The Believer Interview

BETH ORTON

[MUSICIAN]

THIS IS WHY WE LOVE HER
About writing new songs in Africa
About dolphins at sunset, and great ugly ships
About breeding frogs
About becoming Old Misery Guts

Beth Orton has made three albums—Trailer Park, Central Reservation, and most recently, Daybreaker. The music will not be described in any way here, because you know what it sounds like, and it is very hard to describe. Orton is from England, though the titles of her first two albums had many people, or at least a few people we know, assuming that she was an American. This interview was conducted over the phone, and the interviewer promised himself that he would not ask the following questions: 1) What’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry? 2) What was it like collaborating with Johnny Marr? 3) Because you collaborated with Johnny Marr, does this mean you’re less of a musician than a man, because you are a woman and need to collaborate with Johnny Marr? 4) Why do some of your songs have electronic beats and others do not? 5) How do you like performing live? 6) Why are some of your songs so sad, and other songs still sad, but less so? 7) Why are your albums titled as if you are an American? 8) Where is your favorite place to play live? 9) Was the Warfield show last year one of your favorites, because I was there, and I thought it was pretty good, even though I had sucky seats.

Actually, it was the interviewer’s hope that they would talk about things only tangentially related to music, touring. And for the most part that wish came true. And we found out what many people have found to be true is indeed true—Beth Orton, so melancholy in her music, is really funny. She’s loud. She likes to tell stories, and will tell jokes, and laughs a lot, and generally seems like someone you’d want at a birthday party. In fact, it seems that her friends think of her this way, and take her out on the town, which is how the interview starts, when the interviewer called her on the designated Sunday morning.

—Hector de la Manzana

10 AM SUNDAY, JANUARY 26

THE BELIEVER: Is this the right time?

BETH ORTON: It is the right time. The only problem is that I went out last night and got bladded—

BLVR: Wait. What’s that word you just used? Bladded?

BO: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s my new favorite word to teach Americans.

BLVR: Is that a derivative of bladder? Like “bladdered”?

BO: Well, it just means “really drunk.” And I’m ridiculously hungover and—

BLVR: Wait. It’s got to be like four in the afternoon there, right?

BO: It’s five! [Laughs.] I went to bed at about 6 AM. I managed to lie on my side, thinking, Well, if I vomit I won’t choke on it. But do you see the sort of mood I’m in? I would just talk absolute crap. Can we talk tomorrow?

THE NEXT DAY

BLVR: How are you feeling?

BO: Oh much better, thanks. I was just sort of overdrawn on my hangover bank. I’ve been building up and building up and building up and needed to go out and have a good drink with some of the people I missed in December.

I. ISLAND YOU FLY TO FROM AFRICA

BLVR: Are you a swimmer?

BO: I have to be honest, I just got back from Africa, where I spent four weeks on an island in the middle of the sea, so I guess I am. I love the water more than anything. I’m not very good at sunbathing—I get really bored. I love swimming and I love being like a fish and getting in the sea and just—I don’t know, it feels right.

BLVR: Where was the island?

BO: In Lamu, in Kenya. It’s virtually deserted; there’s only one hotel on the island and miles and miles of beach. I stayed in the village—as a rule, I’m not comfortable holidaying in other people’s poverty—but maybe because it was such a tiny place where everybody knew each other and lived together it wasn’t unbearably wrong, if you know what I mean. People there seem as far removed from misery as anywhere I’ve known. The main source of income is fishing, and there’s a particular quality of life—it’s good. I found the atmosphere incredibly restorative, in the simplicity of rising with the sun and going via the sunset on the way home.

BLVR: What’s the closest Kenyan city to Lamu?

BO: Mombasa. You fly from Nairobi. And then a boat.

BLVR: You were there, what, almost a month?

