BY A.D. AMOROSI – Blurt-Online.com
Norwich, England’s Beth Orton has been the queen of wispy folk-tronica for so long that you almost didn’t realize that she wasn’t there for a minute. The softly shredding Brit, famed first for her work with electro producing boys William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, was so much a part of our steady musical diet – between 1996’s Trailer Park to 2006’s Comfort of Strangers – that her break went without much notice, as if she paused between breaths in a sentence. Her first release in several seasons, this autumn’s Sugaring Season, felt like just that: a freeing gentle gasp.
That’s not because Orton’s tensely coiled words and open air arrangements aren’t noticed or noticeable. And that’s not to say she wasn’t missed, even if she didn’t much miss the music business.
“At least not the interview process,” teases Orton during our transatlantic chat. Instead, her tender web-spun voice, her deep bass-driven tones, and her sense of domestic lyrical turmoil are so conversational we thought that she was simply clearing her throat.
Why she took time away from recording and touring has no simple answering according to Orton, a lively chatter who jumps at every chance to plumb her depths and to laugh at every step. “It’s a very deep question if you think about – why didn’t I make music for some time,” she say.
There’s a daughter named Nancy, a son named Arthur and a husband in folk musician/singer Sam Amidon, to start. She wrote fewer songs with those responsibilities.
“I just kept putting it off if you want to know the truth,” she says matter-of-factly. “I do feel as if the time away was useful, though I couldn’t truly tell you why,” she laughs. “I did have a record deal in place (with Anti-) for a while now so I actually could have made a record two years ago. I guess I just didn’t want to.”
She used to want to. A lot.
Her initial rush of success well pleased Orton, Not because she got cold hard cash for her klatch of trip-hop induced songs pushed along by a voice so ethereal angels cried when they heard her. It’s because she wanted to break through; she wanted to dazzle people quietly. “I remember the experience of being heard with Trailer Park and that’s what was most extraaaaaaaaordinarrrry.” she jokes. “That so many people could be so unquestioningly interested in what I’d done and might have to say that it was mesmerizing. It was as if I could take the piss and everyone was fine with it.”
Other than making the music and knowing how audiences appreciated Trailer Park, its stripped down jazzy followup Central Reservation and her somber Daybreaker, she doesn’t recall much more about the rushed-by decade than the music itself. Her life story has, in her mind, become dislodged with countless versions of that time at career’s start flying at her like glow sticks at a rave. “A lot of that part of my life has become a blur and I don’t have my story down pat enough even if some people in the press seem to,” she giggles. “There are so many different perspectives that I haven’t settled on one good one. But I do enjoy that I’m open to interpretation.”
While discussing the idea of interpretation, your humble narrator gives Orton his view of her lyrical style, one that slips through reality and dream, fact and fiction, with lots of breast beating soulful moments of personal exposition – but not too breast beaten. It’s true of her past stanzas. It’s true of Sugaring Season. At first she’s not too keen on my take that her lyrical mien is a mess mixed up in one bowl and served up elegantly.
“My gut reaction is to disagree,” she sighs dramatically. “But on the other hand,” she announces, “it’s a viable option especially when you consider that writing this new record has been like being in a prism – that’s a P R I S M and not a P R I S O N – in that there’s so many angles through which I’ve looked at things.” What Orton always wants to do is find the truth. Yet what she has found throughout the last many years is that there is never only one truth. “It would be so much nicer if it was that but it isn’t that, is that? Then again, I quite enjoy exploring things from different sides. I did it with my life and my children – why not with songs?”
Writing songs for Sugaring Season was like a slow spinning of that prism while sorting out her subjects and sharpening each angle. Willing to accept other people’s angles with pleasure, she says that she’s found herself immersed in the business of her last two producers, Jim O’Rourke (of Sonic Youth fame) who handled 2006’s Comfort of Strangers and Sugaring Season’s Tucker Martine, the one-time producer of The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, and Laura Veirs.
“The biggest challenge was finding how to do the thing I love and move onward,” says Orton. “Anyone who would help me do that was OK by me.” With immersion a two way street, she thought highly of O’Rourke’s everything-done-in-two-weeks take on the album making process. “Writing, recording, mixing, no overdubbing; he’s a bit of a genius, Jim is.” As for Martine, Orton calls him a different beast than O’Rourke, talented and immediate but more interested in beauty of the music than the process of the heated rush. For Sugaring Season’s jazz folksy feel she imaged the sound of Roberta Flack and Pentangle’s earliest albums in her head and went from there. Having jazz-bos like guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Brian Blade made the jazz side easier without ghettoizing the process to a skiddlee-bop drop dead jam. String arranging maximum minimalist Nico Muhly and viola player Eyvind Kang brought a classical gas to the Sugaring proceedings. But it was a song that Orton had brought in on an acoustic guitar demo that co-composer M. Ward added a piano break to that made “Something More Beautiful” as epically soulful as any later period Aretha Franklin-at-Atlantic song could be.
“The whole record really was about serendipity in that you weren’t exactly certain as to what would happen next,” says Orton. “Most of the songs had been gestating for several years, two and three at best. But “Something More Beautiful” was even older.” For the most part, save for the interaction of this new crew of musicians, her slate of Season songs hadn’t changed much from their first versions. Neither did “Something More Beautiful” until she played the track for a friend. “‘Come on with that,’ my friend said. ‘That song screams for some soul,'” laughs Orton, who then built “Something More Beautiful” up with the band in the studio and snagged from. M. Ward a simple piano bit that made all the difference.
“I dangled the bait and they drove it home,” says Orton. “That’s why it’s so important to have feedback, encouragement and interpretation.” She stops when she says that last word, considering what we’d discussed earlier.
“Oh yeah… interpretation.”
Beth Orton will be touring Europe and the UK throughout November and December. View tour dates here.