By Greg Vandy
I met up with Beth Orton in the desert last summer before her show at Pappy & Harriett’s in Pioneer Town, just outside of the town of Joshua Tree. I thought that would be an excellent place to chat it up with the lovely Brit about American music, hamburgers, shape-note singing, her fav vocalists, Portland, and other such stuff. Her most recent LP Sugaring Season is on Anti Records.
Greg Vandy: What is your relationship to American music?
Beth Orton: Well, it’s funny that I have a relationship to American music. The first answer that I need to give to that is completely glib. And the fact that when I got here today I was like: “Oh yeah, I know I connect so well with America because there was this restaurant where I grew up in Norwich called Captain America’s, and it was where I went every birthday and we had cheeseburger and chips and milkshakes. And it had an American flag and it was American and just seemed really really exotic. And it was my favorite place to go. And every year, I would knock over my Coke, and every year my dad would get really cross and you know it was the same old thing.
And now it’s really funny that America is so much a part of my life. So that’s the glib answer. But actually I think I’m quite sincere in a way. I think it must be that those things have an effect on us when we grow up. I don’t know, but I suppose I’ve always loved American singer-songwriters…. I mean, but then again, a lot of them are Canadian actually. Sure, you know you got your Joni Mitchell, your Neil Young, and yourLeonard Cohen. In fact, no, I like Canadian songwriters more, but no…
G: Yeah, what is your connection to Canadian music?
B: I don’t know! Like there’s no Canadian restaurant where I grew up. Come on …I just have an appreciation of emotional lucidity, and I find that American music….the words….Canadian…often are very emotionally lucid and very, they have a kind of…. they talk to me of things that interest me, and I just feel an expanse, I feel that maybe they have an expansive nature, and maybe that comes from the landscape and their writing is always very inspired by their landscape. So I wonder about that maybe.
G: Yeah. Your husband Sam Ardoin is doing some interesting things with traditional songs. Does he share that with you, do you share that with him?
B: Sam is very private, I think with what he does musically. He doesn’t really come to me and say “Oh I’m doing this. And what do you think of that? And I’m thinking of doing a cover of blah blah because I feel that it encapsulates some idea, you know, he never talks to me, he just does it.
And I suppose we met each other mid-process so we weren’t really..though, from the other way around like he’s really helped my process—excuse the pretentious phrasing—but that’s kind of what it is somehow. He listened to my songs, you know, when I was writing the songs for this record, or what became this record, and he was incredibly encouraging. And he contextualizes a lot what I do and that really helps me.
So in terms of what he does, I learn a lot of what he does by osmosis but not necessarily by him telling me about what he’s doing. Or, for example, I went to this—I can’t remember where it was—but somewhere in the Northeast kingdom and they were doing sacred harp singing…what’s it called?
G: Sacred harp singing, it’s that religious thing…it’s all a-capella
B: A-capella, yeah. Shapenote singing, sorry I get the two, but they’re both the same…it’s another way of saying…and then I went to Alabama and I heard it there, and I’ve heard it in different spots and so I got kind of interested in that for awhile, so that had an influence and that kind of ancient music and also I love the story that it’s like there’s this bawdy-like, you know, drinking songs written to religious melodies, you know, because that’s how they got away with singing these words.
I think I’ve gone deeper and deeper into American music than I ever meant to, and I’m not sure why. I’m still not sure what that’s about, but it’s definitely a fact.
G: How did you come to record in Portland?
B: Because Sam knew Tucker (Martine) and because Sam supported Laura Veirs in London. I love theLaura Veirs’ record Carbon Glacier, and I liked Tucker a lot when I met him and Laura, but I just called him randomly, to be quite honest with you. I didn’t call him like “Hi, I’m such a fan.” I just kind of liked him, and I just had a hunch. And we got on the phone, and he’s just lovely. And then I sent him some songs, and then we spoke again and talked about the kind of dream band that we would get together. And I was like come on, this sounds amazing! And very quickly I was like, “I want to go and try this. I want to work with this person.
G: Who played on the record?
B: Sebastien Steinberg played bass, and Brian Blade played drums. In the actual studio it was like that. And Rob Berger played keys, there was me, and there was Sam. Brian and Sebastien, oh Brian was only there for three days, so we had three days to put the drums and bass down. We had five days with the rest of the musicians. Ted Barnes, my old cohort and sideman, he came as well. And we just worked really fast, well, they’re an amazing band. And then the only overdubs really were strings and Mark Remo.
G: Mark Remo?
G: And Brian Blade, he’s a New Orleans drummer!
G: A fantastic drummer. And he was in Portland?
B: Yeah, he used to live in Portland.
G: Really? I had no idea. OK, a few more….. Will you play Pickathon one day?
B: Who, what?
B: What’s that?
G: The best small festival in the world. And people who play it always want to come back and play it again. It’s a really unique festival….there’s this whole camping element and big trees too. And you know, multiple artists, multiple stages. There’s this kind of blur between the audience and the artists. Artists want to be booked and go because they get to see the all these great bands too. The curating is really great. It’s outside of Portland, and since you’ve been to Portland, you should play it.
B: I’d love to play Pickathon!
G: You definitely had a try with electronic music. And now you’re a bit more into more acoustic or American kind of stuff.
B: Yeah, I think there’s quite a lot of British. I think what I’ve done with this record is stripped it back to the bare bones of everything, and I’ve gone deeply into ancient music whether it was British or American. I don’t know, and sometimes I’ve got some kind of African influence, and I don’t even know where that comes from. I just love, I love more than anything a mantra. I love that kind of thing, I love rhythm, and yeah, I’ve drawn inspiration from lots of places, but I’ve definitely moved away from the electronic thing with the last two records.
G: Do you think you’ll ever go back to electronic music?
B: Yeah, I proabably am.
G: I guess my point is that you are versatile enough to do all kinds of music.
B: I think as long as it’s soulful. You know, I’m not a soul singer, but I do love soulful music. And so, yeah, as long as it’s got a soul to it, I don’t care. Like I say, I’m probably not about to start rapping or like doing something funny like Beyonce….
G: No, please don’t.
B: Yeah, I don’t think I could. But if I could, I’m sure I’d try! Yeah, but you never know. I’ve not turned my back on electronic influence, I don’t think.
G: OK, last question, your favorite all-time vocalists?
B: I think Dusty Springfield is one of my all-time favorite vocalists. I love her voice. I listen more to Joni Mitchell. I love her voice. I love Leonard Cohen and Neil Young and soon and so forth, but somehow, Dusty Springfield. I just think she’s beautiful, and I don’t know why. Particularly, um yeah so, her and Ricki Lee Jones. I’ve loved Rickie Lee Jones as well over the years. Gosh, I could go on and on. There’s so many people, so many different beautiful voices. It depends, and sometimes it’s like just how it touches you at the moment, but I think it’s someone who has that current view to appreciate someone’s ability or whatever as a vocal performer, I would say Dusty Springfield.