When coronavirus lockdowns started in March 2020, Tori Amos, like millions of other people, dug in.
She and her husband, Mark Hawley; their daughter, Natashya; and Natashya’s companion hunkered down at the Amos/Hawley residence/studio in Cornwall, England, that the senior couple has maintained for approximately 20 years. They kept busy with cooking dinner and weekly store runs. The younger duo continued their university studies at home, and Hawley, Amos’ sound engineer, worked with his wife while she did virtual tours for her then-newly published book Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage and recorded an EP, Chistmastide, that was released in December.
But like millions of others, keeping busy only did so much to help Amos deal with the abrupt shift to minimal social contact through the first lockdown — and then the second, in the country. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a third one in January 2021, it was definitely not the charm.
“I think I hit a wall, and I can’t tell you why,” says Amos during a Zoom chat. “It could have been cumulative. It could have just been, ‘When in the world are we going to play live music again? When is that going to happen?’ Because it started to seem so far away.”
She knew she was mourning not playing for an audience since 2017 — the longest stretch of time since turning she turned pro three decades earlier — and the grief from her mother Mary’s death in 2019 also resurfaced. Amos missed the United States, which she still considers home, and the political climate surrounding the 2020 presidential election (she voted by mail) and the January riot at the Capitol compounded her distress. “Once the insurrection happened, I realized how disappointed I was in some of our elected leaders who were willing to turn their backs on the Constitution for their own personal gain,” she recalls.
A few weeks later, Amos had “a reckoning”: Stewing about everything wasn’t doing her any good. “I was feeling consumed, and I had too much anger: anger at elected officials, mostly, that I felt betrayed our country,” she says. “I was writing songs about them, let me tell you! But at a certain point, I thought, ‘This is not the frequency I want to be in.’ ”
While the ferocious Cornish winter churned outside, Amos began searching for internal calm. She read authors who had relationships with nature, such as Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane, and started exploring her rural surroundings after perusing Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest. She also looked to Bruce Lee for wisdom. “One of his big quotes is ‘Be like water,’ ” she notes. “And I thought, ‘Wow, one of the greatest fighters in the world is looking at this as one of his mantras.’ The floodgates really opened then that I needed to surrender and go to nature.”
The vibration Amos sought was the one that Cornwall was experiencing during its annual spring regeneration. “I don’t want to be walking around seething, because that just wasn’t getting me anywhere and causing more problems, really,” she notes with a laugh. “So I said, ‘I have to lift my frequency. I need to be in a different place. And I want to reflect in a record what I’m experiencing from the land.’ ”
Ocean to Ocean, Amos’ self-produced 16th studio album (Decca Records released it on Oct. 29), recounts the transformation she felt and witnessed. From the title to the cover photo of her swathed in a black dress on the Cornish coast — she describes the landscape as having a “ferocious beauty” — to songs called “Swim to New York State” and “Addition of Light Divided,” the collection brims with references to natural elements.
It’s another family affair: Longtime musical compatriots Matt Chamberlain (drums) and Jon Evans (bass) return for more symbiotic interplay with Amos’ ardent piano. Hawley contributes guitar in addition to his engineering duties (which he has done for multiple Amos projects under the name Mac Aladdin), and Natashya provides some background vocals. (She made her formal recording debut on “Promise,” a duet between her and her mother on 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines.)
“Speaking With Trees,” Ocean to Ocean’s lead single, has a determined marching rhythm that’s classic Amos alt-rock, as is the wavering, distant atmosphere invoked on “29 Years.” She also documents her emotions with touches like gentle shattering effects on “How Glass Is Made” and the metallic overtones of “Metal Water Wood,” whereas her grief for Mary is reflected lyrically in the aforementioned “Trees” and the tender ballad “Flowers Burn to Gold.”
While she was self-isolating, Amos read dozens of handwritten fan letters that reminded her that many have been facing pandemic-related challenges. “It seemed to me that people were tired,” she says. “Tired of the energy of sadness, and they needed to grieve, but they also wanted to step into something different.”
Seeing that parallel, Amos recounts, “I said to the muses, ‘OK, I got my hands up here. I don’t know. How am I going to get out of this?’ And they basically said, ‘Write yourself out of your own private hell, T. That’s what you have to do. So acknowledge that you’re in the muck.’”
It worked: After Amos obeyed by penning “Metal Water Wood” (where she cites Lee’s catchphrase), she scrapped the project that she thought would be the next album and created Ocean to Ocean instead. After having to cancel two U.S. tours, the multiplatinum-selling artist hopes to return to the stage in February 2022 with a European trek that will start in Berlin. An appropriate Ocean to Ocean cut for the setlist would be the tango-esque “Birthday Baby,” where she sings about weathering the storm and urges listeners to “bring those killer heels” to the celebration.
The album, in fact, contains many lyrics that sound like they could have been pulled from a journal — a change from Amos’ dreamy, obscure librettos. “I thought there needed to be in the lyric writing no enhanced makeup, that it really needed to be what it was that I was experiencing at differing times,” she says of this literal approach. She also attributes it to feeling “this different type of energy, this transmutation that was happening over the six months of writing it, and realizing I’m in a different place now than I was. And the reason for that was because the songs themselves had changed me.”