She’s won a BRIT Award, worked with everyone from William Orbit to Emmylou Harris and seen her marriages of acoustic troubadour intimacy and downbeat dance bequeath a whole new genre, ‘folktronica’. With her 1996 Trailer Park debut due for re-release, Beth Orton takes a glance over her back pages and looks forward to some bold new musical challenges. There’s still no thrill to compare with penning a great song, she tells David Sheppard.
On an unseasonably mild February morning, Beth Orton is full of the joys of spring. She skips around her airy Islington apartment in jeans and baseball t-shirt, looking more like a carefree, willowy teenager than a 38-year-old music biz veteran. She makes tea and apologises for the clutter of children’s toys and books that are the only evidence of her two year-old daughter Nancy — a major contributor to her mum’s current sanguine mood. Another is a renewed enthusiasm for music-making, something which has been on the back burner during two years of full-time, solo child-rearing.
It’s an enthusiasm that’s arisen only after a considerable measure of soul searching, however. Initially, Orton admits, revisiting Trailer Park thirteen years on had a sobering effect: “When you begin to reissue records it does sort of beg the question, ‘is it all over?’ You start to think maybe it’s time to do something new; maybe I won’t make music anymore. . . When they asked me about re-releasing the album it really made me think long and hard — you have a lot of time for that when you’re breast-feeding! I used to talk about this subject with [American avant-garde record maker and producer of Orton’s 2006 Comfort of Strangers album] Jim O’Rourke. He said he wouldn’t be making a new album until he had something to say; I know what he meant. It was like, ‘do I really need to make a record?'”
Clearly, it wasn’t a thought that detained her for long. Orton’s sea green eyes widen with palpable excitement as she reveals sketchy details of two new recording projects which are about to be embarked upon simultaneously. One is an experimental, guitar-free collaboration with an apparently stellar artist whose name she’s loathe to divulge (“For the moment, I’d rather get on with it than talk about it,” she says, apologetically), the other she imagines as a very minimal, Roberta Flack-inspired record which may involve just Orton and a bass player.
In a sense, juggling two such apparently disparate approaches was what set Beth Orton aside when she first appeared on the musical radar back in the mid-’90s. Remarkably, a UK music scene still in thrall to all things Britpop found an accommodation for a gangly Norfolk lass with a tremulous folk voice and an equal appetite for yearning acoustic balladry and electronic dance music. When this writer reviewed Trailer Park back in the autumn of ’96, I concluded that it was a winning, if somewhat schizophrenic record; its bold-as-brass conflation of string-laden folk arrangements and shimmering ambiences a then totally novel confection. Latterly, of course, such ‘folktronic’ hybrids have become almost commonplace, with laptop and acoustic guitar now common bedfellows and artists like Goldfrapp and Tunng effectively elaborating on what Trailer Park set in motion. “I never made a conscious decision to say, ‘right, I’m gonna fuck with everyone’s heads by mixing folk with dance . . .'”, says Orton, reflecting on her debut album’s inception. “It was my decision to use [co-producer] Andrew Weatherall, basically because I loved [the Weatherall produced, 1989 Primal Scream album] Screamadelica. Andrew came to see me play and said he was interested in producing the record. I’d already got [Nick Cave knob-twiddler] Victor van Vught involved by then, so I thought, ‘I know, we’ll record it and Andrew can mix it – it’ll be amazing!’ I thought it was a no-brainer, but I wasn’t trying to do something revolutionary or anything!”
Blithely messing with established musical formulae would prove far from straightforward, however. For a while even Orton doubted she could pull-off the dualistic approach. “My band was brilliant and so dedicated to the record that as we went on it seemed less relevant to have someone come in and remix the whole thing.” Eventually, artistic courage would rule the day, however. “There were these three songs that I thought weren’t working, so I said ‘back off everyone, let’s see what Andrew Weatherall can do with these.‘ I suppose that was quite brave, actually, because I was incredibly loyal to my band — and I’m a huge people pleaser in other ways — so it was quite a thing for me to make a stand. I think that had quite big repercussions for me, in fact. It was a question of integrity, ultimately, and really made me think about what I wanted from my music. More than anything I felt sure that working with Andrew on those songs would result in something really beautiful.”
By 1996, bold stylistic eclecticism had become second nature to Beth Orton who had, after a short dalliance with acting, all but fallen into miscellaneous singing work with the likes of William Orbit (a onetime boyfriend and producer of a clandestine, bona fide debut album, 1993’s all-electronic Superpinkymandy, only ever released in Japan), superstar DJs-elect the Chemical Brothers and jazzy instrumentalists Red Snapper. Her earlier musical roots were an equal mash-up of curious bedfellows, she reveals. “When I was little my aunt Anne used to sing folk around the kitchen table. I and my brother used to die of embarrassment. Of course, I would have loved it now. Also, my mum worked at the Norwich Arts Centre when I was about 8 — all the folk dudes like Bert Jansch would come through there. That was my life! It was an amazing time. I went there to have a violin lesson age seven and when I came out my mum had fallen in love with the art director at the place and became a bit of a hippy, really. I loved it. I had all these late nights with her watching blues, folk, jazz, alternative comedians… Then my mum’s best mate married this Scottish folk singer, Dougie Maclean — we had his first three albums on constantly. But I’d also go out dancing. From the age of twelve I used to go to this place called the Black Angel where they played dub and reggae and Motown. I used to save up all my week’s dinner money and go there on a Friday night and dance my little head off.”
