Luke Turner , March 18th, 2009 15:39
As she reissues her debut album Trailer Park, Beth Orton tells the Quietus how asking William Orbit for a cigarette changed her life. Interview by Luke Turner
“Looking back, I was quite a force to be reckoned with, there’s no denying it, and I’m not being arrogant saying that, but I was a character. I was really motivated, because I’d lost everything, I had no family left. I was 19, left on my own in a house in Dalston, my brothers would go to work and I’d just sit there. One day I went up and down Upper Street and found myself a job, and the first day I was there a girl said ‘Oh you want to act don’t you?’ I said yes and she said ‘Phone this number.’ I went for an audition that afternoon and I got in the play, and I started working for them for no money. We were supposed to go to Russia, but that fell through, so I started phoning around all the councils, the British Council, and then I organised it so we got to go. I wouldn’t stop, I wanted to create and I wanted to explore. I was incredibly excited about life and enthusiastic about life. I think when people met me they got a bit of that.
“One night I was going home on the tube with one of the actresses and she said ‘Come to this party on Saturday night.’ I went in a Chelsea Girl stretched brown skirt, a leotard, and a pair of tights and a pair of shoes. I had this old beautiful leather jacket that I’d got from one of those old emporiums on the Kings Road. I’d sewed it up. I went to this party and I didn’t know what to expect, it was William Orbit’s party and I didn’t know anyone there. I was at the bar and I’d had a vodka and I was waiting for another one and there was a bloke standing next to me and I said ‘Have you got a cigarette?’, and he said ‘No but I’ll find you one.’ And he went off to find me a cigarette and that was William. And that’s all I said to him. I went home with some dancer and did fucking whatever on his roof in Berwick Street.
“The next Monday when I got into the theatre this girl said ‘What did you do to William Orbit, he won’t stop talking about you. He’s obsessed and he’s coming to see the play.’ So he came to see the play, and he invited me to this Madonna Vogue party. He wanted me to be all like part of his world and we started going out together and he wanted me to sing. I was like ‘Fuck off, I’m not going to be some bloke’s bird who sings but can’t even sing, but because they’re going out together he gets her to sing on his record’. I was really indignant about it. I remember I was really drunk and on ecstasy – I used to make him do loads of ecstasy, he never went out or did anything – and then all of a sudden I was popping pills in his gob and we were lying under a mixing desk being all mental. And I sang ‘Cry Me A River’ as a joke, and ‘Catch A Falling Star’ by Francoise Hardy. And then he made a little demo of it.
“I went off to Thailand for three months and he came and got me because he was sick of me being out there. We weren’t together by that point but he came and got me and did all these field recordings of Thai monks because I was living in a monastery. So I came back and he was saying ‘Listen, you’re a singer, I’ve played this to people and they think you’re a singer too.’ I started working with him on projects, just helping him. I’d come in and listen to mixes of Madonna and go ‘Ah, I think you should bring this up or put that down’, how funny is that? ‘Justify My Love’ it was. I love that song and every time I hear it, it takes me back to that time. It was a strange time because my mum had just died and I was putting her clothes in black bin liners and then going round to William’s and listening to ‘Justify My Love’ and having opinions on it.
“He had these guitars around, and I did play guitar and I loved to play piano, so i just started to write songs. He said just write all your thoughts down, write everything, because I was in this state of grief I suppose. I went into his studio for two years and went through this grieving process, just sat there watching films, reading books, playing guitars and just keeping him company into the small hours. Then we started to make a record together but I had no confidence. And in the end I had to break away from William because it was too much. I’d written all these songs and William wasn’t really into them but my new boyfriend said they were amazing. He was very encouraging though he was horrible himself. So anyway a lot of these songs were the Trailer Park songs, like ‘Sugar Boy’, ‘Someone’s Daughter’. And I thought well if I really am a singer I must get my own band together and create my own sound. I must create my own thing and do it, only then will I prove it. But even today I’m still proving it to myself. I thought I’ll make one record, and then I’ll prove it to myself, but I had to make another and a third and a fourth and sixth. I’ve never told anyone all this stuff. Not that honestly.
“I think William pulled me out of the crowd and pulled me out of the gutter, in a way. Because I don’t know where my enthusiasm was going to take me, because it was pretty raw to say the least. Lots of people who know my history are very surprised that I am still alive. There was no one who was going to hold me in check. So I found music, and it was this amazing force.”
The reissue of Trailer Park is out now on Heavenly