Beth Orton interview: birdsong and black magic


On her first album in seven years, ‘folktronica’ pioneer Beth Orton has gone back to basics by ‘tapping into an ancient world’, she tells Helen Brown.

Beth Orton: 'I’ve messed around in the past, but this record is heartfelt and straight-ahead’

Beth Orton: ‘I’ve messed around in the past, but this record is heartfelt and straight-ahead’
By  23 Mar 2013
With their harsh cries and piercing slate-grey eyes, blue jays can have an unsettling effect on their human neighbours. They’re relatively rare in urban environments, preferring woodland habitats. “But wherever I’ve lived,” rails Beth Orton, “in east London, west London, the bloody centre of King’s Cross, a pair of blue jays set up shop in my garden. It’s bizarre the way they follow me around!” Orton is flapping around in a pantomime of exasperation with her long, lean arms. But beneath the self-parody, the 42-year-old singer-songwriter is, she admits, “hugely superstitious about birds – always looking for the second magpie”.

The emotions startled to flight by these folklore-ish figures – fear, suspicion, hope and bold self-revelation – are reflected on the opening song of Orton’s powerful new album, Sugaring Season. The Norfolk-born singer quietly addresses the birds against a gently picked acoustic guitar, before rising into a fierce challenge against their power over her: “Blue jay, blue jay, I don’t think you mean quite what you say/ I don’t think you’re the friend you claim to be”. The sonic sky darkens with rolling clouds of bass, drums and swoops of fiddle.

Although Sugaring Season is a mostly acoustic record – without any of the electronic bleeps and beats with which Orton first made her name as a pioneer of “folktronica” back in the Nineties – the song has a stormy crackle of organic electricity, with images of a woman raising her own force field against the weird omens of the elements: “I won’t turn back, I’ve seen the sun/ I won’t turn back not for anyone/ I’ve seen the sign, and I know what is mine.”

When I compliment her on the very English voodoo of the song, Orton crumples into modesty, folding in her wings and wrinkling her nose with an: “Awww, fanks!” In conversation she’s a flurry of matey self-deprecation, empathetic coos and comic little sweary outbursts. We meet in a back room of an east London pub on a freezing cold day, and she leaps across the chilly room to switch on the fairy lights tangled around the mantlepiece – “These look like they’ll be pretty… oh, no! They’re not. Oops! They’re flashing!” – then sinks into the leather sofa, wraps her long fingers around a steaming mug of peppermint tea and inhales deeply.

“Voodoo…” she nods, “funny you say that because I took a course on shamanism. It was fascinating. I learnt that the power is in the story. Old folk songs have that strong sense of superstition: witches and spells, repetition, patterns. I have this fear around the subject but when you put it in a song you become fearless. You forget your own story… So that’s quite nice,” she shrugs. “This record’s all about folklore, healing, transformation… Sugaring Season is just this phrase people bandied about in Vermont where my husband [folk singer Sam Amidon] is from.” It refers to the spring, when the trunks of maple trees can be tapped for syrup as the sap rises.

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