Astrally Project Myself Into the Life of Someone Else: An Interview With Beth Orton

Everyone thinks they've pegged Beth Orton. But her sharp turn towards bedroom dance-rock, she's thrown all her fans for a loop -- and she's loving it.
Beth Orton

“It did bug me but I don’t know why exactly,” says Norfolk-born songstress Beth Orton when asked about if the oft-touted tag of “folktronica” ever bugged her when it was used to describe her music. “I always felt like it was slightly demeaning. I always interpreted it as [like] there was something ‘off’ about it. It’s neither here nor there. It didn’t feel respectful somehow and I’m not sure why exactly. I was mixing folk music with electronic music, but I had an amazing band, and I don’t know why [it bugged me], and I’m not sure that I care that much anymore. [I’m] like ‘Yeah, fuck it’ — you know how it is.”

In speaking with Orton, there’s a genuine joy to her voice, a crackle of happiness and an infectious “who gives a damn?” attitude about her that seemingly belies the somewhat stoic image she’s presented over the years. After all, despite much hubbub in her early days as a budding young songbird who worked closely with William Orbit (her 1993 set produced by him Superpinkymandy, remains a rare Japanese-only release), it was her stunning 1996 debut, Trailer Park, that made heads turn, her lush songwriting and distinct voice immediately setting her apart from her contemporaries.

She did work with electronic elements but only sparingly and always tastefully. Her sound was folky, sure, but it was also modern, relatable, and at times downright infections, her use of string arrangements and slide guitars helping craft a sonic that was distinctly her own. She developed her unique voice even further with the release of 1999’s Central Reservation, her second straight masterpiece, and her second in a row to be nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Despite collaborating with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Ryan Adams, Beck, and even rapper Princess Superstar, Orton was always more of a cult artist than a mainstream sensation, which, at the end of the day, is probably how she liked it.

Yet despite cultivating a devout and loyal fanbase, the journey to Kidsticks, her sixth full-length proper, was a long one. Following her lush and underrated 2006 set Comfort of Strangers, Orton ended up taking a six year break between releases, the time between them bookmarked by the birth of her two children and the marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Sam Amidon. The quickly-recorded acoustic comeback Sugaring Season was met with a somewhat muted reception, so fans could be forgiven for being jolted out of their expectations with the release of Kidsticks lead single “Moon”, which showed Orton going full-on into a bass-driven, bedroom-techno sound that, even with Superpinkymandy considered, sounded absolutely nothing like anything she’s ever recorded before.

“I have theories about it,” Orton teases when asked about the long wait between Comfort of Strangers and 2012’s Sugaring Season. “Many things. I think that for me, in a strange way, having kids has inspired me to write more, to care less about the things that don’t matter. And in that way, it’s made me less precious, possibly. I think also, for my sanity, I need to create. More than I ever did. I have to. I’ll say another thing: you know, it focuses me. It means I’m not going out dancing, I’m not going out partying, I have no desire to, actually! But also I have no time to. When they’re gone and out of the house, I use my time wisely. Possibly it’s that.”

Yet for an album so playfully titled Kidsticks, sure there are some fans that, upon hearing “Moon” or even single “1976” may have deliberate echoes to her collaborations with William Orbit or the Chemical Brothers. As it so happens, PopMatters caught her on a day when she had company.

“It’s very funny, because right now we’ve got a friend here and I’m having lunch with him and it’s someone who worked in the studios with William [Orbit] back in the day, like when I was there at Guerilla [Records]. We were just reminiscing about all the people that worked there and all the things that happened and the records we made. I’ve always seen Superpinkymandy more as William’s vision, and working with him when I first started as a writer [and] singer, it was always kind of his vision.

The way I found out I could write songs was through him, and I never really thought that it was ‘mine,’ and I think that when I went on to make Trailer Park, it sort of spurred me on to kind of be the master of my own shit, if you know what I mean. So from there, I wrote but I always made sure the core of it was real and recorded live and it mattered to me that I should be a ‘proper singer.’

“I think there’s a spirit of that in Trailer Park,” she continues, “and Trailer Park maybe for me has more ties to this, but I think that what you mean for Superpinkymandy — I don’t give that record enough listens; I never listen to it. I never listen to any of my music. I see you drawing parallels there. I think [Kidsticks is] better than that record, I don’t mean to be mean, but I think one thing about this (and I think Trailer and possibly that record to) is that I was writing as a beginner, I was writing from a beginner’s mind.

I think that what happened with Kidsticks is that I played keyboards, I played synths for the first time and I’ve never done that before. It meant that I was writing from scratch again, that I was using an instrument that I didn’t know.”

