Tori Amos is partway through the Ocean to Ocean tour when we speak to her for this interview; finally, the celebrated singer and songwriter can get out on the road and celebrate the album of the same name that was released in October. She’s characteristically chatty and charming when we speak by phone, an easy conversationalist. But she’s also very open about the fact that the past couple of years have been challenging to say the least.
Amos spent the pandemic period in her home in Cornwall, a gorgeous county in the southwest of England. Thankfully, she’s now able to travel and see family, as well as tour.
“Now that the pandemic has lifted, between the tours I popped into the beach house in Florida before it all started—I hadn’t seen my father except one time in the last couple of years,” she says. “So I’m in Cornwall for a good portion of the time, but not for many, many months now.”
There are worse places to be locked down than Cornwall but still, a lockdown is a lockdown. In the UK, they had three over the course of the pandemic.
“On the third one, I thought we handled it as well as we could,” Amos says. “For the first and the second, particularly the first, we were busy. We were at the recording studio so we had a book that came out [Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage], we did a virtual book tour, and then we did an EP and put out Christmastide with Decca. So we’ve been pretty busy. And then the insurrection happened. And then the third lockdown had been put in place, and I think it was clear that live music wasn’t going to happen so here we go again. I think a lot of musicians that I’m speaking to are in a similar mental state which is ‘when is this going to shift?’ Our business was one of the businesses that was on its knees. That and live theater. But as you know, the music side of things was one of the last to come back. So it was challenging.”
It was particularly strange for Amos, a North Carolina native and former Los Angeles resident, to watch the January 6 insurrection from the UK.
“The Brits that were phoning in were asking ‘what in the world has happened to your country?’,” she says. “My husband started wearing a t-shirt around the house going ‘Make America Great Britain Again.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Wife, your people have lost their way.’ Maybe they need their older brother to come back in, colonize them and teach them what’s what. Oh my goodness. But in a way, this is such teenager behavior. ‘Watch me dad, I’m gonna crash my car. Fuck you, I’ll show you.’ Burn it all down.”
It was the events on January 6, combined with Cornish mythology and the environment, that inspired Ocean to Ocean.
“It’s all of it, and it’s also having to get out even in the wintery Cornish weather—when the gales are blowing and the gusts of wind – it can be ferociously beautiful because it’s so powerful,” Amos says. “I got myself out in it. We’re in the middle of nowhere really, we’re in farm country 20 minutes from the cliffs in northern Cornwall where the weather coming off the Atlantic can be quite something. It was almost a relief to realize that nature wasn’t in lockdown. She was busy, and she was in that time of very dramatic weather. It was humbling. I said, ‘Clearly, you as an energy force are able to deal with a world that’s gone mad and I just need to study from you’ because I’d got into a place of despondency. I didn’t have the tools. Nobody did, really. How do you deal with a pandemic, especially if your livelihood and what you do doesn’t lend itself to Zoom. Not really. So it was about, how do you adapt? That’s when I just sat with nature and started listening. ‘Metal Water Wood’ was the first song to come, to admit that I was just in a place of sadness.”
The album was recorded, produced, mixed, and engineered in Cornwall, Los Angeles, and Massachusetts, which was challenging but the results are exceptional.
“I think it worked because Matt Chamberlain [drums], Jon Evans [bass], Mark Hawley [guitar], and I, we worked as four directions on this with John Philip Shenale—we added an extra direction with him in there,” Amos says. “JPS I’ve been working with since ’91. So because we have a history of playing together for so many years and working together, there was a language that we’ve developed. When you have that language, you have it. Yet we weren’t in a room together jamming. So it went from the studio to L.A. to Matt Chamberlain’s studio, then it would come back to us and I’d do a take off my piano and play to him. Then it goes to Jon Evans’ studio, and comes back to us. We’d add stuff and it’d go to JPS, and then it would come back and we’d tie it up. That was the process.”
Ultimately, the album sounds phenomenal. Songs such as the title track and “Spies” are classic Tori Amos – emotionally stirring, near-classical, epic yet organic and utterly beautiful. Under the circumstances, she has excelled.
“Those were the circumstances,” Amos says. “Would it have been different if we’d all been in a room together? Probably? I remember when Matt heard ‘29 Years’ once it was done, and he said ‘reggae, really?’ That’s all he said. Because once he’d played drums on it, he didn’t hear it again until the end. I’m sure he was surprised but after he listened to it for a couple of days, I think he was really thrilled. The choices you make are the choices. When you’re in a room together, it’s a very different conversation than when you’re thousands of miles apart. There was just no time to get it back to people to say, ‘let me change this, let me change that.’ I’ll occasionally get a letter from an introvert going, ‘How’s your pandemic? Mine’s going quite swimmingly.’ The introverts get a little break here. Good for them.”
Now on tour, Amos receives a lot of letters from people concerned about the state of the world. She’s been an effective activist for years, with organizations such as RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Naturally, she’s dismayed about the recent moves by the Supreme Court to potentially overturn Roe vs. Wade.
“We’ve been out for several weeks, and the letters that we’re getting from people who are deeply concerned about what’s happening,” she says. “Many of them keep making it clear that this is anti-choice. It’s not pro-life. If this were about pro-life, then where are they after the birth of the kid, these people? This is about anti-choice. This isn’t about them assisting these people with bringing up a kid. Financially and anything else for the next 18 years. Very few people put their money where their mouth is. That’s where I just roll my eyes and say, ‘don’t confuse yourself on what this is about. This is anti-choice, because you’re forcing somebody to have a child, whether they then feel like they don’t want to send the child up for adoption but struggle on and try to do it.’ A lot of people are making it clear to me how they’re seeing it. A lot of people are incredibly concerned about the court and what the court means. This is a real defining moment, I think, in our history, with our justice system.”
Amos will be performing for three nights in Los Angeles at the Orpheum, and she’s relishing the chance to return to her former home.
“I love it,” she says. “I lived there for seven and a half years, when big hair was the thing. I lived in L.A. at a specific time. I was in my twenties—I moved there when I was 21. I was all over the Canyons, in the Valley, and driving my little wannabe Mustang—a baby blue Capri—all over the place. Playing piano bars anywhere I could. I played the Sheraton, the Bonaventure. I even played the Sheraton in Long Beach after Little Earthquakes got rejected. I had to go back to piano bars. I played the Ramada in Beverly Hills. I played it all, my friend.”
People intending on attending all three nights can expect the odd change in the setlist here and there.
“We change a few songs every night,” Amos says. “I’m always moving the set around. I start the same way, because that’s ‘once upon a time’ for each tour. Then you can move anywhere you want to move, pretty much. There might be some that show up more than others, because they’re part of the narrative right now for our time now, that are just working as a pivot. But we’re rewriting the narrative so the journey is different every night, reflecting what we’ve learned that day in that town, which will be L.A. It’s just reading the letters before the show, getting a sense of where people are, taking requests – that’s how I do it.”
Finally, Amos says that the schedule over the next 12 months is open to change. Anything can happen.
“A lot of it is timing,” she says. “Does it work? Because when we’re touring really, other than some interviews, it’s not as if I can just jump into a recording studio somewhere and contribute to something if they have a deadline of three weeks from now. It doesn’t always work time-wise. So I’m open to what happens. I think I’m going to spend some time in the States so I can see my family because I haven’t seen them in such a long time.”