Rank Your Records: Beth Orton Reluctantly Ranks Her Six Records

Rank Your Records

By Cam Lindsay

Photo by Tierney Gearon

In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

For the last 20 years, Beth Orton has been making album after album of wonderfully sublime, carefully crafted and melodic folk music. But for her new and seventh album, Kidsticks, she chose to go back to the drawing board and completely overhaul the type of music we’ve come to expect from her. Going back to her roots in electronic music, she roped in Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons to produce, and, as you might guess, the result was hardly the same acoustic music she’s built her reputation on.

“He did a remix for a song from Sugaring Season, and it turned out he was a big fan of my music,” Orton explains. “So he wanted to do more, and I wanted to do more, and I was like, ‘Fuck yeah! Come out to LA and we’ll mess about!’ But I’m not really a huge fan of Fuck Buttons. I don’t know their music very well. I don’t mean that with any disrespect, it’s just one of those things where you like someone and you’re just like, ‘Fuck yeah! Let’s do something!’ It’s just in that spirit of the moment. I just found it very liberating to work with a new medium and go away from the acoustic guitar. I take my hat off to him for being up for that. It was a very natural and sweet meeting of the minds. It was lovely.”

After a four-year gap, Kidsticks feels like the right way for Orton to refresh her career. It’s not just a triumph for her, but also Hung, whose production is lush, hypnotic, and palliative, showing another side of his skills as a producer. But Orton knows the focus isn’t on her new record, but all of the previous ones. And before she is put to the test of ranking her records, there was one piece of business to take care of. “Do you mind me making a cup of tea?” she asks. “I do find the idea of ranking my records impossible because it is that old classic cliché where you pick one child over the other. My take on it will be purely personal, so I will have to try and rein myself in a little.”


6. Superpinkymandy (1993)

Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Beth Orton:
The reason I don’t want to put it last is because it was someone trying to learn how to write songs. So I have to cut myself some slack there, because there are some pretty good songs on it, like the original “She Cries Your Name.” Why I am putting it last is because I find the production kind of unbearable. No disrespect to William [Orbit]… I mean, that is disrespectful to him because it is his production. What I mean by that is that it was very much his vision. I think for me, Trailer Park was a reaction to that record. I got into making music through William. I learned song structure from him and how to write a song. I already wrote poems and loved music, but it was really through him and I’m incredibly grateful to him for everything he taught me. He gave me a structure to build from and work from, which is something I’ve been doing ever since. I put it at the bottom because it’s just not a record where I had a vision and saw it through. I was learning. So it’s tricky, because why would I judge that?

This album was only released in Japan, correct?
Yeah. You can buy the CD online for about 200 quid, if you want it and have a couple of hundred to spare. I don’t know why it was only released in Japan. It wasn’t a huge success, I suppose. People weren’t interested in it. I can’t say it was an amazing record. I must say I’m glad that it was only released in Japan. The thing for me is it was never music that I wanted to listen to, so I’ve always been a bit queasy about it. That’s why I would rank it as my least favorite, I guess.


5. Daybreaker (2002)

Why is this next?
Because after I made Trailer Park and Central Reservation I made this to fulfill an idea that I thought people required of me. I felt at that point I could hear it in my voice. The songs are good, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d just done two records back to back, and toured those records back to back for five or six years, and I was burnt out. It’s such a cliché, but it’s fucking true. I started and I didn’t stop. I should have taken a break but didn’t, and I hear that in some of the choices I made in how this record sounds. It’s not rooted in any particular sound. There’s something a bit off about it. I don’t think it’s that I didn’t have my integrity, because I did, I just wasn’t ready for something.

I recently heard my daughter playing it upstairs, because she got a record player for Christmas and found it in my collection, and when I heard it I said, “What the hell is that? That must be some demos or B-sides that I did.” But no, it was my fucking record. I was really shocked.

You said once that around this time you fell out of love with your career.
Yeah, I kind of did fall out of love. I got just so tired. I just needed to stop for a bit. I needed a good night’s sleep, a good meal, and a good cup of tea. I think anyone on the road for that long feels dehumanized. It doesn’t matter who you are, you just get a bit loopy. And I experienced such phenomenal success and quite a bit of fame early on, and really out of the blue, and I think it can just affect you. Especially when you’re not grounded in a particular place. I had a vision for what I wanted the record to be and it didn’t end up being that. I just went to a safe place. I did the easiest thing. I didn’t stretch myself. One of the reasons why I’m so happy with the record I’ve just made is because I did stretch myself. I didn’t stay with an instrument I knew and I put myself out there. And I suppose if I look back that is the mistake that I made with Daybreaker.

You once said this album was the third part of a trilogy.
Did I? Maybe, yeah. That’s probably something I said whether it’s true or not. I guess you can see it. It does feel like that.

It’s definitely your Return of the Jedi.
Yeah. I don’t know enough about Star Wars, but maybe it was my Return of the Jedi.


