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7News (Australia)
October 28, 2021

'Sometimes we have to cry together': Tori Amos on grieving pre-pandemic life and new album 'Ocean to Ocean'

Tori Amos has been a fierce omnipresence in pop music for decades - and now she's back with a brand new album.

by Gianni Borrelli

For almost three decades, Tori Amos has been a fierce omnipresence in pop music - an artist who possesses a strength of character bordering on bulletproof, with ingenuity to spare.

From reclaiming the piano and rejecting the guitar-centric sound of the early 90s on her seminal debut album Little Earthquakes, a starkly confessional album covering topics from religion to rape, to cofounding RAINN, America's largest anti-sexual violence organisation -- Amos' deeply personal candour has helped listeners find their own stories in her work, earning her a legion of devoted fans, and becoming one of the most prolific touring artists of her generation, performing well over 1,000 shows since her first world tour in 1992.

Rolling Stone readers voted Tori Amos the fifth best touring act of all time -- her changing setlists, piano straddling, and propensity to yell at overzealous security guards and rude fans to "get the f**k out" of her shows becoming the stuff of live music legend.

But the absence of travel and live music during COVID-19 lockdowns, coupled with the loss of her mother during the pandemic, proved almost too much for Amos to bear when making her sixteenth studio album.

When Amos watched in horror as insurrectionists laid claim to the US Capitol on January 6, she says she raised her hands in defeat, realising the album's worth of songs she had written in 2020 reflected a very different place to the one she was now in.

"By the third lockdown...after the Capitol insurrection, and seeing our elected leaders willing to compromise our democracy, I just kind of threw my hands up and said: 'I've done my part as a citizen. I've tried my best'," Amos says, describing the feeling of hopelessness that underscores her new album Ocean to Ocean, written after the January 6 attacks.

"We have democracy now, but democracy is hanging on by a thread, and there are too many people that are willing to compromise it."

On first listen, Ocean to Ocean doesn't sound overtly political. The raw and emotive collection of chamber-pop songs was largely inspired COVID-19 lockdowns, climate change (title track Ocean to Ocean) separation from loved ones (Swim to New York State), and the death of her mother Mary (Speaking with Trees) - but for Amos, the personal and the political have always been closely connected.

I spoke with Tori by phone about the new album, finding inspiration in dark times, and how she's still taking on the boys' club after all these years:

I think you know already I'm a big fan of yours, and I've been getting so many messages from other fans who want to know when you'll be touring Australia again, pandemic notwithstanding. But I feel like we should get that out of the way first.

Listen, it's all about the promoters. Sometimes people don't realise how it works, but it's all down to promoters and offers. I think if there's a will from the Aussies for us to come: let it be known!

I've seen you live at least 20 times, I've gone to a dozen meet and greets -- your fans know how unique the relationship you have with them is. With touring and travel off the cards, how has that connection with your fans changed in recent years?

Oh boy, has it changed. They have found ways to get letters to me, and I've really learned a lot from these letters about what other people have been going through. That had a big effect on the record - realising that everybody was dealing with different stuff, all kinds of stuff. And it's not just the fact that you can't perform live or go to a festival. So much of what we've come to rely on, those coping mechanisms, were off the table. I think people were really floundering from that.

But especially for someone like you, who tours almost every year.

You know better than most - there's a collaboration with the audience, an exchange that happens energetically. It does something - it's uplifting. Even if we're telling a story that might be somewhat raw and cathartic, sometimes it's not always just about the sheer joy of being together. Sometimes we have to cry together, too.

Whatever it is, by the end of the concert, we seem to have shifted to a place of healing. That's what we're all trying to achieve. Not being able to heal in that way, I had to grieve it.

Has this been the longest time between live shows in your career?

I believe so. We were slated to tour twice between the start of 2020 and now. We were going to be on the road right before the American election and then that had to come off the table. The tickets weren't yet on sale, but I was locked into all the venues.

Another casualty of this pandemic.

Oh, it was. But we've been able to survive the pandemic, and we have to remember a lot of people didn't. Those who did survive are still dealing with the effects of that horrible illness.

I've got letters from people who are still dealing with it for months and months and months. Whether it's those of us who have dealt with the emotional and mental side of it, or losing a job, whatever your losses are, I think it's ultimately about coming out of it.

So much of your new album Ocean to Ocean is about coping with your losses and coming out the other side. One of the lyrics that really stood out to me on the album was in the opening track [Addition of Light Divided] when you sing "You don't need to stay broken". When did you realise you were broken and how did you come back from it?

I had my sleeves rolled up to begin with. In the first lockdown, we were promoting a book [memoir Resistance], we were doing all the interviews by Zoom, we were doing virtual signings. We were very fortunate we had the capacity to keep things moving to a point. But not everybody did.

