BY MARY HOULIHAN
A lot has happened to British singer-songwriter Beth Orton since the release of her 2006 album, “Comfort of Strangers.” She gave birth to two children, married folk artist Sam Amidon, was let go by her label, rediscovered her guitar with help from Scottish folk great Bert Jansch and through it all wondered if she would ever make music again.
“I was just in general ready to step out of it, and I felt that if I was going to step back in, it had to be for a good reason,” Orton says. “I was fairly disillusioned by it all and had to fight the feeling that my music had run its course.”
Orton did find a reason to return. The evidence is on “Sugaring Season,” an album that features her unique voice and a batch of mature, accomplished songs that move her into the next chapter of her career. It’s been nearly two decades since Orton was discovered by producer William Orbit. That led to collaborations with the Chemical Brothers and Andrew Weatherall, which melded her folk tendencies with electronica.
But “Sugaring Season” continues Orton’s move away from those folktronic influences toward an alt-folk sound that continues to feature her husky, intimate vocal style on songs lush with new melodies. The current tour features Orton solo with only her guitar as accompaniment. Amidon opens the shows and joins his wife on several songs.
Orton admits she was very nervous about how the solo acoustic thing would work.
Would audiences be into it? Would she be into it?
It was on a January solo tour in Australia where it all seemed to come together.
“At first, I thought maybe it was a fluke,” Orton said in a recent phone conversation from Atlanta, where she was performing later that day. “But I think it works. I realized it’s a kind of communion and communication with the audience. And for me right now, that’s really important, and I hope it’s important for the fans who come to the gig as well.”
She credits Jansch, a longtime hero who died in 2011, with helping her become a better guitar player, thus moving her to re-evaluate her songwriting style. They met in 2004 and spent hours together picking and playing gigs. “Bert showed me different tunings, and I really got into my guitar and the kind of visceral nature of having that instrument in my hands and next to my body,” Orton, 41, explains. “I took some of the things he taught me and started writing again, this time just for myself.”
Recorded in Portland, Ore., and helmed by My Morning Jacket producer Tucker Martine, “Sugaring Season” features songs that will satisfy fans who have stuck with Orton over the decades. The mysterious opener “Magpie” is a song “about taking a position and holding on to it”; “Poison Tree” sets music to William Blake’s “extraordinary poem about the human conditions of forgiveness, love, anger and regret,” and “See Through Blue” is a lullaby inspired by Orton’s children.
In fact, becoming a mother afforded Orton the chance to look at and experience songwriting through an entirely new lens. “It was like cheap drugs,” Orton says, laughing. “You get on that lack-of-sleep high and it certainly does something kind of inspiring to your brain. I was constantly pulled out of whatever songwriting moment I was in and taken to something much more pressing. And then when I’d return to the song it was like coming back to someone else’s song. That was actually a very good experience because it just kept giving me a new perspective.” And Orton says she also has reworked some of her older electronica-etched material for the solo tour. It’s a less-is-more approach that she feels works very well.
“I think it gives everyone a chance to get inside the songs and really, really hear them. People tend to like that, and I really enjoy it too. It definitely feels good to be back on the road performing my music this way.”
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.