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May 20, 2022
Tori Amos supporting 'Ocean to Ocean' with Playhouse Square show
Pandemic has made acclaimed singer-songwriter appreciate performing for fans like maybe never before
by Mark Meszoros
The pandemic got to Tori Amos.
Oh, sure, the acclaimed, classically trained and enduring pianist and singer-songwriter — known for songs including "Crucify," "Cornflake Girl," "Caught a Lite Sneeze" and "A Sorta Fairytale" — was fine at first.
She huddled up with her music engineer husband, Mark Hawley, in their residence in Cornwall, England, and they invited their adult daughter, Tash, and her boyfriend to stay with them.
Amos tried to keep busy, releasing a book, "Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage," in the first half of 2020, and a holiday EP, "Christmastide," in the second.
"I wanted to put out something that wasn't negative at the time," says Amos during an interview in mid-April, a week before starting a North American tour that on May 22 will bring her to Playhouse Square's KeyBank State Theatre.
Then came early 2021.
"By the third lockdown, I've got to tell you, I was done."
The restrictions were incredibly strict, says Amos, on the phone from Florida, where she also has a residence.
"If you didn't have the right license plate, they weren't going to let you into Cornwall," she says. "It was pretty severe, and I think at that point, I needed to write myself out of, just, sadness."
There was just one problem.
"Normally, I'd take what I call a 'pilgrimage,'" Amos says. "I travel. For the last, I don't now, over 30 years, I travel. I go places and observe.
"As a songwriter, I feel that can begin to start a process — kickstart, if you want, ideas," she adds. "When you're writing your first record, it's a little different than when you're writing your 16th (laughs) because you've mined all that material.
And yet, when the press materials for "Ocean to Ocean" — her, yes, 16th studio album, released in October — call it her "most personal work in years," that may not just be marketing speak.
The song "Swim to New York State" is a declaration of love to her husband.
"Flowers Burn to Gold" is inspired by the death of her mother a few years ago.
"Spies" is "an account of the bats and other creepy-crawlies that entered the Cornish house at night during the July heatwave and terrorized her daughter, asleep in the sitting room," say the materials.
And then there's "29 years," a reference to a mindset involving looking for empowerment that she established around the time of the release of her first album, "Little Earthquakes," which this year turned 30.
"I couldn't travel, so I couldn't take that pilgrimage," Amos says. "I had to find a different way, so I looked around and said, 'OK, team — you're up!'"
Amos has penned myriad compositions over the years — for albums including "Under the Pink" (1994), "Boys for Pele" (1996), "Scarlet's Walk" (2002) and "Night of Hunters" (2011), a concept album featuring Tash as a guest vocalist — but it isn't exactly accurate to say all of that songwriting has come easily.
"(If) you were to challenge me and say, 'Can you write a song every day for a year?' Yeah, of course, I can do that. Should anybody hear any of it? Probably not," she says. "Being able to do a task and having song magic are two very different things."
She says when her "muses" do show up, they may give her only two wonderful bars of music, and it can take her weeks, months and even years to flesh out a song from there.
"Some songs have been hanging around for 20 years, and I just don't know where to take them."
Along with a gift for creating memorable piano-based melodies, Amos possesses a willingness to challenge the listener lyrically. In fact, counted among those who do not always understand the meanings of her songs is her husband, who has admitted as much to her crew members.
"'I have no clue what my wife's talking about, and I have no clue what's going on in my wife's head, but I just obey orders,'" she says, imitating him having a laugh.
She allows that some songs are more cryptic than others and that work goes into matching lyrics to the feelings she's trying to evoke with the music.
"I don't just take some words and put them in a jar and shake them up and throw them on the floor and that's your song. I don't do that," she says with more laughs. "Maybe I should try."
The process of recording "Ocean to Ocean" sounds as if it were almost that chaotic. Amos worked with, among others, regular collaborators John Evans, on bass, and Matt Chamberlain, on drums, but the pandemic-related restrictions kept them apart from one another.
"I think because we've played together for so long and we know each other musically we were able to do that. But I do like being in the room with other musicians because when you're playing off each other, that's a very different process than when you send (a recording) to the drummer first and then the drummer lays down and then it comes back and I lay down and then it goes to the bass player.
"Matt had no idea what the bass was going to be doing, so with '29 Years,' when he heard it, he said, 'Reggae? Really?'" she adds with a laugh. "That's very different from how we normally do it."
At the time of this conversation, Amos already has played some European dates and is thrilled to be in front of fans again.
"There is an energy with the live shows — that I've experienced, anyway — that's very different. Audiences — it's almost like all of us appreciate being able to go to live shows, and I don't know I'd taken it for granted before," she says. "I don't know that I understood that there could be no live music, practically globally, for two years. 'What?!?' If you had told me this was going to happen, I would have looked at you and said, 'No. What? No.'
"But now I'm grateful to be able to be there, and there's this electricity you're getting from the audience, too. They're just amped up and they want to be there.
"It's really magical."
When: 7:30 p.m. May 22.
Where: Playhouse Square's KeyBank State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.
Tickets: $45 to $75.
Info: PlayhouseSquare.org or 216-241-6000.
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