For a while we were whistling Dixie and skipping in our high heels. I had just finished the [Christmastide] Christmas EP, so we were working on that. We were keeping busy and trying to drown out all the noise and the bad news.

But by the third lockdown, my friend… after the Capitol insurrection, and seeing our elected leaders willing to compromise that democracy... I just kind of threw my hands up and said: I've done my part as a citizen. I've tried my best.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are there now - we have democracy. But democracy is hanging on by a thread, and there are too many people that are willing to compromise it.

I said to myself: 'I can't walk here. I can't invest in this right now anymore.' I know I must do it, but I had to just sit in a chair for a while.

It was winter, it was cold. I couldn't travel, I couldn't jump to the States. I couldn't go to Florida. I couldn't find what I needed; I couldn't follow the sun. So, I just sat in a chair for a while… for a few weeks, just going through the motions. I read so many books. I started to take in different information on things I didn't know about, like the climate and just what is really going on with the earth.

I started to realise that planet Earth was not in lockdown. She was busy. She's in a cycle. She's regenerating. It was winter, but she was going through her own process. And I realised: 'Well, I guess I'm in mine'. I became motorised in nature. Once that process happened, it started to get the songs rolling.

Before January 6, you had recorded another album which you've shelved. What happened to those songs?

There were certain phrases that had been kicking around for a long time that eventually made their way to 'Ocean'. But for the most part, those songs were documenting something different. It felt like at the end of January, people were tired. Tired of the conflict. At a place where we needed a different energy - and not to use that word lightly.

I felt a shift in me. I couldn't just step into it by snapping my fingers, but I knew I wanted to go somewhere different. No - I knew I needed to go somewhere else.

It took a while to let the other songs go. I had to listen in the quiet so that I could hear where we were going. To really take stock of the last year and everything that has happened to us. The multilayers of that.

We've collectively been through a lot.

It wasn't just the pandemic, but the consequences of the pandemic. And what was happening in our world: the political discourse, the wildfires. You know, we were moving so fast before those things hit. There was a craziness about just how fast we were moving.

And that's the one thing I'm hearing from people that are coming out of this. I think we've all found a different rhythm which is maybe more practical. Not going to be in three cities in one day on a plane.

I'm really keen to hear what you have to say about this: We're kind of having a somewhat of a reckoning here in Australia in the music industry. One of our biggest music execs has been fired over some serious allegations, and I'm reading a lot about young up and coming female artists speaking up about poor treatment by their record labels. Knowing that I was going to be talking to you today, I couldn't help but think of how much you've taken on your record labels and the patriarchy. Do you ever look back and think just how incredibly ballsy you were to do that so early on in your career?

It wasn't without consequences. You really don't know everything that happens behind the scenes.

For instance, promotion money could have possibly been given to somebody else and not my record because of it. That's just one example. But hello, onwards! I'm glad I was "gladiatorial" - no pun intended. I decided to use the name that I had chosen and find the words that would persevere through this kind of standoff.

The boys' club was the boys' club, and in some ways it still is. I didn't realise what was happening in Australia, but it doesn't surprise me. You know, the music industry is sort of like the Wild West. A bit like: guns blazing, crash and burn. But then, like a comet in the night sky, something happens to raise the crops and generate a response from the public. It transcends the boys' club. And then they try to find ways to either put that comet out, or try to contain it.

Or control it.

Control? Yes. That's the pattern. I understand why so many people are coming forward and telling their stories. And hopefully you will help them tell their story.

But there's a culture of the boys club that keeps finding a way to survive. And I don't know how, but ultimately it's about power. Because once men get in these powerful positions where they're generating cash - even in a streaming culture - if they're finding ways to do this, people are willing to look the other way. And that's the problem.

You have to remember: when an artist speaks out, it could be the end of her career. I say it's important to speak out, but it's also important to know what your situation is.

Because unless you know other people, or what's in your contract, or what your financial and legal situation is, you might be sabotaging yourself so much that you won't be able to work for a while. It's a very difficult reality that some of these artists are facing and we have to really understand that the ones that didn't come forward… we have to be compassionate. They might be tied up in a contract that prevents them from speaking out. You could be locked in a contract for seven records. That's 20 years for some artists.

If ever there was ever someone who needs to do a podcast or series where they just fire off truths about the music industry, it's you.

People have asked me to do one! But I kind of shy away from that kind of stuff. I don't know what to talk about, how to get it all going. But I like the conversation that we're having right now - we're just having a cup of sonic tea, aren't we? Tori Amos' new album Ocean To Ocean. Credit: Decca Records

Ocean to Ocean is available in stores and online now.


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