After her mother died, Tori Amos tried to distance herself from her pain by taking long walks near her home on the Cornish coast. The landscape was dark and cold, the sky an endless gray slate. Never in her life had she felt so alone or estranged from her family in the United States.
“Until I experienced it, I had no idea,” Amos says. “No idea what levels and layers of emotion I would feel. I had not made this trip. And to do so during the upheaval we have all known. Be placed under house arrest. You can call it whatever you want. But, really, that’s what it was for me.
Amos’ mother, Mary Ellen, passed away in May 2019, aged 90. They were close and the singer, 58, was still dealing with the loss when the pandemic struck and the world went into the cold. On her new album, Ocean to Ocean, she brings this anxiety to light.
“When you’re gone / Emptiness,” sings Amos on Speaking with Trees. “Since you left / I hid your ashes.” Later, on the same song, she observes that Grief is life’s ultimate mystery box. Until you have to open it, there is no way to know how you will react to what is inside. “You only know when you know this / How you are going to cope with your losses,” she laments.
Ocean To Ocean is Amos’ 16th studio album and it seems linked to the visceral records she made in the 1990s. There are echoes of razor-sharp pain from Crucify, the 1992 single that featured the anguish of twenty years like a long walk on the hill of Golgotha. And there are parallels to Silent all these Years, its loud, silent scream of a hit song in which that daughter of a Methodist preacher led to years of rage (“you think there is a heaven where the screams are gone? ? ”).
Ocean to Ocean is at the same time anchored in the present. She’s her long lockdown player and, while speaking to her, it’s clear that the past 18 months have been traumatic. Cornwall, her retreat from the rigors of touring, became the golden cage she couldn’t break free from. She was facing the loss of her mother and the erosion of her faith in America as a beacon in the world. She speaks with horror of January 6, 2021, when a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. To her, it was almost like watching the Nazis march to power.
Talk to my sound engineer husband. He’ll just roll his eyes [EU] legislation and how far-fetched some of them were
“If American democracy falls, then the rest of the world must be afraid. I don’t see why it’s so far from Germany, in my mind, ”she said. “Yes, I’m just a songwriter. Yes it looks different [from Berlin in 1933]. But, really, the idea of absolute power – it must be clear that this is what some of these men and women, who are part of this authoritarianism, is what they want. An economic aristocracy.
Cornwall, where she has lived for 20 years with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, and daughter Natashya Lórien (21), voted for Brexit. Does she see any parallels between Trumpism and the gaslighting of the British population on the supposed benefits of leaving the EU? She takes a moment to collect her thoughts.
“You have to come to Cornwall and go visit a fishing village or try to sit in someone’s cab and see what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking that way,” she says. “Until I do that, until I sit in taxis or listen to people … They are just very frustrated to be told what to do from Brussels.”
She thinks there should have been another way. That former British Prime Minister David Cameron should have returned from Europe with a deal that would have avoided a referendum.
“What I find sad about all of this is that it should never have happened. I’m American, I’m a guest here. So I don’t know British politics. But to me there seemed to be a real split in the road that could have been renegotiated with Cameron. “
She says it is “dangerous” for songwriters to weigh in on such issues. However, it is his job to record a “sonic photograph” of his lived environment. And right now, that environment is post-Brexit in Cornwall.
“Something had to change,” she says. “If you listen to the peasant on the ground, the fisherman on the ground, the taxi driver on the ground …”
They despaired, she said, of EU laws that “just dictated what the light bulb should be.”
“Talk to my sound engineer husband. He’ll just roll his eyes [EU] legislation and how far-fetched some of them were. There were real frustrations that I think needed to be heard and dealt with. ”
It was a very difficult time … The label did not understand it, which is always difficult
She was born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina in 1963. Amos’ late mother was of Cherokee descent. Her father had ambitions to be a televangelist and when she was growing up insisted that the family attend church four times a week. A child prodigy, Amos could skillfully imitate radio music on the piano from the age of four. At age 11, however, she was kicked out of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore for “musical insubordination.” From that moment on, she was determined to find her own path in life.
