With Douglas Heselgrave
Last fall, I spoke with Beth Orton just before her appearance at a small nightclub in Vancouver. At that time, she’d just finished recording ‘Sugaring Season’ with Tucker Martine in Oregon and was doing a limited tour in support of its release. As you’ll read below, there was a lot riding on this record and the reception it received. Beth’s last CD, The Comfort of Strangers, often sounded like the work of an artist who had come to the end of several musical roads and was in dire need of both rejuvenation and redirection. Thankfully, Sugaring Season offered both a change of musical direction that embraced the acoustic sounds she’d been working with in live settings and lyrics that explored a wide range of new topics including parenthood and the evolving cycles that define our lives.
Interviewing Beth was challenging at times; she’s never been one to embrace the marketplace and promote herself and her music as a commodity. Where other artists I have interviewed have had no difficulty expressing their egos, Beth needed some encouragement to speak about her latest work. One gets the feeling that the sources that inform her songs are personal and private and that she’d rather let them explain themselves. She also expressed trepidation at the prospect of touring again, for though she is a wonderful performer, anyone who’s seen Beth Orton in concert knows that singing live can be a very challenging and raw experience for her. In the end, Beth had nothing to worry about – ‘Sugaring Season’ contains some of the best music of her career, and her solo tour was warm, engaging and real.
This conversation, originally slated for Paste, was never printed, so here it is for the first time.
DH: Hi Beth!
Beth: Thanks so much for calling. How are you?
DH: Great. I’m really looking forward to your show in Vancouver tomorrow night. It’s been eight or nine years since you’ve passed through town. I think you were with an acoustic trio last time.
Beth: Yes, I remember. That was a long time ago. I’ll be playing some new songs this time from my new album.
DH: I’ve been listening to it for about a month now, and in many ways I really think it’s your best work.
Beth: Yes, I’m very happy with it. I love it.
DH: It had been quite a while since we heard from you. ‘Comfort of Strangers’ came out six years ago. What have you been up to?
Beth: Well, I’ve had a child….
DH: I know that for years after having kids, I didn’t really do much writing. Hanging out with my daughters seemed like the most creative thing I could be doing. I’m amazed you found the time to write songs and put a record out.
Beth: I’m pretty amazed, too. I guess that I’m driven that way. I’m trying to work out for myself how it all happened. I think in some ways for me, finding that place for expression became even more vital. I held on even harder to my creative self. It was a struggle, but at the same time, I suppose for me, having children became a huge source of inspiration. I suppose that I felt if I didn’t write, I would cease to exist somehow.
DH: I read in a recent interview in the New York Times that you thought that your career as a recording artist was finished before you started working on this one. What was going on with that comment?
Beth: Wow! I literally think that every week. I’m not sure sometimes if this is how I want to live my life. There are decisions to make. It’s a big commitment to a certain way of living and sometimes I’m not sure if …..I don’t know. I just really question it.
DH: Is it the touring, the business side of music or is it the music itself that brings all of this into question? Is it the music itself?
Beth: It’s not the music itself. I love making music. My favourite part of what I do is writing songs. It’s hard to say what it is that draws me back into this. Essentially, I suppose that I’m always asking questions. Anyway, It doesn’t really matter, I guess, but I’m always questioning what I’m doing! (laughs)
DH: That sounds like a healthy approach. There was a time that we didn’t hear very much from you. There haven’t been any new recordings since ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ came out in 2008. Were you writing music in between that you simply chose not to release or – ?
Beth: No, I didn’t feel that I was writing music that wasn’t ready to release. This is probably where having children came into it. These are very difficult questions that are hard to answer in words. It is just so hard to answer questions about this type of thing. My process has been simply to write and write and write for its own sake. I wasn’t doing it because I had a deal to fulfill. I wasn’t with EMI anymore. I wasn’t really with EMI either. I was with the Heavenly label and they got dropped, so I was left with EMI. That wasn’t a happy place to be in, but it wasn’t a terrible place to be in either. We eventually parted ways, which was fine, too. There was no great drama. The whole time I just continued to write for no reason other than I really enjoy writing. I would really miss it if I didn’t have that in my life. It was good to know I could do it. During this time I got together with Bert Jansch.
DH: I loved his ‘Black Swan’ record that you sang on.
Beth: Yeah. It was nice.
DH: Bert played a lot in Vancouver over the past few decades, but he stopped coming here when he got sick, I guess. You were lucky to have spent that time with him.
Beth: I know I was. It was kind of extraordinary. It’s funny how things happen.
DH: Do you find that the topics you write about have evolved since you settled down, took a break from recording and had kids? I really think of ‘Sugaring Season’ as a much more mature, full rounded work than you’ve recorded before – and there have been some great, great songs on your other albums.