BO: I didn’t intend to stay that long, but just before I was supposed to leave there was the bombing in Mombasa, and then the election. During the election, everyone said, “No, don’t leave, stay here for New Year’s Eve and see the boat race on New Year’s Day.” That’s when people from all the surrounding islands race their dhow sailboats; it was worth staying for. About twenty sailboats speed off into the new years morning sun, boats with handmade sails all sewn together and held to the mast by old rope and string, with about thirty people all hanging off here, there, and everywhere. The winners got so excited their whole boat tipped over as did most of the others at the finishing line. You don’t get much more alive than that beach that morning.

BLVR: About the election—were they voting on the island, too?

BO: Oh yeah, there was a lot of concern as to who would get in, it would change everything. If it went the wrong way, there might be riots and all hell was expected to break loose. But it went the right way, Kibaki was elected, and it was like a big party. Then it was the New Year and there was lots to celebrate.

BLVR: Interesting place to be, at a pretty pivotal time.

BO: And the Al-Qaeda came into the village we were in! They were trying to preach in the mosque—the island is ninety-seven percent Muslim—and they got thrown out. Then they went into the Lamu town, and they got arrested there, for being connected to the Mombasa bombing. So rumor had it. It was quite extraordinary, because Bin Laden’s already become such a Robin Hood character there. These little kids—and one adult—if they want to insult you, they just shout “Osama!” And it’s the graffiti on the walls here and there. But it’s kids—they don’t really know what they’re saying, necessarily. But you know, finally with Osama, they’ve got a stick they can wag at us, you know what I mean? But that was just a few kids…

BLVR: And who else was on the island? Lots of Europeans?

BO: No, no. But one morning I woke up and the island had become filled with yachts. All these people started showing up, and it was suddenly all high society, and I insulted this woman by accident.

BLVR: What happened?

BO: Well, we went out to sea on Christmas Eve, and I hate Christmas—I fucking hate it, it’s so depressing—and I try to get as far away as possible, it makes me physically ill. So we went out on this boat and I got a little bit freaked out. It was really extreme out there, with the endless sea and the wind and the sun. I needed a piss and dived into the sea on my own when we were in the middle of nowhere and it completely overwhelmed me and I went into a state of paralysis. We’re out on this boat, to go snorkeling, and I freak out. I wanted to be on land. But there was no land! There was none at all. There were only these little bits of coral and I tried to sit on the coral, and it just ripped my legs to pieces!

BLVR: You don’t usually… well, you don’t want to sit on the coral.

BO: I know, Rule No. 1! But I love the sea, I’m just—Anyway, I just got kind of freaked out. And so there were these really posh people in a speedboat, and they took me back to the island. And I was sort of delirious and I had a bit of heatstroke at that point, and I sort of forgot to say thank you clearly. They were apparently the Mafia, and then they were on my case.

BLVR: What, they followed you, demanding an apology?

BO: No, they talked to this guy, who was an art dealer who was also staying on the island, near me, and then this guy had to have a word with me. It was all a bit odd. And so I told the woman I was sorry and thanked her and she said I’d been a bitch. But I think she liked my cheek in a funny way, though I never meant to be cheeky at all in this instance.

BLVR: Well, anyone could have told you that the worst time to insult the wife of a mafioso is when she’s on vacation.

BO: Yeah, things like that were so bizarre. On this tiny island. It was such an extraordinary mix of people. And they all came out of the woodwork. And then another boat arrived, including one of the ugliest boats I’ve ever seen in my whole life. It was a huge metal-tank type ship. And everyone was saying that the man on that boat never comes off because he was so badly disfigured in a landmine acccident while hunting animals. As if that makes any sense. Apparently the landmine went off in his face. And he’s ridiculously rich, apparently, through being an inventor. I thought the story of this disfigured recluse all seemed really fairy-tale-like, and that his boat must be beautiful on the inside. But the boat was so ugly. It’s like, If he can’t see beauty when he looks in the mirror, he shall take the ugliest vessel he can find and take it to one of the most beautiful places on earth and put it directly in everyone’s line of sight! Then they can also know how it is to see a blot on a beautiful landscape! That kind of thing. So I wanted to see the inside of that ship just to know what was inside.

