Tori Amos: ‘I was on my knees emotionally. I could not deal with one more crisis’

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‘When people say, Fake it until you make it, it’s just not going to work for me’  (Desmond Murray)
‘When people say, Fake it until you make it, it’s just not going to work for me’ (Desmond Murray)

On the cover of her new album Ocean to Ocean, Tori Amos stands atop a cliff in Cornwall, her adopted home since moving here from the US in the late Nineties. Her famous flame-red hair flows down a long black dress, the colour signifying both personal loss and the loss she’s felt from afar over the past year. She has one arm outstretched, pointing across the sea to where her family and friends are located. A year spent apart from them through the pandemic, she says, took a huge emotional toll.

“My boat was foundering,” explains the 58-year-old, calling from a hotel in London where she’s on one of her first trips away from home in over 18 months. She talks in metaphors often, poetic imagery being a filter through which the musician makes sense of the world. “I wasn’t alone, I knew that, but I couldn’t even send out a little rescue boat to another boat in the distance in that locked-down place.”

Amos says she was never going to cope with lockdown well: she usually splits her time between the UK and Florida, and has been on the road playing live since she was 13. A child prodigy, as soon as she was out of nursery she was able to recreate piano arrangements perfectly by ear, and she was the youngest person ever to be admitted to prestigious music conservatoire the Peabody Institute, aged just five. Now, as an artist who is known for laying her soul bare with fearless intensity across 15 studio albums and a 30-year career, she has translated her piano-playing into songs where the instrument rages or dreams, fleeting between angsty furore and stripped-back ambient soundscapes that cut listeners to the core. It’s unsurprising that her new album employs the latter (with some bonus added electronica) to encapsulate the loss, loneliness and longing of this life-changing year.

Over the past year, Amos used her imagination to connect with her family, including her niece, who was struggling with lockdown alone in New York, and her late mother. She lost her mother to the effects of a stroke two years ago, but often found solace visiting her ashes in Florida. On one of the first songs she wrote for the new album, “Flowers Burn To Gold” – a melancholy piano ballad reminiscent of Kate Bush’s “Among Angels” – she attempts to bring her mother’s memory closer.

“My mother passed in 2019,” says Amos. “I thought I had dealt with that grief by the time we hit the third lockdown, but suddenly realising I couldn’t call her, realising that I needed to step up and be the mom that she was to me [to her own daughter, Tash]... I had been holding it together, but suddenly I just didn’t have the energy. Not having her there when I was at my lowest was...” She takes a moment to breathe. “I don’t know how I got there,” she says of feeling at her lowest. “Maybe it was cumulative – as we know, the last few years have been [crisis after crisis], and just one more crisis, whether it be fires, floods… I could not deal with one more crisis.”

The vulnerability of her latest album is starkly comparable to her critically acclaimed and much-loved debut, 1992’s Little Earthquakes. Amos wrote the songs in quick succession between March and the start of summer, a speed which seems to have bottled her sadness like lightning. All the songs she’d written previously were shelved because she wasn’t being truthful with herself about how truly miserable she felt. She says she’d been collecting songs since her last album, 2017’s Native Invader, but her creativity came to a halt this past winter.

“Once we hit that third lockdown, it really affected me,” she says. “I was despondent. I did swimmingly well on the first one,” she laughs – she found solace with her husband, Mark, adult daughter Tash, and Tash’s boyfriend at home – but then everything fell apart. “The songs that had been percolating, they weren’t resonating. They weren’t the songs that were going to get me out of this place of, I don’t know, low energy,” she says.

Was it bordering on depression? “Yes,” she says. “I was on my knees emotionally. I don’t know if I took on the persona of a female grizzly bear, but I’m not quite sure,” she laughs. “I didn’t feel like super-mum anymore, or super-wife or super-anything. I just wasn’t feeling positive, and I think after that, I had to let everything [I’d previously written] go. Absolutely everything. “Metal Water Wood” was the first song I wrote that really started to pull me out of this place of sadness. It grabbed me and said: ‘Come on, you really have to be like water,’” she explains, by which she means she had to keep going.

With a fan in 2001 (Getty)
With a fan in 2001 (Getty)

“Metal Water Wood” is an album centrepiece, with Amos singing: You found me burning in despair / You said then, ‘I know, dear / It has been a brutal year’ over driving percussion and a defiant, sharp melody. At her lowest ebb, however, she unexpectedly found her way. “That’s when the songs started to come and say, OK, this is a place of power, even though you don’t feel strong. The truth is a place of power and so the songs can be the elixirs to pull you out of this place. There was something in admitting that you don’t feel like a cheerleader for everybody or that you’re able to lift everybody up that week, you just don’t have it in you; that was freeing, and it allowed me to be honest. Then the songs started to come.”

Another thing Amos had to admit to herself, she says, before those songs arrived, was that she needed time to come to terms with what had happened in America during the last election, especially the Capitol riots. Amos has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump’s for years. She says the worry of him being re-elected caused another period of despondency, as did the resulting threat to democracy when the election votes were challenged. “Seeing what happened in the aftermath, the idea that we had elected people who were willing to question the vote of the people and to march us into authoritarianism – I think that was traumatising all of us even more than we already were,” she says.

