Interview: Beth Orton

March 21, 2013 at 08:36

Beth Orton
Image Courtesy of Beth Orton

Beth Orton is without a doubt one of the most celebrated female singer-songwriters in the world at the moment. Her amazing 2012 record Sugaring Season was near the top of a lot of “best of” lists last year and her Australian tour off the back of last year’s Sydney Festival was received with glowing reviews.Gareth Hugh Evans managed to snatch ten minutes with Beth Orton to chat about her upcoming tour with Heavenly Sounds, the reaction to her being out of the spotlight for a while and her work with legendary folk artist Bert Jansch.

Gareth Hugh Evans: Let’s talk about the upcoming Australian tour with Heavenly Sounds. I think this tour is absolutely perfect for you and your music. Did they approach you with the idea?

Beth Orton: Yeah they did, it’s fantastic. I love playing Churches. They’re just the perfect place to play and to play solo – it’s incredible to have that chance. In England it’s not always so nice – I played some churches over winter and it was freezing because they’re these big old stone, cold places. But it just sounds amazing so it’s always worth doing.

GHE: It’s quite common in England to perform in churches – everyone I talk to over there says it’s a regular part of their tours, to play in a church at least once.

BO: Definitely. And also because a lot of churches are not being used so it’s a way for them to get people in.

GHE: I always feel sorry for the sounds guys though – you’ve got these buildings that are absolutely designed for acoustics and then you ahve to get in there with microphones and instruments and things.

BO: Exactly. I’ve tried to do it with a band and it’s been a nightmare – it’s just been a wash of sound. I find the less people the better it sounds.

GHE: I’m really chuffed you’re coming back to Australia – how have you found the audiences when you’ve played here?

BO: I have to say, last January [2012] I came and played my first gigs in a long time and the audience was f*cking fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for more. Incredibly responsive, just real listeners, really present. I just felt an incredible connection and for me to have that as the beginning of coming back after a while away was just wonderful. So I’m very excited to come to Australia, always.

GHE: I think last time you were here it felt like a lot of people had been waiting a long time to hear new music from Beth Orton.

BO: I know, exactly, I hear you. I’m really flattered! It was like gosh, I’ve been having kids, playing music, writing songs, playing with Bert Jansch, doing my thing. Just not terribly publicly, but still very involved. But of course I did forget that there’s that other part of it which is actually playing music to other people. I kind of handed my life over a little bit to Bert and making music with him – which was fantastic, no regrets there. But it’s lovely to come back and people be like “Where the hell have you been?”.

GHE: You must have got that a lot – almost like a sigh of relief.

BO: I think so. I think Australia seems to be really open to it. America seemed to be a little more critical – like “What’s she up to?”. I think the thing with this record,Sugaring Season, is there are no bells and whistles, there are no tricks and gadgets. It’s probably one of the most straight ahead records I’ve ever made. It’s also one of the deepest records I’ve ever made – and I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that. It’s not like I’ve reinvented the wheel or anything but I’ve got rid of anything extraneous. I feel it’s a very beautiful sounding record and I think a lot of the records I’ve made have been but I’ve played with sound before. With this record there’s a warmth to it. It’s funny, different audiences have different reactions and sometimes people in America are like “c’mon, do the old thing!”. And it’s exactly not the old thing, it’s a little bit different. Whereas I find in Australia they’re a lot more open to it all which is lovely.

GHE: The album’s been out for a while now. Are you ready for the next thing?

BO: I kind of am. I’m ready to make another record. I have the material – I wrote a lot of songs during the time I wasn’t [around]. I basically had a daughter, then I was bringing her up and then one thing led to another and I got working with Bert – it was quite a fertile ground for writing. For me Sugaring Season has parts one and two and I’ve got part two to come. It’s on the horizon and I’d like to just get on and do that really and not waste too much time if that’s possible.

GHE: It seems like every artist with a new album, by the time they’re ready to go out and tour it, they’re already ready to make the next thing. I guess that’s the artistic process.

BO: I don’t feel over Sugaring Season but I do feel, like I say, that it had this second part to it that would make sense live. There’s other songs that I really want to add to the “canon”.

GHE: You mentioned Bert Jansch a couple of times, and I don’t want to dwell too much on your work with him because I know if was a while ago now, but I did want to ask what it was like to work with such a legend?

BO: I know! One of the things about working with Bert was the normality of it. Going around his house and drinking tea and eating biscuits. He wasn’t a man of airs and graces – a very very regular kind of individual, it’s just he’d pick up the guitar and shred. He’d have guitars around him all the time. It was kind of confusing in its simplicity – also for me to sit and play and try and keep up with him, sometimes I’d just freeze. And sometimes it’s incredibly uncomfortable just to sit there and have him just believe in what I’m doing and what to make music with me. I’m just like “What the heck??”. He was someone I always wanted to work with, back in the days of Trailer Park I thought it’d be amazing to have him play the guitar on that record. As it was I met Ted Barnes which was fantastic and went on and worked with him. But there I was with Bert and I know idea how soon he was going to die [Bert Jansch passed away in October 2011]. I didn’t know that in a matter of a few of years he actually going to die. So I just sort of felt like he was a greater cause in some way – I didn’t know what I meant by that. I had a baby girl, I could afford to live for a minute, I’m just going to go into this world and this will be my teaching for a while. I’m just going to school myself and sit with Bert and learn what I can and tour with him a little bit and record with him. Somehow that gave my life a sense of routine somehow – just to go and hang with him and his wife make music. He was a lovely man – very patient actually.

GHE: I love that you guys created a touchstone between the folk revival of the 70s and 80s and the modern folk singer. Almost like a passing of the torch or one generation teaching the next.

BO: Absolutely. That’s a very nice way of putting it. It is that – it’s this sense of passing it on. I wouldn’t say that I’m holding his torch because God knows that would be too immense. But am very lucky to have had that time and it did influence the record that I’ve made, Sugaring Season.

GHE: Just finally, you only have four dates this time around. I hope you’re going to come back soon because I know you have a dedicated fan base here in Australia.

BO: I hope so too. I’d love to come back [next] January or February if possible and possibly with a band. That would be fantastic. And also with some more songs – I will play some new songs during the sets [this time] as well as Sugaring Seasonand as well as the old songs. I’ll play as long as people want me to, or let me. I hope I come back soon.

GHE: Thank you so much for chatting with me tonight.

BO: Thank you so much – cheers! See you in Australia.

Beth Orton is touring for Heavenly Sounds this May. The full list of dates is below:

Monday 6th May – St Joseph’s Church, Perth, WA
Wednesday 8th May – St Michael’s Church, Melbourne, VIC
Friday 10th May – St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, QLD
Tuesday 14th May – St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Sydney, NSW

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