After her mother died, Tori Amos tried to put a distance between herself and her pain by taking long, rambling walks near her home in coastal Cornwall. The landscape was bleak and chilly, the sky a slate of never-ending grey. Never in her life had she felt so alone or further from her family in the US.
“Until I went through it I had no idea,” says Amos. “No idea of the levels and layers of emotion I would experience. I hadn’t had that journey. And to do so during the upheaval we’ve all experienced. Being under house arrest. You can call it whatever you want. But, really, that’s what it was like to me.”
Amos’s mother, Mary Ellen, died in May 2019, aged 90. They had been close and the singer, 58, was still processing the loss when the pandemic struck and the world went into deep-freeze. On her new album, Ocean to Ocean, she holds that anguish up to the light.
“When you left /Emptiness,” Amos sings on Speaking with Trees. “Since you left/I’ve been hiding your ashes.” Later, on the same song she observes that grief is life’s ultimate mystery box. Until you are forced to open it, there’s no way of knowing how you will react to what’s inside. “You only know when you know this/ How you’ll cope with your losses,” she laments.
Ocean To Ocean is Amos’s 16th studio LP and it feels connected to the visceral records she made in the 1990s. There are echoes of the razor-tipped ache of Crucify, the 1992 single which framed 20-something angst as a long walk up the hill at Golgotha. And there are parallels with Silent all these Years, her great silent shriek of a hit in which this daughter of a Methodist preacher uncorked years of rage (“you think there’s a heaven where the screams have gone?”).
Ocean to Ocean is, at the same time, rooted in the present. It’s her lockdown long-player and, while speaking to her, it’s clear the past 18 months have been traumatic. Cornwall, her retreat from the rigours of touring, became the gilded cage from which she could not break free. She was coping with 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 6th, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. For her, it was almost tantamount to watching the Nazis marching to power.
Talk to my sound engineer husband. He'll just roll his eyes about [EU] legislation and how wackadoodle some of it was
“If American democracy falls, then the rest of the world needs to be scared. I don’t see why this is that far from Germany, in my mind,” she says. “Yes, I’m only a songwriter. Yes, it looks different [from Berlin in 1933]. But, really, the idea for absolute power – it must be clear that that is what some of these men, and women, who are part of that authoritarianism, that’s what they want. An economic aristocracy.”
Cornwall, where she has lived with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, and daughter, Natashya Lórien (21), for the past 20 years, voted for Brexit. Does she see parallels between Trumpism and the gas-lighting of the British population over the supposed benefits of leaving the EU? She takes a moment to gather her thoughts.
“You need to come over to Cornwall and go visit a fishing village or try to sit in somebody’s cab and see what they think and why they think the way they think,” she says. “Until I did that, until I would sit in cabs or listen to people... They’re just very frustrated being told what to do from Brussels.”
She feels there should have been another way. That the former UK prime minster, David Cameron, should have come back from Europe with a deal that would have avoided a referendum.
“What I find sad about the whole thing is it should have never happened. I’m an 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’s “dangerous” for songwriters to weigh in on such matters. However, it is her job to record a “sonic photograph” of her lived environment. And right now, that environment is post-Brexit Cornwall.
“Something had to change,” she says. “If you listen to the farmer on the ground, the fisherman on the ground, the taxi person on the ground…”
They despaired, she says, of EU laws that “just dictated what the light bulb should be”.
“Talk to my sound engineer husband. He’ll just roll his eyes about [EU] legislation and how wackadoodle some of it was. There were real frustrations that, I think, needed to be heard and addressed.”
It was a very tough time... The label didn't get it, which is always tough
She was born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina in 1963. Amos’s late mother was of Cherokee heritage. Her father had ambitions to be a televangelist and, when she was growing up, insisted the family attend church four times a week. A child prodigy, Amos could expertly mimic music from the radio on piano by age four. At age 11, though, she had been expelled from Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory for “musical insubordination”. From that moment on, she was determined to find her own way in life.
Amos was at the forefront of a generation of female artists who broke though in the 1990s talking frankly 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 during which she was sexually assaulted by a fan to whom she’d offered a lift after a gig. As such a song should be, it’s difficult to listen to. Amos went on to form charity and advocacy group RAINN: the “Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network”. The new track, 29 Years, returns to the same emotional space as Me and a Gun.
“There’s a lot in that song. The last 29 years of trying to stop living from a place of my damage. You know, we all carry around our damage. There are very few people that don’t have any, that I’ve found in life. It’s not always about sexual assault. People have different things they’re working though,” she says.
“Whether they were bullied at school. Or being great at something at a young age and then it doesn’t bloom into fruition of what was expected of them. Whatever the damage is, 29 Years is trying to acknowledge that and [to] figure out, how you break the pattern? How do you stop sabotaging positive things happening in your life?”
There can be with women in music this double standard, where, when we are doing something, they call it 'cathartic'. And then guys are unzipping their skin, it's called poetry and art
The music industry has always had an issue with women who know their own minds. And those coming through in the 1980s and 1990s had it as tough as anyone. Sinéad O’Connor’s career in the US was almost ruined when she tore up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live. Madonna was regarded as a threat to public morality. Amos lived through several similarly misogynistic 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 The Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays, Eminem’s ’97 Bonnie & Clyde and Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. The critics tripped over themselves to tear it to shreds. Rolling Stone lamented her tendency to “misread the point of song’s original arrangement”. All Music said there was “too much surface sheen”.
“I feel like I got under their balls a bit,” she says. “Some of the journalists – they weren’t all men… There can be with women in music this double standard, where, when we are doing something, they call it ‘cathartic’. And then guys are unzipping 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 volcano goddess rather than the Brazilian striker). An ambitious, sometimes challenging work, it was partly recorded in a converted church in Delgany, Co Wicklow.
Nobody cared about that. All they wanted to talk about was the cover shot of Amos apparently suckling a sow. In Michigan a man sued her after crashing his car while gawping a huge billboard of her and the piglet.
Boys For Pele is today regarded as a masterpiece. Reviews at the time were brutal, however. Rolling Stone rolled its eyes at the “enigmatic artifice and fanciful metaphors”. Entertainment Weekly took issue with the “nonsensical imagery” and “jarring pop-culture references”.
“It was a very tough time,” she says. “The label didn’t get it, which is always tough. Especially without the internet being what it is now.”
She recalls the advice she received from her friend, the author Neil Gaiman (who is said to have based the character of Death from Sandman partly on Amos).
“He got the record and said to me, ‘look, you have to go to town to town, you cannot take your foot of the accelerator of the Pele train here my friend. You have to go and preach the gospel’.”
That was easier said than done. “Living through it is very different. Such negativity – such harsh criticism. It made you think, ‘did I lose my mind going to Ireland? Did I drink too much of that Irish elixir?’”
But perhaps things have changed. It is just about possible to imagine an audacious record such as Boys for Pele receiving a fairer hearing today. It must give her hope to see artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish and Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, take on the entertainment industry on their own terms?
“Of course, it gives me a lot of hope. I know Annie personally. Her position wasn’t given to her. She had to work very hard to be where she is. And to stand her ground. It’s not right for me to tell her story. She’s had to make her choices, decide who is on her team, who will help convey her vision. That hasn’t changed since the women in the 1990s. We’ve had to work to be where we are.”
Ocean To Ocean is released October 29th