Interview: Beth Orton and the Arrival of the Sugaring Season

by Brett Leigh Dicks No Depression

With the release of her second album, Trailer Park, in 1996, English singer-songwriter Beth Orton bounded into the international spotlight. Her sultry fusion of folk and electronica was a breath of fresh air and the album’s second single, “She Cried Your Name,” was nothing short of a revelation. With music having filled her childhood it was through putting a poem to music for a theater production in which she was that a musical career initially took root. Celebrated musician, composer and producer, William Orbit, was in the audience and the two not only struck up a friendship, but a collaborative union. Along with writing and recording with Orbit, Orton also started working with the Chemical Brothers, all the while tending to her own burgeoning creative desires. Since  Trailer Park, Orton has released a further four  albums, the last being 2006’s Comfort of Strangers and collaborated with the likes of Ben Harper, Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris, and Matt Ward, to name but a few. Having recently signed with ANTI Records, Orton is about to release her next recorded installment, Sugaring Season. Six years in the making, the album was recorded in Portland with celebrated producer Tucker Martine. On the eve of the album’s release, Orton was only too happy to take some time out from a recent vacation to talk about what many are already lauding as her finest work to date.

It has been over six years since the release of your last album.When did you start writing for Sugaring Season?  

I actually never stopped writing songs. I just kept writing and the songs just accumulated over time, the little buggers.

What then provided the impetus to go in and record them?  

It came down to there being so many songs. I think that’s what told me it was time to go in and record. Also I had a four month old and I was told that if he got any older I probably wouldn’t get into the studio again for another four years or something. So I just seized the day and started meeting with various producers and that’s how I met Tucker Martine who produced the record. Meeting and talking with him felt so right, it played a role in bringing it together too.

Tucker Martine was a very interesting choice. Why Tucker and why Portland for this record?  

I am always looking for a connection with a producer. The thing with Tucker is that he had made one record that I really loved which was Laura Veirs’s Carbon Glacierso it wasn’t like I this huge fan of his work and knew it all inside out, because I didn’t. I met him at a Laura Veirs gig and thought he seemed very nice and I liked what I knew of him as a producer. More than anything else the decision to go with Tucker came when I Skyped with him on the recommendation of another friend who suggested I talk to him because he’s a great guy. He was and his enthusiasm was huge. Then I sent him some songs and we started talking about a band and we agreed on so many of the same people. I think that is part of the reason the album came together the way it did, we had so many corresponding views on musicians and sound.

Packing your bags and leaving London for Portland to make a record is no small undertaking. Especially after six years. As well as you and Tucker seemingly hit it off, there must have still been a degree of trepidation?  

There was, there really was. But it was also very serendipitous and fortuitous and all those sorts of things. When I got there, we didn’t know if it was going to work out. I didn’t know if Brian Blade would work out as the drummer. All I knew was it would be interesting to try because of the jazz influence I was exploring. I was very taken with Roberta Flack’s record, First Take,and its jazz influence and I knew Brian’s reputation so when I heard him I said ‘let’s go for it.’ Sebastian Steinberg is a bass player I worked with for a long time eight or nine years ago, but hadn’t seen him since then. In terms of that there were some knowns, but even more unknowns.

What then were you comfortable with going into the sessions?  

The songs. One of the things that was known was that I had spent so long working and crafting these songs that, when I got into the studio, that part was set in stone. I was very sure of the songs and music that I had already made. When I started playing them to the band, well, it was fascinating because a song like “Candles” for example, the version that’s on the album, is the version of me first playing them the song. It’s me playing the band the song for the first time and them joining in. One of the things I love most about Tucker, one of the many things I love about him, is that he had the forethought and intelligence to press record even though it was just a rehearsal and what he captured there was just so amazing. We only had three days with the drums and bass and five days with the keys and then Sam Amidon and I were there for another week. So it happened very fast, it happened on the floor, and happened almost live. So I had no way of knowing how well it would come to together, but I couldn’t be happier really.

Do you prefer making a record that way rather than laboring over the rehearsal of the material first?  

I think rehearsing too much kills the creativity and also my interest. For me, recording this way is much more interesting. But in terms of writing the songs, I don’t mind spending a lot of time on them. I go back to them many, many times and rework them. There are certain songs on the record that I started six years ago and got close to finishing, but there was always a question mark in mind. But because I had this amount of time in the end, not that it was planned but that’s how it happened, I ended up being able to go back to songs again and again and tweak them and rework them and even experiment with them and completely change them. I allowed myself this free range to explore in that way and it was a really positive thing to do.

Everyone is familiar with your musical history since Trailer Park, but when and how did music first enter your life?  

Music has always been in my life. I had an older brother who was fanatical about music and in our household there was an almost fascist sense of what was right and what was wrong with music and it was brilliant to grow up around that kind of passion. My mother worked in an art center in Norwich and when I was little there were all sorts of people there, including incredible musicians. My brother played guitar and I suppose I picked up a guitar first when I was eleven, but I was a drummer first and I got into trumpet. I started playing the guitar seriously when I was 13 or 14, somewhere around there. My mum’s boyfriend taught me a picking thing on guitar and I knew a few chords because I was learning guitar at school. So music has never not been there.

How did it take root professionally?

I was acting in a play and turned a poem by Rambo into a blues song, or what imagined as a blues song to be at that time. William Orbit came to see this play and wanted to meet me and he ended up asking me to sing with him. The first thing I ever did with him was a song called “Water from a Vine Leaf” and started doing a little bit of music here and there. I did a few things with the Chemical Brothers while I was still working with William writing my own songs. It felt very natural for me to start writing songs and everyone was so encouraging of it. So I suppose that was the literal way I got into it. But, because my family has always been quite passionate about music, I have always had a great love for it.

The release of the album will be accompanied by US tour and I believe you will be going out solo. I can’t recall you doing much solo performing on this level previously …  

I just did a tour of Australia solo and I’m really enjoying playing that way. I think it’s quite a nice way to introduce people to the new songs and what I’m really enjoying is rearranging old songs to make the show into a cohesive body of work. That is quite an interesting discipline in itself.

Sugaring Season is available through ANTI

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