"You're in your own private little hell, T." — A conversation with Tori Amos
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
As most of us, Tori Amos found herself in a new and difficult situation during the pandemic. While the US-born singer/songwriter usually finds both her inspiration as well as her outlet in traveling, all of a sudden that wasn't possible. Lockdown number one came, she kept busy. It was the third one that hit her particularly hard.
But it wasn't just the frustration with being stuck in one place — it was also a feeling of anger and aggression, caused by political circumstances. Talking to the muses, as she says, Amos knew what she had to do. That resulted in her new album "Ocean To Ocean". I had the pleasure to talk to Tori.
Tori, you started working on "Ocean To Ocean" in the third lockdown, which hit you particularly hard. What was it about the third one that felt so difficult?
Tori Amos: The third lockdown was quite severe. In the first one, our family did okay. But by the third one all kinds of stuff had happened at the same time. America was going through these multiple constitutional crises with January 6, and the aftermath of that with some of our elected officials, playing Russian roulette with democracy. That put me in a state of anger, that these elected people were treasonous. Then I got to a place of putting my hands up and just realizing that I couldn't stay in that energy anymore. That disparity. The aggression of it was something that I realized I was becoming allergic to. I needed to really take a step back. So I stepped back from all the songs, pretty much all the songs I had written, and then sat in silence for a little while.
How did you proceed?
It wasn’t linear. For me as a songwriter and artist, it’s never a linear process. You keep going with your life. You make sure that there's mealtimes and things like that. I started reading all kinds of things about nature and people that have a deep relationship with nature. Whether they climb mountains, or whether they have been studying the networks – the funky networks underneath the trees, and how trees communicate. Whatever these books were, I was just voraciously reading and trying to shift myself. At a certain point though, it was clear that the muses said to me: "You need to write from where you are. And you know where you are? You are in your own little private hell, T. So you need to write from there." And I reached out looking for fighters, because I needed to fight the monster of despondency. So I turned to Bruce Lee, one of the great fighters of all time, and his wisdom was: Be like water. So the floodgates then opened, and that was the first song that we finished for the new record.
For many people lockdowns obviously have been exceptional situations. Did you stumble across problems during the isolation you didn’t think you’d have? Or find out something about yourself that surprised you?
What became clear to me is that most people’s coping mechanisms weren’t working because they were off the table. Except if you were somebody who copes by being alone, and you just happened to have the good fortune of being alone. If all this lined up for you, then then you were able to, I think, surf this crisis. Because then you were able to apply your coping mechanism. Some people need to be alone. We're surrounded with a house full of people, whether that's kids in from college, whether it's mother in law. My coping mechanism is to travel. My sister's coping mechanism is to be with people. She's a social butterfly, but she was alone. So as you can see, a lot of people were finding themselves in situations whereby they couldn't apply these tried and true coping mechanisms to process stuff. So I think a lot of us were fish out of water and going a bit mad.
As you said, traveling has been an important outlet to you. While you couldn’t travel, did you discover new things about the necessity to travel and why it’s so meaningful?
Well, I understand the principle of it, which is: you will literally shake up your routine. Because if you take yourself to a place that you don't normally go, your senses are going to be heightened, you have no idea what's going to happen next. In Cornwall, I pretty much know when the tractors are going to start up in farm country. I know when lambing season is, I know on a daily basis when the milking happens for the cows. So when I go to the desert, and I haven't been there in a while, there are new things that I didn’t know were there. Well, there are actually a lot of things I won't know. That heightens your senses. And therefore when my senses are in a heightened state, I'm perceiving differently. There isn't a routine where I can kind of sleepwalk through whatever. There are a lot of surprises when I travel and then that alone starts to get my engines going. Those songwriting engines revving. That was not possible and I've been taking pilgrimages for a long time before writing a record.
What’s your favorite way of travelling?