After she processed the result, eventually, she says another anchor felt lifted. “I wasn’t feeling positive, although of course democracy was retained – thinly, but it was. But that needed to be celebrated. I think after that with the record I just had to let everything go. Absolutely everything.” She says creating from a place of honesty is all she knows. “When people say: ‘Fake it until you make it’, it’s just not going to work for me,” she laughs. “Do me a shot of tequila and let’s sit down and talk about how we’re really feeling.”

Amos has always been outspoken on a number of topics, but especially on feminism and women’s rights, both in the music industry and in wider society. In her recent book, Resistance, which was released back in August, she wrote about how she’s managed to create meaningful, politically resonant work against patriarchal power structures in the industry (she became the first national spokesperson for Rainn – the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network – back in 1994).

Amos herself is a survivor of sexual assault, and one song on her new album sees her looking back once more at the trauma it caused. In “29 Years”, Amos hauntingly sings: For 29 years I’ve been searching for you ... these victim tears a song from my past. It feels almost twinned with her debut single “Me and a Gun”, where she recounted her assault. A long period of reflection in lockdown could have resulted in the revisiting here, but so might Amos’s work with Rainn over lockdown. The number of people reaching out for help was at its highest ever level, she explains.

‘Ultimately, you have to wake up with yourself’ (Desmond Murray)
‘Ultimately, you have to wake up with yourself’ (Desmond Murray)

“The percentage of calls they have had in the last 18 months has skyrocketed,” Amos says, adding that many of the calls dealt with “underage” abuse at a time when children weren’t safeguarded as much because they weren’t at school. “This problem is endemic,” she says of sexual assault. “It is beyond anything we can grasp. And it hurt more with schools being closed on both sides of the Atlantic. Places where an abuse might get recognised by somebody – a teacher, a nurse, someone like that. Certain settings where it can be picked up on.”

She continues: “And to add to this tragedy, you have the law in Texas,” she says, referring to the state’s recent ban on abortions – including for pregnancies that have resulted from rape or incest. “Women’s rights should be protected all the time, in any circumstance, and yet people are OK to insist that a woman, or a child, give birth after rape or incest... a child or a woman!” she says, angrily. “It’s something that we have to deal with.”

She says she would like those making such laws to come to Rainn, to hear the cases she and the other professionals at the network hear daily. “The fact that anybody is tone-deaf to this… maybe they need to man the lines at Rainn. They’re not trained, so they wouldn’t be allowed – but maybe they are just so disconnected with what’s going on for women and the issues that are happening globally right now; with what’s happening to women in Afghanistan...”

In Resistance, Amos recalled the process of writing “Silent All These Years”, a song on her debut album that deals with the way women are suppressed by a patriarchal society. Songs on Ocean to Ocean allude to this, like the dreamy, string-led “Birthday Baby”, a tango that becomes an ode to solo empowerment. Sometimes in life, a girl must tango alone, she sings – the song was inspired by her niece in New York, who was crippled with loneliness during the pandemic. It seems also to recall her own time making music as a young woman, struggling to find her way in an industry that pits women against one another, or knocks them down when they take a new direction musically.

“I took a real battering on Boys for Pele,” she explains, referring to the critical reaction to her third album in which she experimented with a new stripped-down style. “That was 1995, and some people forgot it, but there were a lot of critics who did not because they just didn’t at the time. It has lived on to hold its own, and carve out its own place in my canon, but at the time the arrows were flying from all sides. The record company were pretty tough on me at the time.”

Amos on stage in 2010 (AFP via Getty)
Amos on stage in 2010 (AFP via Getty)

She says she empathises with artists like Billie Eilish, Lorde and Lizzo, who have received criticism recently for trying new musical directions or aesthetics. “I understand what those women are going through,” she says. “It takes a lot of courage for them to stand by their art and stand by their choices. Because, ultimately, you have to wake up with yourself. And people will blow hot and cold, because once you achieve a certain level of success, there are people who just want to tear you down. That’s what some people do,” she says, calling it “cultural sociopathy”.

Amos speaks from a place of thirty years’ experience when she thinks back to her time starting out in the Nineties. “When you’re on your first, second, third record, and you’re not quite established enough necessarily yet, you can be pitted against each other. People say, ‘You don’t need to compete with each other.’ But that’s not how the system is built. You have to look at the systemic toxic environment that it is. If you’re only having so many females at a festival, and you’re only having so many females on alternative radio, or country radio, then the industry itself has set up a place where there isn’t enough to go around. They have set up scarcity; they’ve set up this ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, which is so destructive.”

Amos says she hopes her recent book can help young artists navigating this in some way now. “And so that’s what I wanted [people] to take away from the book, is to understand how the system is created and that we as women have to find ways – as I said [on 2005 track “Barons of Suburbia”], I’m piecing a potion to combat your poison. And ‘your poison’, to me, is in tearing each other down. We have to find ways around it, but it’s bloody hard when you’re in an industry that doesn’t have equal opportunity.”

Soon, Amos is heading back to Cornwall, back to the ocean. Like so many over the last year, she has found that reconnecting with the natural world has been another big part of finding her way through the storm. “Nature was a huge part,” she says, of getting back her ability to write songs. “Seeing how nature copes with things, watching her and then realising what she copes with in a day, how she is still there for us...” It’s almost a metaphor for Amos herself, who has faced more challenges than most in becoming the artist she is today. And she’s still here, still weathering storms and reaching out to us all.

‘Ocean to Ocean’ is released on 29 October

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