Unplugged, Singer Taps Deep Into Her Roots

For Beth Orton, here at the Roundhouse in London this month, performing is “like a pure meditation.” She said: “I don’t know what it is. Maybe I shamanize myself in the room.”

By JON PARELES   Published: September 28, 2012 NEW YORK TIMES

BETH ORTON was falling in love. At Retrofret, a vintage instrument dealer in Brooklyn, she grew smitten last last month with a Gibson Southern Jumbo from the 1940s: a spruce-topped, dreadnought-size guitar with a throaty low register and a price tag above $7,000.

The singer and songwriter Beth Orton, whose new album, “Sugaring Season,” will be released this week.

“It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful and also it’s doing this thing to my voice,” Ms. Orton said.

She’s a tall, slender woman who speaks in eager staccato bursts that couldn’t be more different from her sustained, otherworldly singing voice. Cradling the guitar in her lap, she began the fluttery, syncopated two-chord strum of “Dawn Patrol” from her new album “Sugaring Season” (Anti-), her first in six years. “Beneath the noise there was silence/And what was left was ours to surprise us,” she sang, in a melody like a stone skipping across the repeated chords.

The music rippled and resonated through the room. Then Ms. Orton switched to the guitar she has cherished for 12 years, a smaller, lighter-toned vintage Levin that she had brought with her for comparison. She began the same song, and tapered off. “I’ve been playing this guitar nonstop,” she said sadly. “And suddenly it feels like a stranger.”

But she left without the jumbo guitar, pondering how to afford it.

The incantatory union of voice and guitar — what Ms. Orton calls “the mantra-like quality” of her music — is at the core of most songs on “Sugaring Season,” a quietly spellbinding album to be released this week. The arrangements are hand-played, not electronic, and the songs are filled with imagery of time and nature, freedom and determination.

“I won’t turn back, I’ve seen the sun/I won’t turn back, not for anyone,” Ms. Orton sings in the album’s first song, “Magpie.”

Pattern and resonance make Ms. Orton’s solo concerts — like the one she will play at Town Hall on Thursday — into rapt, hypnotic experiences, punctuated with gawky jokes between songs.

Performing is “like being there and not being there,” she says. “It’s like a pure meditation. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I shamanize myself in the room.”

Meditation unlocked her music from the start. Ms. Orton grew up in rural Norfolk, England; her father died when she was 11, her mother when Beth was 19. Left on her own, she dared herself to try things. She went to Thailand for three months to meditate with Buddhist nuns, sometimes for 36 hours at a time without sleeping or eating. Almost immediately after returning to England, she said, “I started writing songs in earnest.”

Those songs, beginning with her 1996 debut album “Trailer Park,” join the immediate and the timeless, the personal and the archetypal, in music that’s full of improbable combinations. Although Ms. Orton, 41, came of age in the England of punk, post-punk and electronic raves, she was drawn to guitar-slinging songwriters like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Her own sense of melody holds echoes of Celtic tradition; her voice, smoky and torn at the edges, brings melancholy and pain close to the surface. But she was discovered by William Orbit, the producer best known for his hits with Madonna.

The first recordings she released were electronics-laced tracks, made with Mr. Orbit and then with the electronic dance-music team the Chemical Brothers. “Trailer Park” accompanied her not only with acoustic guitar and string-section arrangements, but also with trip-hop beats and electronic sounds; she became the darling of so-called folktronica. Ms. Orton also drew on American R&B, particularly soul ballads with their own slow-rolling vamps.

Her second album, “Central Reservation” in 1999, melded the acoustic and electronic with even more assurance, and won her a Brit award, the British equivalent of a Grammy, as best female artist. Electronics continued to glimmer at the edges of her 2003 album, “Daybreaker,” along with stronger jazz and soul undercurrents.

But with “Comfort of Strangers” in 2006, the electronics receded, traded for the sound of a live band. That continues on “Sugaring Season.” “The electronic part of it has just over the years become less and less important to me,” she said. “I just really got into my hands and my guitar and this visceral sense of what I was doing.”

Her lyrics have always poured out thoughts of longing, solitude and steadfastness that rise toward the philosophical. “You want to learn the trick to turn/What’s not so pretty into something more beautiful,” she sings in “Something More Beautiful,” a stark piano song that becomes a rawly declaimed soul ballad.

“I’m an intense little writer,” Ms. Orton said, smiling. “I’ve learned to not make myself prettier than I am.”

She added: “The songwriting brain is much smarter than me. I’m not that person. It makes connections that I don’t make necessarily.”

Although Ms. Orton wrote a song called “Sugaring Season,” it didn’t end up on the album.

“It’s a beautiful poetic phrase,” she said. “These long cold nights and then this slight upping in the temperature in the day would create an upsurgence in the tree, and the sap would rise, and it would create some sugar. But you’d have to have a lot of sap for every little bit of sugar. I like the chemistry of the idea that that’s the creative process for me. It’s taking it all and just making a little bit of sugar.”

The six years since Ms. Orton released “Comfort of Strangers” were eventful ones. She had two children, Nancy and Arthur, and this April she quietly married Sam Amidon, a songwriter. She studied guitar with Bert Jansch, the folk-rooted master of idiosyncratic tunings who founded the band Pentangle, and sang on his final studio album in 2008, “The Black Swan.” She stopped smoking, which loosed new possibilities in her voice. She was dropped from a major label, EMI, and signed to an independent one: Anti- Records.

“When the opportunity came along there was no hesitation,” said the label’s president, Andy Kaulkin. “I think there’s more music in her and deeper music in her. She really has things on her mind, she’s really feeling things, and artists like that will last.”

But when EMI dropped her, Ms. Orton wasn’t sure whether she would ever return to the routine of recording, promoting and touring. Soon after Nancy was born in 2006, she got a nudge back to songwriting; Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers coaxed her to collaborate again. But synthetic sounds no longer moved her: “I started to get into the tunings and the guitar and the mystical nature of having the guitar next to my body, and the vibrations and the feelings.”

Two songs she started with Mr. Rowlands ended up on “Sugaring Season,” with live instruments replacing what had been electronic loops.

Although she had no recording contract, Ms. Orton took her baby daughter and sequestered herself in a rented cow barn in Norfolk to write songs. On tour, she said: “You end up without a private life to write about. Suddenly all I had was private life.”

After returning to London, she continued to rework the songs, introducing them in sporadic live shows that helped keep her solvent. By the time Anti- signed her, Ms. Orton had a stockpile of material, and she found a sympathetic producer in Tucker Martine. They looked to Roberta Flack’s debut album, “First Take” — a pop-soul singer accompanied by leading jazz musicians — as a model.

The sessions, Mr. Martine said, were recorded to 16-track tape — not the infinite number of infinitely changeable tracks available with digital recording — and the vocal and instrumental sounds were not always isolated, making them impossible to tweak. The goal, Mr. Martine said, was to capture “the little curiosities that you only get on a record when everyone played in a room together.”

The bulk of the tracks were recorded together by Ms. Orton and three backup musicians, including the drummer Brian Blade, in just three days at Mr. Martine’s studio. Even in quieter songs, there is a robust, swinging undercurrent.

“There was no being polite in that room,” Ms. Orton said. “No one was holding back because I was a female with a guitar.”

The guitar she had left behind in Brooklyn wasn’t a passing fancy. Weeks later, she received an unexpected payment of old royalties, and on a stormy afternoon, just before heading to Nashville to start her tour, she returned to Brooklyn and bought it. She had a new meditation aid, with more songs to emerge. “A thought will pop in to my head,” Ms. Orton predicted, “and an urge to pick up the guitar will come.”

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