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Ocean to Ocean - Story


Tori Amos was never going to enjoy a lockdown. She's been playing live since she was thirteen years old. She splits her life between Cornwall, Florida and the road - and her songs are written with the act of traveling and observing. Her last studio record, 2017's Native Invader, pulled together four impossibly disparate strands - a Tennessee road trip, stories inspired by her ancestors, the ascension of Donald Trump and the slow loss of her mother to a stroke - with an energy and cohesion that made your skin bristle. But without live music, and travel, and much at all to observe, Amos had a difficult pandemic; holed up in Cornwall, she hit a place of personal crisis familiar to anyone who suffered during the third UK lockdown - the one in winter, that seemed to go on forever...

Against all odds, that crisis resulted in Ocean to Ocean, Amos's most personal work in years - an album bursting with warmth and connection, with deep roots in her earliest song writing. She descended to an emotional state lower than she had been to for a long time - but the depths became creative, forcing a return to the kind of introspection she recognised from her debut album Little Earthquakes.

"This is a record about your losses, and how you cope with them," she says. "Thankfully when you've lived long enough, you can recognise you're not feeling like the mom you want to be, the wife you want to be, the artist you want to be. I realised that to shift this, you have to write from the place where you are. I was in my own private hell, so I told myself, then that's where you write from - you've done it before..."

A slew of new songs came in a short burst between March and summer this year. Having always been intensely affected by political change in the US, Amos was dismayed by the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Ocean to Ocean is a universal story of going to rock bottom and renewing yourself all over again.

In Cornwall she was surrounded by those she loved - her husband Mark, and adult daughter Tash and her boyfriend (who turned up for two weeks and because of lockdown stayed for five months). For a record written within limited surroundings, two things are remarkable - its rich stylistic variation, from tango to wide-screen romance, and the big-heartedness of songs, which run almost like a series of love letters to family both present and absent. It is, in one sense, her most Cornish record yet: the artwork says it all, with Amos shot on the cliffs, and in the caves on the county's south west shores.

"If you processed troubling things by traveling, that was taken off the table," she says. "My pattern has been to jump on a plane and go to the States. I would travel just to have new experiences. I had to find a chair instead, and 'travel' like I did when I was five - in my head."

A sense of dislocation, both geographical and emotional, is there in the title track, whose drama takes place on the shores of the UK and the US. Trammelled up the lyric are the environmental concerns she expressed in Native Invader ("There are those who never give a goddamn for anything that they're breaking"), and the fragile sense that something can still be done to save the planet. It is a song of kinship and love, about holding on to one another through destructive times ("Stay with me until we unravel this fishing net"), with a melancholy urgency we've heard in Amos' work from the start.

In "Devil's Bane," her imaginative resources are in full flow, lifting us out of the south west of England and into the southwest of the USA, amid the cacti and the tequila: "Shame Shame on your Jezebel breed." Its eerie vocal effect delivers the lyric like a dream from long ago, and Mark Hawley's (aka Mac Aladdin) Dobro guitar gives the song a tumbleweed sense of space - the sound of heat and sand recreated effortlessly in music.

Though Amos felt disconnected from herself in Cornwall, Ocean to Ocean has a deep sense of empathy. Her niece Kelsey in New York, suffering the loneliness of the city in lockdown, became a symbol of people on the cusp of adulthood hit hardest by the social restraints of the pandemic. She inspired two songs. In "Birthday Baby," Amos takes the seductive image of the tango and turns it into a solo show of empowerment: "Sometimes in life, a girl must tango alone... with a sultry night and a steady lamppost." Bass player Jon Evans, a welcome re-addition to the band, slides as subtly as Jaco Pastorius through the song, which is set to John Philip Shenale's strings both tender and noirish.

Kelsey also inspired "Addition of Light Divided," an account of loss and healing that progresses as a dialogue with Amos: "Pray that I don't stay feeling broken / Let the light break through, you don't need to stay broken." The arrangement is rich and baroque, with a storm of piano and complete support by the band. For the first time ever, because of the truncated period in which Ocean to Ocean was written, Amos was still coming up with songs during the mixing of the album. "The Muses will show up, but they will drive everyone insane!" she laughs.

"Swim to New York State" is dedicated to Amos's British husband Mark, a declaration of love in a difficult time when everyone's relationships were under strain, and an emblem of their connection: "I'd swim to New York state from the Cornish coast of England, for even just a day." It has the epic sweep of a 1970s Jimmy Webb ballad, touched with soaring pop-classical strings - a song that is proud of its own passion: "There are people in your life that are there, they show up, they're engaged," she says. "But you have to see yourself, to be able to recognise someone else."

"Speaking With Trees," one of the first tracks to come, honestly addresses the pain felt by artists in a period in which there was no hope in sight for live music. Amos's pent-up energy seems to be there in its perpetual-motion piano framed by Matt Chamberlain's turbulent Drums and Percussion. "I've been hiding your ashes under the tree house don't be surprised I cannot let you go." But there is humour and lightness in Ocean to Ocean too: the wonderfully eccentric Spies - with its locomotive bass and drums and its mentions of aardvarks - is an account of the bats and other creepy-crawlies that entered the Cornish house at night during the July heatwave and terrorised her daughter, asleep in the sitting room. In an experience familiar to many parents of grown-up children, mother and daughter spent more time together in lockdown than they had since Tash was 11 years old.

The beautiful "Flowers Burn To Gold," which sits mid record, vividly imagines Amos's late mother Mary who passed away in 2019. Her ashes are in Florida, where Amos has been unable to travel, but in the song, she appears in the landscape: "Someone said they thought they saw you there through a cloud in the Midwest." By the end of the track, she is in Cornwall: "Someone said that they saw you there on a cliff in the south west." With just Amos at the piano, the arrangement underscores the fragility of the feelings. There is a similar delicacy to be found in the lyric and the music of "How Glass Is Made."

It is no coincidence that the songs which emerged from the darkest places are the ones that sound most like Amos's earliest material. The exquisite plea of "take my shattered dreams" in "Metal Water Wood" recalls the most moving moments of "Jackie's Strength."

And those old ghosts make a wonderful echo in 29 Years: "For 29 years I've been searching for you... these victim tears a song from my past." It is impossible not to hear, in the song, a reference to the attack that Amos suffered as a young woman and wrote about in her debut single Me and a Gun. But there is perspective, and a sense of the universal: "29 Years is a reference to the Little Earthquake time, when I made a commitment to try and look at things in a way that get me to empowerment," she says. "But what is power? Sometimes you are not ready to stand up yet - you have to start from sitting on the ground. We have all had moments that can knock us down. This record sits with you where you are, especially if you are in a place of loss. I am fascinated when someone has gone through a tragedy, and how they work through their grief. That is where the gold is. When somebody is actually at that place, thinking 'I'm done', how do you reach that person? Sometimes it's not about a pill, or a double shot of tequila. It's about sitting in the muck together. I'm going to meet you in the muck."

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