Tori Amos On How Grief And The Natural World Inspired Her New Album ‘Ocean To Ocean’

‘Ocean To Ocean’ is a personal and poetic ode to pain, family, and the natural world around us.

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Tori Amos Ocean To Ocean - Photo: Desmond Murray
Photo: Desmond Murray

Throughout her iconic catalog, Tori Amos has often pulled inspiration from traveling – be that her frequent trips to Florida, or other travels around America and the rest of the globe. But like everyone else, the last two years have seen the inimitable artist restricted to one location. For her, that was the wild nature of Cornwall, where she lives with her husband and collaborator Mark Hawley, and its cliffs, shoreline, and greenery took on the role of muse in the place of new scenery.

The results are Ocean To Ocean, Amos’ 16th studio album, and a record of great beauty that works through the loss of her mother Mary with the help of the natural world. She summons her spirit on the spellbinding “Speaking With Trees,” while the gentle piano ripples of “Flowers Burn To Gold” find her searching: “Where are you?/I scan the skies/Voices in the breeze/I scan the sea.”

The contents of Ocean To Ocean weren’t necessarily always the shape the musician saw her first album in four years taking. She had been working on a different set of songs before it, but at the start of 2021 grew disillusioned with them and started again, returning to the soil to plant new seeds that would eventually grow and bloom into a personal and poetic ode to pain, family and the world around us.

The third lockdown in the UK was when ‘Ocean To Ocean’ started coming together, but that time also put you in a despondent place. What was it about that lockdown that took you to that place?

[Everything going on for so long] was one aspect. I think [also] the horror show of American democracy hanging by a thread with some elected officials just not wanting to respect the law. Whatever side you’re on, I really don’t like a crappy loser. It’s really not very interesting to me because I’ve been on the side where the candidate I voted for lost, but I’ve accepted it, that that’s the will of the people because that’s what democracy is. There’s no wiggle room there. You respect the constitution or you don’t – it can’t be rules for when you lose and rules for when you win. What kind of world is that?

You were working on a different album before ‘Ocean To Ocean’ that you scrapped because the 2020 election and events of January 6 made you feel like you’d become a different person. How did those events impact you?

There was so much that some of us believed was on the line. I remember talking to Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa [from the podcast Gaslit Nation] and they’re very informed experts in their field. One of them made it clear to me at a certain point when people were going on about these two older male candidates, and she said to me, “Let’s be very clear. We are not voting for one old man against another. We are voting for a system of government. That’s what we’re doing.”

After the events of not just January 6th and the insurrection, but how some of our leaders responded to that and did not stand up for America’s democratic values, but their own self-interest – I just put my hands up and I said, “Right, I’ve done what I can now. I can’t look at this for one more day.”

I didn’t like where I was going. I said, “Now I need to go into a world that people want to walk into because they’re tired of that. They’ve had enough of the disparity because the energy is so squalid.” I just felt like I needed to have a bath every time I picked up a paper or every time I was listening in on the issues.

I had to just let go and surrender that other album. I don’t know if it’ll have a life. I have no idea. But I needed the silence and I needed to get out in Mother Nature because she wasn’t in lockdown and she was regenerating. She was moving from winter to spring. That’s when I just said, “I want to reflect what you’re doing, Earth Mother.”

How did Cornwell influence this new album?

Cornwall is its own ancient thing. Sometimes the cliffs seem harsh but beautiful. But there’s a strength there. I felt protected walking out on those cliffs and seeing the force that the land holds and its interaction with the water, the ocean, and the rocks. Then coming inland a bit, how the trees are shaped with the gales. And it just became very, almost like its own story of, “Tori, you can choose to, be part of this story and you’re welcome to watch and engage with it.

Then it will shift your frequency and your energy and it will change the music, but you have to do it. And you have to be willing to admit where you are. It’s OK to admit that you’ve been in the muck. Just be honest about it. Because if you’re honest about it and write it from that place, you can write yourself out of that place.”

When you’re writing yourself out of a dark place, is that something you’re conscious of, or is it something you only realize after the fact?

I think you realize that you’re sitting with your demons. I would try and find places to have a word with those thoughts, feelings, or unresolved emotions or wounds from the past that were coming up and then find the piano and close the door and try and not take anybody else down that road until I could work it out.

This album is about loss and how you cope with that. What did you learn about how you deal with pain through making this record?

I think it depends on the loss and where I am at the time, if I’m able to process it and cope with it, or if I think I have, and it comes back. The death of my mother has been one of those things where there are good weeks and days and then there are bad days. Not having her here during this time, not having her at the other end of the phone, I really missed her outlook on life, her approach, because she’s very wise, she was very loving and I just really could have used that. At a certain point, my daughter said to me, “Look, I miss grandma too but I miss my mom and I need my mom back. And that really was very, not shocking, but shocking.

That must be difficult to hear that

You realize, “How am I coping with my losses? I’m not being a responsible parent. I’m not showing up – I’m somewhere else, but I’m not here. So how do I get here?” And that means you have to sometimes go talk to the trees and invoke [my mom] Mary and find her and, and cry those tears and put your arms out around the trees and sit down on Mother Earth and just say, the loss of my mother has been so great and then Earth mother says, “But I’m here and I will teach you.” It was those types of exchanges that I think started to transmit and shift where I was back into the land of the living.

You are an artist who is very inspired by travel and that’s something you’ve missed in the last 18 months. You have a UK and European tour coming up next year…

It’s upon us sooner than we think. I think the strange thing that I found during this whole time is how some days would seem like they’d go on forever and ever, and ever. Yet then all of a sudden it’s summer and autumn and then the Christmas lights around Oxford street are up. So I need to get my chops really up to speed. I’ve been doing a lot of promo and I haven’t been doing a lot of practicing.

So that’s different from how would I approach these cycles over the last 30-some years, I’ve almost put myself in hibernation with the last 18 months. Cause it was OK – we’d say, “Let’s try and shoot for this date,” and then that date would get moved. Then at a certain point, I think I started to become a bear and think, “Here I am in my cave and I’ll come out when I come out,” but now there’s no time for hibernation if I’m really going to make that tour.

Next year is also the 30th anniversary of Little Earthquakes. Have you had much chance lately to sit and reflect over the last 30 years of your career and what are your thoughts on it?

I think it’s a privilege to still be here after 30 years. I think if you had told me back then that we’d be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Little Earthquakes, I don’t know what I would’ve said. I wouldn’t have known that I’d still be making records and would have hoped I would be, but I would have had no idea. So yeah, being able to play music still, it’s pretty exciting.

Buy or stream Tori Amos’ Ocean To Ocean, out now.

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