BLVR: Did you get on the boat?

BO: Well, we took a sailboat out one night, because the full moon was rising and the sun was going down, and we were out on the sailboat, me and some friends I met, and we saw these dolphins! And I’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins, and so I dive straight into the sea. And there we were, bobbing about, between the moon, and the sun, and the dolphins—well, the dolphins have disappeared by now, obviously—but when I put my head under the water I could hear them. And then we got back onto the boat, and we passed the huge tank thing, and I thought I have to get on that boat—it’s such a romantic story.

BLVR: Right.

BO: And just as we went past it, there was this thunderstorm in the distance, so it just became more and more fantastical and fairy-tale-like by the minute. So we docked and went into the bar—the one bar on the island—and the only people in there are these drunken sailors. And they said, “You want to see the boat? You want to see the boat?” And I was like, “I fucking do! Take me to the boat! Take me to your leader!” And so they took me on the boat.

BLVR: And?

BO: And it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. It was just as metal and cold on the inside as on the outside.

BLVR: There were no… chairs or anything?

BO: There was nothing. It had three heliports, and what are those things that kill whales?

BLVR: Harpoons?

BO: Yeah, harpoon guns. It was fucked up.

BLVR: And did you meet the guy?

BO: No, no one met the guy because he wasn’t there. He was coming on Sunday. They were trying to get the boat ready for his arrival. But it wasn’t going to happen. But I found out this: He will only make a barbecue on 1,000 Chilean pebbles.

BLVR: Pebbles from Chile?

BO: Yes.

BLVR: A thousand of them?

BO: Right.

BLVR: He likes to barbecue, but only with the Chilean pebbles?

BO: I’m assuming he likes to barbecue. But I didn’t ask. Maybe I should have asked.

II. WRITING SONGS ON LAMU

BLVR: Were you writing?

BO: I went there with a handful of ideas and I came out with a bag full. It was incredibly productive because there was nothing to do, other than fantasize about boats, and strange people on them, and then go home and write.

BLVR: So what do you need to write? Guitar and… ?

BO: A guitar, and I have a minidisc and a microphone, and a piece of paper and a pen. There wasn’t a car… there weren’t anywheels on this island. It was just wonderful. I just got back. Even when I haven’t had money, I found money to travel. It’s a luxury that’s a kind of necessity, I think. I just got so productive there, with so many good thoughts. It was a good place to be. My manager said the next best inspiration to heartbreak is travel, and it’s true.

BLVR: So were you finishing music that was already in your head, or was it influenced a lot by being there?

BO: It was mainly new songs, and some reworking.

BLVR: Can you explain your process? Is there a chord progression first, or a phrase, or… ?

BO: It works any which way, but the way it seems to work for me more and more is that I get a feeling, on a guitar, and I sort of mess around until something resonates with me, and then I just find that what happens is that a melody comes, and with that, words. But they’re nonsense, they’re gobbledygook, and I’ve sort of ignored them for years. I went through a time when I ignored my gobbledygook. But when you go back and hear it, it makes the most beautiful sense. It’s like the unconscious mind speaking, and it’s coming up with stuff that I would never come up with in my conscious mind. So now I listen really carefully to that, to what I’ve said and I write it down as I hear it. It’s like blowing smoke rings to myself or something, like Morse code to my heart.

BLVR: So you’re filling the melody with the first thing that comes to mind?

BO: Well, sometimes, the words, the unconscious words—they can make the melody. They shape the song. It’s the way the sound of the words, the vowels shape the song. And once that starts, you can just write songs in an hour, you know. Bang, there it is. Then usually I realize that they need radical reworking or they get put away for a while or forever, I love that process. I can be in certain situations and all I want to do is go and finish writing, like going home to read the next chapter of a book I’m all excited about. Sometimes it makes me a little awkward and socialy inept at times, when I spend all that time locked inside a song. Also because when I’m on a roll nothing makes me happier or feel more satisfied, like plugging in, life makes sense.

