How Beth Orton moved to Los Angeles and had a creative rebirth

Beth Orton

“One step back, two steps forward” might be the easiest way to summarise Beth Orton’s current career high. In the mid-Nineties, Orton emerged with a fully-formed sound, blending folk songs with trip-hop beats and giving rise to an entire sub-genre “folktronica”. Then, over time she grew to become a more traditionally acoustic singer-songwriter; “unashamedly mature” was a typical verdict on her last album, 2012’s Sugaring Season.

But, seven albums in and now in her mid-forties, Orton has undergone something of a creative rebirth. A giddy, groovy melange of electronics and live instrumentation, Kidsticks is the sound of someone joyfully experimenting – and throwing maturity to the wind. “I think Sugaring Season was the dignified answer to life and this one is like the “oh f**k it” answer to life,” is how she explains it.

This album is like the “oh f**k it” answer to life

I meet Orton to discuss the new album at a cafe near her home in North London. A skittish interviewee, constantly refining and qualifying answers, she only recently returned to England after two years in Los Angeles. It was this American adventure that was the genesis of Kidsticks, she says. “Going to a new city, you come up against yourself in a different way, you meet yourself differently.”

Originally when she went over there with her husband, US singer-songwriter Sam Amidon, and two young children Nancy and Arthur, they only intended to stay for a couple of months. However, after many “horrible..[or] many and varied, I should say, not horrible” times in the Californian city,  on this occasion she warmed to the fact it’s a place, unlike London, “where it’s still affordable to be an artist”, and fell in love with its “homegrown” musical scene.

“There’s all this glamour and then there’s this other world tunnelling away… I see it as this mad scientist vibe of people in their garages working at the bottom of their garden.”

Taking on the boys club of electronica

So it was that the album was born in informal surroundings, with the help of an unlikely collaborator: producer Andrew Hung, of gruelling techno-noise group F**k Buttons. They hit it off after he did a remix of a track on Sugaring Season: she invited him over to play around in the studio together. The crucial moment came when Hung persuaded her to get on the keyboard. In her early years, Orton explains, “when it came to writing on guitar I was in control, but when it came to anything with electronic music, it was always the man who brought it in”, referring to producers like William Orbit and Andrew Weatherall.

Someone said to me, it’s likeThe Wizard of Oz, they’re all sat there behind [the curtain] scratching their ass, pretending it’s really hard!

Entering this male-dominated turf was “very liberating,” she says. “Someone said to me, it’s like The Wizard of Oz, they’re all sat there behind [the curtain] scratching their ass, pretending it’s really hard, and then you look behind [it] and go “that’s not f**king hard!”, she says, laughing, before catching herself. “No, I’m joking, it takes a lot of work, and I’m not disrespecting, I’m being silly”

At the end of 10 days, she was left with a series of electronic loops, around which she then developed melodies, before gradually throwing live musicians into the mix. Esteemed US indie types like Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and Dustin O’Halloran, of ambient duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen contributed piano and string arrangements. Not that she was looking for their sound to rub off on hers. “I don’t know their music” she says, when I ponder whether there’s something of Grizzly Bear’s off-kilter rhythms in her sound. “I don’t listen to anything, I’m so ignorant now… I live in a bubble, it’s what happens when you have kids.”

One obvious touchstone is the hippy-ish West Coast vibe that permeates the music and lyrics, as well as the trippy video for first single “1973”. We discuss how the new record both reflects and deals with a shift in her identity: “But it’s not about trying [a new identity] on, more like “shaking s**t off,” she explains, “maybe the idea of trying to be a folk singer and always being slightly uncomfortable.” In her folkier guise, she said, she had always been overly worried about being “authentic”.“For, me it always really mattered but actually it doesn’t… as long as there’s integrity.”

Looking back at ‘Trailer Park’, 20 years on

Such concerns about credibility are perhaps understandable, given how she emerged onto the music scene. Exactly 20 years ago, at the height of Britpop, her seminal debut album, Trailer Park, was released: a haunting, delicate anomaly within a musical landscape dominated by loud blokes with guitars, it found her dubbed the “comedown queen”, a title she feels did her no favours. “I always felt slightly insulted… I was being emotionally honest, and then it was marginalised by like ‘oh she’s a bit of a downer’.”

I felt slightly insulted by the name ‘comedown queen’.. I was being emotionally honest, and then it was marginalised

Trailer Park made her name, earning her two Brit nominations, and with 1999’s Central Reservation, she went on to win one. After that, she made a decision to slip “further and further under the radar”. Kidsticks she describes as the “reward” of such intrepidness: “you work hard to get to a place where you can do what you want.”

On what life has thrown at her

All the while, she has undergone many personal challenges: she lost both her parents young, was a single mother for a time, and suffered for a period from Crohn’s disease. I wonder if she now feels more settled, for all that life threw at her so early on? “I wish I could say that was true, butg there’s fallout, and then there’s fallout… it takes a long time to figure it all out and I think acceptance is the important thing, acceptance that [a situation] is never going to tidy itself away, like losing your parents really young. Grief doesn’t just evaporate.”

I wish I had started having kids earlier – I would have a hundred of the little buggers if I could.

What makes everything more palatable is having her two children, though. “I wish I had started earlier – I would have a hundred of the little buggers if I could.”

Finally, I recall one of my favourite lines of hers, from the song “Sweetest Decline” onCentral Reservation: “what’s the use in regrets?,” it runs “they’re just things we haven’t done yet.” I wonder if, 16 years on from that, she has remained regret-less? “Oh no, the song is definitely not because I’m regret-less,” she explains. “Often when I’m writing a song, I’m writing a note to myself “Remember not to regret” or “Remember you can have a second chance.” And that’s what I think is lovely about this record, one of its driving forces is second chances, having another go at living.” Well, here’s to the come-back queen, then.

‘Kidsticks’ (Anti-) is released on 27 May

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