March 27, 2013 Tim Gruar
Sweet Mother’s kitchen
Picking up from The Comfort of Strangers Beth Orton’s new album Sugaring Season shows another bold departure, taking traditional folk instrumentation into some unfamiliar territory, shifting from the electronic textures that dominated her early work. It was produced in Portland by Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists). Its 6 year incubation was a result of parenthood, nuptials, and regaining confidence.
“Well, you’d know children change you. You start to see things through their eyes, and maybe you start to take responsibility for things that you never cared about before. I had to cancel shows when I became pregnant.” I’m sitting in a café just out of Wellington. The warm early morning breeze is drifting in over my half finished latté, disturbing the pattern on remaining froth. Half a mile away, singer, songwriter and mother of two, Beth Orton is rubbing her shoulders to keep warm. The phone is cocked in the crook of her neck, slipping down on occasion and requiring a rescue from the cushions on her arm chair. We’ve just been swapping stories about our little ‘uns. Beth has a girl of 7 (Nancy)and a wee ‘little man’ (Arthur), who’s 2. Her son and husband, banjo player Sam Amidon have been touring the US with her (Her daughter often hanging with the grandparents in Washington DC). She’s telling me about her 6 year transformation from a single mum into a loved up wife, back on tour and on a voyage discovering there’s still a keen audience for her music out there.
Although music came early in her life Orton’s confidence in her self as a musician has always fluctuated. “I was never a real guitar player. My earliest (recorded) stuff came from the guitars I found at William’s (Orbit) house. But I never really could play, not properly. I was a fan of some of the great folkies like Bert Jansch… (whom) I wanted him to play on (her 2nd release) Trailer Park… but that didn’t really happen… I’d been a fan of his for years.” In 2004, as luck would have it they ended up doing a gig together and sharing a dressing room. Jansch’s wife invited her for lunch, which became a teaching session. “He taught me formally, with tunings and theory. I was around there at their house nearly every week. I knew my limitations and it was nerve racking to push my self into new territory, but it paid off, I think.’ The longer she played the more her self-assurance grew. She started to play out side her own style, improving her picking. “Also, at that time I decided to move to the country for a little bit.”
So a solo mum and her daughter moved to converted barn in Norfolk, not far from her home town of Dereham. This was the closing of an emotional circle. At age 11 her parents split and she moved to London with her mother. Her father died soon after. At 19 her mother also passed on and Orton, seeking the need to escape took her self off to a Buddhist retreat in Thailand for several months. “When I came back, I was in this house all alone, in Dalston (London). No brothers or sisters. No body. I found an acting job in a play and we eventually toured Russia. Then I was always going to parties. I went to one with an actress friend and it was hosted by (Madonna collaborator) William Orbit. Anyway, I tried to bum a cigarette of him. He went off to find one. I went home with some bloke.” Days later, obsessed with Orton, he invited her to a Madonna Vogue party and attended her play. “He suggested I started singing for him. But I didn’t want a reputation as some bloke’s bird who can’t really sing releasing an album, just because we’re going out. It was a strange time. I was putting mum’s clothes in black rubbish bags, going around to William’s and listening to “Justify My Love” and playing his guitars.” That was the start of her creative life as a recording artist. Whilst she says Orbit wasn’t entirely encouraging her collaborations with him did start the ball rolling. Tracks like “Someone’s Daughter and Sugar Boy” became the basis for her hugely acclaimed Central Reservation. Several albums later she was back questioning herself. A restructuring EMI terminated her contract. “They didn’t offer me anything. I was beginning to think I’d run my course, although it was more about the label, in the end.”
Collaboration brought her out of the doldrums. First, working with Jansch, then with Tom Rowlands (Chemical Brothers) who showed her some techie tools and finally with her future husband (folk singer) Sam Amidon. “I knew Sam since Nancy was about 2. We were friends. We had dinners. But not dates. All this time I was writing, but not really playing. But Sam and others encouraged me.” Her new album, Sugaring Season, “is about that time in spring when it’s really cold but the Maple sap starts to build. It’s a sort of potential. It’s like me I suppose, waiting to be released. These songs are the product of all this experience, waiting to be tapped out.”
2013 NZ Church Tour
Friday 17 May Old St Paul’s, Wellington
Saturday 18 May Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland
General on sale Monday 4 March 9am
Sugaring Season is out now!