BLVR: And you collaborate with your bandmates.

BO: I’ve also been writing with my guitarist, Ted Barnes, and he’s amazing. Writing with him has taught me a lot about my own writing process, in the sense that it’s incredably personal to write with someone else from scratch. It’s all very well finishing off an already-begun song, but this is baring a very unguarded soul and I’ve only really done it with him, and even then it’s taken six years to feel secure enough to do that, from scratch. Ted has a broader palette than me and his structure and arrangments are less coarse than mine. I don’t read music; I taught myself guitar, so writing with Ted is like falling into a sea of fine cashmere undies.

BLVR: What kind of undies? I think my phone faded there for a second.

BO: Cashmere.

BLVR: Right. That’s what I had written down. So that album might be the product of these weeks’ inspiration?

BO: Well, last year for me was pretty strange. But this year so far is proving that that year was just as it should be, because it meant I would push myself to be where I am now. I went to Lamu with a lot of this in my head, like Oooooooh! [Note: this was a gutteral, angsty grunt kind of sound from Beth.] And the built up emotion came out in a really concentrated focused, way, like [Makes sound like a bullet ricocheting.]. Maybe certain events push me to write but they don’t become the subject matter necessarily. But the peace and space to shut my brain up for a while was very conducive to writing; again, it’s like the anticipation of reading a book, because I don’t know what’s going to come out next, and it can take years to finally realize what it was all about, really.

III. FROGS AND RUNNING

BLVR: You have older brothers, right?

BO: I have two older brothers.

BLVR: You can always tell when someone has older brothers.

BO: It can give you a particular sense of humor. You have to laugh or you’d cry with all the piss you take. I have a friend who says the best boyfriends are ones with intimidating, good-looking older brothers. The boyfriends try harder because they’re so insecure. Maybe I’m the female equivalent.

BLVR: Where did you all grow up?

BO: I was born on a pig farm in Norfolk. We grew up in the city called Norwich in Norfolk, then I moved to London when I was thirteen.

BLVR: What was Norwich like?

BO: It’s an hour drive to beaches that look like muted over-exposed photographs, and countryside every shade of green you ever saw all at once. And the trees and bushes would have a kind of light fur a bit like skunk weed, and the trees seemed to glisten. Kissing was something I did a lot of. Kissing in a wheat field as the sun begins to set on a summer’s evening, with the haze of that light. The sky is high there, and there’s an arc in some parts. There were lots of characters there. It’s surrounded by coast and there were pirates of all sorts running around. Norfolk is not on the way to anywhere, you don’t stop off on the way somewhere else—it’s an end in itself. You have to want to go there; it’s an effort. People would come and hide out there.

BLVR: And you were the type of girl who bred frogs.

BO: When I was really young I used to collect frog spawn. I made a pond out of an old sink and I loved to spend hours watching the frogs grow. The only thing was I never vetted the amount of spawn I’d collect and we had a really small garden so there would be little baby frogs everywhere, much to my endless mirth and merriment. My best friends Olivia Trench and Toby Pascoe and I would do frog dances, and you could guarantee in minutes that at our feet would be a mass of frogs. I thought we had special powers. When my mum would mow the lawn there’d be frog carnage, little baby frogs all cut to ribbons, festoned across the garden path, legs everywhere.

BLVR: Chemistry sets? Telescopes?

BO: My dad got me a chemistry book one Christmas and I burnt the garden shed down. I remember there was the most beautiful smell forever after in the remains. Then at about the age of ten, my friends and I discovered the joys of sitting in graveyards drinking merrydown cider and kissing and stealing our elder siblings’ records.

BLVR:What kind of transition was that?

BO: I don’t know.

BLVR: When you ran around as a kid, did you think you were the fastest girl ever? Did it feel like you could run through walls and over trees?

