The first lockdown, my family did medium-to-spicy well. It was me, my husband Mark, [my daughter] Tash and her boyfriend, Oliver. When the kids were fleeing university in London, and Tash said, “Is it OK if Oliver and I come down?” Mark and I said, “Of course!” – thinking that they would be down for three weeks at the most, like a long school holiday.
Five months later, they were still there. We were very fortunate to be in Cornwall, in the country – we had more space than some people. We’re a hop, skip and a jump from the water. There’s a ferocious beauty to the Cornish coast. There’s the gorgeous beaches, but then there are the crags and the rocks. There’s something gently brutal about it. I surrendered to the land at a certain point: OK, I’m in exile here. I can’t get back to the States, because I don’t know if I can get back [into the UK] if I go. If I can’t get back to Mark and Tash, then I’m going to evaporate. Because they are the reason I wake up in the morning.
By the third lockdown, however, in January of this year, I was not at my best. I was grieving not playing live for the longest time in my life, not doing what musicians do. There isn’t the spiritual ceremony of the collaboration with a live audience. We’re talking about a voltage that I can’t achieve by myself. That was gone, and there was no way to recreate that. The closest thing was to go to the ocean and feel when the tides are coming in and hitting those rocks. Yes, the sea can be calm and gentle, but when the gales are blowing, my goodness – now that’s voltage.
I became despondent and sad, and filled with loss. You’re trying to find different coping mechanisms at 50-some years old, and sometimes not even realising that that’s what you’re needing to do. And that’s where the songwriting began. The muses said to me: “Write from where you are. And where you are is on your knees in a grief and a sadness. You have to start from there.” It was my own private little hell that I had to write myself out of.
At first, I wrote from the chair I was sitting in, because I couldn’t get out of it – [I didn’t have] the energy that it took. I was able to make dinner with Tash. It was something we would share. But Mark gave up on trying to coax me into the studio. I don’t need to be by an instrument to write; it’s just not necessary – it is at a certain point, once I’m exploring the structures that I’ve thought in my head, but I needed to get out of this lethargy.
The song Metal Water Wood came first. I was trying to combat this force of despondency, loss – a quagmire of “What is this that’s zapping us, almost stealing our life force?” I started reading about Bruce Lee. I don’t know why I was drawn to him. The muses take me to places sometimes, and it doesn’t necessarily make linear sense. But he said: “Be like water.” As a fire being, as a fire creature, that was almost as if I was betraying the element that has always gotten me through stuff before.
Once it was wintertime and I started going out into the land, I began to realise I needed to do it more and more. In that act of engaging with it, it began showing me, it began collaborating with me, with the songs. And the muses, of course, were there. I had to say: “OK, I know I’m a guest here, but will you share your secrets with me?” And the land said to me: “Are you worthy? What are you going to do with these secrets, Tori? Will you honour them? Or are you going to bend them to suit your own needs? Or are you going to be really honest, that this has broken you?”
And I said: “I’m not the mom I want to be. I’m not the wife I want to be. I’m not the artist I want to be.” And they immediately rolled their eyes and said: “Oh, please stop with the dramatic postmenopausal crap.”
I want to step out of it, but you have to sometimes admit you’re not there. You’re in the middle of a complex conundrum. My mom passed away a couple of years ago. People talk about stages of grief. And sometimes you have to say: “You know, I miss my mom. And she’s not here, and I can’t call her. And she would know what to say.” And then Tash finally walks in the room: “OK, I need my mom back. I’m sorry you don’t have your mom. I’m really sorry. And I miss grandma. But I need my mom.” Jesus. Then you go: “OK, I have to stop being the child missing her mother.”
When I was a child, I would travel by listening to the Beatles’ work and then playing it at the piano. The music was able to take me to anywhere in the universe. If the music was right, I could jump on that sonic spaceship and go. And I had to relearn that skill, but the trick this time was I needed to write a song in order to try and find my mom, Mary. She’s in Speaking with Trees and Flowers Burn to Gold. People have said to me: “I’m not trying to shame you, T, but you had a mother who had unconditional love. You’ve experienced that. What a gift. Can you hold on to that gift? She runs through your veins too, so if you can channel the songs, can’t you channel her?” And, God, that left me speechless.
The playwright Samuel Adamson, who I worked with on The Light Princess, sent me a message. He’s such an amazing writer. He said: “I just had a vision. And I have to tell you, Cornwall’s protecting you.” I thought, What? And he said: “I’m just giving you a message. I know this to be true. She’s protecting you. She’s keeping you safe.” And I felt, OK, then I need to keep her safe. Not that she needs protecting in that way, but her stories. I need to give something back to this majestic, compassionate energy. The way to reflect that energy was a collaboration with the land, the water and the muses. Trying to give people a glimpse of this essence that I’ve spent 18 months with.
The mythology of Cornwall feels alive. It doesn’t feel in the past. If you squint your eyes and don’t look at the cafe on your right, but look around you, there’s something so ancient about it. You can kid yourself that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are going to show up any moment or Ragnelle is going to show herself. There is a sense of being protected by something so ancient. I had to allow it into my bones.
• As told to Annie Zaleski. Tori Amos’s new album, Ocean to Ocean, is out now on Decca.