Orton’s solo career proper began when she came under the auspices of Jeff Barrett and Martin Kelly, of the fledgling Heavenly Records. That the world of Heavenly — then a watchword for streetwise hedonism and cult rock reverence — should embrace a greenhorn East Anglian folky was as unlikely as it was significant for Beth Orton’s incipient career. If nothing else, Barrett proved to be an indispensable songwriting mentor, helping to broaden her palette of influences. “I owe Jeff Barrett and Heavenly so much”, she admits with a sigh of un-dented gratitude. “The belief they had in me when I was starting was incredible. I remember being round at Jeff’s house, I think we were a bit pissed. It was late afternoon, the light was going down and he put on the song ‘Stony End’ by Laura Nyro and I just fucking cried! I was really embarrassed ‘cos it was meant to be a cool, groovy meeting and I just burst into tears, going ‘oh my god, that’s just so fucking beautiful and so incredibly sad!’ Jeff was lovely about it, he wasn’t embarrassed at all, he just loved that I’d reacted to it. That was the beginning of an incredible relationship.”
Barrett and Heavenly would help usher Orton’s career from London pub backrooms through three big-selling, award-winning albums and onto the global stage (although by 2006 and the release of Orton’s last album —on EMI, with no mention of Heavenly — the relationship seemed to have run its course). Without Heavenly, it’s fair to assume, we might never have heard of Beth Orton. “My world was chaos at the time,” she recalls of those pre-Trailer Park days. “I had this horrible boyfriend and this horrible life outside; it was like bombs going off, war… So I used to go to Jeff’s, take an E, sit back on his couch and escape into this music. Jeff was very particular. It was the songs he chose, like Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’, or Joni Mitchell’s ‘I Could Drink A Case Of You’; it would all take on a different meaning sitting with him. He was like the one teacher at school who changes your life. Jeff’s passion for music was like elixir to me. I drank it up.”
Mixing it with the hard-partying, musically savvy Heavenly crew had its drawbacks, however – saddling her for a while with the discouraging soubriquet ‘The Comedown Queen’. “I hated that,” she admits. “I hate being put in a box and people telling me what kind of person I am. It happened because someone at Heavenly said they all listened to things like Carole King when they were coming down off drugs or something, and that my music was also good for that. I prefer to disregard those kinds of preconceptions. I always loathe it when someone is obviously judging me.”
Always, by her own admission, a sensitive, unconfident presence in music’s blustering boys’ club (“I do quite like how I’ve turned out now but it’s taken me a long time to say that”, she reflects. “I have confidence in getting up on stage — I’m a big fat show-off— but insecurity has always been there in my music…”), Orton clung to her songwriting as a shield and a rock. “Writing songs was my one area of defiance — ‘this is mine, this is where I’m happy and in control…'” Despite the dance quotient, an essentially orthodox approach to songwriting has always been at the core of Orton’s work, even though, she admits, it can be a capricious business. “Songwriting is a relationship, it ebbs and flows, but I really love singing and I really love singing and I really love to find a melody and I really love to find words. I know no greater sense of happiness than when it all fits together.”
Orton’s “defiance” in embracing folk music at a time when the form was arguably at its least fashionable would have a subsequent trickle-down effect. If nothing else, she anticipated the post-millennial beards and dulcimers boom by a good half-decade and, if pushed, she will admit to a certain pride in her part in the re-invigoration of folk music. “I feel like I planted a seed back in 1996. I know it sounds a bit arrogant. I think what I did broke something apart; it did take folk music into a new realm. I mean, there’s this whole history of traditional British music that we were almost ashamed of at the time. In America they never had any problem celebrating their own roots, but here, in the mid-‘9os, folk was a just a horrible embarrassment. So, to kind of bring all that together with people like Andrew Weatherall and so on, I think really did have a positive impact.”
Orton is surely right to see her implicit influence on the latest wave of folk-based artists, many of whom she admires unashamedly. “I do think that Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and so on have done it really well. I love Joanna Newsom. I look at her and I sometimes wish I’d been her when I was growing up. Rather than aspiring to be her, if I could ‘regress’ to be anyone, it would be her. I know she’s been very encouraged creatively from a young age in terms of free expression, art and a generally nurturing, creative environment. I had a bit of that at the Art Centre and everything, but my experience was much more about fighting the ingrained British distaste for putting your head over the parapet. You look at Joanna and you think, wow, look at how beautiful a person can grow when they’re given the right stimulus.”
Observing a successive generation of musicians has helped Orton redefine her own approach to songwriting and especially recording. The Ian McEwan-referencing The Comfort of Strangers album saw her finally eschewing overt electronics in favour of a pared back, acoustic-based sound and the subtle production timbres of Jim O’Rourke. “I feel I’ve stripped away all the pretence”, she reflects. “It’s been a two-year process and working with Jim O’Rourke was part of it. Having a baby right in the middle wasn’t exactly great timing, mind; I had to surrender to that. The enforced hiatus from the studio seems to have recharged her batteries however. “Last year I wrote one song that I’m really happy with and I’ve got the sketches of a few other things that I’m really excited about working on. From tomorrow I’ve booked out a studio for the next two months an, I’m going to see what I have to say; see what comes out…”
As we finish our conversation a nanny appears clutching a smiley Nancy — the cue for some unabashed maternal billing and cooing. And with a mother’s compassion that she takes one final backwards glance at Trailer Park. “After I had a baby I went to live back in Norfolk for a while and this idea of re-releasing the album came up, so I was driving around a lot, listening to it. I realised it was the first time I’d listened to it properly since I’d made it! Probably before I would have just been aggravated by all the flaws, but now I could listen to it like a mother would to a child’s piece of work — ‘oh bless her, listen to that; ain’t she sweet…!’ All I could hear was somebody being incredibly honest and truthful to themselves. It’s such an earnest piece of work, it’s all heart!”
The double-CD Legacy version of Trailer Park is released by Arista on March 10th