. Alas, COVID-19 and the insurrection at the United States Capitol forced Amos to cancel her tour and album plans, a first for the 58-year-old music-industry veteran.

Ocean to Ocean is finally out this Friday (October 29). Amos’ European tour kicks off next spring, but she will be playing the piano in a very different world than the one she left on her last tour.

Logo spoke with Amos about a wide range of topics, including what led her to record an entire new album, what we can expect from her upcoming tour, her Halloween traditions, and what her 2002 road-trip opus, Scarlet’s Walk, means to her now.

Desmond Murray

So, when we last spoke for your Resistance book, you said you wanted an album out by the 2020 presidential election. And then you scrapped that album and wrote Ocean to Ocean. Have you ever scrapped an album before?

No, I haven’t. It’s shocking. Isn’t it? I’m 58 years old. If you had told me this is going to happen, if you told me, I don’t know, a couple years ago that this would occur, I would just say to you, “Not on my watch. That doesn’t happen.” And then, this crazy 18 months that we’ve all been through, has happened. I think we’ve all faced different challenges. When the tour was kicked down the road, I was supposed to be out early November. So I’d be in rehearsals right now in the States. And we would’ve started this tour for Ocean to Ocean, in just a couple weeks, but we had to make the decision in early August [to cancel] with the Delta variant… So we were, were trying to move it to spring, summer in the States, and then starting off in Europe. So yes, not to be so long-winded about it, but it’s never happened to me before.

How did you break it to the “girls” that they were being shelved?

Oh my gosh, some of them are still stalking me. Well, I think, there were some that, as songs, are valid. It’s not that they aren’t working as a song, some of them, but it just wasn’t the energy that I felt was part of this potion, this sonic potion. In one of the songs [“Barons of Suburbia“] the girls taught me years ago, “We’re piecing a potion to combat this poison”. It was that phrase that kept coming back to me, and I finally realized that those songs weren’t the thing that was going to change the frequency, and I needed to change where I was. Maybe I had been a bit emotionally paralyzed from the last, well, not just the lockdown, but what had been going on in the States and the insurrection and some of our elected officials willing to turn their back on our constitution and democracy. I just think I hit a wall, to be honest with you.

Of course, us fans are dying to know if we’ll ever hear the songs that were put aside?

I don’t know. There might be a time for them and a context for them, I’m not sure. Maybe they’ll come out one day. Maybe they’ll have their own B-side little life. But, for right now, they weren’t the ones that I felt were going to have the magic. They had something, some of them were worried and concerned and maybe they were just in a place where a lot of us have found ourselves over the last four years, in the States. And I found that I needed to get out of that place. I don’t know about you, Chris, but I needed some magic. I needed to feel like I feel when I’m in the greenhouse, with the tomatoes and the squash and the pumpkins. And I just was like, “Now this is regeneration.” More like earth mother energy and the coordination — it’s hard to describe it because it’s ancient, but it’s fresh. There’s something new about it, like a rebirth after a death experience, that kind of archetypal energy, something so ancient and yet pieces of yourself that don’t seem to be working for you anymore. And so I needed to find those songs.

The album was partly inspired by the Capitol insurrection. How soon after that did those songs start to come?

It was weeks and weeks after. I hit a wall, and then I found myself in a really sad place. Even though democracy held on and prevailed, there was just something, maybe the fight in me. Because like a lot of people, I was really committed to trying to preserve a type of government that was a democratic government over an authoritarian regime type of government. I don’t know if those words even work together, so let’s keep it “an authoritarian regime.” I had put so much of my energy into that, I don’t know what happened, but I couldn’t get out of the chair in the morning. I would just sit and start reading. I had gotten a lot of books that were about people in nature and their relationship with nature, and it started to make me feel something. I wanted to know what these people were experiencing and what their relationship was with nature. And so, the songs I had been working with, maybe they were fighting, maybe it was about fight and I wanted to get out of fight and I wanted to get into transmutation. I wanted to get into shapeshifting and magical energy. So, that was the process. I had to then let those songs go and sit in the silence and the quiet. And then [the song] “Metal Water Wood” started to come, really because I wrote from where I was, which was really on my knees at that point emotionally.

How was it recording remotely with [bassist] Jon Evans and [drummer] Matt Chamberlain?

Fascinating! Maybe it’s because we’ve developed a language for so long, for so many years, and we’d worked together on [the 2020 EP] Christmastide. We knew this approach could work whereby, Matt was eight hours behind, so we would send music to him and then it would come back and then we’d play more stuff on it and then send to John, and then it would come back, and then we’d play more and then go to Philly [John Philip Shenale], back to the Pacific ocean and then come back.

I wanted to ask just about the inspiration for some of the songs, like “29 Years.” Is that in reference to Little Earthquakes coming out 29 years ago?

