Beth Orton returns with ‘Sugaring Season’
By Bob Townsend For the AJC
Beginning with her first single, a 1993 collaboration with William Orbit, through classic albums, “Trailer Park” and “Central Reservation,” British singer-songwriter Beth Orton was known for mixing folk with sweeping electronic soundscapes, pioneering a sound dubbed folktronica.
But more recently, Orton, who will perform Friday at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, moved closer to a mix of folk and jazz. And after a six-year hiatus, her new album, “Sugaring Season,” due out Oct. 2, goes even deeper in that direction.
The haunting aura of songs such as “Magpie” and “Poison Tree” feature her evocative lyrics and lilting, emotive voice in intimate, spontaneous sessions with a “dream team” ensemble of drummer Brian Blade, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist Rob Berger.
In a recent phone interview, Orton said the sound of the album was inspired by the music of seminal ’60s-’70s British folk band Pentangle, and Roberta Flack’s 1969 debut album, “First Take.”
Lately, Orton has been living in Vermont with her 5-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son, and husband, singer-songwriter and Vermont native Sam Amidon.
Asked how she’s been keeping busy for the past six years, Orton paused. “I’ve been doing all sorts of stuff,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I’ve been doing a lot of mothering. I have two kids now. That’s busy.”
Orton said her new album’s title comes from her time in Vermont, and it stands as a metaphor for the transformation she’s been going through, from motherhood to finding her way back to the music business on her own terms.
“It is the time of year when the sap rises in the trees and is tapped to make maple syrup,” Orton said. “You have to get a lot of sap to make a little sugar. It’s not the easiest time of year. It’s also known as mud season. It’s the very end of winter and very beginning of spring. And it’s the time of year when your car gets stuck in the mud.
“But I think the title is very romantic. It’s just so beautiful in so many ways. It spoke pretty loud and clear to me.”
If the past six years has been a time of new challenges and relative isolation, it’s also been a time of going back to revisit old songs, even some she forgot she’d written, Orton said.
“One of the things that come out for me in having children is that your perspective is constantly being challenged, and always, I think, for the better. That’s started to reflect in my songwriting, as well, because I would be constantly interrupted, but I would go back to something with a different mood.
“I once spoke to [singer-songwriter] John Prine about that, and he said, ‘No. You have to go back and finish a song pretty quick, because if you go back a month later, you’re like someone else coming back to finish your song.’ But, for me, that person this time around was really interesting, and I think helped me go deeper into each thought.”
Though she’s reimagined her music many times, at heart, Orton said, she’s always been a folk singer.
“I was brought up in a house where there was a lot of music and a lot of opinions about what was right and what was wrong and what should and shouldn’t be done,” she said. “I had to really fight for my right to be heard and have my voice. To be a folk singer was the most looked-down-upon thing you could be.”
On her current tour, Orton is playing folk singer to the hilt, taking the stage with only her acoustic guitar.
“What’s quite nerve-wracking to me about the tour is that I’m coming out solo,” Orton said. “I hope that doesn’t put people off. I hope it interests people more, because it’s how the songs got written.
“One of the things I’ve done over the past few years is to go right back to where it started. I’m going back into the old catalog, and I’m asking the audience what they want to hear. Since I’ve been away for a while, I want to reconnect with people.”
Beth Orton, with Sam Amidon
8:30 p.m. Friday. $25-$27.50. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-524-7354, varietyplayhouse.com.