Rock’n’Roll goes by bus, I think. Yes, I realize Iron Maiden has their own pilot in their band. Good on them! But the point is, I don't mind the bus. It took me a while to get used to it in the 90s. But once I got into it, I really took to it. There's something about leaving a venue and then traveling overnight and waking up in a new city and not having to go through airport security and all that. You're kind of in your own cocoon with your own team of people. You're sharing experiences together. It's a road trip, right? I like the camaraderie. I enjoy it and I don't find it boring. I can't wrap my head around it when I hear people say that they find touring boring. There's so much exploring you can be doing. If you want to, it's there. There's so much to see when you're in a new place, even if you're in a small town. There's so much to learn about a place's history. I really love it.
You spend your time between Cornwall and Florida. What do you miss about the other place, when you’re not there?
I miss kayaking. I miss the warmth. There's something languid about South Florida. Maybe it's the heat. There's a real calm beauty to it. It's different in Cornwall. It depends on what time of year we're talking about when you're in Cornwall. In autumn and winter time the gales are starting to blow. It's biblical rain right now. And so the seasons are very, very much alive. And you have to embrace that. It took me a few years to embrace that. But I feel like I'm more capable of dealing with the severe weather than I was.
Let’s go back to the creation process. When do you start to see a bigger picture, when do you realize where the new songs are going?
When something begins to work, then you hear things that aren't working with the other pieces. You reckon you can maybe try and re-approach those pieces by rewriting, reworking or you start from scratch. Because you know what your benchmark is. Once you get a benchmark, and we were fortunate to get that with "Metal Water Wood", because then Mark and I, working out of the control room here and in Cornwall, knew that everything needed to be able to live alongside that benchmark of what the forcefield of "Metal Water Wood" was becoming. You know what your goals are, you know where the songs have to be. There's clarity in that. Matt Chamberlain was doing drums from LA, John Evans was doing bass from Cape Cod – it would come back after each musician played on it. Then we would work with it, we’d add to it, and then it would go back out again and come back. Literally the tracks were going ocean to ocean. From the Atlantic to the Pacific and back. That was really the process.
Do you usually work like that — with people recording in different studios?
No. Normally, people gather together in my world. But it hasn't been possible for 18 months. So we did a Christmas EP last year called "Christmas Tide". We test drove this theory on this EP, seeing if this concept could work, meaning: could we groove? Groove is the hardest thing to attain. It's a tricky thing, groove. Getting the pocket, right? A lot of people can't groove. That's just the reality, sorry, but it's just true. Sometimes you're checking your groove when you're playing together, and then you make changes together. I guess we've all played together for so long, that we developed a language over well over 20 years. And within this language, then maybe I didn't realize how embedded it is, deep in your own bones, that you have a chemistry and an ability to communicate through music. Because all those years of playing together and touring together really showed us that all that work was worth it.
Do you have a writing routine? Do you go when inspiration hits you? I remember Nick Cave saying that he sets himself office hours and works everyday from 7 to 5.
I have so much respect for Nick Cave’s process. That's not my process. To those writers out there: I think you need to find what works for you. And it might be a combination of where you go, "okay, for this week, I'm going to try the Nick Cave school, I'm going to get up and see what I can write." My kind of school of thought is: I'm more like I look to Mother Earth, and the seasons and cyclical. So I see things as an input and output. Input is when I'm drinking in. I’m taking in information and it might seem dormant, it might look like "okay, you know, that's just a hibernation tactic". But what can be happening is that you are listening to things and reading things, and taking in and drinking it in. We talked about the pilgrimage, traveling, observing, taking things in, really listening, being quiet, observing, making notes on what I hear and see. Having those experiences, letting them affect me, and then collecting all these essences, or sonic ingredients, and then bring them back to the piano kitchen. Bring them back to the cauldron. You know, I've got a bit of witchiepoo in me, Markus.
Would it be sufficient to say that this record was born out of discomfort?
