Tori Amos learns to be like water

The musician brings new album ‘Ocean to Ocean’ to the Palace Theatre on Saturday, May 21

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Tori Amos

Tori Amos spent much of the pandemic holed up in Cornwall, England, reaching a creative low point about a year into lockdown. “We all have our limitations, where we hit a wall and go, ‘When is this nightmare going to end?’” Amos said by phone in April. “So, yeah, I got stuck in a place that I had been able to push through for a year, and then I couldn’t anymore. And I just had to sit in that place. And I knew I needed a fighter, someone to help me ... shake this field of negativity.”

At that point, Amos turned to Bruce Lee, immersing herself in the late martial arts legend's philosophies, and in particular his call to “be like water,” remaining formless as a means of not getting trapped in a singular mindset. This idea formed the basis of “Metal Water Wood,” a track that served as a creative springboard for Amos’ 2021 album Ocean to Ocean. “When he said to be like water, that was the key,” said Amos, who headlines a concert at Palace Theatre on Saturday, May 21. “That unlocked everything.”

Ocean to Ocean, like every album in Amos’ vast catalog, is both deeply personal and unfailingly political, alternating between moments of fist-balling anger and bone china fragility. On the title track, for one, Amos growls about “those who don’t give a goddamn that we’re near mass extinction,” while the spare, solemn “Flowers Burn to Gold” serves as a gorgeous eulogy for the musician's late mother, whose death led to a prolonged period of grief that for a time threatened to consume Amos.

“My daughter said to me at a certain point, ‘I miss grandma, too, but I miss my mom, and I need my mom back,’” Amos said. “And, wow, talk about a wakeup call. Sometimes in mourning somebody, we don’t honor them if we’re not showing up for the people in our life. So, I really had to find more of my mother and remember some of the things that she taught me, because for a while I got caught up in the loss instead of celebrating all of the amazing moments and things that she shared with us.”

While Ocean to Ocean doesn’t shy from exploring this inner world, the music more often takes an outward stance, motivated by everything from the January 6 insurrection to the seemingly untamed natural world that surrounded Amos in Cornwall and served as a needed place of escape throughout the pandemic.

“The Cornish coast, there’s something really beautiful about it, and I found it reassuring because I felt so humbled by the power of the gales, and how alive it was, and how electric,” Amos said. “There was this sense of, OK, Mother Nature’s busy. And it just gave me this feeling of relief, like, she knows how to deal with this. And the more time I spent in nature, the stronger I became.”

On “29 Years,” Amos also wrestles with the idea of legacy as she enters into her fourth decade in music following the 1992 release of her breakthrough solo debut, Little Earthquakes. “These tattered bits of me,” she sings, “I've been piecing/For 29 years.”

The experience of writing the song thrust Amos back to her earliest days creating music, when she briefly fronted the synth-pop band Y Kan’t Tori Read, which released a single self-titled album in 1988 before breaking up.

“And it didn’t even make a bleep on most people’s radars, and nobody knew about it, and nobody cared, but it devastated me,” said Amos, who reshaped her entire approach to pursuing a music career in the wake of the album tanking, noting how folks she considered friends at the time had distanced themselves from her, as if “you can catch failure.” “So, I had to rethink everything, and I realized it's the quality of friends, not the quantity, because you want them to be there even when the champagne isn’t flowing, as they say. … And discovering that changed my whole outlook toward the music business, and I made a commitment to myself that I would write what needed to be written. And I had to wake up in the morning knowing what my intention as a songwriter was. Why am I doing this? And I had to be clear on the answer.

“And for me, the answer is whether anybody likes it or plays it or cares about it, I need to be able to wake up and say that I answered my calling, and this is the best I can do. And that's my commitment to the muses and the music. That’s my value system. If I start doing it for any other reason — to have a hit, or to try and do this or that. No. That’s not my path. That can be somebody else’s path, and it might work for them, but it is just not for me."