After a six year hiatus from the music business, Beth Orton returned last year with her album Sugaring Season. We catch up with her ahead of her upcoming tour; part of Heavenly Sounds concert series, which will see her playing in some of Australia’s finest churches and cathedrals, to find out more about the album, that six year gap and how you go about playing a cathedral.
How are you?
I’m good, how are you?
Good thanks, I believe it’s snowing in the UK again?
It is, I was just finishing an interview with someone, and a whole ton of snow just dropped out of the sky. And now it’s completely stopped.
There was a six year gap between your new album Sugaring Season and the previous album, what was it that inspired you to continue with music after such a break?
Well I didn’t have a break from music. I just had a break from the music business. So I just went and working with different people. Making music, playing, I worked with Bert Jansch. He gave me some lessons. We started off with me cheekily asking him for some guitar lessons, and then the next thing, the songs that we were working on, he wanted to put on the record he was making, Black Swan.
So we did some gigs. And I had a little girl; in fact I was pregnant when I first started with him. In fact just before I was pregnant I met him. So that kind of carried me through that first period, and I was writing with Tom Rowland. I don’t know, there was so many different things happening, and at the same time I was always writing my own songs.
In a funny way it was one of my most prolific times. I guess because I had the time, just to sit and write, I think that’s what I do, I take my time. It was a particularly fertile period in terms of ideas and songs. Funnily enough I would really like to get on and record another record pretty soon, because I have so many songs that I want to finish. It was a really creative time, just not a very public time.
You’ve already answered this, but I was going to ask if you had been consistently writing during that six year period, and whether there was a sizeable body of work you were able to draw upon for the album.
So if you have quite a number of songs at your disposal, how did you whittle down the selection to the few that made it onto the record?
Well it was funny, because we went in and recorded maybe eighteen songs. In the end, if I think about it, it’s actually quite random the way I chose the ones that made it. I had a band, I had drums and bass. Well I had drums for three days and bass for five days. We had very little time, because the musicians we were using were so good, and were so busy. So in the end it just whittled down to what worked in the moment.
Because of these constraints, and I quite like these weird constraints on creativity. Because our choices are so random half the time it seems, and so laboured at the same time. It’s quite nice to have some choices taken away from you. If that paradox makes any sense to you at all. So to a degree it was good to just say “that didn’t work with the band and I want this to be a band song, so lets move on for that, and concentrate on this”.
That makes it sound like it wasn’t a careful process. But at some point you have to be quite cold about it, and just say “I don’t think this is ready yet, and I want this song in it’s best light”. It’s funny. I have to be like that, or else I could have driven myself absolutely mad, wanting every single song on there. I mean sure, I could have made one of those really long albums, but I always think it’s rude to do that; because people then have to go and listen to it. I just like the idea of breaking it up a bit.
And I suppose if you only have a limited amount of time to record it, it doesn’t give you chance to overthink anything. It’s a case of that works, so we’ll go with that one.
Exactly. And that can be a creative tool in it’s own right, without sounding totally pretentious. You can use that and kind of guide things with it, and I mean any other way of thinking of it can be probably just as random to some degree; if you want to get really existential.
How do you normally approach the songwriting process? Do you normally start with a lyrical idea and work from there? Or do you have a tune or melody you start from?
Every time I write seems to start off the same way. I pick up my guitar and I fiddle around and I often find a chord progression that I like; and normally a melody starts to come, and with the melody some words come; and if it all comes together, a song takes shape and it all happens really naturally. And then I have to work on it, I go back and go back and tinker, until a song is eventually formed.
Sometimes it comes to a point where I have to say “I can go no further with you song” and I walk away from it, and another time I’ll come back to it and it’s “I know how to finish you”. Sometimes they’ll come and a song is written in a matter of minutes, sometimes it takes a bit longer. But the initial thing, the starting point, is just off the cuff. I write notes all the time, and sometimes it’ll trigger me to remember, and I’ll think, “That ties in”. So it’s a case of tying in existing ideas and building it like that.
It’s funny; it’s another process when I think about it. I find it funny when people tell you how terribly personal a song is, and when you look back at it, it’s a collection of ideas sometimes that have been pieced together; that can mean one of many things really.
Do you have to be in a certain frame of mind when you write? I was reading that you were writing a lot at a certain time of night.
I was writing when I could write because I had a little baby girl. I needed to sleep, but at the same time I was so overexcited at having her tiny presence, that I found myself awake. I sleep really badly anyway, and if she woke me up, I was awake. And I just lived in this other kind of world where I would sleep when she slept and was awake when she was awake.
And I would just write. It was a kind of altered state, in a funny way, when you have that lack of sleep. It was useful, I couldn’t do it again I don’t think; not now I have two children. It certainly hasn’t been that way the second time around. But it was then, and obviously I was alone with her, and that was what happened there.