Amos was at the forefront of a generation of female artists who broke up in the 1990s by speaking candidly about their sexuality and the patriarchal forces that had shaped their world. “It was me and a gun, and a man on my back,” she sang on Me and a Gun on her 1992 debut Little Earthquakes. The lyrics recounted an incident in which she was sexually assaulted by a fan she offered to take her to after a concert. As such a song should be, it is difficult to listen to. Amos then formed the charity and advocacy group RAINN: the “National Rape, Abuse and Incest Network”. The new track, 29 Years, returns in the same emotional space as Me and a Gun.
“There are a lot of things in this song. The last 29 years of trying to stop living from a place of my damage. You know, we carry all of our messes. There are very few people who don’t, that I have found in life. It is not always about sexual assault. People are working on different things though, ”she says.
“That they were harassed at school. Or be great at something at a young age and then it doesn’t come through in what was expected of them. Whatever the damage, 29 Years tries to recognize it and [to] understand, how do you break the pattern? How do you stop sabotaging the positive things going on in your life? “
There can be that double standard with women in music, where, when we do something, they call it “cathartic”. And then the guys unzip their skin, it’s called poetry and art
The music industry has always had a problem with women knowing their own minds. And those who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s had it as difficult as anyone. Sinéad O’Connor’s career in the United States was nearly ruined when she tore up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. Madonna was seen as a threat to public morals. Amos has experienced several similar misogynist backlashes. Twenty years ago, she released the LP Strange Little Girls, in which she brought a female perspective to rock anthems originally written and sung by men.
These included I Don’t Like Mondays from The Boomtown Rats, 1997’s Bonnie & Clyde from Eminem and Enjoy the Silence from Depeche Mode. Critics have tripped over themselves to tear it to shreds. Rolling Stone lamented its tendency to “misinterpret the song’s original arrangement.” All Music said there was “too much surface shine”.
“I feel like I’m getting a little under their balls,” she said. “Some of the journalists – they weren’t all men… There can be that double standard with women in music, where when we do something they call it ‘cathartic’. And then the guys decompress their skin, it’s called poetry and art.
There had already been a storm in 1996 around her third album, Boys For Pele (named after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes rather than the Brazilian striker). An ambitious, sometimes difficult job, it was partly recorded in a converted church in Delgany, Co Wicklow.
No one cared. All they wanted to talk about was the cover photo of Amos apparently suckling a sow. In Michigan, a man sued her after crashing his car while looking at a huge billboard of her and the piglet.
Boys For Pele is considered a masterpiece today. However, the reviews at the time were brutal. Rolling Stone rolled her eyes at “the enigmatic artifice and fanciful metaphors”. Entertainment Weekly took issue with the “absurd images” and “shocking references to pop culture”.
“It was a very difficult time,” she says. “The label didn’t understand it, which is always difficult. Especially without the Internet being what it is now.
She remembers the advice she received from her friend, author Neil Gaiman (who allegedly based the character of Death from Sandman in part on Amos).
“He got the record and said to me, ‘Look, you have to go from town to town, you can’t take your foot off the accelerator of the Pelé train here my friend. You must go and preach the gospel ”.
It was easier said than done. “Living it is very different. Such negativity – such a harsh criticism. It made you think, ‘Did I lose my mind going to Ireland? Have I drunk too much of this Irish elixir? “
But maybe things have changed. It’s pretty much possible to imagine a daring record like Boys for Pele getting a fairer audience today. Should this give him hope that artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish and Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, take on the entertainment industry in their own way?
“Of course, that gives me a lot of hope. I know Annie personally. His position was not given to him. She had to work really hard to be where she is. And to hold on. It’s not good of me to tell her story. She had to make her choices, decide who is on her team, who will help her convey her vision. It hasn’t changed since women in the 1990s. We had to work to be where we are.
Ocean To Ocean releases October 29