After six years away from the stage, acclaimed British singer/songwriter Beth Orton received an invitation from the organisers of the 2012 Sydney Festival that was too good to refuse – would she be keen on travelling to Australia and performing as part of their program and then playing a handful of intimate shows in other capital cities?
“My answer was that yes, of course I was, but I was also a bit hesitant,” she tells Same Same. “It was kind of the moment I had been waiting for without really knowing I was waiting for it.
“To me, six years wasn’t that huge. I had kids, one relationship broke down, another began, I got married, so life changed, but I never stopped writing.
“I am sure there were periods where I wrote more than others but I never stopped writing songs. I wasn’t that stereotype of the songwriter with horrible writer’s block, struggling for inspiration. I had inspiration. I just also had a lot else going on in my life.”
Those Australian shows marked a turning point for Orton. She travelled here with her husband, fellow singer/songwriter Sam Amidon, and their children, Nancy, then five-and-a-half, and infant son, Arthur, affectionately known as Artie.
It’s an arduous and draining journey under any circumstances and she laughingly concedes that she was, at various times, afraid of two things – that long-haul travel with young kids would prove to be a nightmare and that maybe, just maybe, people might have forgotten her and her music.
“As I said, six years wasn’t a big deal to me, but it can be a long time in this business. I did have moments of wondering if I’d be remembered, if people would turn up to gigs, that sort of thing. But I had Sam playing with me, opening shows and then coming out for a couple of songs, and the fears fell away quickly,” she says.
Deftly interweaving aspects of folk and ambient electronica, Orton’s debut album Trailer Park was released in 1996 and earned her a loyal following. Three further solo albums followed in relatively quick succession: 1999’s Central Reservation, 2002’s Daybreaker and 2006’s Comfort of Strangers.
But not long after she had her daughter, EMI terminated Orton’s recording contact and she admits she was left feeling bereft, unsure, and somewhat directionless.
She was a gifted singer/songwriter and pioneer of the folktronica movement of the 1990s, but that was cold comfort at a time when she feared her career might well be over. Though she says that, ultimately, being let go “came to feel right,” it wasn’t always so.
“I never stopped writing songs. I had inspiration. I just also had a lot else going on in my life.”
“I definitely had a fear that my label had thought I’d run my course and that, of course, meant I had great doubts about whether my fans felt the same way. So there were dark days, but I kept writing. My relationship with Nancy’s dad eventually failed and I was a single mum, probably been one of the most challenging things I’ve faced in my life,” Orton elaborates.
“But, really, I guess I eventually realised that being let go by the label was freeing in its own way. They paid me, I was free, and it was fine. But I did pick up a lot of feeling that because the label didn’t want me, maybe the fans wouldn’t want me anymore either. That was a fear. So, yeah, I did think about leaving music, that maybe it was done for me.”
Still, the whole time that she was with a record deal and unsure as to where her music career was headed, Orton was not idle. She further honed her craft, writing songs and working closely with her longtime hero, fellow English folkie Bert Jansch.
The two met after performing together at a show in 2004. Purely by chance, they’d shared a dressing room backstage and a tentative friendship began, one that was cannily spotted and gently nurtured by Jansch’s wife.
“After that, Linda invited me around to their place for lunch. I had always loved Bert and really respected him. I remember I asked him for guitar lessons, which he gave me. It all started off quite properly and was quite formal, but the form of it sort of changed over time,” she recalls.
“I was round at their house pretty much every week and my whole picking style and playing style changed a lot. It was always really nerve-wracking but I also weirdly found my confidence growing. I think I needed that. It was a bit of a safe space, I guess, where I didn’t have to give a fuck about people or their expectations and I could just play however I wanted to.”
Though Jansch died in 2011, the legacy of their work together lives on in the form of his 2006 album, Black Swan. Orton sang and played on three of the album’s tracks: ‘Watch the Stars,’ ‘Katie Cruel’ and ‘When The Sun Comes Up.’
Orton confirms he was something of a father figure to her, providing a sense of quasi-paternal support that had been missing from her life, and imparting his musical skills and wisdom with selflessness and unflagging generosity.
In her teens, Beth Orton experienced enough three life-altering events: the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and, not long after, her father dying unexpectedly.
Several years later, when Orton was only 19, her mother died from cancer, an event that sent her into a complete emotional tailspin.
Desperate for solace and comfort, she fled to Thailand, where she attended a Buddhist retreat and adhered to the lifestyle of a nun for several months. Orton concedes she has always prized her “resilience and solitude and ability to just deal with and cope with things alone, even when I probably wasn’t coping too well.”
“I suppose, now, being a mother myself, I understand all of that stuff on a very different level. Or I at least have, I suppose, a different insight or perspective on it all. I did come out of it stronger, but I also came out of it with all sorts of stuff that I wouldn’t really, I don’t know, process or deal with until years later. Being a mother changes you. It just does. Which is why I always find questions about motherhood changing my songwriting weird. How could it not? It changes everything in your life.”
In late 2012, Orton released her first studio album since 2006, the spare, beautiful and profoundly emotional Sugaring Season, a title that references “the time of year where they tap the maple trees for sap. It’s the start of spring, a really beautiful time, and it takes a lot of the sap to make a little bit of maple syrup. It seemed to suit this album well, that metaphor.”
Both in terms of her songwriting and singing, it is undoubtedly her finest album to date, shot through with raw emotion and poetic metaphors drawn from sources as diverse as the natural world and even the words of English Romantic poet William Blake, whose poem partially provides the lyrics of ‘Poison Tree.’
“Nature and the natural world gave a lot of inspiration to these songs. I love performing ‘Poison Tree’ live because I feel as though I get something new from it every night. There is the English countryside, but because Sam is American, I have also spent time there,” Orton reveals.
“We were in Vermont a lot. I was reading people like Emerson and I think I really absorbed that and it found its way into what I was writing. That happens often for me. A lot of what I write is influenced by what is happening outside and around me.”
Orton, who is softly spoken but possessed of a wicked sense of humour, says excitedly that she “can’t wait” to return to Australia. She says she is especially looking forward to the fact that she’s doing so with a string of Heavenly Sounds show, playing in some of the country’s oldest churches and cathedrals.
“It’s a bit beautiful, isn’t it, to think of playing music in such sacred spaces. Australia certainly has a special place in my heart. Those shows there last year really were me finding my feet onstage again and I was quite nervous and quite scared,” she notes.
Much of the album was written in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning. This was partly out of necessity, because Orton has to grab time where she could, as her children slept, at the time she describes in ‘See Through Blue’ as “in the hours where spiders mend their webs / When ghosts ride up from the salty spray.”
But it was also because of what she describes as “almost kind of knowing that you’re going to be awake at 3 or 4 or 5am. Having children meant writing had to become a discipline, in terms of setting time aside, but then, at night, it did have a bit of an illicit feel to it – knowing I shouldn’t really be up at that time writing songs, but discovering it was a good time to write.”
When I mention seeing her playing at Brisbane’s historic Old Museum and being aware that she was palpably trembling for the first three or four songs of the set, she simultaneously laughs and apologies.
“Oh, God. Yeah, I probably was. I remember I was nervous but I was also excited. I did play one or two new songs when I was there last time. I remember playing ‘Candles,’ but now I have a whole album to draw from,” Orton muses.
“I must admit that, these days, as a whole, I actually really enjoy the live experience. So, yes, I am very excited to be coming back to Australia. Audiences there have always been very good to me.”
Sugaring Season is out now through Anti- Records/Warner Music Australia.
Beth Orton’s Heavenly Sounds tour kicks off this week with Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow as support: