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Singer-songwriter Tori Amos usually takes a trip for inspiration when she begins a new record—but these last couple years, that was not in the cards. She speaks with NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker about writing through the pandemic, and how staying in one place forced her to face and process the loss of her mother – with an intensity, she says, she was not prepared for.
Many people have reported profound changes in their lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For recording artist Tori Amos, it has meant searching for—and finding—new inspiration for her music.
From behind the piano, there is little Tori Amos has been unwilling to approach. Producing work that is bold, striking and at times arresting, Amos has spent decades offering a steady, unvarnished account of the good, the bad, and the wonderful or horrific that come from moving through the world.
But as it has been for nearly everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the script for Amos—and the artist famed for her ability to tackle the most difficult of topics, found herself struggling to find her voice.
I just left New York and flew into London. My husband and I, we saw our daughter who's going to university there, and we made our way down to Cornwall and within, I don't know, a week or two the universities were closing and hey, we thought it was just going to be jammin' and fun for about a couple of weeks, three weeks, and we pulled together, but once the third lockdown happened in January 2021 in England, I have to tell you, I just hit a place of despair: 'When is this nightmare going to end?' It's the longest that I haven't played live in my life since I turned pro at 13.
For the prolific Amos, her inability to tour was coupled with a collision between the material she had been writing and the rapidly changing state of the world. The songs on the record she had planned to release in 2020 no longer reflected the place Amos now inhabited.
When I was listening back to those songs, it's not that they're terrible songs, it's just that they weren't taking me to the place I needed to go and the songs I had written, I think, were responding to a different world.
In the past, Amos says the inspiration came from movement – whether touring or traveling, experience resulted in song. A tried and true process that was no longer feasible.
A part of my way that I used to do things was dying and it needed to die. I needed to just go, OK, how you have coped and worked at doing this for so many years is not an option. So then it was like, OK, now I need to go surrender. I need to just go listen to the trees, honestly, surrender yourself, humble yourself and just, I begged the muses and the land, I just said 'I'm feeling lost.'
But tucked inside this stillness was a sadness that Amos says she thought she had learned to live with. The grief over the loss of her mother in 2019.
As you have spoken fairly widely about, you recently lost your mother and she played a huge role in this work.
Yes, my mom. She was, she was just love. She was just a bundle of love, and I thought I had dealt with it. I really thought that I had dealt with her passing. But in that third lockdown in England, I know she would have known what to say. She always knew what to say on the other end of a phone, and she just wasn't there, and I wasn't being the mother that I wanted to be and my daughter came to me and said, You know, I know you've lost your mom, I've lost grandma and I miss grandma. But I need my mom, where's my mom? And she's, I mean, talk about a ton of bricks, from the sofest voice, I need my mom and I thought, OK, I have to write myself out of this place of this. I'm drowning in sadness. I'm drowning here and so I used that to work with.
The result of that writing is "Ocean to Ocean" – an album that is as much an account of her private loss as it is our public one.
Tori Amos' song "Speaking with Tree": When you left, emptiness.
This, this pandemic is changing who I thought I was and that's not a bad thing. But realizing that parts of yourself need to die so that others can then magically be, you know, I don't know, born. And that was part of what the record really is about regeneration, realizing that I'm not the same person and I know a lot of people are the same person and that can be a good thing, but I just had to work through the process and the songs help me do that.
Tori Amos song "Spies": Knowing this may help you make, make it through the night (on lullabies).
We were all going through something over the last two years and some people, I think, have been more effective than others, but in different ways. You know, in different ways. If we've lost people, and we couldn't grieve properly and the the record takes you through the different stages there. There is going to be the loss because you have to acknowledge that and you have to be honest.
If you're going to document life and you're going to be accurate about it, sometimes you're called to deal with some tough subjects. So we have to find ways to travel there and then ways hopefully to uplift somebody out of that.
Tori Amos' song, "Spies": Then on the bridge, under the tower. In spatter-dashes with a plaid umbrella.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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