When I first became obsessed with British singer Beth Orton’s first album Trailer Park (1996), her combination of folk and electronic beats so completely infected my being to the point where it felt like a shocking change in the atmosphere around me. The clouds rolled in and made things a bit darker, while at the same time, my heart soared because I’d rarely heard a signer be so vulnerable and intimate—she wasn’t just singing about emotional torment, she was actively going through it as she was singing. It was like Method singing, and she continued the trend with 1999’s Central Reservation, 2002’s Daybreaker, and 2006’s Comfort of Strangers. Over the course of her career, she’s collaborated with everyone from The Chemical Brothers and William Orbit to Nick Cave.
She took a multi-year break to start her family, get married, and deal with health issues, and has since released several more records, including her latest work, Weather Alive, which finds her in her in full piano-heavy, storyteller mode but still finding ways to soulfully dig into the depths of whatever emotion she’s calling to the forefront. On Thursday, November 10, Orton returns to Chicago to play a show at the Irish American Heritage Center (as part of her first tour since 2018 and her first Chicago concert since 2016). I had a chance to chat with her via Zoom recently to discuss the new album, her approach to what feels like deeply personal songwriting, and getting back in front of live audiences once again. Enjoy our talk…
Third Coast Review: Hello.
Beth Orton: Hi, how are you?
3CR: Good. [Noticing that her video isn’t on during this Zoom call] Am I not going to get to see you?
BO: I look like shit, you don’t want to see me.
3CR: That cool. How are you?
3CR: I read a fairly lengthy recent piece about some of the mental and physical challenges and impediments that you had to overcome to get this record made. Are you the kind of person who thrives somewhat when restrictions are placed on you? What were some of the ones that most informed this particular record?
BO: I think with this record, I was given a number of challenges [laughs] where I kept finding myself in a bit of a corner. Someone said this things to me the other day, a quote I said which I remember and know is true, which is that I try to live each moment like it’s the last and I try and make the most of everything, and that’s true but it can also really burn you out if you live by that kind of logic and aren’t careful. But in some ways this time around, in a good way, I said I’m not going to push, and I kept yielding and yielding in a good way and being kind to myself. The thing with these songs is, I so enjoyed writing them and the process of writing them. It gave me so much pleasure to sit at the piano day after day. My kids were finally back at school, and I could dig back into what I love. I love my kids, but it’s two different loves, two different types of creativity, one feeds the other. When they were little, I felt kind of guilty going into such an internal space, but when they got on a bit, I could dig back in and I did. I really needed to make music, even though I wasn’t sure who I was making music for anymore, other than for myself. Therefore, that gave me a real freedom.
3CR: As you alluded to, this [Weather Alive] is more of a piano-based record. What does the piano allow you to do that maybe just a guitar didn’t before?
BO: It allowed me to go back to the idea of not trying to be a good musician necessarily but just try to enjoy and play. There’s a greater freedom melodically for me on piano. I could go to places that weren’t the same old, same old, if you know what I mean. Before I was like “I’ve heard that melody.” I could explore a different palette.
3CR: It’s funny you say that because one of the joys of following you from the very beginning is that just when you’re in danger of being a labeled a certain type of artist, you switch things up. Is variety very important to you, and were there certain musical ideas you wanted to explore on this record?
BO: That’s not a contrivance. I wouldn’t sit there and make that decision. But you hear a turn of phrase; it’s a very subtle thing that someone else might not hear it. I’ve never gone in and said “I’m going to make this sort of record.” But at the same time, when I thought I was going to work with a certain producer, it was going to go in a certain direction, and I was signed to a label. Then the pandemic hit and we couldn’t do it, and we both lovingly walked away from it, and that was fine. And at about the same time, [producer] Andrew Weatherall, who I worked with on Trailer Park, died, and maybe this answers your question. I was remembering what it was like to work with him and how it felt and what he brought to the songs and what it was that was so meaningful.
