Interview with Beth Orton

Thanks so much for your time today, Beth – I’ve been a fan for years and obviously as a Norwich magazine, we’re dead chuffed to get this interview with you.
Aww, thanks! 

It’s cold and miserable in your old home of Norwich. I’m gonna do that British thing of asking you what the time is and what the weather’s like over there?
Well I’m in a bus and we’re travelling from Seattle to Vancouver and it’s intermittent sun and cloud, but it’s kind of blue skies and strange clouds that look like mountains. It’s very beautiful. There’s lots of trees and us, just driving down a big ol’ motorway.

It sounds a lot more romantic than Norwich in October, actually.
It is romantic; there’s romance to it all. Someone else said that to me today, that it sounds romantic and I was like, ‘Yes! It does!’

Now Beth, you’re coming to the Norwich Arts Centre in December, which is a real coup for the venue because you could have sold it out many times over, but I heard that your mum had some involvement with the Arts Centre, is that right?
Yeah, it was a huge part of our lives; it was at the Cool Terraces back then and it was down the road. It moved from the little alley near the church to down the road. It was good; it was a huge part of our lives for many years from probably the age of 7 to, I don’t know, 11? I haven’t been there in years; I don’t know what it’s going to be like to go there and play there. It will be strange but very lovely – I’m very much looking forward to doing it. Last night I played and I’m doing these solo, very intimate, acoustic shows and Sam Amidon who’s playing support also joins me for a few songs and it’s very exciting. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful but we’re doing this tour of America and for some reason we’ve been put in all these huge rock clubs that would fill about two churches in capacity, then last night this huge rock club, which is hilarious. It was fun and it was jolly and it was rowdy, but I have to say, I’m quite looking forward to getting to England where I’m actually playing some very intimate, relevant spaces for the show I’m doing at the moment, kinda stripped down.

You’ve been able to call London your home for a while now, but I read that you recently established your Norfolk roots, is that right?
Well, I mean, I came and stayed there for a summer; I rented out a little cow barn in the middle of nowhere and I stayed there for a summer, but I’ve never lost my roots. I’ve always stayed with friends and I’ve always been in the area. Norfolk, Suffolk, pretty much whenever I can be, I’m up there – down there – however, you say it! I’m never sure if it’s up or down. So yeah, it’s my place of choice to come and see my friends and also just the landscape as much as anything. I just feel this incredible sense of peace when I’m there, you know, I think it’s one of the most beautiful landscapes that I’ve ever known and I never tire of it. So yeah, we came for one summer, me and my daughter when she was tiny, rented this little cow barn and that’s where I started writing a lot of the songs that later became successful.

It was never the plan, I’m sure, but you were a single mum for a while and that period must have taught you everything you need to know about yourself…
Yeah, you learn a lot; having children brings you to the most essential nature of yourself. It burns away any artifice and you’re left with your most essential nature, I think. I totally found that quite inspiring; as a writer, I think it’s made me a much more direct writer. It’s helped to make me less afraid to step out of the shadows and less scared to be more direct, you know.

Yeah, I’ve had the album for a couple of weeks now and that was one of my initial thoughts, that it was so immediate – it speaks very directly to us, and that followed through from the recording of it as well, didn’t it? You only had a few takes for some of the songs – would you attribute that to your new rule of not overthinking things?
Yeah, I think so, definitely and also the time constraints of musician’s busy lives. But also, I couldn’t honestly have found a better way to work, so although there were some practical time constraints, it never seemed to affect us. There was never any pressure because we were all so excited in the studio; it was just such a beautiful experience. I don’t know, it just came together in a very natural, very easy way. The main tension was just excitement.

I think my favourite song on the album is ‘Dawn Chorus’, but ‘See-Through Blue’ is such heart-warming song. It got me thinking about Laura Veirs’ album of lullabies she wrote, and then I realised it was produced by her husband, Tucker Martine, who also produced your album! There was obviously an affinity with him, despite you not having worked with him before.
Yeah, I had an incredible affinity with him; I enjoyed his company so much and I enjoyed working with him on the record so much. They gave us their lullaby record and my baby son, at the time, was just four months old, so he was there with us, asleep on the sofa – or not, or whatever! But we played him her lullaby record the whole time and it’s so beautiful. Also another record I love by her is ‘Carbon Glacier’, which was pretty much the only work I knew of Tucker Martine on production, before I went in with him, although for me, that record was so much about Laura Veirs that it wasn’t necessarily a great inspiration in terms of production, but having said that, in no way was it an off-putting idea! It was actually like, ‘Oh!’ and you could join some dots. But my time with Tucker, it was just an act of serendipity, it just came together and when I played him the songs, and then we talked about bands and who we’d like to be in the band, he was like Brian Blade on drums and I was like Marc Ribot on bass, and all these people that we knew, I mean, I didn’t know Brian, but knew he was a good musician, so those kind of things came together. It’s just that old thing, when it’s right, it happens and it was one of those experiences.