On the whole I find that it’s easier to write when I am at peace in some way and with a sense of excitement rather than a sense of sadness or desolation. Though songs do come out of that place too.
Do you find it easy to write on the road? it seems some people are able to write wherever they are in the world. Whilst others need a certain sense of place.
I am again both. I do have this certain sense of place, I have this idea of really wanting to go somewhere warm, and being able to write indoor or outdoors. I like the idea of being able to write outdoors. It’s why England pisses me off, because its so fricking cold at night, that you can’t open the doors or the windows. So suddenly it comes to 7 o’clock and the days sort of done.
At the same time with my daughter that had an inspiration of it’s own. It was fine, it’s cosy and I’m stuck indoors, and my baby’s asleep upstairs and I can’t go anywhere. And that was fine, it worked, but now I have my life a little bit more normal, that I’d like to have that freedom to write anywhere.
But then at the same time I could write on the road, if I had that sense of place inside. So it really depends on state of mind. I love writing when I travel anyway; touring on a tour bus isn’t the most inspiring place to be honest. Which is one of the reasons why taking the time out, from the business, I don’t just mean the music business, but just the business of being in the business, with all the touring. It can sort of cut into your own experience a little.
Your latest album has a track based on a William Blake poem, and I think there is a Robert Frost quote in there as well. Have you ever had an interest in going down the Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen route and releasing your own collection of verse?
No. I don’t know if I’d have the confidence to do that. I mean I sort of view poetry as a faintly hallowed ground. You know, I’m sort of “I couldn’t possibly…” I feel alright putting it to music, but I don’t know if I’d have the balls to write it out and leave it there. Though I do write poems, I do scribble around. I don’t know there is something about singing words that pull them together for me.
And I think I read that you considered writing a novel at some point during those six years, is this something that still interests you as well?
Yeah. I just thought it would be really good to find another creative output, that didn’t involve going out on the road. I thought, “yeah writing a novel that’ll be a good idea.” But I also met these fantastic people who run a creative writing course at Goldsmiths University here. I just thought it would be amazing to just spend four years, learning about that side of things.
Unfortunately it just didn’t happen. I kept writing my songs and kept getting involved in music and it just pulled me along. So now I’m just like “writing a book… ahh really” it would just take such an amount of confidence. I think if I had just taken that time to do it, it would have been fantastic. I think I would still like to do something like that, maybe when I’m a bit older you know. But right now I just can’t get this music thing out of my system. Though I have tried.
I suppose we should quickly move onto the tour before we run out of time.
So you are going to be playing a series of churches and cathedrals, have you played these sorts of venues before?
I have, yeah around England.
Does it affect the choice of songs you play?
It definitely does, and it definitely affects how I am doing the gig. I have played churches before and have taken the full band, and it’s just been a mess. To be given the chance to play these beautiful churches and cathedrals in Australia I decided that I had to come solo. I thought about doing it as a duo, and a few different options. But I decided that the clearest, purest way, and I don’t mean pure just because it’s a church, the most direct way of doing these concerts is totally solo.
That in itself a decision very much affected by the space, I am working to the strengths of the space, and that’s extremely exciting and extremely nerve-wracking. But what it does mean is that there is this ability to be spontaneous and work in the moment. And really in a funny way, maybe that’s the closest I’ll come to turning the songs into some kind of poetry, perhaps, but that sounds probably horribly pretentious. But really it’s probably the most unwatered down version of what I do. It’s something that I have come to really love, I love the honesty of that. Of not hiding behind a band.
It definitely has an effect on the songs that I choose. There are a couple of songs where it’s quite hard to play alone; but I’ll still give them a bash if someone wanted to hear them, you know what I mean. It allows for a more direct dialogue between me and the audience.
And you said earlier that were a couple of songs that didn’t work with the band when you were recording the album, so maybe this is a chance to try them out in a live setting.
That’s a really good idea. Yes I am going to test them out on the road, I am. The thing is I am trying things out so many different ways at the moment. And I am trying so many different configurations. Of having a band, having a two-piece, having a three piece. Doing this and that. Doing it completely solo in Australia. So for me I am turning these next few months, which is including a hell of a lot of touring, into a time to lay the ground for my next record. So yeah I will include a few even brand newer songs.
So just to wrap up, I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a pleasure. Enjoy the tour, and hopefully see you on the road.
I hope so too. Thanks very much.
Beth Orton Heavenly Sounds Tour Dates
MONDAY MAY 6th 2013 – PERTH / St Joseph’s Church, WA
WEDNESDAY MAY 8TH 2013 – MELBOURNE / St Michael’s Church, VIC
FRIDAY MAY 10th 2013 – BRISBANE / St John’s Cathedral, QLD
TUESDAY MAY 14th 2013 – SYDNEY / St Stephen’s Uniting Church, NSW