Grammy-nominated songwriter and performer, Tori Amos, has learned much from fame over the years. Perhaps, first and foremost, she’s learned that it’s dangerous. But learning, itself has been integral to Amos’ life. In fact, it marks her life in each of its stages, from infancy when she heard her first songs to today as she readies herself for the release of her latest album, Ocean To Ocean, which is out Friday (October 29). For Amos, observation and practice have always been fundamental. Even when it feels difficult to do so, to undertake an examination of herself or the world at large. But that is exactly what Amos had to do to create her latest standout LP. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, she felt trapped, personally and spatially, so, Amos says, she wrote her way out of it.
“Fame is dangerous,” Amos says. “It’s probably the most dangerous, seductive energy that there is. And it will outsmart you or me. It’s a tough teacher and I think it’s ruthless and it can be very confusing—so that you forget what your intention was to create.”
It’s easy for anyone, the 58-year-old Amos says, to get stuck in the mental loop of I want to make another hit song. But if that is the intention, then there is no real end or fulfillment and that is dangerous, if for no other reason than your happiness is dependent upon other people’s reception of your work, not your own relationship to it. And while some may have enjoyable careers this way, it’s not for Amos.
“The answer has to be,” Amos says, “because we’re trying to document what is happening from the perspective that I understand. That’s my commitment as an artist. If I go against that commitment, then I fall on my face.”
It’s funny; as human beings, we can know something but at the same time forget it. To wit, Amos can know that she must keep a clear intention but even then it takes work and focus to keep the train on the track. For Amos, when the pandemic hit in 2020, she was at a loss.
“The third lockdown was really difficult here in the U.K.,” Amos says. “So, it became clear that I needed to write myself out of that. I called it a ‘personal hell,’ my own personal hell that I somehow co-created. But I couldn’t snap my fingers and get out of it. So, the muse said, ‘Write from this place, don’t try to write about butterflies and moonbeams because that’s not where you really are. You’re in the mud and muck and negativity.’”
Instead of fighting the world in her mind, or not working to accept the state of herself and the state of things, was stifling. But to do the opposite, to accept the moment and write about it—that became Amos’ calling.
“The songs started coming,” she says. “The frequency started to rise.”
Amos says she left the house more. She examined her mind and the natural world. She engaged with it all; she listened to the trees, the “ferocious beauty” of the land around her where she was living then in Cornwall, England. The sprawling British countryside is a far way from where Amos grew up in North Carolina (she was born in Newton, N.C.), but, she says, she always feels different internally these days, too.
“I realize I’m a different person than when the pandemic started,” Amos says. “I was racing too fast. I wasn’t breathing or really being very present.”
In years before, Amos says, she might have felt more feelings of panic. Now, though, she’s more adept at slowing things down, taking the extra deep breath. She feels better able to make decisions based on having thought an idea through, rather than worrying how it might work in some grand schematic plan. She feels freer and, really, that’s all she’s ever wanted. Even from her first days as a burgeoning music prodigy. Amos, whose grandfather sang to her as a baby after coming home from work and helping his daughter raise little Tori, took to music early. She started piano at 2 years old and she was earning awards before 10. She was pushed and, eventually, she was pushed too hard.
“[At the time], I was watching how this music from [the Beatles, Joni Mitchell] was affecting teenagers in my class,” Amos says. “I didn’t put it all together at the time, but [I was interested in it] because this music was documenting the time in real-time, unlike Mozart and the stuff we were being taught [in school], which was incredible music but it was not documenting the time.” She adds, “I’ll never forget when someone told me, ‘You won’t know who the Beatles are in 30 years’ time.”
To many, Amos became a “disappointment” because she resisted the stodgy teachings she was getting from prestigious teachers at prestigious academies. Her father, too, was let down, she says. But her mother knew she’d be alright. Amos was called a “failed prodigy” and that shook her. Indeed, Amos was torn in two directions: highfalutin art and the work of the people.
But then Amos made a decision that would impact the rest of her life: at 13 years old, with her family now living in Washington D.C. after moving from Baltimore, Maryland, she started to play piano and sing in gay bars. She took the scaffolding of instruction she’d learned in school and now had chosen the place in which she’d build it out.
“I turned pro at 13 and I started at a gay bar,” Amos says. “I think the gays were trying to coach me into believing I could do it.”
She broadened her education, learned show tunes instead of Chopin. She played for folks in Georgetown and learned how to take requests, handle herself in a rowdy place. She learned the impact of memorizing a song and bringing it back to the bar the next night for tips. In the end, Amos’ story is about learning to trust her instincts even with the greatest of authorities telling her not to; even in the aftermath of great sorrow. It’s this same self-awareness that she brought to her new thoughtful, measured album, Ocean to Ocean, and it’s what will make the LP so lasting, even years past the pandemic, from which it was first manifested.
“Music, for me, creates a space that I can walk into and I can travel the universe with it,” Amos says. “I can walk into a song and allow the frequency to take me wherever I want to go, without leaving my chair.”