Beth Orton: Songbird’s sweet dreams

OXFORD MAIL Thursday 11th April 2013 in Music

Tim Hughes talks to singer, guitarist and mother Beth Orton, who is going back on the road with her new album

When you have recorded as many records as Beth Orton, you can be forgiven for forgetting what they all sound like. After all, you can only fit so many songs into a show.

So the singer-songwriter is enjoying the opportunity to go through her back catalogue, revisiting some of the gems which made her a cult star of that pop and dance-influenced folk sound, awkwardly termed ‘folktronica’.

The Norfolk-born guitarist, who first charmed audiences with her dreamy voice and ethereal lyrics 20 years ago, is well into a national tour in support of her fifth album.

“It is intensive preparing for these gigs and listening to old songs which I don’t do very often,” she tells me. “I’ve got a lot of music to choose from and I’ve worked with some amazing people.”

Her album, Sugaring Season is a stripped-back affair which sees her turn her back on the big production of her earlier collaborations with dance music giants William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers and the jittery beats of Top 10 hit Daybreaker.

“An album like Daybreaker has a lot more arrangements and orchestration and I actually think they sound quite amazing,” she says. “But this is definitely going back to basics.

“I’m leading much more on my guitar here. There’s no trickery, it’s just straightforward in a way there hasn’t been before. And I’m happy to have made a record like that.”

It has taken six years for Sugaring Season to appear, leaving many to wonder whether 2006’s Comfort of Strangers might have been her last. But, she has been busy – raising a family. And as if bringing up two young children was not exhausting enough, she has was also written songs – though not with any immediate eye to recording them.

“The truth was, I had held on to some hope that I might one day put these songs out. There was a strong voice that was always fighting the doubt.”

The result has become her magnum opus. Was it inspired by motherhood? “Of course,” she says brusquely. “It hardens you and changes you. It affects your DNA and that is going to come into the music. But it is not very obvious.” What parenthood did was persuade her to set aside time each day to write.

“It forced me to make time, to make it a discipline,” she says.

“It was my only time for myself, because as a parent you are constantly interrupted by someone who has needs greater than yours.”

The result, penned at the home in north London she shares with her husband, the American singer-songwriter Sam Amidon, is folkier than ever before, though she baulks at use of the ‘F’ word.

“I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘folk’,” she says.

“I have always felt I wasn’t folky. I love Marvin Gaye and I love dance. Music should all be thrown in together; it should be an example of everything you like.

“I really love the songs and lyrics of folk music, though listening again to Daybreaker, I had moved into orchestral pop, which is great too. But for this record it’s been really good to go to a new place. I was brought up on punk rock and even though I’m into folk music, I’ve never left that. There are more hard-hitting drums on this record than ever, and there’s a groove – though I hate that word too!”

For a sparkling lyricist, Beth is endearingly understated in conversation – happy to chat but choosing her words carefully.

She admits she owes her career to her relationship with her former partner William Orbit – whom she met by chance at a party, after scrounging a cigarette from him. One of the biggest producers of the decade, Orbit had previously worked with dance-crossover giants Leftfield and Underworld, and would go on to produce Madonna, Blur, All Saints, Katie Melua, Robbie Williams and Sugababes.

The pair became lovers as well as professional partners. Their 1993 song Water From a Vine Leaf was the first in a series of fruitful collaborations which went on to see an album released only in Japan (SuperPinkyMandy), her first chart single She Cries Your Name, and tracks released as part of Orbit’s Strange Cargo project.

It was the step up she needed, and led to her Mercury-nominated UK debut Trailer Park, produced by Andrew Weatherall (who had acquired a cult reputation for his work on Primal Scream’s indie-dance classic Screamadelica), and follow-up Central Reservation, which earned her another Mercury nomination and a Brit Award for best female artist. So how influential was Orbit to her career? “ “Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing if we hadn’t met,” she says wistfully. “I was 19 and working at an amazing theatre company and he saw the play and that’s when we became friends. It was quite interesting work, though, and maybe I’d have gone deeper into that, or experimented with something else. Who knows where I’d be?”

So with her first album for six years garnering favourable reviews, what does she want to do next?

“I want to be good at what I do,” she says. “It’s important to work hard at what you do – and this is the hardest I’ve ever worked. But I’m happy with my work – and I’m having a lot of fun.”

Beth Orton plays the O2 Academy Oxford on Saturday.

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