I was devastated that we wouldn’t be able to complete what we started, but when did I think we were going to do that? I wasn’t interested in re-creating what he could do, but I knew that he allowed for a certain space and gravitas to the songs I was writing. There was a way of exploring that had an expansiveness and an intimacy at the same time. And I wondered, “What does that feel like?” Then I started to think about what feels good. The other day, I went on this walk and got to the top of the mountain where the light just changed and suddenly the sun came out and the tree fired up, and I was like “Yeah that’s what this record is, like writing to feelings, something sensory. The light felt like this, and that makes me want to write like that.”
3CR: There’s much more of a storytelling vibe to this album, it’s easier to conjure images listening to these songs. Were you aware of that as you were recording?
BO: It’s funny, at one point, I started thinking that maybe I should write for other people. Also, I did this once monthly training with the National Theatre in London, where we were workshopping, and you get partnered up for a day with a playwright, and they kept saying “You’re not literal enough.” I was like “What does that mean?” That possibly sparked something, but the songs that hearing that sparked aren’t on this record, so it’s not an exact science. I’ll also say that because these songs weren’t for anyone except me, there was a part of me that said “What about your life?’ I was experiencing a moment of reflection and going back through my life and saying “Wow, that really did happen, and I really am still alive. What happened?”
3CR: Your records can get rather dark at time. Was there ever a time when that darkness scared you, or did you always embrace your inner goth?
BO: [laughs] No no, I think some of that is teenage experimentation, but I wasn’t a teenager, I was a full-grown woman [laughs], so what can I say? Sometimes what people have said is dark, for me, it’s like “Well that’s what happens. That’s the truth. That’s me being honest about my experience.” The darkness is something to go through in order to find the light. It might be a trite thing to say, but for me, I need a level of emotional honesty to move through stuff.
3CR: You make it sound like therapy.
BO: And yet I don’t think writing songs is therapy. There’s too much of the craft involved. I’m not going through therapy, but I’m not afraid of putting those lines in here and there. There are some lines I have battled with where I think it’s appropriate to put them in there. “Is that helpful to anyone?”
3CR: I’ve noticed with anyone who writes songs that feel intimate and personal, that opens to door for fans or journalists like me to ask you really personal questions. I can’t think of too many occupations where the end result of your work is opening yourself up to such an extent where it’s okay for people to do that. You seem pretty easygoing with it, but is it also weird?
BO: They can ask them, but I won’t necessarily answer. And the music isn’t necessarily intimate in the way they think it might be. Maybe people will think that it’s my story, but it possibly just their projection. Sometimes they’re spot on. But songs are such a process that intimacy is an atmosphere, and this record has a very intimate atmosphere. There are some definitely home truths in there, but I’m a songwriter; it’s not me going through a diary and putting it all out there. But yes, you do get asked a lot of questions, and you’re a bit like “Really?” When you’re a woman, you get asked questions like that more than man, I think.
3CR: William Orbit’s new album just came out as well, and you have a couple of contributions on that. How long ago did you record those songs with him?
BO: [laughs] They were actually done about 20 years ago, and I actually don’t even remember doing them.
3CR: Because we’re doing this interview just before you return to play in Chicago, what do like about going out on the road, which I’m guessing you haven’t done for a while, and playing these new songs live?
BO: I’ve only just played in the UK and Scotland, so that was beautiful and very touching to play these songs live. I wrote some songs that have been meaningful to people, in terms of their experience over the last few years, not deliberately but by living it myself. I’ve gotten to put some of that feeling to music, and it’s been this really beautiful experience of going out and having people really listening and giving it a real sense of communion. It’s been beautiful. I have no expectations, but that it continues.
3CR: You said earlier that when you write a new bunch of songs, you don’t set out to do something specific. But with this particular group of songs, since they were written in these pandemic times, do they feel like something very specific to the last couple of years?
BO: I actually started them before the pandemic, and then then the record came together during that time. So yeah, I think it’s definitely imprinted onto the music, and I think that’s a good thing. You want your art to reflect the times and be timeless at the same time, so we’ll see [laughs}
3CR: Beth, thank you so much. I’m very much looking forward to the show here. Best of luck.
BO: You too. Thank you, bye.