Posted by Robert Sullivan The New Yorker
Beth Orton, the English singer and songwriter, was wandering through the historic center of Philadelphia recently, accompanied by her husband, Sam Amidon, and their one-year-old son, Arthur—the former pushing the latter in a stroller. The three of them were on tour together. Orton had played the night before in Charlottesville, West Virginia, an early stop on her U.S. tour to promote her first album in six years, “Sugaring Season,” out this week. (She plays Town Hall on October 4th.) Amidon, the Vermont-born folksinger, had opened for her. Meanwhile, Arthur had just completed his own whirlwind tour of the lobby of the Holiday Inn Historic District, by foot and all but tumbling fast-forward—to rave reviews from the staff and guests. It was a naturally joyous performance, and a force to be reckoned with, for Mom and Dad. “We’ve only just done our first week,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes.
Orton’s two-man touring team is in itself an answer to the question that her fans inevitably have for her—i.e., what have you been doing since “The Comfort of Strangers,” the 2006 studio album produced by Jim O’Rourke? Other answers, in no particular order, include: having a second child (her five-year-old daughter, Nancy, is with her grandparents in Washington, D.C. today, soon to join the tour); getting married (to Amidon, last year); spending time with Nancy in her eastern English homeland; and pondering a possible career in writing, or some other career, anyway, given that her record contract had expired.
Orton first came to attention in 1993, in collaboration with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, and won a devoted following with the albums “Trailer Park,” in 1996, and “Central Reservation,” in 1999. “Daybreaker” was a top-ten seller in the U.K. in 2002. But after 2006, she seemed to disappear. “I’ve been saying, ‘Oh I’m starting again,’ but I really am starting again,” she says in Philadelphia. “I mean, I shut myself down. I shut my business down. I hung up a sign that said ‘Gone Fishing.’ ” Now, as she is recounting her time line, you learn that at some point around 2006, she found herself sitting on a couch alongside Bert Jansch, the Scottish folk singer and acoustic-guitar master. “Pretty much the week my last album was released I found out I was pregnant,” she recalled. “And then at five and a half months I was told to stop touring, for the health of the baby. When I stopped touring, I pretty much just sort of handed myself over to Bert.” Jansch and Orton even did some gigs together, though critics were harsh. “We started to do these little gigs together where we’d do covers of Pentangle songs and old folk songs. They were awful,” she says.
Parenting, unless outsourced, offers little time for anything beyond parenting, and when she found herself writing music in the few nighttime minutes she had to herself (“in the hours when spiders mend their webs,” as she sings in her lullaby to her daughter, “See Through Blue”), she began to realize that that a career change was not in the cards. And yet, it’s awkward to start again. She performed a small concert in Manhattan last August, at the Rockwood, and if you were there, you saw the frustration of a forty-one-year-old singer having to essentially pretend that performing was all new to her. (She was in town doing “Late Night with David Letterman.”) And yet, when she sang “Magpie,” the single off the new album, the room went dead quiet. Orton recorded “Sugaring Season” last winter in Portland, Oregon, where most of it was done in just a few takes: she’d been inspired by Roberta Flack’s album “First Take.” (Marc Ribot added some guitar in his apartment in Brooklyn, and some strings were added in Manhattan.) As it happens, “Sugaring Season” was worth her fans’ wait; it’s a collection that seems to draw even more deeply from nineteen-sixties British folk for songs that end up sounding both fresh and haunting, thanks partly to a collaboration with Tucker Martine (he has worked with “My Morning Jacket” and “the Decemberists”), and a driving band, punctuated by the excellent Brian Blade on drums. As is perhaps telegraphed by the titles (“Call Me the Breeze,” “Poison Tree,” “Magpie”), “Sugaring Season” is a bluesy, indie-rock eclogue, full of mystical chords and sometimes even jazz-like rhythms. The title refers to that time in New England’s cold months when warm days run the sap up in a tree: a moment, she notes, of spring in the midst of winter. “Nature became very relevant,” she said. “It became quite profound.”
Arthur interrupted with a call for broccoli.
“Also, you were coming to New England,” Amidon said. (His family lives in Brattleboro.)