After moving her family to Los Angeles, what was intended to be a stay of just a few months soon turned into a near-permanent relocation, Orton eventually working with Fuck Buttons’ Andrew Hung, who helped developed Kidsticks‘ sound and co-produced the record with her. Her note about learning a new instrument for the first time, however, evoked memories from the press around Comfort of Strangers, a record that opens with the piano bounce of the song “Worms”, which Orton at the time noted was the first song she ever wrote on piano. Surely a parallel can be drawn between her learning pianos then and her learning synths now, right?

“That’s piano, not synth!” she exclaims. “What you hear on Kidsticks is me playing those parts, those kid-like parts. Here’s what happened that I’ve never been able to do: I started to hear things and I was like ‘I want to hear that over this!’ And I was able to play the kind of melodic part over what I’ve already played and I’ve never been able to do that on guitar. I’ve always had to pull in ‘the guys,’ ya know: ‘[adopts a comical lower-tone voice] C’mon, look. This is my guitar part. Can you make somethin’ …?’ And this time I was here able to play it myself which was incredibly exciting.”

As he later went on to describe, however, the process wasn’t always smooth, with a lot of experimentation and cutting a lot of “precious darlings” having to be done in order to winnow down the album into a shape she was comfortable with.

“There were 20 kind of loops, and there were 20 four-bar loops, and I started to just write to them, and I’d loop them up into longer [forms] round and round and round, and for eight months I wrote to these very simple, linear tracks. It was just … whatever stuck. So I think by process of elimination: at a certain point, I got frustrated, and there was one where I had just bits of a track and it didn’t end up making the record. It’s the one Andy and I worked on hardest together, and we sent it back and forth so many times, but it lost its flair.

I think ‘Snow’ is definitely a key song for me. I love that track. For me, there were sort of three or four really pivotal moments where I [had] to go with Andy. I reached my limit of being able to bare the same thing over and over again, and then Shahzad Ismaily came to my house (he’s a friend of my husband’s) and I was like ‘Can you just put some bass down on this?’ and he put some bass on that track ‘Moon’ and it was just kind of like ‘Oh fuck.’ It’s that bassline you hear coming right in at the beginning. Then he also put bass on ‘Snow’ which completely blew me away, although that’s not the bass we used at the end.

“Jake Aaron is an engineer,” she continues, “[and] I went in with him and Guillermo Brown and they sort of did some drum-and-bass situations, which lead to me meeting Chris Taylor and that was another pivotal moment. When he put the bass on ‘Snow’ and then also did the backing vocals. It was a process of elimination: I did it with [Chris] and I did it on my own too, like for example on ‘Flesh and Blood’ that extremely long ending it’s just — I love that bassline so much, and it just got so dubby and I wish in a way it was more dubby but it’s OK, that’s another mix story and something to do live.

There are so many things that if I could’ve done more I would’ve done more but I only had so much. I’ve never put my name to a production on one of my records before, and that was not a priority [at the time], and it did feel sometimes like I wish I did some things better or tidied a lyric up, but that’s another story as well: I’m veering off again.”

Indeed, throughout our conversation, Orton veered all over the place with cheerful abandon, recalling a joke she once told when she was touring Daybreaker in the US all those years ago (“‘Why do penguins walk softly? ‘cos they can’t walk hardly’ — it’s a really stupid joke.”) to the feeling of vulnerability she felt after moving to California (“Moving? A new community? You’re stripped back to your barest bones, and there’s actually quite a lot of vulnerability in that as well. I don’t know. Losing any sense of concern, caring a lot less but caring a lot more at the same time. It’s funny.”).

This sense of wonderment is reflected in Kidsticks‘ lyrics, which rely heavily on nature imagery but mixed with a little bit of surrealism for good measure (“My tears roll up and cry for you” she coos in the aggressive “Petals”).

Yet Kidsticks, if anything, is a sharp break for Orton and something that could very well be indicative of what the rest of her career would be like, where she is more than ever in control of her own vision and she trusts that vision more than ever before. When asked about looking back on her career and naming both her biggest regret and her proudest accomplishment, she goes straight for what she feels:

“I am most proud of being a mother. I must say. I didn’t have any expectations about it, and I’m sorry to be a bore but I fucking love it. That’s a pretty big deal for me, and being a good mother is something I take a lot of pride in I suppose. My disappointment and my regrets I sort of keep to myself ‘cos I just genuinely feel that when you amplify these things, they echo back at you. I have my own regrets, but they are what they are and they’re alright. And regrets I just try and learn from, really.”

Thankfully with Kidsticks, she has nothing to regret in the least: although the change of sonic venue may shock or jolt some fans out of complacency, it feels like Orton is being her true, honest self, inviting people into a new aural realm that she isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.