Beth Orton: sugar for the soul

By Tom Peeters Agenda

Sugaring Season is the British singer-songwriter Beth Orton’s first album for six years. On the solo tour to promote it, she comes across as more vulnerable than she perhaps wants. “Only the bare bones remain.”

Since we last heard from her, Beth Orton has got married and has had two children. Her husband, Sam Amidon, is also a singer-songwriter (from Vermont) and will be her support act on this tour. The title of her new album she heard many times in New England, where over the cold winter months the trees store up sap that they later use to make sugar. “There is so much poetry in that,” Orton told us on the eve of her first European tour in years. “I saw in it a metaphor for the creative process of the artist, who also stores stuff up until it can be harvested and is searching for sweetness and, finally, also for acceptance.”

Orton broke through as a singer in the mid 1990s, alongside the Chemical Brothers and William Orbit. Since then she has built up a body of work that has moved away from folktronica and has dug ever deeper into British Sixties folk, thanks to her mentor Bert Jansch. For her new album, recorded in Portland, she drew inspiration from Roberta Flack’s album First Take. Her producer, Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists) brought in, among others, the drummer Brian Blade and the guitarist Marc Ribot, which has made the sound palette a bit jazzier. “It went so smoothly that we never needed more than three takes. At the end, I was even slightly sad that I had to bring the record out, as if I had to give away a part of myself. I was that pleased with it. That’s something I never experienced before.”

Recently you said that, from the moment you started making music it was released immediately and afterwards you always felt as if you were limping along one step behind. Has that changed after the long break? Are you ahead of things now?

Beth Orton: No, not yet, but I did catch up with myself in the meantime. [laughs] Over the last few years I’ve been able to take time and space for myself. The songs I wrote listened more to an internal voice. They answered questions that really came out of myself. It may sound paradoxical, but even though I seemed to have more time, I actually had less, of course, as I had children. But it meant I used the time available in a much more conscious way.

Your daughter Nancy is five now, your son Arthur one. How has motherhood influenced your album?

Orton: There is no denying their presence. Becoming a “parent”, your focus changes. You develop a new sort of discipline. You behave in a more considered way; you don’t do things by halves.

You were nineteen yourself when you lost your own mother. I imagine that loss made you take motherhood less for granted than most expectant mothers.

Orton: Sure. I could indeed think of a million reasons not to bring a baby into the world. Having a child myself made me miss my mother even more, as I was more aware than anyone that the child would miss out on having a grandmother. But on the other hand, through being a mother and getting married, I have found my own family. That was very much a healing experience. It gave me peace of mind. Once again, it turns out that life is one big paradox. It’s still difficult to have a child without having a parent to relate to… But on the other hand, even though my mother died so long ago, in my head I can still hear her clearly. As if she were giving me advice. When the time came to care for my child, I could remember amazingly well how mother had done that for me years ago. There you go. Your parents’ influence lasts for many years. For good or for ill. Luckily, I always felt I was really loved and it was really great to be reminded of that love by my children and to reflect it onto them in turn.

Some of your sources of musical inspiration have died recently. Some musicians say you are better off not meeting your heroes. You are proof of the opposite.

Orton: Yes, and I have no regrets about that. I understand that it can be intimidating, but it is so inspiring too. So you shouldn’t be afraid of it.

But maybe it’s better to meet them a bit later in your career, as you did the late Bert Jansch, the iconic Scottish folk guitarist?

Orton: Mmm, not really. Terry Callier [a US soul and folk guitarist and songwriter who died last month of cancer – TP], for example, I met when I was very young. He made a huge contribution to Central Reservation (1999) and was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I have realised since, however, that inspiration only seeps through slowly. Actually, I think Terry’s influence is stronger than ever on my new record. I had been looking for Bert for a long time, ever since Trailer Park (1996). I had heard Pentangle’s music by chance when a DJ friend put on one of their discs. “What the fuck is that?”, I thought. Straight away I wanted him to play the guitar on my album, but for one reason or another I never seemed to find him. Until, years later, when I had nearly forgotten that dream, we shared a dressing room and finally became good friends. Since Comfort of Strangers (2006) he has been a big part of my life: we performed together, made music, and he gave me guitar lessons, which gave me more self-confidence.

That surely shows itself onstage too? Soon you are heading off on tour again, at last.

Orton: It goes without saying that I am looking forward to it immensely, but I’m really nervous, especially as I’m not surrounded by a band. My husband is coming along, OK: he is the support act and he joins me on a handful of songs. When I appeared in New York recently in the Town Hall, someone wrote that I sounded as if I was playing in my own living room. And that’s how it felt. It’s as if I am saying: these are the songs, neat, as they were written.

Is it easier now to express that vulnerability onstage?

Orton: Oh, no! It is terribly exhausting. I present myself as more vulnerable than necessarily I would want. As if I were testing myself, even though there is no need to. But it’s not a test. I rely more than ever on instinct and spontaneity. Only the bare bones remain…and in that way I can, of course, interpret some old songs differently, and sometimes even ask the audience what they would like to hear, creating a real dialogue. I like that interaction. You could see it as saying hello to my fans again. They have had to wait so long that they do deserve that.

Beth Orton • 21/11, 19.30, €14/17, Botanique, Koningsstraat 236 rue Royale, 


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