Interview: Beth Orton

Beth Orton’s fifth album, Sugaring Season, is named after a Vermont expression for the beginning of spring, when the nights are still cold and long, and the maple trees are tapped for syrup. “I liked the poetic sense of the sugaring season. It’s quite romantic and melancholy,” she explains, over a plate of chips in her London hotel.

“For me, there is sweetness in melancholy.”   In many ways, 41-year-old Orton has had her own sugaring season. Six years ago, after the release of her last album Comfort of Strangers, she was dropped by EMI and moved from London to rural Norfolk to live as a single mother with her daughter Nancy. She had collaborated with folk legend Bert Jansch on his 2006 album The Black Swan, but their gigs together received mediocre reviews. “It was a really fucking hard time,” she says. “I lost a lot of confidence.”

It wasn’t a creatively fallow period, though. All the while, Orton was writing the songs that would lead to Sugaring Season. It is an album of introspection and renewal where Orton wraps her fragile, clear voice around songs that embrace both the melancholy of those difficult years and her newfound happiness — last year she married Vermont folk artist Sam Amidon and had a baby boy.

We caught up with Beth to talk about finding solace in music, taking guitar lessons from the late Bert Jansch, and getting her confidence back.

The album feels like it moves through the seasons, with songs like “Last Leaves of Autumn” and “Candles.” Was that intentional?

No. But it does go through spring, summer, autumn and winter. There you go! After making this record I realized the seasons feature quite prominently in it. There also a lot of stories, and different ways of talking about silence.

There is also a lot of nature imagery. Was it written somewhere rural?

Yes. I wrote it in Norfolk and Vermont, where I’ve spent time in the last three years. But the song “Last Leaves of Autumn” was written when I was still living in Pentonville Road [in central London]. I lived at the top of a very steep hill and there was a huge tree right outside my bedroom window, so it’s also about how you can find nature in the middle of the city.

Have you always been drawn to nature?

I’m inspired by nature and people, regeneration and completeness. Those things interest me the most.

What is the significance of birds in the single “Magpie”?

The birds are a metaphor, but they are the least important part of that song, in a way. It’s more about the stories that we attach to things, and the stories that other people tell about us that are just half-truths and lies. I was inspired by being in America recently, where they’re trying to make abortion illegal. That made me very sad. The magpie is seen as a bird of superstition, and women are seen as birds of superstition as well, to a degree, and that became part of the song.

When you talk about half-truths, are you drawing on personal experience?

All my songs start from a very personal place. That probably sounds a bit trite, but they genuinely do. With “Magpie,” I was having a meal with people I find quite difficult, and the best thing I could do when they’d gone was go to my guitar. I started layering guitar tracks on top of each other, and that drone and melody just came out. It was a feeling of, “Aaaaargh.” I really do take my troubles to my guitar, otherwise I can’t process them. Obviously, the songwriting part of my brain is much smarter than the thinking part of my brain. It joins dots that otherwise would just stay disparate.

Why the six-year gap since Comfort of Strangers?

It’s funny, because I was speaking to my husband today and he said, “You could have released a record three years ago, you just chose not to.” He said, “It’s noble, it’s a good thing.” I know it’s a good thing. I could have released a record, I had the songs, but I wasn’t ready.

In practical terms, I’d also been working with Bert Jansch [who died in 2011], and that really consumed me, creating with him. But it became my inspiration too. Bert was a man of little pretension, he was very straightforward, and one thing that happens when you have a child is that all the artifice falls away. You’re left with the raw materials, and that influenced the way I write. So I dug a bit deeper than I had before.

Another reason is that two years ago, just around the time I would have probably gone into the studio, I got pregnant again. So I waited and when my son was four months old, I started recording. He was there when I was making this record, on the sofa.

How did your collaboration with Bert Jansch come about?

In 2004 I played a gig at a folk festival called Homefires, in London, and Bert and I were headlining the same night. We were sharing a dressing room and he and his wife, Lauren, were incredibly friendly. It was funny because years ago, before I made my first album Trailer Park, I was always trying to find Bert and always missing him, like I’d turn up at gigs and he would have just left. So years later, when I’d given up, I found him — we’d found each other — and he invited me to his house. Geoff Travis [founder of Rough Trade Records] was there and he said, “You should ask him for some guitar lessons,” and I thought that was a good idea so I asked him.

How were the lessons?

It was really intimidating. I was in abject terror, like, “Why on earth did I ask for this?” And I just sat there with my hands frozen in this weird position. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience I’ve ever had. But I ended up realizing that I brought a lot to him; we became each other’s muse. There was a great fondness there. He was a good egg. I loved Bert.

How did his lessons change your relationship with the guitar?

He introduced me to the idea of playing around with tunings, so I started to be more fearless. I got better at picking, and I got better at keeping up, because when we played together I had to try to keep up. I obviously never managed to — how could I? I’m a very simple player and there was no way could I pick up some crazy licks, but I became more confident on the guitar after a while.

“Something More Beautiful” is an intensely sad song. What is it about?

That’s the oldest song on the record. I started it years ago when I was in love with someone who wasn’t in love with me, and it was heartbreaking. The song almost became too painful to touch, but then I revisited it for this record and changed some of the “I”s and “you”s and a couple of words, and asked the band to give it a certain approach. But it’s a sad song, definitely.

Do you still find it hard to sing?

I’m okay with it now. I feel like it’s quite empowering now, rather than desperately sad. It’s definitely a song about getting the sugar out of the proverbial dark night. In a sense that’s what songwriting is for me, like extracting the sugar.

You’ve said you nearly didn’t release this album at all. Why?

Just after I released Comfort of Strangers I got pregnant, and then I stopped touring at five and a half months. I didn’t have any infrastructure around me whatsoever. I had zero support for what I was doing, and that really eroded my confidence. I’d met Bert, and had been working with him, but that wasn’t exactly a great confidence boost either at first, because it really illuminated my limitations.   It was a really fucking hard time, to be honest. Just after my daughter was born, Joanna Newsom asked me to come and sing backing vocals with her, and I turned it down just because I’d done these really unsuccessful gigs with Bert and I was like, “I can’t go up and make a fool of myself again.” I lost a lot of confidence.

What turned things around?

Funnily enough, one of the things was getting together with my old mate Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers. We had a little period of writing together, and that’s where the song “Call the Breeze” comes from. In the end, there wasn’t a burning desire to finish that project, but it got me back on track and helped me remember where I’m from. Although essentially I am a folk singer, I’m a folk singer who loves soul and minimalist hip-hop, and I did get into this job via dance music to a degree. That’s how I found out I could sing, so it’s funny that Tom lit that fire again.

Do you have lots of songs you’ve never released?

If I hadn’t met my husband, I don’t think the song “Mystery” would have ever been heard. He encouraged me to release it. I have quite a lot of these songs bobbing about, but I often think they are wisps and probably not worth anyone’s time. I sideline things very easily. I have pretty high standards, although I’m learning to be easier on myself. I hope to make another record sooner than six years, anyway.

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