IT TAKES A PRISM Beth Orton

Pour a little sugar on
her: the British folk/jazz chanteuse returns after a six-year layoff.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Norwich,
England’s Beth
Orton has been the queen of wispy folk-tronica for so long that you almost
didn’t realize that she wasn’t there for a minute. The softly shredding Brit,
famed first for her work with electro producing boys William Orbit and the
Chemical Brothers, was so much a part of our steady musical diet – between
1996’s Trailer Park to 2006’s Comfort of Strangers – that her break
went without much notice, as if she paused between breaths in a sentence. Her
first release in several seasons, this autumn’s Sugaring Season, felt like just that: a freeing gentle gasp.

 

That’s not because Orton’s tensely coiled words and open air
arrangements aren’t noticed or noticeable. And that’s not to say she wasn’t
missed, even if she didn’t much miss the music business.

 

“At least not the interview process,” teases Orton during
our transatlantic chat. Instead, her tender web-spun voice, her deep
bass-driven tones, and her sense of domestic lyrical turmoil are so
conversational we thought that she was simply clearing her throat.

 

Why she took time away from recording and touring has no
simple answering according to Orton, a lively chatter who jumps at every chance
to plumb her depths and to laugh at
every step. “It’s a very deep question if you think about – why didn’t I make
music for some time,” she say.

 

There’s a daughter named Nancy, a son named Arthur and a
husband in folk musician/singer Sam Amidon, to start. She wrote fewer songs
with those responsibilities.

“I just kept
putting it off if you want to know the truth,” she says matter-of-factly. “I do
feel as if the time away was useful, though I couldn’t truly tell you why,” she
laughs. “I did have a record deal in place (with Anti-) for a while now so I
actually could have made a record two years ago. I guess I just didn’t want
to.”

 

She used to want to. A lot.

 

Her initial rush of success well pleased Orton, Not because
she got cold hard cash for her klatch of trip-hop induced songs pushed along by
a voice so ethereal angels cried when they heard her. It’s because she wanted
to break through; she wanted to dazzle people quietly. “I remember the
experience of being heard with Trailer
Park
and that’s what was most extraaaaaaaaordinarrrry.” she jokes. “That so
many people could be so unquestioningly interested in what I’d done and might
have to say that it was mesmerizing. It was as if I could take the piss and
everyone was fine with it.”

Other than making the music and knowing how audiences appreciated Trailer Park, its stripped down jazzy
followup Central Reservation and her
somber Daybreaker, she doesn’t recall
much more about the rushed-by decade than the music itself. Her life story has,
in her mind, become dislodged with countless versions of that time at career’s
start flying at her like glow sticks at a rave. “A lot of that part of my life
has become a blur and I don’t have my story down pat enough even if some people
in the press seem to,” she giggles. “There are so many different perspectives
that I haven’t settled on one good one. But I do enjoy that I’m open to
interpretation.”

 

While discussing the idea of interpretation, your humble
narrator gives Orton his view of her lyrical style, one that slips through
reality and dream, fact and fiction, with lots of breast beating soulful
moments of personal exposition – but not too breast beaten. It’s true of her
past stanzas. It’s true of Sugaring
Season
. At first she’s not too keen on my take that her lyrical mien is a
mess mixed up in one bowl and served up elegantly.

 

“My gut reaction is to disagree,” she sighs dramatically.
“But on the other hand,” she announces, “it’s a viable option
especially when you consider that writing this new record has been like being
in a prism – that’s a P R I S M and not a P R I S O N – in that there’s so many
angles through which I’ve looked at things.” What Orton always wants to do is
find the truth. Yet what she has found throughout the last many years is that
there is never only one truth. “It would be so much nicer if it was that but it
isn’t that, is that? Then again, I quite enjoy exploring things from different
sides. I did it with my life and my children – why not with songs?”

 

Writing songs for Sugaring
Season
was like a slow spinning of that prism while sorting out her
subjects and sharpening each angle. Willing to accept
other people’s angles with pleasure, she says that she’s found herself immersed
in the business of her last two producers, Jim O’Rourke (of Sonic Youth fame)
who handled 2006’s Comfort of Strangers and Sugaring Season‘s Tucker Martine,
the one-time producer of The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, and Laura Veirs.

 

“The biggest challenge was finding how to do the thing I
love and move onward,” says Orton. “Anyone who would help me do that was OK by
me.” With immersion a two way street, she thought highly of O’Rourke’s
everything-done-in-two-weeks take on the album making process. “Writing,
recording, mixing, no overdubbing; he’s a bit of a genius, Jim is.” As for
Martine, Orton calls him a different beast than O’Rourke, talented and
immediate but more interested in beauty of the music than the process of the
heated rush. For Sugaring Season‘s
jazz folksy feel she imaged the sound of Roberta Flack and Pentangle’s earliest
albums in her head and went from there. Having jazz-bos like guitarist Marc
Ribot and drummer Brian Blade made the jazz side easier without ghettoizing the
process to a skiddlee-bop drop dead jam. String arranging maximum minimalist
Nico Muhly and viola player Eyvind Kang brought a classical gas to the Sugaring proceedings. But it was a song that Orton had brought in on an acoustic
guitar demo that co-composer M. Ward added a piano break to that made
“Something More Beautiful” as epically soulful as any later period Aretha
Franklin-at-Atlantic song could be.

 

“The whole record really was about serendipity in that you
weren’t exactly certain as to what would happen next,” says Orton. “Most of the
songs had been gestating for several years, two and three at best. But
“Something More Beautiful” was even older.” For the most part, save for the
interaction of this new crew of musicians, her slate of Season songs hadn’t changed much from their first versions. Neither
did “Something More Beautiful” until she played the track for a friend. “‘Come
on with that,’ my friend said. ‘That song screams for some soul,'” laughs Orton,
who then built “Something More Beautiful” up with the band in the studio and
snagged from. M. Ward a simple piano bit that made all the difference.

 

“I dangled the bait and they drove it home,” says Orton.
“That’s why it’s so important to have feedback, encouragement and
interpretation.” She stops when she says that last word, considering what we’d
discussed earlier.

 

“Oh yeah… interpretation.” 

 

 

 

Beth Orton will be
touring Europe and the UK
throughout November and December. View tour dates here.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Jo Metson Scott]

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