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Tori Amos: The Mermaid’s Song

Dealing with her distress facing the Capitol attack and the third lockdown, the singer and pianist releases her most personal work in years, exposing both her vulnerabilities but also her strength and inner transformation.

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Desmond Murray*

Tori Amos speaks to Rolling Stone France about the creation of her 16th studio album, Ocean to Ocean.

It took you four years, the longest period between two albums, to release Ocean to Ocean. What happened? 

I’m a very different person than I was four years ago, especially the one I was 18 months ago. Before the pandemic, I was living my life at a fast pace, a pace that was far too fast to live the present moment. With the successive lockdowns, we have been forced to sit back and reflect on our lives and the changes we would like to undertake. With this album, I managed to implement these changes, to modify my pace of life and my energy frequency. 

Did you find a slower pace? 

I would say it is a paradox: the frequency is higher, yet I manage to regulate the tempo more easily. In the past, I was just reacting to the rhythm imposed by external events – and I’m not even sure I was able to really integrate them. The pandemic forced me to sit down with myself. During the first lockdown, although it was challenging for everyone, I was very busy with my book release.

However, I must admit that during the third lockdown, I found it very uncomfortable and wondered when all of this would end. I felt as if I was crashing into a wall, as if I was in a nightmare from which I could not escape. This period was also my longest absence from the United States. I really felt the loss of my mother – who passed away two years ago. Then one day my daughter, Tash, said to me, “I know you miss your mother and I miss my grandmother, but right now I need my own mother. Can you bring her back for me? “. I was shocked, I realised that I absolutely had to get out of this negative state of mind. And that’s when the song “Metal Water Wood” came up. 

In this song, you talk about a “brutal world” and you expose yourself more vulnerable than ever… 

I think I have shown my fragility many times in my life and career. I always tried to describe with honesty the state I was in. But our globalised world had never been in such a situation. No one had the How To Guide to deal with it all. I know that some people have been able to change their energies and transmute things but I just wasn’t able to do it. Then the Muses told me to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t, not to make excuses: “You are deep down in the mud? So be in the mud. Speak from where you are! “. Once I accepted that idea, the songs came to me and helped me pull myself out of the mud. Since I had to fight this monster, I didn’t turn to spiritual guides but to… Bruce Lee! He helped me to “karate” myself out of this situation!  And his advice was: “Be like water” and that was the real trigger for me. 

You started writing after watching all the Bruce Lee movies?

Yes! (Laughs). I started writing around the end of February, beginning of March 2021. 

During the first two lockdowns, I had put all my energy, like all the American democratic forces, on what was going on in our country. After the Capitol attack, during the third lockdown, I saw that some of our elected politicians were willing to sacrifice pieces of our democracy and our Constitution for their own interests. There I raised my hand and said, “I’m done! Now Kamala (Harris) is here, she has big shoulders, strength and intelligence to handle all of it. It’s her administration’s job to take over”. After that, I just broke down. 

Since the election of Joe Biden, do you feel more confident about the future?

It was a relief to see that our Constitution and our institutions still had elements of democracy that overcame a clearly authoritarian, dictatorial regime… a system that seems to have taken over in many countries around the world. But, at the same time, I felt that I really needed to put my energy into something else. I can’t explain it, but it was at that moment that my mother came to me, like a sound coming from the centre of the Galaxy, a message that said, “Go out and feel things! “I had to connect to the “sonic magic” and write music with the frequency I was in, that it was the one people needed. Then I started to get out of my house and the songs started to come out. 

In your book Resistance, you compare composers to “sonic hunters”. How did you hunt this time?

The first thing I did was to surrender to our Mother Earth. I looked at her and thought:  “Wow! Look at this incredible energy! She is not in lockdown!” She was regenerating herself while humans were locked down. I realised that she was my Guide, the ancestral Mother of us all. She has the ability to come alive again. Of course some things die but others are born. This idea of a cycle gave me hope. Despite the losses, it made me realise that there is also rebirth and that I should accept it. 

