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Tori Amos on the spirituality and secret language behind her most memorable songs

·7 min read
Tori Amos
Tori Amos

Desmond Murray "I had one foot in England and one foot in America, and the song crystallizes that," says Amos of "Here in My Head."

The Write Stuff is a series where artists tell the stories behind their best songs.

Since the release of her seminal 1992 debut Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos has remained a pivotal and prolific singer-songwriter who has always been able to meet the moment. While her last album, 2017's Native Invader, tackled the timely, existential crisis society faces as climate change worsens, her latest, Ocean to Ocean, sees Amos turning the anguish of the pandemic — and her lockdown in Cornwall, where she lives with her husband — into a deeply introspective meditation on grief and rebirth.

"Even though we do talk about some sad things on the record, hopefully [it's] about rejoicing and transmuting the last 18 months into something where we're coming out of that now," Amos says of Ocean to Ocean.

Below, Amos shares the stories behind a handful of her most popular songs, B-sides, and tracks from her upcoming album, out October 29.

"Here In My Head" – Little Earthquakes B-side (1992)

When Amos first moved to England in 1991, she found herself lonely and homesick for America. But as a history aficionado who studied European, U.S., and ancient history in school, she sought comfort at the Tower of London. "I found it easier to talk with the dead queens at the Tower, than I did to make new friends," she recalls. For the singer-songwriter, "Here In My Head" references the way Amos felt stuck between two places: "I had one foot in England and one foot in America, and the song crystallizes that."

"Cornflake Girl" – Under the Pink (1994)

When Amos met photographer and stylist Karen Binns, the two quickly developed their own language. "It's really more her way of speaking, and I would fall in with it," the singer says. For them, "everything had a new name." Amos and Binns described themselves as open-minded, down-to-earth "raisin girls," and they referred to those who were "shady" as "cornflake girls." "You'd want to not be in the 'cornflake girl' gang because those are gals that are going to steal everything they can from you and take credit for it," she says. After a reggae-soundtracked stroll down the Portobello Road in London with Binns, "Cornflake Girl" — born from the duo's secret language — came to life.

"God" – Under the Pink (1994)

Growing up, Amos's relationship with religion and God was "very severe and authoritarian." I just thought, this God that they're talking about, what an underachiever," she recalls. But as she got older, she was able to escape attending her Protestant church four times a week and understand religion on her own terms. "When I moved to LA [in 1984], I started experiencing other spiritualities and ways of worshipping, going to Joshua Tree, opening myself to the nature, spirits, and energy of Mother Earth," Amos says. Aligned with nature in Taos, New Mexico while working on her album Under the Pink, her perspective on religion and God finally began to come together. She decided then and there she was going to question the religion she was raised in and acknowledge its hypocrisy. "I didn't find Jesus in the church," she says. "I found Jesus under a tree."

"Honey" – Under the Pink B-side (1994)

If Amos could go back in time, she'd put "Honey" on Under the Pink: "I regret that every day of my life because it's a song I play a lot live." For Amos, the B-side has become a part of her "friendship circle." The song came to her while she was driving her truck by the Rio Grande in the high desert. "There are sounds that come across the desert as if somebody's singing to you," she recalls. "So, I would stop the truck and just look at the beauty of the place, and 'Honey' came to me."

"Professional Widow" – Boys for Pele (1996)

When Amos wrote "Professional Widow," she was at an age where she was "much less patient" than she is now. She often had rows with her father and was struggling with the concept of fame. The combination of these factors fueled the song. "I don't thrive well in that world," she says. "I thrive better hanging out with the crew, or with the builders." During that time she was recording in an old Georgian house in Ireland next to a farm where a bull would bellow in the stables. A recording of the bull became percussion for the track, and its primal nature reflected her own emotional state at the time.

"Taxi Ride" – Scarlet's Walk (2002)

"Taxi Ride" is a tribute to Amos' friend, makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, who died from kidney and liver failure in 2002. "He was an amazing human being and one of the funniest people I've ever known in my life," she says of Aucoin. "But not all of us understood how ill he was, and, so, if he couldn't make some of us beautiful, some of us did not behave very well." At the time, perhaps, Amos was angered by "the ugliness and messiness at the end." "Taxi Ride" was ultimately a way for her "to tell the truth of what I think is a tragedy and a great loss."

"A Sorta Fairytale" – Scarlet's Walk (2002)

There was a time when Amos lived in LA and the Southwest that she'll always remember as magical. "I will treasure going up to Joshua Tree, taking vegetarian soup, having an ice chest, hanging out under the stars in the quiet, and taking in this incredible, spiritual experience," she says. That era was defined by a set of friends she had while she was with her former partner and producer Eric Rosse. "My best friend Beanie, Nancy Shanks, who passed away a couple of years ago, her nephew [my godson] goes out there a lot and sends me messages from [Joshua Tree]," says Amos. "So there's this tradition that's kept on from her to him."

"Job's Coffin" – Night of Hunters (2011)

When Amos was approached to write Night of Hunters, a concept album inspired by classical composers, she was scared. "I had to really think it through," she says. When it came to writing the halfway point of the record, "Job's Coffin," Amos imagined her own protagonist at a crossroads and having a conversation with a shapeshifting creature called Annabelle who challenges her to figure out a path forward. "It's a dark night of the soul tale where everything is falling apart, [my character] is losing everything, and she's even losing herself," she explains. "But that's not a bad thing." As part of her old self is dying and Annabelle is helping Amos's character determine what she wants for herself, the constellation "Job's Coffin" is observing the scene: "a sacred ceremony of death and rebirth."

"Devil's Bane" – Ocean to Ocean (2021)

During the pandemic, Amos was in lockdown in Cornwall and unable to leave England. As a form of escapism, she traveled to places in her mind. "I needed to write about certain emotions that I had experienced over the last year and that a lot of us have experienced, but a relationship was the story frame," she notes. "Devil's Bane" took Amos back to the desert — not the "high" desert but the "low" desert. "It just seemed right that this train would run through the Southwest," she notes. That also inspired the image of a shot of tequila in the opening line: "A shot of Tequila /I keep walking /let it pass that diabolical train /Yes, I have drunk /from that Devil's Bane." Notes Amos, "If you're going to have a shot of tequila anywhere, it's got to be in the Southwest."

"Spies" – Ocean to Ocean (2021)

In July, Amos discovered bats were flying into her old farmhouse in Cornwall, but were only visiting her daughter Natashya and not she and her husband Mark (Hawley). While she isn't entirely sure why that was — she suspects it had to do with proximity to the water supply — her daughter stayed out of her room for 10 days until they could protect the house from bats. From her daughter's fear, "Spies" emerged: "She was having nightmares about the bat, so I decided to do what I did when she was a little girl and write her a lullaby." But writing a lullaby for a 21-year-old is very different from creating one for a small child. Amos decided she needed "benevolent beings that are stalking the scheming nēnēs that threaten children at night."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story spelled Karen Binns' name incorrectly. It has since been updated.

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