It has taken Beth Orton six years to regain her faith in her songs and to feel the need to record an album again. The result is “Sugaring Season”, a soothing folk album. In this interview, she gives us more details about her personal process of purification.
To talk to Beth Orton about her first album in six years, the bare (and very folky, increasingly so) “Sugaring Season”, the first for ANTI-, the first truly American one (recorded in Portland, Oregon, under the orders of Tucker Martine), is to talk about her children, sleepless nights, and her new creative driving force. When you are a single mother, says Orton, you don’t have time for anything. But now that she’s married (and to Sam Amidon, no less) and her family is bigger (she has two children), she has started to get used to the new state of affairs, one which she says has given her a new creative energy. As thin as usual, with her hair slightly longer and decidedly blonder, with a scarf around her neck and a green t-shirt, the person responsible for the huge “Central Reservation” (the album that kicked off her popular career, exactly 13 years ago) meets us in the lobby of her hotel, willing to speak to us about how she made her barest album to date, which is also the most anxiously-awaited.
"I have a deep respect for the folk tradition, I am more interested in sounding this way, and exploring other fields, like soul, jazz, but related to the acoustic"
After six years of silence, you have reappeared with an album that is not only barer than any of your others, but which is also backed by a new band, including musicians as prestigious as jazz drummer Brian Blade. What was the recording of the album like? What did Blade, Sam Amidon, Laura Veirs and M. Ward contribute to your sound?
It was all Tucker [the producer]’s idea. He got them all to come and simply start to play. Most of the songs are first takes. And it was the first time that we played them together. I don’t know, from the beginning there was this amazing chemistry. I couldn’t believe that I had that kind of chemistry with somebody as huge as Brian Blade, for example. The man is amazing! At first we spent three days together. Then they came back and we spent about nine more days. And the album was ready. Which just goes to show that Tucker knew what he was doing from the beginning.
So the recording was really fast, but what about the composition? When did you compose the songs on the album?
Well, I went into the studio with 20 songs. And the album only has ten. So basically what I did was discard songs once I got there. How did I do it? Well, by letting myself go. Songs are like photographs that you take when you go on a trip. Some represent the trip and others don’t. I felt that these ten were the ones that represented my journey over the last six years, which is the same thing as saying that they represented my life during these six years. I felt that they made up the story that I wanted to tell. When you are a single mother, you don’t have time for anything, and for writing either, so the songs were written over fairly long periods of time. I dropped them and then later came back to them. But what happened when I came back was that the idea was something else and I was someone else, too. That’s why I had to give them their final form in the studio, before recording them, so that they would make sense as a whole.
Now that you mention motherhood, how have your children changed the way that you work and how have they enriched your work?
They have changed it a lot, and at the same time they have enriched it as well. In the first place, because of the lack of time. Your life, which is already compartmentalised in itself, becomes even more limited. This limitation is there, on a practical level, and it creates a tension that also gives you extra creative inspiration. That tension has creative possibilities, a lot of them. In fact, the title of the album, “Sugaring Season”, has to do with that. It’s like finding the ideal temperature, the halfway point between your cold nights and your extremely hot days. Between the sweetness and the hardness of the moment, together, a sort of chemical reaction takes place that gives a new direction to everything that you do.
It’s surprising that the album was recorded in Portland - are you living there now?
No. I still live in London. But America has always been good to me. My albums have always been understood very well there. I have a lot of fans. And my new record company is there now, too. That’s the reason why we recorded it there. That and Tucker Martine, the producer.
How did Tucker Martine end up producing “Sugaring Season”?
The truth is that it was through Sam (Amidon), my husband. He did a concert with Laura Veirs in London, and Laura Veirs is Tucker’s wife, and we met and he started telling me that he liked my music a lot and that maybe we should try playing together, because he could produce me if I had an album in mind, that sort of thing. And the truth is that we were playing and I liked how it sounded. There was a good connection from the beginning. And the day came that I told myself: ‘All right, why not? Let’s do it, let’s record an album’. And I flew to Portland.
"When I want to have a good time with my daughter, I propose that we write a song together"
Tell us about the cover; it has a classic touch, sort of Marianne Faithfull...
Well the truth is that it’s pure coincidence. Until about two days ago, there was another cover, but I wasn’t sure about it and I was looking for artists everywhere, until I found a photographer who lived five minutes away from my house. I showed up there, I told him what I wanted; he showed me a couple of ideas, and in less than two hours, we had finished the photo session those photos came from. I remember that it was getting dark and the time and the place, everything, was perfect.
For a long time, your sound was related to the fusion of folk and electronica, a sound that you have gradually left behind, paring down your songs more and more. Is this a one-way journey? Will Beth Orton always sound so bare from now on?
I have a deep respect for the folk tradition, and right now, yes, I am more interested in sounding this way, in playing my guitar and exploring other fields, like soul, jazz, but related to the acoustic. It’s true that for a long time I was very involved in the fusion of folk and electronica, but right now I’m not. I do still do things with Tom Rowland (like in the case of this album, “Call Me The Breeze”), but they sound different.
To what extent is music always present in your life? How do you separate work from pleasure? Do you listen to music when you are at home relaxing?
That’s a very interesting question, because for me there is no boundary. I am always listening to music. I listen to music for fun. When I want to have a good time with my daughter, I propose that we write a song together. I don’t know how to differentiate. I’m always exploring new ideas. In that sense, all of my free time is a field for research that I never stop enjoying.