Yes, it’s about that, and that time and some of the themes on that record and working through all of that, over the last 29 years of my life. Some things that have made me see things in a certain way, and I’m working through damage, working through the things in life whereby and until you really recognize, “Okay, why am I repeating this certain pattern? Why am I reacting the same way in a certain situation? I want to break that chain. I want to break that pattern.” So “29 Years” was really about taking stock and going back, even revisiting things that weren’t pleasant by any means.

I’ve always loved your album closing tracks, “Carry” and “Gold Dust” being among my favorites. What’s the inspiration behind “Birthday Baby?”

My niece, Kelsey. She was in lockdown in New York, in the city, and we usually see each other every few months, but we were able to see each other at the window of Christmas. She flew over here to England — before Cornwall went down into that severe lockdown, the third one, when all this happened — so I really wrote “Birthday Baby” for her because she was going through her own stuff, she’s given me permission to say that. I would never break her confidence, but she said, “It’s fine. You can tell people you wrote that for me.” So, I wrote that inspired by her.
 

Yeah, hearing you talk about hitting a wall during this third lockdown, I feel it was a very similar experience for me. Most of 2020, I was fine with everything, and then come January, February, I really fell into a funk.

Yeah. That’s a good way to describe it. And, I don’t know if it’s a few things that came together for some of us, for me it’s the longest that I haven’t played live, missing live music, missing what that means, missing the collaboration within, missing the energy, missing all of that. Plus, I think not being able to get to the States, it’s the longest I’ve been away from the States in my life. I was in Cornwall. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, but still, I just couldn’t, as you say, get out of this despondency, kind of “funk.” And I would try, trust me, I tried everything. And so when people say, “We should just step into it.” Well, I wasn’t achieving that. So what the muses told me to do is, “Well, maybe that’s not in your skillset. Maybe that’s not how you do it, but you can do it and you have to write yourself out of it, but, write from where you are, write from the place you are, start there. And then the songs will take you to other places.” And they took me outside, after “Metal Water Wood,” they took me to nature. They took me to the trees. They took me to the clifftops. They took me to the water, they took me and I began to see earth mother. I began to see, “Wow, she’s not in lockdown. She’s thriving.” And, of course, the dichotomy is that there were huge fires and there were floods, and there was tragedy in that, while she’s in other places, she was going through her cycle, her seasons, from winter to spring. Watching her move from winter to spring was so humbling. I just valued her ability to deal with everything.

Yeah, and then for a lot of us, it isn’t a Tori show without a meet-and-greet. Have you thought about what that looks like in this COVID age?

Well, that’s a good question, Chris. I think you know that with some of the venues, who knows what the rules are going to be, by the time we begin the European tour in Berlin, the protocols are changing all the time. So, I have no idea what the rules are going to be in place. So I don’t know what it’s going to be, but we’re going to have to be mindful of that, and I know that. And I don’t really know the answer to that right now, but I do know that they’re going to be different. Different venues are going to be operating very differently.

You mentioning live music reminds me of 20 years ago at this time. You were on the Strange Little Tour, which I saw. That tour was so important to people because it helped us grieve after 9/11. Do you think it will be a similar energy when you go back out on the road next year?

Well, I think there’s going to be a lot of sharing going on because I’ve been fortunate enough during this time to get letters from others describing what their experience has been. And I think there’s going to be a lot of that exchange of what people have learned, and the different choices that people have made. I know people who have left everything, left the job left where they were, and just said, “I’m done. I’m going to go somewhere else.” And then I know people who had a job through the whole time but had different challenges. And there’s always that introvert, that person who says, “I was socially awkward, so, this has been the best time of my life, because nobody’s bugging me, wondering where I am and why aren’t I out.”

Can you reveal yet if you’re going to tour solo or with the band?

I can’t reveal that yet. But, this is what I can say. Scheduling is really tricky for people because the tours moved, the American tour will have moved three times. So even if there were commitments, by some people then you find that you might have a crew person that’s been with you for 15 years or a musician that you’ve played with and then they made different commitments a year and a half ago. Do you see what I’m saying? There’s all that on top of what we’re dealing with, which is an unusual situation because I’ve never canceled a tour or never not done it. So I’ve never had to deal with that before. There are all kinds of things that we’re sorting through, but I’m going to try and bring the best possible show that I can.

Always. Going back to the album, I love “Spies.” You said it was inspired by bats and it made me think, the album’s coming out two days before Halloween. Do you have any traditions that get you in the mood for Halloween or the spooky season every year?

I’m a lover of Halloween, but I believe in the benevolent, which is, I come from the very faith. So, I know that there are malevolent energies out there too, that don’t wish everybody the best. And what do they call it? The Sociopath Next Door. I love that title. I think it’s a book title, but I love that phrase because we all know one. But, Halloween for me, I choose not to be on that side of it. I think more ancient, more mythic about what it could mean. I’ve always loved it for the magical side.
 

I was listening to you on BBC Radio 6, when you were talking about the Cornish faeries. Did they have a hand with this new album?