BO: I didn’t jump a lot of trees because I didn’t like heights. I liked getting a mirror and walking around with it facing the sky. I’d imagine I was walking in the tops of the trees and falling into the sky, or walking up the stairs whilst going down. I was into the idea of magic powers and reading minds. I’d scare myself, sometimes just by pulling the worst faces I possibly could and making the sounds that matched the face, all in the mirror at the end of my mum and dad’s bed. Hours of me grunting and distorting, much to my dad’s disapointment. One time I completely thought I’d turned into a werewolf and was sure I could see hairs sprouting from my face. At those times I’d suddenly go very quiet and not talk to anyone, stunned from the developments, being a werewolf and all. I was also scared of the Bible—it seemed whenever I read it I got bad luck. Then I befriended a couple of Jesus’s disciples and I used to show them modern life—how to run the hot and cold taps and things like that. They seemed alright but it didn’t change my feelings about the Bible jinx.

BLVR: You never answered the question about running and being the fastest ever.

BO: My brothers liked to see if I could be the fastest girl ever, they’d put me in my pram and run as fast as they could and once ran me straight through a brick wall.

IV. THE POINT TO ALL THIS

BLVR: You’ve been asked this kind of thing before, about how your music would imply that in person you’re very shy, introverted, blah blah, when in fact you’re a maniac. But I do have a semi-serious question, which is about our state of mind when we make art. There are a lot of very somber people who write very funny stuff, and a lot of very funny people, like yourself, whose work is somber. Thoughts about this?

BO: I get told I’m a confessional songwriter, which gets on my tits because I think of negative connotations attached to the word “confessional”. I don’t like the idea of songwriting being therapy. I don’t want to put myself so directly in the foreground. I want it to be more universal than that—like a painter doesn’t have to explain his life story away to justify his painting. I’m reading Tarantula at the moment, and in the preface the publisher writes: “Poets and writers tell us how we feel by telling us how they feel. They find ways to express the inexpressable.” If that’s confessional, I suppose I better own up. The other day I had just cracked a song and I was so excited, but had to stop to do an interview. And this woman was asking about baring all, and what’s left, etc. I told her I don’t think I bare enough and that I intend to get braver and more honest, much more honest, and then she looked at me and said with a laugh, “Why? Why would anyone want to do that?” Like I was going on stage and taking a shit and filming it and showing it to the kids! And I know it shouldn’t, and she meant no harm, but her “Why?” crushed me for days.

BLVR: It’s strange. Everyone knows that much or most of the best art we have is deeply personal, confessional, and raw, but on some level, it’s seen as unseemly, right? Not to belabor the feces references, but we all know that we have to produce excretions—sweat and waste—but we’re repelled by it at the same time. And it seems like the person you’re talking about can’t handle what art requires. She’s talking to you presumably because she likes your work, but she either doesn’t know that it requires personal excavation, or she wants it both ways: great art without getting your hair messed up.

BO: To me songwriting is more like redemption. I can extract the poison or the pollen, the essence from a situation and the rest becomes a husk that blows away. The husk could be some useless bloke or losing myself and changing my DNA with bottomless grief. Through songwriting I can rise above the most painful experience and can find resolution. That’s why I can get so personal—once I’ve found the way to tell it, it means I’ve digested and come to terms with it in some way. That doesn’t make it mean less. Therapy is like telling your nightmares when you’re a kid; they lose their power to hurt and control. When I first started writing, a friend said I should be careful because I’m letting people know how to reach right in and play with my workings. And they do! But just like the child’s nightmares and therapy, once an experience has found the light of day I’m no longer under its spell, I’m free to tell it. I hope in telling honestly I can in some way help other people to do so also. I have done my job when a mother of a son who took his own life says she forgot her pain for a moment, or someone else might connect with theirs and I think that is healing. Not like Jesus! Human. And that can happen when we laugh as well—it’s the same release. This is how I’m compelled to write. It makes me a sitting duck, I suppose—it’s terrible for a paranoid nature like mine. You can ask any old friend of mine: I’m a fucking comedian, a fun guy, and that’s what most people thought I’d become—not old Misery Guts. I suppose life got in the way.

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