Discomfort is an interesting word. I think it's a good word. I think the word needs to be a bit more radical than that. Because I think that the world at different times went through madness. I think some people were in the madness at different times. I saw some people really losing it in the first lockdown. They were shocked. Everything stopped. People were falling apart. We are fortunate enough to have the recording studio here and we were utilizing that to do the virtual book tour. So I was supposed to be out all over the States, crossing the States and in England, doing a book signing when the book came out in May 2020. And then as you know, once the lockdown happened in March, all that had to stop but we still had to put out a book. So we were figuring out how to do filming from here, making that work. Normally you'd have person to person appearances, go to NPR or Sirius radio to be recorded…we did it from here. So we were busy in the first lockdown. By the third , however… once I postponed an American tour, postponed a record, all the post election stuff in America where democracy was being so challenged and running off the rail: I just hit a wall and that's what happened.
The Austrian autor Thomas Bernhard once said he can only write in states of discomfort. Because when he’s feeling good, he wouldn’t want to spoil it by writing.
Well it shows he knew what kind of writer he was. I have complete respect for a writer’s process. I know some people that keep destroying their lives. I don't know how many marriages some of my friends are on. Because they utilize and they destroy in order to write from that destruction. That’s not my thing. I like being married. I like all that. I like having a really grounded home life. I want my kid and my niece to feel things are very stable. But with the stability in the home life, I realized the artist has to roam. She has to grow. And she has to purge those demons. Sometimes the demons come from observing what we're up to as humanity. What are we doing? What are we really doing? How are we treating each other? How am I reacting to it? Am I reacting from my damaged self? Or am I reacting from a more healed Tori, after having had years of therapy and gaining those tools – but sometimes I throw those tools out and just react. So the kind of writer you are is something you need to really understand. And it doesn't mean that what worked for you twenty years ago will work for you twenty years in the future. You might find: "Oh, I'm going to try this. I'm going to try taking a pilgrimage" . But that's really tough to do if you're in a lockdown and can't move. Things have to come together in order for you to explore what writing techniques work for you, and what your intentions are as a writer, and what motivates you.
You’ve always seemed to have a very strong bond with your fans. Have you been in contact with them during lockdown?
Letters are able to get to me. During this third lockdown, there was a big packet of letters from around the world. I was able to really see what challenges people were facing. They were very different. Sometimes you find similarities. Similarities of challenge. But the circumstances were different, it’s important to stress that. You might have somebody who has young children, and both she and her partner were working. And then they're there with the young children and doing the zoom call, really getting very little help from the outside because of the lockdown situation. The pressure cooker of that, what was happening to them: It was relentless, no sleep. So that was one scenario. Then there's the scenario of somebody on the front line on the medical side. Trying to help people in a hazmat suit and getting spat at by people who were just getting angry. Because they felt their freedoms were being compromised. Well, whatever the feeling is: To take that out by spitting on somebody in a hazmat suit, who's there on the front line, then you hear that person's story. They’re going home at night, questioning: "why am I doing this? Why am I putting my own health on the line to help people who are so ungrateful? '' I was getting all kinds of letters that were really making me aware of the different struggles that people were going through. And it was clear to me that people were exhausted. For the most part. There was always one little introvert somewhere that was just winning. (laughs) "You know, this is just all my Christmases have come true! Because I am a wallflower. And now for one, somebody asked me why I'm not at the pump." So there's always that one who's going to be going: ."Oh this pandemic, I’m winning! And you kind of go: Okay, good for you. Yay. But other than that, I was able to see that people needed something,they needed a place to step into. And that's tricky when you're under house arrest, except to go out for your job. And if you're not having a job that's deemed worthy to do that, then of course, then you're into that gray area. That's why I thought we need some magic. People don't need anger right now. They don't need that energy. They don't need divisiveness. What they need is a potion. A magic potion.
What do you want your listeners to take away from "Ocean To Ocean"?
Hopefully it'll give you lightness. It'll make you smile. And if you need to have a little tear, there's a place for that. But it's also there to help you proceed with the next step.. And if you're stuck, it'll sit with you. And hopefully it will help you get unstuck from a rut. That might be an emotional rut that you feel you've been in. I find, and this is only my experience: I find that the songs helped me to get outside, even in the cold and dance around. Maybe shed some old skin that needed to be shed like a good little snake and step into the future. A different future than maybe I thought we were going to have if you'd asked me three years ago. To embrace this and step into a new energy forcefield.
A German version of this interview can be found on laut.de