Tori Amos on creating her sixteenth studio album Ocean To Ocean

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Tori fell in love with England’s most elemental county, with its rugged scenery and potent myths, as a teenager hooked on Cornish folklore, Arthurian legends and fantasy novels. Born in North Carolina, the flame-haired pop pixie moved there 22 years ago and lives outside Bude with her English sound engineer husband Mark Hawley and daughter Tash, 20. Cornwall’s southwest shores feature on the album cover.

Ocean To Ocean was written between March and July, but it’s very different from the record she started writing a year ago.

“That was about loneliness and loss,” says Tori, 58. “In the first lockdown we did our best. I was in a state of shock because I couldn’t go to the States, but I stayed positive and did a virtual book tour from the studio. But by the third one, my boat was floundering.

“I was in a state of despondency and I’m not used to that kind of depression without a reason, like the death of my mother two years ago. You have to write yourself out of that place, out of the darkness.

“People were living in their private hells; they’d lost family to Covid. Sadness brings you to your knees so it was important I raised my frequency and got out of that negativity. Then other songs started to come, to get me out of that place. Hopefully the record is uplifting. I’ve been in a better place for a while.”

The earlier songs reflected her fears about creeping authoritarianism in US politics. “After January 5, I saw how my people were compromising democracy. There’s corruption in the US, it’s shocking. I realised how many were willing to destroy our democracy. But I realised these songs were not what we needed to get us out of the place we were in.”

Amos had no time for Trump, writing her book Resistance and the album Native Invader about him. I ask how she felt about Biden’s horse-mounted guards violently corralling Haitian immigrants along the Mexican border and she goes quiet for a moment before saying, “I don’t know what to say about that, we’re in a disconcerting place for humanity and I don’t have the answers.”

Tori has always been outspoken. The piano balladeer was eleven when she was asked to leave a prestigious US music conservatory. 

“The Peabody Institute kicked me out because I wanted them to teach Beatles compositions,” she says. “I told them, ‘This is the equivalent of Mozart!’ They said ‘The Beatles won’t be heard of in thirty years’…”

Born Myra Ellen Amos, the youngest of three, in North Carolina, she adopted the name Tori at 17. Her father Edison was a Methodist preacher; her mother Mary was part Cherokee. Her roots are Scots-Irish via both parents. “There was a lot of mingling in the smoky mountains,” she laughs.

Tori grew up in Washington DC. A child prodigy, she started composing melodies before she could complete a sentence and at five was the youngest-ever person to be granted a scholarship to the Peabody ‑ part of the John Hopkins University in Maryland.

Were you a precocious child? “Precocious? No,” she says firmly. “I was committed musically. I wasn’t confined! The classical composers who I have great respect for were documenting their time, just as the Beatles were documenting their time and reflected our world back to the people.

“I could hear people rehearsing at Peabody and I knew they’d be playing Chopin or Rachmaninov for eight hours a day. Where were they going?

“My father was a preacher, but music can get to people differently than preaching or political journalism. I’m not a preacher or a political journalist, I’m making commentary on our times my way.”

Tori turned pro at 13 playing piano in a Washington gay bar under Edison’s watchful eye. At 21 she moved to Hollywood working as an extra in TV commercials while playing piano at the downtown-L.A. Sheraton to pay the rent.

She sent demo tapes to record labels and “after years of rejection letters I was willing to do what they wanted me to do ‑ I went down that rabbit hole…” and formed a pop-metal combo called Y Kant Tori Read.

The band were snapped up by Atlantic Records after one show, but went nowhere.

“Some of the songs weren’t terrible,” she says. “Some people can take a persona and roll like that, they slip into character like Superman and Clark Kent, but that didn’t work for me.”

So, she decided to write her way out of a limbo. The result was her 1992 debut album Little Earthquakes which sold three million copies.

The song Me & A Gun ‑ about the time she was raped in a car at knife-point, aged 21 ‑ shocked record company execs who told her it was too “uncomfortable” for the album. She replied “It’s supposed to be!”. Her new song, 29 Years, revisits the trauma.

Amos, a spokesperson for a US organisation combating sexual violence, became one of the most distinctive and influential solo artists of her generation, notching up eleven Top 30 “alt-pop” hits in the UK, including the chart-topping Professional Widow.

Even the Peabody Institute came around, awarding her their highest honour, the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions To Music in America, in 2019.

“They invited me back,” she says, “In hindsight, they understood how narrow-minded some of those professors were.”

Amos has bared her soul over fifteen studio albums. The oddest was 1996’s Boys For Pele (named after a Hawaiian volcano goddess, rather than the Brazilian footballing deity). 1994’s Under The Pink topped the UK album chart.

A decade ago, Tori released Night Of The Hunters, paying tribute to classical composers, and then wrote stage musical, The Light Princess, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2013. Her aim as a musician is “to make people feel transported without leaving their living rooms”.

She feels close to her fans. “People confide in me and share their stories. It’s humbling, some are harrowing, some are absolutely magical. They’ve had a transformative experience and the songs are part of their journey changed their whole life.”

Tori is 5ft 2, with piercing grey-blue eyes; her appearance has been described as “Tolkienian” ‑ which explains why her long-time friend Neil Gaiman based his Sandman character Delirium on her.

What makes her happy? “I adore my little family, we’re very close,” she says. “We’re small but mighty. We’ve been together more than we have since she was a child, which was the upside of lockdown. We used to travel a lot and enjoyed kayaking and exploring.”

Tori admits she’s too much a perfectionist to switch off. “When I leave the studio, I can’t leave it behind… Tash says, ‘Can I have my mum back!’ She’s very forgiving. But it’s part of my DNA.

“I was trained to be a sonic Olympian, trained to perform at a young age so it’s difficult sometimes to put that in the cupboard. 

“People have gone through a lot in the last eighteen months ‑ the introverts have weathered the storm. The recluses have done well. But performers…it’s our job, it’s in our life blood.”

Amos has British dates next year including two nights at the London Palladium in March. And beyond that? “There are always things bubbling,” she says.

Ocean To Ocean is released on Friday October 29

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