Interview: Singer-songwriter Beth Orton on rediscovering herself after motherhood

Beth Orton performs with Scottish folk musician, Bert Jansch in 2007. Picture: Getty

By AIDAN SMITH Published on Saturday 22 September 2012

MOTHERHOOD meant a long sabbatical for Beth Orton,
but it has led to an emboldened reawakening of her skills
as a guitarist and songwriter, she tells Aidan Smith

FROM a cow barn at the end of a dirt track, Beth Orton has travelled far and wide in search of musical inspiration. It’s been a long road back for the former Comedown Queen of the rave scene but finally she has some new songs and is ready to talk. Then, just as she’s about to explain where she’s been these past six years, her one-year-old son wakes up wailing. A minute later, he’s piddling on a plush hotel carpet.

Domestic life accounts for much of the hiatus. As well as Arthur, Orton has a five-year-old, Nancy. Her daughter is from a previous relationship so, until she met her husband, the folk singer Sam Amidon, she was a single mum. “That was tough,” she says. “I’ve missed my mother since her death when I was 19, but never more than when I became a mum myself and couldn’t phone her up to ask how to do what now seem to me to be pretty basic things. I had no preconceptions about motherhood; ­really I had no idea what it would be like. And to begin with, I think it overwhelmed me.”

Understandably then, Orton isn’t overfond of questions along the lines of “What have you been doing since 2006?” She reckons she’s been pretty busy, just not releasing a follow-up to her Comfort Of Strangers album. But the tracks on Sugaring Season cover all those six years away, and prove she didn’t ever give up on music, even though that period was often a struggle. “I never got disillusioned with music but I did with myself – you know, the way we all do at a certain age, just kind of unsure. Thankfully, the feeling would pass. I might be down in the morning but usually by the afternoon I was able pick up the guitar again.”

Orton is 41 and doesn’t look much different from the 24-year-old pin-up for the techno-obsessed who brought chillout to the Chemical Brothers’ block-rockin’ beats and a year later won the Mercury Music Prize with her debut ­album Trailer Park. There’s the same blonde hair curling under her long face, same long legs which today twist underneath her on a sofa, same slight iciness to her responses. For instance, I fail ­miserably in attempting to steer the conversation back to the rave era.

A few years ago, she did recall her first experience of a day-glo all-nighter and was amusing in her primness: “I was so shocked at all these people monging out. I thought it was a government ploy to numb everyone’s brains, carpet-bomb them with Ecstasy. I was a terrible snob.” She claims now that this was her exaggerating for comic effect, that it was all such a long time ago, and that she’d rather talk about the present and the new record, especially seeing as today she feels good about her comeback (yesterday she was “incredibly nervous” about it).

Sugaring Season is a folk album without the sugar-coated dance smarts of a William Orbit (they began a releationship shortly after she scrounged a cigarette from him at a party) or an Andrew Weatherall (the Trailer Park knob-twiddler). While collaborations were a feature of her early work, this is pretty much Orton alone, save for one duet with Amidon. But there are ghostly presences on these tracks which can only be discerned by her, and without whose help the record probably wouldn’t have been made.

One is that of her mother Christine, who wasn’t a singer but remains constant source of inspiration, way beyond having the song Pass In Time written about her. “She was a journalist and an activist. She campaigned on the issues which are concerning Michelle Obama right now, such as affordable child care, and wrote a book on how we should best care for the carers, an issue which hasn’t gone away. She was an amazing woman and a lovely mum, and while I did miss her when I became a mother myself, having children of my own changed the shape of my grief over her passing. It healed a lot of the wounds.”

Another big influence on the record is Bert Jansch, the hero who became an obsession who turned into a dear friend right up to the Scottish folk colossus’s death last year. “Before Trailer Park, I had this fantasy that Bert would play ­guitar on my album. I found out where he was next performing, went along to the gig wondering how I was going to pluck up the courage to ask, only to miss him by a few minutes. I’d just heard his old group Pentangle for the first time. A DJ in a club played one of their songs and it didn’t sound out of place among the dance tracks. I was like: ‘What is that? It’s so modern and yet it’s clearly not.’

“I must confess to following Bert around for a few years after that but he was very elusive. Then I forgot all about my crazy plan.” Flash-forward to 2003 when Orton found herself on the same bill as Jansch. “We shared a dressing room and got talking. I ’fessed up to my fantasy and he said: ‘Come over to the house.’ I was like: ‘What, you’ll give me a guitar lesson?’ And he did – lots of them. I was there all the time. Often I just sat there in abject terror, completely frozen. What he could do with a guitar was amazing. Then we did some gigs ­together and I sang with him on his Black Swan album.

“He taught me a lot. I don’t want to big this up too much because I haven’t suddenly become a guitar virtuoso. But by demonstrating some of his weird and wonderful tunings he encouraged me to explore my instrument and to embrace it more. I couldn’t have written a song like Mystery without Bert’s inspiration and I don’t think I’d have written Poison Tree without him playing me Anne Briggs. It was a shock when he died because I thought he was getting better.”

The cow barn where Orton penned her comeback was in Norfolk, county of her birth. As well as regular excursions to London to sit at the feet of Jansch, her journey of musical reawakening took her to Amidon’s native Vermont. “Sam ­messes around and rearranges ancient folk songs and his family introduced me to sacred harp singing, choral music which is part of a wider tradition of shape note. I went to this huge gathering where I stood in the middle of a hall and 600 people sang at me. And I heard more in Atlanta, climbing a mountain to a little wooden church. These were amazing experiences.”

Many people have made small, indirect, uncredited but significant contributions to Sugaring Season; ultimately, though, it’s Orton’s record. “In Vermont, the sugaring season is when they make maple syrup,” she explains. “I like this idea of taking the sweetness, using it and maximising it, whatever the situation might be. The season is a time of year when it’s cold at night, quite tough, and yet sugar results. That’s very melancholy and it sums up the record. My life has had lots of twists and turns and ups and downs but ultimately I’m grateful for all of them.”

• Sugaring Season is out on 1 October on Epitaph. Beth Orton plays Oran Mor, Glasgow, on 13 December


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