I think they’re very involved, but they’re cheeky. They might have been letting the bats in the house. That might have been their doing. They’re very different than the muses, the muses roll in a completely different kind of energy. I’m not saying they don’t cross paths and share winks as they pass. But the muses glide. They glide in and out, whenever they want. And, they’re pretty busy, the muses, if you follow me. They’re busy. But, I’m not sure the Cornish faeries weren’t involved in getting those bats and terrorizing [my daughter] Tash, bless her. She’s an animal lover, and yet the bats were chasing her around. Don’t ask me why, they don’t chase me around, I love the bats. I get on great with the bats. But we are in farm country. We’re in the middle of the sticks, my friend. And so, I have no idea why they picked her, but I thought, okay, so she needs a lullaby and maybe then we can all get to sleep. But writing a 20-year-old a lullaby is very different than when I would write for her when she was a little girl. So I thought, okay, a little thrillant is maybe what she needs.

Speaking of Tash, did she ever get that cat?

She’s been bugging me about it, but [my husband] Mark is not fond of this idea.

Oh.

Because, when Tash wanted a dog and a puppy, guess who took care of the puppy and taught the puppy and looked after the puppy til he became an adult? That was Mark. So, his experience with animals in this house is that he’s the one that has to look after them. So, until somebody really is going to be the one to look after the cat, and I think he said, “Think about this.”

Switching gears a little bit: Next year is the 20th anniversary of one of my favorite albums of yours, Scarlet’s Walk. What comes to mind when you look back on making that album, and what does Scarlet’s Walk mean to you now?

Well, I’ll never forget this woman that I’ve not seen before or since. She was a Native American woman who came to the stage door and somebody working on the crew by the name of Joel, got her backstage. It was his instinct. She said, “I have a message for Tori.” And he went, “Okay.” He felt the power of that. And she came and sat down and she said, “I have a message for you.” She gave me the message, and we sat together for at least half an hour. And it felt very much like a directive, of what Scarlet’s Walk needed to be. And it felt like she was channeling her inner spirit, but also something from her ancestors that was just very sacred. It felt like a directive. It was like, “When you talk to the muses, you need to tell them what we are saying to you. And this is what you need to think about as you’re gathering the songs for the new record.” And I won’t go into depth because I feel like I need to be very, very respectful of the things that she said to me and about the power of the land and the sacredness of the land and what I needed to respect. If I’m going to write Scarlet’s Walk, with what it has to hold energetically and the stories that it has to tell, and the truth that it has to tell.

It’s just such an incredible album. If you’re looking for a way to celebrate the anniversary, the number-one request from fans is Scarlet’s Walk on vinyl. Just putting that bug in your ear.

Tell everybody for me, tell the team, that vinyl plants are backed up weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. So, it might be a year later to get that Scarlet vinyl out.

Okay, good to know.

But I will try.
 

So, my last question is, for a self-proclaimed arsonist, what was it like writing Ocean to Ocean, an album filled with so much water imagery?

I know, right? It’s like, “Where are all my fire starters?! Help! Help! I Know Jesus was a Pisces, but help!” I’m surrounded by the water energies. But that’s the thing, I needed to turn to something in a big way, that was out of my wheelhouse. That was out of what I know. And that’s because I think I was drowning, clearly, I was drowning in something that I needed to let go of. I needed to let go of trying to make the past the present again, and realizing we’re not going back. You can’t go back; you have to go forward. So trying to go back to the old ways, it’s like, “No, wait a minute, you have to go into something new.” Of course, you’re going to mourn the death of something, an old way of life, an old way of dealing with things. But now let’s regenerate, be part of the rebirth, and that’s why the goddess Kali shows up because she’s very much about death and rebirth. Sometimes people just focus on the destruction, but she’s very much about the rebirth. I needed to move out of the death side of things, but also, it was water that really became my teacher.

And using the term “drowning” is interesting.

Well, I used it for a reason. But I was drowning in a foot of water, if you know what I mean, my own puddle of tears of, and I think, again, I did really well and I’m not like I got a Girl Scout badge, because I was kicked out of that too. But, in the first lockdown, Chris, like you said about you, we were juggling, family holidays with [Tash’s boyfriend] Oliver here for five months. You know, what we thought was two weeks became five months. But, we did all right, we pulled together. Mark, who is Greta Garbo with two capital Gs, he was surrounded by people. Whereas my sister who’s a social butterfly was alone half the time, they would say, “Can we just trade places?” So I think a lot of people were challenged in that they were in circumstances that it’s not how they would cope, normally, if you follow me. And we did all right, but just by the third lockdown, it just wiped me out. And I’ve heard similar things from other people.

Well, it’s good to know that I was not alone in feeling that way.

And it’s good to know that I wasn’t alone, Chris, and I did get some letters which helped. And like I said, except the couple of introverts that were secretly cheerleading and you can say, “Okay, we love you anyway, you’ve had your time, introverts.”

Tori Amos kicks off her Ocean to Ocean North American Tour on April 27 in Dallas, TX. For more info and tickets click here.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."
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