4. Comfort of Strangers (2006)

I would put this there because I was proud of it, and I saw it through, but there was a lot of difficulty making this record. A lot of thwarted visions. I tried some different ways of making it and they got thwarted along the way. There was a version of the record I made with Kieran Hebden, and he really wants to put it out, and it isn’t the same songs either. But we have to finish it. That’s the thing. I just wasn’t ready at the time. He comes from a producer’s mind, and I was coming from a songwriter’s mind. And songwriting wise I didn’t think the songs were strong enough, or the vocals. I’m not being precious about it, they just weren’t. But I think back then I don’t think I was as off-the-cuff as I can be now. I didn’t have the experience, maybe. I need to go back and listen to it because there are a couple of corkers on that. It was a wonderful experience.

This is the thing that I look back on. Throughout my career I’ve made decisions where I go off on a tangent and get caught up in an idea. Like, I went off and tried to make this record with M. Ward, because I thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But that didn’t work. It was a disaster because he’d never produced anyone but himself at that point. And then I met Jim O’Rourke, and I was like, “Oh, fuck yeah!” But what I did there was I made a record that I was just so involved in his vision, and it was beautiful. When I listen back though, there are some things I wish I had done differently. I think the record has a quality, it was quite an interesting decision, and it’s quite contentious to say this out loud, but the choice was made during the mastering left the album sounding beautiful on headphones and nice speakers, but no so much on the everyday car stereo. And that makes me sad some days because what I heard in the studio… I think it just happened in the final minute of the mastering. There were some distant decisions made that I didn’t understand. But in terms of songs, in terms of production, in terms of working with Jim and the band, I was immensely happy with that record.

I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this. I’m just being totally honest. Jim will never speak to me again! But if I had to say anything about this record it’s that I think it’s fucking beautiful. It’s very pure and I loved working with Jim and the band. I guess it’s also tainted because things were just getting worse for me. In my life at that point everything was just going wrong. All of my relationships except for Jim and the band were just falling apart. I guess by then I was just in a bad state myself.


3. Central Reservation (1999)

This is third, but I don’t know why. Something has to go third. I’m being contentious. So I’m putting this here because it has to go somewhere. There is no other reason why. This is for shits and giggles because it really doesn’t mean anything anyway. None of this means anything. It’s just my decision of the day. I’ve decided to make an emotional decision instead of a musical one. Except for the mastering on Comfort of Strangers. I went really deep on that one.

I really love Central Reservation. It was a complete scary adventure to make it. After Trailer Park I felt a lot more pressure, but having said that, I was having a lot more fun in my life. The song “Central Reservation” was written in one go after a beautiful night in Cartagena. I went out and danced and partied and came home and wrote about how I felt. That was the highest I could feel, just that acceptance and love.

You worked with so many great producers on this record too.
I did! Who were they?

Ben Watt, Victor Van Vugt, Spike Stent, and David Roback.
That was when I started mixing it up even more. Ahhh, bless these little records that I make. I actually really just want to make even more now. I feel ready to make more music and not worry about it so much.


2. Trailer Park (1996)

This was my first record where I broke away. I didn’t even know I was going to make another record. I thought my trajectory in music was just making that record with William, which was his vision. And then I went away and put together my own band and got the producers I wanted, like Andrew Weatherall, who is one of my heroes. I made this record that was a blueprint for the music I liked. I tried to make music that I wanted to listen to.

You told the Guardian: “If someone listened to Trailer Park in 1,000 years’ time, what would it tell them about 1996? That I did a lot of Ecstasy.”
Yeah. I did a lot of Ecstasy. [Laughs] I did. That’s good. I think I was just being funny, but that was just London at that time. It was quite a good time. There was a lot of that going on. It was kind of amazing. All of these people wide-eyed and opening up and getting their loving. But no, I don’t really think that record is a result of doing lots of Ecstasy. I think I was just being a smart-arse.

At the time, people called you the “Comedown Queen.” How did you feel about that nickname?
I felt that it was marginalizing. I felt a bit perturbed by it. I was insulted, and, for me, it was difficult for personal reasons. I thought, “No! I don’t want to be that! I want to elevate people. I don’t want to bring people down. Noooo!” It made me a bit nervous. But maybe I shouldn’t have worried too much. It’s kind of a compliment, I guess.

I think it was more that your record was what people would turn on when they were coming down from their high.
And that’s not a bad thing. That’s actually kind of amazing. I think for me any term like that confuses me. And then when the internet started writing about it, I really got confused. I went underground and went deeper and deeper off the radar. I got very affected by opinions and labels.


1. Sugaring Season (2012)

Why is this your favorite?
It was just a beautiful time in my life. I made this record in honor of my husband and my kids, and it was a beautiful moment that happened.

This album took you six years to release. Was there ever a moment where you considered quitting music to just enjoy the life you were living?
Yeah, definitely. Not just because I was having a good time, but because I just thought I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought it was too painful. But then because I was so busy having children and having a life, music came to me without overthinking it. Every record I’ve ever made has been like a sage burning process, but especially Sugaring Season. It was just like this cleansing. It felt like a good thing to do.

Did becoming a mother change the way you write songs?
I think it gives you a greater perspective on everything, so becoming a mother has blown my mind in many ways. I think I have a more rounded view on life. As a writer, that’s always a good thing. My empathy has always been pretty high, but again, I think that’s something that can happen when you get famous, and you get a bit stunted. So parenthood can soften a person. I just find it very inspiring, and the fact that I now have a family is very amazing.

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