Beth: Well, it’s hard to know, but I do think that it would be impossible for having kids not to completely alter your sensibility in the way you write.
DH: One of the things I like about ‘Sugaring Season’ is Tucker Martine’s production. I’ve admired work he’s done with people like Bill Frisell and Laura Veirs. The thing I notice that’s most different is the quality of your voice. You’re really singing. I don’t mean that you didn’t ‘sing’ before, but your voice has completely opened up and there’s a sweetness and depth that I never heard in the past.
Beth: I think Tucker recorded my voice very beautifully. But, how do you mean my voice has opened up? Convince me.
DH: Well, if I listen to ‘Dawn Chorus’ or ‘Something So Beautiful’, I can imagine how you would have sung them in the past, and your voice would have come from deeper in your chest. You’ve expanded the physical range of where your voice comes from and there’s a lot more breadth and high notes. I don’t know if –
Beth: Well, thank you very much. It’s actually quite hard to sing a lot of my old songs. It’s like I can’t find the place for my voice or the place those songs came from. You’ve brought up something very interesting. I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing or a good thing, but it’s just a fact.
DH: Our voices do change over our lifetime, but your register or something in the way you’re using it, is different. I was listening to ‘Sugaring Season’ with a friend yesterday and she called the songs a ‘relief’ and said that you sounded like a happy person now.
Beth: Ha! Well, life is never that black and white, but yeah, I’m happy.
Doug: Does that reflect in your new songs? Let’s talk about them.
DH: I recognize them as your songs – the cadence and the imagery is familiar, but there is something subtly different about them. When I hear new songs like the very loose and free ‘Call me the Breeze’ or ‘See through Blue’ with lines like ‘this beautiful life that we will build by hand’, they have a different sensibility than much of your earlier work. There are lines about ‘ghosts coming up from salty spray’ that sound like they’re from a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. They sound like children’s adventures and bedtime fears….
Beth: Those lines are from a love song to my daughter. It just came out of me.
DH: I like ‘State of Grace.’ The line ‘ Beauty comes in slow release. I waken to you piece by piece’ sticks in my head.
Beth: I think the eye or the brain can only take in so much beauty at one time. We awaken incrementally, I think. We awaken into love with each other, I suppose.
DH: It really reminds me of the really noticeable, palpable shift life takes when we become parents. It takes a long time to get there for some of us, and then when we get there, we wonder why we waited for so many years and what we could have possibly thought was more important. It’s a beautiful song.
Beth: Why thank you so much.
DH: I really think ‘Mystery’ is the perfect song to close this album. It has a mystical, kinda Van Morrison vibe to it.
Beth: I think I was singing about the mysteries of the cycles of life and of birth. It’s the mystery of arriving, and the bigger mystery I suppose of leaving. It’s odd.
DH: When I listen to the record, I hear a story arc. It starts with the chatter of the birds in the magpie song and travels through all of these experiences and ends with a mystery. Was this conscious or have I just listened to the record too many times before calling you?
Beth: (laughs) It’s definitely about cycles – cycles of nature, birth and death. Also, very literally – following our recording cycle – the record begins in spring and ends in autumn. I’m not sure what you want to do with that, but it was quite an unconscious thing, though.
DH: It seems conscious listening to it. There is so much natural imagery in the lyrics that starts with something very specific and kind of ends with a mystery or a question. It’s a really fine piece of work.
Beth: Thank you. I do love it so much. Am I allowed to say that? (laughs)
DH: Before we go, I’d like to ask you a little bit about the live show. How has the reception been to the new songs? I think you’re playing solo this time out –
Beth: I’m starting the tour solo and eventually we’ll do a tour next year with a band, but it felt important to come out first with these songs in a very spare setting. It’s been more testing of myself than I thought it would be. It’s not an easy thing to do. The songs are so intimate and come from an intimate place, but as you can imagine the places I share them in aren’t always so intimate. (laughs)
DH: Is that hard to overcome?
Beth: I would have preferred that all of the concerts were held in churches or tiny venues as planned, but that’s ok if a bit challenging. I still feel that I’ve been able to reach people in a very direct way. I’m connecting, I think. Just me and an acoustic guitar! It will just be me and an acoustic guitar!
DH: Thanks so much, and I am looking forward to the show.
Beth: Thank you. This was lovely!
….and so was the show.
Whatever insecurities Beth may have had before playing in Vancouver with only her acoustic guitar to back her up, melted when she came out and sang a spare version of ‘Heart of Soul as the opening song for a small audience at the Venue last October 12 By the time, her set wound up 90 minutes later she’d played most of ‘Sugaring Season’ – with ‘Candles’ the clear highlight and left her old fans happy with great, stripped down versions of ‘Stolen Car’ and ‘Poison Tree.’
Beth Orton is touring this summer with a full band.
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com