An Interview with Beth Orton
by Alexander Laurence
Orton is a six-foot singer/songwriter from Norfolk. She
has done two previous albums, Trailer Park (1996)
and Central Reservation (1999), both of which received
much critical acclaim. In '96 she scored her first Top 40
single with "She Cries Your Name," and did a sell-out
tour of the UK to celebrate a Mercury Music Prize nomination
for Album of the Year. Her follow-up Central Reservation
made her an indie favorite in the US.
It's been three years in the wait for the new Astralwerks
album Daybreaker. In the meantime Beth has done some
DJing and appearered as a guest vocalist on several projects.
The past five years have been fruitful for Beth. She recorded
with a personal hero, folk-jazz legend Terry Callier, worked
with the Chemical Brothers on Dig Your Own Hole,
toured America with Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris as part
of the Lilith Fair, and performed in a packed-out tent to
a crowd of 10,000 muddy Glastonbury-goers.
At six foot tall and disarmingly sharp, Beth Orton is not
exactly what you'd expect. Despite an ability to reduce
people to tears with her songs, Beth is more likely to steal
your last cigarette than cry on your shoulder. Born in Norfolk,
England in 1970, Beth moved to London with her mother at
the age of fourteen and settled in Dalston. Since her older
brothers had already gone the punk rock route, she felt
the most rebellious thing she could do was "get into
folk." She spent her late teen years immersed in everything
from Nick Drake, to The Stone Roses and Rickie Lee Jones,
before toying with the idea of acting and a drama course.
After a couple of years in fringe theater she hooked up
with dance producer William Orbit for her first musical
project, a cover of John Maryn's "Don't Wanna Know
About Evil." Having worked with Orbit for two years
she co-wrote the first two Red Snapper singles and teamed
up with the (little known at the time) Chemical Brothers
on "Alive: Alone," the haunting final track from
the Brothers' ace debut album. The Brothers invited her
back on their most recent album after a noticeable absence.
Now years after first hearing her first solo album, Beth
Orton seems like a major artist with a wide range. Her new
album should be worth the wait. It will be out in July.
I got to talk to her backstage at one of her shows in Hollywood
recently. It was brief, but I look forward to hearing her
records in the future.
have done a bunch of collaborations in the past with people
like The Chemical Brothers. All while maintaining a band
of your own. When you go into a studio what do you hope
these friends and band members can bring to the album?
Beth: I think that
when you work with the same people for a long time you create
a relationship. It's with the band as well. We have built
a certain level of trust over the years. It's a comfort
in a way. But I wouldn't call it comfort necessarily. It's
a lack of self-consciousness around one another. We have
an open relationship where now on this record it can be
I remember on one song I went over to Ted's house (a band
member) and he started playing a riff. It was winter and
we were sitting in his room. Ted had just told me a story
about a girl that he met, wondering if he would ever meet
her again. When he started playing I just started singing
along straight away. The melody and the words came out at
once. It's so exciting. It's like peeling away an onion.
You can have all sorts of relationships, but there's something
with musicians working together where you can have relationship
that can just continue to grow in a beautiful way. Then
you get your William Orbit's and your Chemical Brothers
and that's just like icing on the cake really.
AL: What was it like working with Johnny Marr?
Beth: I did some writing with him. I had a song called
"Concrete Sky" knocking around for ages. I met
him and I played it to him and he said "Oh, I love
that song. I got chords." He got all these chords out
of the cupboard and he was putting in all these little things.
He got involved. I was happy with it but he just added this
other dimension. With me I have a lot of beginnings and
Ted has a lot of ends. With Johnny he has a lot of bits
and pieces and these things that take it to another level
all the time.
AL: You invited Ryan Adams to work on this album too. Can
you tell us how that turned out?
Beth: I did. I heard
Heartbreaker which is his first solo album. There's
a record shop in London called Rough Trade Records and often
I go down there on a Saturdays with some friends and buy
some records. We look through the racks and they all suggest
things. Oh I got this and this. All my DJ friends are all
across the board. One week they'll say "Oh, I got this
Ryan Adams and you have to get it." Oh, cool. Thought
it was some old bloke. Went home and put it on. It was a
great record. I was surprised that there was someone in
my generation who was like this.
I also like Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly
Parton. They just move me. Well, Johnny Marr sang backup
vocals on "Concrete Sky" on the demo but he was
on tour with someone else by the time it came to record
it. We called up Ryan Adams and he was up for it and it
was brilliant. He came over and we went into the studio.
He put the vocal down and then he put some guitar and piano
down and that was great. Then he played me some song that
he had and it just blew me away. He wrote the song about
some girl. And I could relate because I was in a similar
I learned it and then I was like "I have to record
that song!" We did one take and that take is on the
album. We met and our voices go beautifully together. It's
called "What You Want" and it's going to be on
the album. It's very beautiful and very magical.
AL: Since you worked
with so many different people, does "Daybreaker"
have the feel of one continuous album?
Beth: Yeah. What is surprising sometimes is what you leave
off. We recorded 25 songs in two weeks with the whole band.
Then there's the stuff I did with Johnny. There's stuff
all over the place. And these are the ten songs that ended
up being on the record because for me they encapsulate the
mood best of the time we are recording the album. It took
about six months altogether. That's not too bad. It was
probably actually a year because I was looking for someone
to do the mixing and things weren't working out.
AL: Who is a great producer? You have worked with William
Orbit and Ben Watt....
Beth: Ben Watt is incredible.
He took the record into Technicolor. We had this beautiful
record and he came along and he just got it. I wanted it
to be really classy. I wanted it to be lush and beautiful.
I don't want any of your Lazy Dog stuff. He said "Okay
cool." He came in and mixed "Paris Train"
and it was just incredible.
AL: You are doing a small tour now and the record comes
out in July?
Beth: Yeah. I am playing
a few acoustic shows. Then Daybreaker comes out.
I'll be back in August with a full band for a longer tour.
-- Alexander Laurence