“And people were always talking about sugaring season,” Beth said. The springtime of Beth Orton’s life happened in Norfolk, a lowland in the east of England. Here, husband and wife attempt to describe that country jointly, another performance in itself:
“It’s like Vermont!” he offers. “No it’s very flat,” she says. “Oh right.”
“It’s all flat—it’s farmland!” “Marshes,” he says.
“There are marshes, yes. There’s the fen, and very big skies. You can see forever there.” “It’s woodland,” he says. “It’s not like flat plains. It’s a weird countryside. It’s very beautiful. It’s not a flat vagueness. It’s this marshy weirdness.” “And you don’t go there to go anywhere else. It’s on the way to nowhere—that’s Norfolk.” “And you went to that cathedral when you were young. ” She laughs. “Eat your broccoli!” The cathedral to which Amidon refers was a hangout of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century Christian mystic—the subject of whom brings Orton to the subject of Amidon. The couple met in London, four years ago, after a show by Bartlett’s band Doveman, who hosts the regular Burgundy Stain Sessions at Le Poisson Rouge. Amidon, thirty-one, and Bartlett have played together since they were kids in Vermont, both obsessed with the Irish fiddle music at which Amidon excels. (Amidon frequently sits in on fiddle with the Murphy Beds, a Manhattan-based trad Irish band.) Amidon’s latest album, “I See the Sign” calmly combines ultra-cutting-edge Icelandic production techniques and jazz-leaning musicianship with nineteenth-century American spirituals, old folk ballads, and the occasional R. Kelly cover; in concert, with projected drawing and movement, he leans toward performance artist, Cage-y. (See the haunting “Saro”.) “Sam walked in [to the restaurant] and I thought he was very handsome,” Orton recalls. Amidon and Bartlett were raving about a film, “The Hunger,” directed by Steve McQueen. “So the three of us all trundled off to see the eleven o’clock show of “The Hunger,” and then the two of them fell asleep on either side of me. But we sort of just stayed friends, and then one night, little shit went and kissed me, what are you gonna do about that?”
She goes on. “Now here’s the funny thing—‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,’ ” she says. “That’s Julian of Norwich! And then I meet Sam and his record at the time is called “All Will Be Well.” The husband is relishing his wife’s biography, anyway, as is sometimes a husband’s wont—especially when the husband was himself raised almost entirely on traditional music: shape-note singing permeated Amidon’s mosh pit-free Brattleboro upbringing, his parents folk singers. Eventually the conversation circles back to Bert Jansch, who died of cancer last year, after a comeback; he was the British guitar player’s guitarist, hailed by everyone from Jimmy Page to Johnny Marr.
“Much of ‘Sugaring Season’ is in alternate guitar tunings,” says Amidon. “Well, lets not make too much of it, because they’re not that original. They’re not like Bert’s kind of…” “No, but the way you play on those open tunings is very weird and cool.” “Is it?” she looks hard at her husband.
“Yeah?” he said sitting up a little. “And you have a very idiosyncratic guitar style—not that you are playing like Bert—but you’ve gotten some things from that musical connection. You’re much more drone-y. It’s pretty weird!” The point after her last album was to reboot, in a way, or so it seems to her from this end of the six years. “I took myself back to school,” she says. “I schooled myself. It’s like I came into this through luck—that’s the way I see it, that’s the way I always have. And there’s always a chip on my shoulder about this, that, and the other thing.”
Onstage, Orton and Amidon perform separately, dueting only on occasion, such as for “Call Me the Breeze,” a song that Orton co-wrote with Tom Rowlands, of Chemical Brothers, with Amidon on banjo. They wrote it years ago, and Orton kept it alive, which is part of her point these days, that her spirit remains.
Now Arthur is fading. Sam takes him back to the hotel, while Beth walks through downtown Philly, headed toward the tour bus, to collect herself for the show. The theatre she is playing is just outside of town. Before she takes off, she makes the point that it is all a little bit terrifying. “I’m coming into places with some people who just want to hear what I did before,” she says, “with some people who want to hear me with a band, but I am just at the moment sticking to my guns and saying, ‘You know what? I want you just to hear this for a minute. I want it to be in the context of me and a guitar.’ ” .