At Mid-Career, Beth Orton Shakes Off Expectation

 

Beth Orton's latest album is called Kidsticks.

Beth Orton’s latest album is called Kidsticks.

Tierney Gearon/Courtesy of the artist

Beth Orton feels a certain amount of pressure when it comes to her music. The British singer songwriter had huge success with her first album, Trailer Park, back in 1999, and for a while she was on a roll: more album sales, more touring, more fame. It wasn’t, she says, altogether comfortable for her.

“I have this theory that I was the soundtrack to people’s past, and that’s kind of an awkward thing to be,” she says. “People have had deep experiences to your music; how do you move on from there, and how can anyone ever forgive you if you do? It’s a huge responsibility to have meant something, and it’s a huge honor, obviously. I was amazed that it touched people. But at a certain point, I get people saying, ‘You used to sing like this …’ It’s like, dude, I don’t sing like that anymore! I’m much older, and I have a much different experience.”

Orton’s latest album, Kidsticks, seems to shed some of that weight of expectation. There’s a sunniness sprinkled through the songs, which were recorded in a period when Orton had moved her family to the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles, and was feeling a rare lightness in her work-life balance.

“For me, there was an ease to being a creative individual whilst having a family — and maybe that’s to do with the weather: When you’re carting your kids off somewhere, there’s always somewhere lovely for them to go,” she says. “But also, there wasn’t this false stop to every day. The days would roll into the evenings, the evenings would roll into the nights. There was a flow to life there, and this kind of homespun nature of recording in people’s garages, in their gardens; recording in my home, you know, on a computer.”

Orton spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin about the strangeness of evolving in public, and why she now looks at her younger self with the protectiveness of an older sister. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

TRANSCRIPT

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Beth Orton feels a certain amount of pressure when it comes to her music. The British singer-songwriter had a huge success with her first album back in 1999. It was called “Trailer Park.” And for a while, she was on a roll – more best-selling albums, more touring, more fame. It wasn’t altogether comfortable for her, though. She’s evolved a lot since then. And her new album, “Kidsticks,” is about her releasing everyone else’s expectations about the music she should make and just doing the thing that makes her happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SNOW”)

BETH ORTON: (Singing) I’ll astrally project myself into the life of someone else. I’ll astrally project myself into the life of someone else.

MARTIN: There is a sunniness sprinkled throughout this album. And she did put it together in California, which she told me may have had something to do with that.

ORTON: For me, there was an ease to being a creative individual whilst having a family. You know, and maybe that’s to do with the weather. When you’re carting your kids off somewhere, there was always somewhere lovely for them to go. But also, I think just the general nature of being somewhere which has a – you know, there wasn’t this full stop to every day.

The days would roll into the evenings. The evenings would roll into the nights. There was a flow to life there. And this kind of homespun nature of recording in people’s garages, in their gardens, recording in my home, you know, on a computer.

MARTIN: Let’s listen to a little bit of the track “1973.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “1973”)

ORTON: (Singing) Looking back in time right now to ’72, I remember all the stupid things we’d do. Sitting ’round and speeding like it’s ’79, there was always somewhere else I had to be in my mind. Swimming in my mind, swimming in my mind.

MARTIN: What was happening in your life in 1973? How old were you?

ORTON: I was learning to crawl (laughter). Nothing particularly was going on in 1973. I picked kind of a non-year. And it wasn’t like a conscious thing necessarily, but it did start to become like, oh yeah, I could access my love of Blondie on this track, for example – you know? – and Talking Heads. All these incredible artists – T. Rex.

You know, I’m not saying that that’s the music – but growing up, these people were very – they informed our younger years sitting in the back of my car with my dad, you know, listening to David Bowie coming on the radio. It was subversive. And it was quietly subversive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SHE CRIES YOUR NAME”)

ORTON: (Singing) Cut beneath the surface screen of what we say and what we seem.

MARTIN: In preparation for our conversation, I went back and listened to your first album from 1999, “Trailer Park,” which I will admit was the soundtrack to my early 20s. I listened to that thing a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SHE CRIES YOUR NAME”)

ORTON: (Singing) She cries your name.

ORTON: I know, but can I ask you a question?

MARTIN: Yeah.

ORTON: You know the way you say, I have to admit? I have this theory that I was the soundtrack to people’s past. And that is kind of an awkward thing to be because then it’s almost like a bit of an embarrassment. It’s like, well, people have had, like, deep experiences to your music. It’s like, how do you move on from there? And how can anyone ever forgive you if you do?

And if at any point you sort of let people down along the way – it’s a huge responsibility to have meant something and it’s a huge honor, obviously. I was very, like, amazed that it touched people. But at a certain point – you know, and I get what people saying, oh, but you used to sing like this. It’s like, dude, I don’t sing like that anymore. I’m much older, and I have much different experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MOON”)

ORTON: (Singing) In that world that I can only see by the light of the moon. And it is there that I can only want more than I do.

MARTIN: Do you feel freer, though? I mean, when you look back at the person that you were and the music that you made in that time and the sound, how do you look at her and that musician? And how does she inform who you are today?

ORTON: I think I look at myself like a big sister now. I don’t – it’s not like a parent, but it’s like a big sister. And I feel very protective of who I was and how it was to become famous for something that was very personal, and very quickly and unusually – and what a privilege, basically – ultimately, of course.

MARTIN: I want to play one other song from the new album. Let’s listen to “Flesh And Blood.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FLESH AND BLOOD”)

ORTON: (Singing) There’s always been a beautiful sky. It’s just there’s some clouds in my eyes. I was wild, but I needed to be free. ‘Ever it is it ain’t mine to name it. ‘Ever it is it ain’t mine to claim it. What will be I’m certain I don’t know. We have today, and that is forever.

MARTIN: Is there a story in that song?

ORTON: Yeah, it’s a story about second chances. It’s about life after life – you know? – rather than life after death. It’s like going, oh my goodness. I’m still alive and I have another life to lead? Hang on a minute. Like, how did that happen?

MARTIN: Did you have that awakening?

ORTON: Yeah, I definitely feel I’ve had that awakening.

MARTIN: You know, I’ve got ask you – what triggered that awakening?

ORTON: Well, I don’t know. Maybe making this record, maybe having my family – you know, my husband and my kids. And I don’t know – and maybe ill health of my own. But sort of – I’ve been managing it for many years. I have Crohn’s disease, but I’ve found an amazing diet that’s changed my life. And just an attitude shift, maybe, as well. And just, like, hang on a minute.

It’s hard to say. See, that’s why I put it in songs, because otherwise I – and even then I’m not even entirely sure what I’m actually saying. But, you know, is anyone ever really that sure? So I – yeah, have a compulsion to write, I think. I have a compulsion to put words into sounds as much as anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FLESH AND BLOOD”)

ORTON: (Vocalizing).

MARTIN: Beth Orton joined us from the studios at the BBC in Brighton. Her new album is called “Kidsticks.” Beth, thanks so much for talking with us.

ORTON: Thank you.

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