As a daughter of a Methodist priest, how have you dealt with the question of religion in your life? Can we say that you feel closer to the Native American religion, linked to Mother Nature? 

Yes. I feel closer to the worship and the desire to preserve our sacred Mother Earth. When I was growing up, at a church, there was this idea that Man somehow had power over Nature. I have come to see that this is absolutely not the case. The song “Ocean to Ocean” deals directly with this theme. Some people don’t care about the effects of their business on the planet. They only care about profit. I think that until we see the Earth as a living being, as our Mother, things will be difficult. It seems to me that the younger generation understands this. My daughter Tash showed me a documentary that made me realise how much damage has been done to the oceans. Afterwards, I started playing on the piano and the song “Ocean to Ocean” came out. 

There is a very strong link with nature in this album, tell us about the track “Speaking with Trees”…

I got out of my house and listened to Nature, its own language, the way trees move, the sounds they make. I did some research and I was fascinated by the way trees can communicate with each other, help each other, through an underground network of roots. They call it the “Wood Wide Web” and I found it so incredibly beautiful! It’s pure magic! This song is about that and also about accepting the loss of my mother. Something needed to be transcended. Once I was able to connect with Mother Nature, my mother appeared to me when I was no longer so desperate to find her. I think in my desperation I was looking in the wrong place. I realised that my human mother was gone, but my spiritual mother, the Earth, was still there. All indigenous people believe in this. And maybe something in me needed to die. And that something died… maybe it was the way I handled things before, I don’t know.

The cover of the album is very symbolic too. Were you influenced by the mythology and the legends of Cornwall? 

Oh yes, there is a very special atmosphere in the landscape, the stones, the wind… you feel like you are out of time. Sometimes I would go to the cliffs, listen to the ocean roar, the waves breaking on the rocks… there was something wild and reassuring at the same time. Then when the sea calms down, in the distance, the light appears… and you have the impression to see something.

The album opens with the song “Addition of Light Divided”. You repeat, like an incantation: “we don’t have to stay broken”. How did you find strength in these difficult times? 

I wrote this song after visiting a cave in Nanjizal Beach (which you can find on the album artwork). There is a huge rock cut in two with shards of light shining through. To get to the other side, you have to dive into the water up to your chin. At that time, I had only written half of the lyrics of the song. Sometimes you need to immerse yourself in something else for a transformation to happen. When I immersed myself in that water, it was like a baptism and something really changed. The water is soothing, yes, but it also brings incredible healing. That’s when I heard the words, “We don’t have to stay broken”. Before I could find this new ME, I had to agree to let go of the old one. My old way of handling things was probably related to me travelling but the pandemic took it away from me. I had to say goodbye to it and find another way to deal with things, by standing still.

How did you work on the production of this album while standing still? 

I spent lockdown with a sound engineer, Marc, who I’ve been working with since 1994 – and who I also married (laughs). He had a whole bunch of different keyboards set up around me. He said, “Well, when you’re ready to get out of this shit and say goodbye to whatever you need to say goodbye to, the keyboards are there for you!” He waited patiently. Thanks to his involvement and talent as a sound engineer, we had the opportunity to experiment with sounds and combinations of different keyboards.

We sent them to Matt Chamberlain in Los Angeles, near the Pacific Ocean. We would then take the sounds back to add elements and the files would go back to our bass player in Cape Cod, across the Atlantic Ocean before coming back to us. The title of this album also carries the collaborative essence of this project. 

Would you say that the role of artists is to transcend their own emotions to create something universal, and to relieve collective traumas?

I think music is a force and has the power to do many things. It’s a travel machine. You can listen to something without leaving home and be transported somewhere else. So when an artist understands that power, they can not only relieve trauma, but also more importantly, help to recognise it, validate it. The word is pretty strong though I think if you accept it, you are encouraged to be honest with yourself and that is the biggest step towards healing.

Tori Amos’ Ocean to Ocean is out now.