An Interview with Beth Orton
by Alexander Laurence
Beth Orton is a six-foot singer/songwriter from Norfolk. She has done two previous albums, Trailer Park (1996) and Central Reservation (1999), both of which received much critical acclaim. In ’96 she scored her first Top 40 single with “She Cries Your Name,” and did a sell-out tour of the UK to celebrate a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Album of the Year. Her follow-up Central Reservationmade her an indie favorite in the US.
It’s been three years in the wait for the new Astralwerks album Daybreaker. In the meantime Beth has done some DJing and appearered as a guest vocalist on several projects. The past five years have been fruitful for Beth. She recorded with a personal hero, folk-jazz legend Terry Callier, worked with the Chemical Brothers on Dig Your Own Hole, toured America with Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris as part of the Lilith Fair, and performed in a packed-out tent to a crowd of 10,000 muddy Glastonbury-goers.
At six foot tall and disarmingly sharp, Beth Orton is not exactly what you’d expect. Despite an ability to reduce people to tears with her songs, Beth is more likely to steal your last cigarette than cry on your shoulder. Born in Norfolk, England in 1970, Beth moved to London with her mother at the age of fourteen and settled in Dalston. Since her older brothers had already gone the punk rock route, she felt the most rebellious thing she could do was “get into folk.” She spent her late teen years immersed in everything from Nick Drake, to The Stone Roses and Rickie Lee Jones, before toying with the idea of acting and a drama course.
After a couple of years in fringe theater she hooked up with dance producer William Orbit for her first musical project, a cover of John Maryn’s “Don’t Wanna Know About Evil.” Having worked with Orbit for two years she co-wrote the first two Red Snapper singles and teamed up with the (little known at the time) Chemical Brothers on “Alive: Alone,” the haunting final track from the Brothers’ ace debut album. The Brothers invited her back on their most recent album after a noticeable absence.
Now years after first hearing her first solo album, Beth Orton seems like a major artist with a wide range. Her new album should be worth the wait. It will be out in July. I got to talk to her backstage at one of her shows in Hollywood recently. It was brief, but I look forward to hearing her records in the future.
AL:You have done a bunch of collaborations in the past with people like The Chemical Brothers. All while maintaining a band of your own. When you go into a studio what do you hope these friends and band members can bring to the album?
Beth: I think that when you work with the same people for a long time you create a relationship. It’s with the band as well. We have built a certain level of trust over the years. It’s a comfort in a way. But I wouldn’t call it comfort necessarily. It’s a lack of self-consciousness around one another. We have an open relationship where now on this record it can be real special.
I remember on one song I went over to Ted’s house (a band member) and he started playing a riff. It was winter and we were sitting in his room. Ted had just told me a story about a girl that he met, wondering if he would ever meet her again. When he started playing I just started singing along straight away. The melody and the words came out at once. It’s so exciting. It’s like peeling away an onion. You can have all sorts of relationships, but there’s something with musicians working together where you can have relationship that can just continue to grow in a beautiful way. Then you get your William Orbit’s and your Chemical Brothers and that’s just like icing on the cake really.
AL: What was it like working with Johnny Marr?
Beth: I did some writing with him. I had a song called “Concrete Sky” knocking around for ages. I met him and I played it to him and he said “Oh, I love that song. I got chords.” He got all these chords out of the cupboard and he was putting in all these little things. He got involved. I was happy with it but he just added this other dimension. With me I have a lot of beginnings and Ted has a lot of ends. With Johnny he has a lot of bits and pieces and these things that take it to another level all the time.
AL: You invited Ryan Adams to work on this album too. Can you tell us how that turned out?
Beth: I did. I heard Heartbreaker which is his first solo album. There’s a record shop in London called Rough Trade Records and often I go down there on a Saturdays with some friends and buy some records. We look through the racks and they all suggest things. Oh I got this and this. All my DJ friends are all across the board. One week they’ll say “Oh, I got this Ryan Adams and you have to get it.” Oh, cool. Thought it was some old bloke. Went home and put it on. It was a great record. I was surprised that there was someone in my generation who was like this.
I also like Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton. They just move me. Well, Johnny Marr sang backup vocals on “Concrete Sky” on the demo but he was on tour with someone else by the time it came to record it. We called up Ryan Adams and he was up for it and it was brilliant. He came over and we went into the studio. He put the vocal down and then he put some guitar and piano down and that was great. Then he played me some song that he had and it just blew me away. He wrote the song about some girl. And I could relate because I was in a similar situation.
I learned it and then I was like “I have to record that song!” We did one take and that take is on the album. We met and our voices go beautifully together. It’s called “What You Want” and it’s going to be on the album. It’s very beautiful and very magical.
AL: Since you worked with so many different people, does “Daybreaker” have the feel of one continuous album?
Beth: Yeah. What is surprising sometimes is what you leave off. We recorded 25 songs in two weeks with the whole band. Then there’s the stuff I did with Johnny. There’s stuff all over the place. And these are the ten songs that ended up being on the record because for me they encapsulate the mood best of the time we are recording the album. It took about six months altogether. That’s not too bad. It was probably actually a year because I was looking for someone to do the mixing and things weren’t working out.
AL: Who is a great producer? You have worked with William Orbit and Ben Watt….
Beth: Ben Watt is incredible. He took the record into Technicolor. We had this beautiful record and he came along and he just got it. I wanted it to be really classy. I wanted it to be lush and beautiful. I don’t want any of your Lazy Dog stuff. He said “Okay cool.” He came in and mixed “Paris Train” and it was just incredible.
AL: You are doing a small tour now and the record comes out in July?
Beth: Yeah. I am playing a few acoustic shows. Then Daybreaker comes out. I’ll be back in August with a full band for a longer tour.
— Alexander Laurence