Beth Orton – No more an orphan girl
Beth Orton is the most genial kind of diffident interview subject: She dislikes the process, but entertains every question, and will readily cop to that fact that, even when the subject is herself, she doesn’t have all the answers.
“I feel people’s disappointment is palpable when they meet me,” says Orton. “I think people think I am sadder than I am. And sometimes I am more sad than they know. And sometimes I am more full of joy than they know.”
“You make a record in a weird sort of vortex,” she says of her third album, Daybreaker (due July 30 on Heavenly/Astralwerks). At the time of our interview in May, the music had been completed for three months, and in the interim, Orton says she has been consumed by “quite a sense of loss.”
“I am over it. I have never had a baby, but you must sit back and go, ‘What the fuck is that? Who are you?’ It is an extension of what is me, I suppose. And then I have to talk about it, and it is like: Right, OK. What is it about?”
Like her 1997 debut Trailer Park and 1999’s sophomore effort Central Reservation, Daybreaker takes her heartfelt songwriting and brazenly gives it a trippy dance makeover. Daybreaker brings in guests such as Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams from the Americana fold, appearing alongside the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, electronica mavericks the Chemical Brothers, remixer William Orbit (Madonna, Blur) and Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt.
It is to Orton’s credit that the collision of sensibilities never sounds forced or awkward. She seamlessly integrates those disparate musical strands with her smoky, compelling voice and flair for evocative lyrical imagery; as accomplished as her work is, she says the whole business of explaining herself is beyond her grasp.
While preparing the press bio to accompany Daybreaker, Orton was asked to isolate the album’s common themes. “Water. Boats. Movement. How people move in space and time. The way they walk. Stuff like that,” came her apparently unsatisfying reply. “I can’t yet find the thread that pulls it together as an explanation or an analysis,” she apologizes.
“I am happy to write whatever comes into my head and whatever I feel,” she explains, adding that the inspiration for a song is “like a wonderful friend who comes back to visit, to say hello and see how we are and what we are up to.
“Once you start analyzing it, you start trying to own it. That is really dangerous. Creatively, it is dangerous to question things. It is much better to be lighthearted or heavily political in interviews. At least you are not getting into the fine detail of what you are doing and why you did it.”
Yet over the course of two separate interviews for this article, Orton repeatedly violates her own rule. She is neither political nor lighthearted, and she’s capable of personal revelations.
“I know. I have been analyzing the whole time,” she sighs. “I am full of shit.”
Orton was born 31 years ago (when asked about her age, she says: “I feel like I’m 80, but most people treat me like I am 12”) in Norwich. “Someone recently described Norwich as the big ass that sticks out of England,” she laughs. “When I came to America, it was amazing how much it reminded me of the skylines of where I’m from. Just huge, big sky — like a renaissance painting.”
Her parents split when she was eight, and her mother moved her and her two older brothers to a tough, working-class neighborhood near North London. Although she saw her father every Sunday, she’s not sure precisely what he did for a living; something to do with architecture. When Orton was 11, he died of a heart attack.
Her mother, Christine Orton, was a social activist and author who specialized in the issue of how families cope with special medical needs; she wrote essays for The Guardian, The Observer and The New Statesman. A check of the British wing of online book retailer Amazon credits her mother with titles such as Child With A Medical Problem In The Ordinary School, Children With Special Needs, and Care For The Carer. When Orton was a teen, she marched with her mother and a parade of supporters to the British Parliament to introduce a child care bill.
“My mom wasn’t very ambitious, but she was incredibly passionate. She basically worked for every underdog,” Orton says with pride. “She was just pretty incredible, but very understated. Her ambition was low….My mom was really from another world, I always think. Really inspiring.”
Her mother instilled an independent spirit in her daughter, who was taking acting lessons and looked forward to a career in the dramatic arts. All that free-thinking didn’t necessarily serve her well academically. “I was a terrible student. I hated it. They hated me,” she says of her formal education. “My mother taught me to speak my mind and treated me like an adult. I didn’t understand going to school and being treated like a child. I answered people back, and I was naughty as well.”