Beth Orton: ‘I had a phobia of singing ‘

THE CORK NEWS 15/03/13

Six years after the release of her last album, Beth Orton is back with a new offering and preparing for a mini-tour of Ireland. Play’s Maria Tracey caught up with the Norfolk folkie ahead of her Triskel gig to discuss the reasons for playing the Cork venue, how she has replenished her musical fire and just why singing Happy Birthday will leave her squirming.

It’s been a bit of a sojourn for Beth Orton over the past six years. In her 2006 release, Comfort of Strangers, she moved towards a more folk-based sound and away from the electronic beat of her past albums. And that was it, until last year when Orton brought out Sugaring Season, with producer Tucker Martine at the helm.

“Is six years really a long time?” muses the Brit winner. “I suppose, a lot still happened in that time, although I didn’t release anything. I worked with Burt Jansch (Scottish acoustic guitarist). I also did some songs with Tom Roland from the Chemical Brothers. And then there was a compilation, which included Keith Richards and Tom Waits.

“Of course, I also had a couple of children as well (a daughter Nancy in 2006 and a son Arthur in 2011). When I was about to release another record, I had Arthur instead! However, for so long my personal life had been put on the backburner. My kids gave me fuel for the fire, gave me the inspiration to start writing a lot of songs. Through them, I began to feel fully replenished as a writer.”

The result of writing over this period of time in her life, which included marrying American folk singer, Sam Amidon, has resulted in what is perhaps Orton’s most musically ambitious and accomplished album to date. Sugaring Season combines rich orchestral textures with a masterful jazz rhythm section and modal folk guitars, music hall piano and heartbreaking R&B ballads, while tracks like lead single Magpie- with its massive, loping groove- will remind fans that there are Chemical Brothers in Orton’s past.

The album also brings together a dream band of new and old friends: keyboardist Rob Burger, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and legendary jazz drummer Brian Blade, along with guitarists Marc Ribot and Ted Barnes and Amidon himself.

While Orton shifted away from the electronic textures that dominated her early work, her music is still built upon an implicit groove, even if it emanates from her acoustic guitar rather than from a sequencer. “It may not be a ‘dance’ beat,” she says, “but it’s definitely there and it’s earthed and primal and insistent.”

However, the 42 year-old singer reassures that her early music career is not something to be dismissed, with it being two decades since she was “discovered” by English musician, composer and record producer William Orbit- who has worked with Madonna, Beck, Pink, The Cure, Blur, All Saints, Katie Melua and Robbie Williams.

“I didn’t sing before I met William. I was acting in a play and turned a poem by the French poet Rimbaud into a blues song and William came to the play. I think he just liked my spirit at first and then I ended up singing Water from a Vine Leaf and it went from there,” she says.

“I was only 19 at the time and that was a real turning point. I never sang before and singing wasn’t even on my radar. Actually, I had a phobia of singing; even Happy Birthday still leaves me embarrassed. I played the drums, guitar and trumpet instead, and knew songs and melodies but that was it. Sam says to me now that was my early education into music.”

Orton explains that the really turning point in her career was recording her first proper solo album Trailer Park- her debut release was SuperPinkyMandy and only released in Japan- which garnered much critical acclaim in 1996 and earned her two BRIT Award nominations for both best British newcomer and best British female and a Mercury Prize nomination. “The record label believed in me and from there it was only onwards and upwards. That was such a wonderful part of my life,” she smiles.

From there, the singer went to release Central Reservation, which won her the Best Female Artist award and a Mercury Music Prize nomination followed by Daybreaker in 2002 and Comfort of Strangers in 2006.

With her albums, Orton explains that just like an artist who starts one painting, puts it aside and starts another, she is the same with her work. “With my music, I’ll start one song and will get the chords down before moving onto another. Hopefully, “ she admits, “the next album shouldn’t take another six years.”

It will be Sugaring Season that takes centre stage in Orton’s upcoming concert at the Triskel Christchurch. The first date has already sold out for Sunday, March 24th and the singer will now also play Monday, March 25th. “I’ll be singing songs from Sugaring Season but will also do a ‘shout-out’ bit, if there are any songs people would like to hear,” she says.

It was her husband, Amidon who suggested the atmospheric church for the gig having played the venue himself back in September 2011. “I actually asked to play there as I heard it’s such a wonderful venue with great acoustics,” says Orton. “The tour is starting off in the Royal Albert Hall on March 19th, which is in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust and I’m playing with Ryan Adams. Then I’m onto the Olympia in Dublin. It’s anther tour of beautiful venues.”

She adds that Amidon, along with the two children, will also be travelling to Cork for the weekend. “We are going to make a bit of a trip out of it and maybe get down to Blarney Castle. I’m open to suggestions,” she laughs.

Doors for her Cork shows are 8pm and tickets for the Monday gig are €25 from triskelartscentre.ie or phone 021 4272022.

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