Can you attest then, does ‘Tumble Bee’ do the trick, ‘cause I remember reviewing that album and wondering whether it would do the trick of getting babies to sleep?
I’m glad you reminded me of the name of it, because I was trying to think of it just before, but yes, it really, really did do the trick! And not only that, but we all enjoyed it; we’d put it on and all sort of jolly around in the car, you know, all four of us, having a jolly old time. In fact, I’ve got to get another copy of that because we had so many of them and they all get scratched and you know, get like food on them. So yeah, it really does work, yeah.

I also read that you built a studio behind your house that you wrote some of ‘The Sugaring Season’ in –
– No, no, no, I didn’t build one! In the cow barn there was a little, like, shed and that was a perfect space. And the lady whose land it was also used it as a studio. I didn’t build a studio, no! I did start working on Logic and I had my own little portable studio that I kinda take with me everywhere.

I just wondered what the perfect environment was for you writing – what’s most conducive to you writing?
Well it’s funny, because before I had children, I would never worry so much about environment; I’d just allow inspiration to come to me, and since the children, I’ve had to make time and make space otherwise it wouldn’t happen. To be honest, I’ve written in every space I could, as long as I had the space. Having said that, I did build a little space in my bedroom and I set aside a whole little corner, with a little studio space there. Then I borrowed someone else’s studio for a couple of days, but it was a freezing cold studio in West London somewhere and I had terrible flu… but at least I was out of the house! For me, generally the best place for me to write is when I’m travelling, when I first arrive somewhere new. In the most physical sense, I often find arriving into a culture shock often inspires me to write.

I can imagine really, because your senses are so overloaded, but at least they’re all switched on…
Exactly, yeah, yeah.

It must be extremely comforting to have your new family with you on the road with you, bringing familiarity to an otherwise strange process, because you haven’t been touring for an extended period of time…
Yeah, well it’s funny because it is a strange process and I’m not sure why it’s a strange process, but when we started this tour – well we had an incredibly strange bus, but that’s another story, and an incredibly strange drummer – but it is a strange experience and it’s one that for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t want my daughter on it. I just felt a bit wrong bringing my daughter in to it, I just thought, ‘I don’t know about that.’ But now I’ve got to the point where I’ve sort of road tested it myself and she’s joined us at the end of it, for sort of the last ten days of the tour and I feel good about that now. It was a transition, but now I’ve got her, her own bunk and I’ve put fairy lights all in it and I’ve given her pink sheets and pink pillows, and I put little presents in there. I just hope she really has fun, you know. We’ve got her some learning books because I want to do some home schooling on the road. It feels comfy and for me, as a mother, confirming as well, because you’re like, ‘is this the right way to do it,’ but we’ll find out!

Yeah, I think you had it at fairy lights – you’re doing a good job there, that’s awesome. A little girl needs nothing else!
Yeah, and she’s only five and a half and it’s pretty cosy, I mean, right now we’re driving through the mountains – actually, I’m going off on my own to Vancouver today and I felt really homesick leaving them all. I’ve left them all in Seattle and they’re gonna have a great day; they’re going off to the museum – and that’s the other wonderful thing, every day you get to take them somewhere different and to museums, and stuff. But yeah, I do desperately miss her; I’ve really missed her this last week when she was away, so it’s nice to have her back.

I had the pleasure recently of interview Jim Jones, who of course is in the Jim Jones Revue with your brother, Rupert. I wondered if you kept abreast of each other’s musical wanderings?
Yeah, definitely, I mean we’re always in different places now, that’s the thing, but we literally are always crossing this way as he’s crossing that way, so I haven’t seen him since my son’s first birthday in July, but I have spoken to him. I’m really proud of him and I’ve been checking out what’s been going on with his record this week, ‘cause it’s just got released. It’s very exciting.

And he’s in Norwich on Thursday, so we’re getting treated to both the Ortons in the space of a month and a half –
– Oh, he is?! Awww, we literally are doing the opposite, that’s so funny! Bless him! Well send him my love and say hi!

Now Beth, we’re so looking forward to having you come to Norwich – are you going to be without the band still?
Yeah, that’s the whole point; that’s what I was telling you at the beginning, yeah. That’s why I’m doing this tour of theatres, churches, yeah, so it’s going to be completely solo, except for Sam Amidon, who’s doing the opening act in support, and he also joins me for a few songs. So yeah, it’s completely solo. That’s why I was telling you that story about being in America, playing solo in a huge rock club, and just how funny that is, and how much I’m looking forward to playing in England, because I’m actually playing the right venues.

The person to space ratio must be easier to handle here than over there –
– No, no, no, you can get very beautiful venues over here as well, don’t get me wrong, although they’re strangely set up. No, I’ve also played a synagogue out here that was gorgeous; you can get, as you can imagine, so beautiful venues, but I’m just saying it’s a solo tour that’s about intimacy and so on. So I’m very much looking forward to coming to England and playing Union Chapel in Islington, and the Arts Centre in Norwich – some smaller, more intimate clubs.

And what, as an audience, can we do for you? What makes a perfect audience?
I don’t know, fuckin’ hell… Enjoy yourselves!

Emma Garwood

Beth Orton comes to the Norwich Arts Centre on December 2nd. Tickets are sold out, but call the Box Office for returns on 01603 660352. To read the uncut version of this interview, go to

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