Queer as folk
A world away from the the trip-folk tag of her youth, Beth Orton explains her part-punk, part-Zen philosophy to TONY CLAYTON LEA
DOESN’T TIME FLY? Quite incredibly, much-appraised British singer Beth Orton has been living a quiet life in music for almost 20 years; she first came to notice as a willowy, floating member of William Orbit’s Strange Cargo project in the early 1990s, and subsequently through her idiosyncratic work with the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Red Snapper and Primal Scream.
Her mid-1990s debut, Trailer Park, achieved what many had considered unlikely if not impossible – it made her folk-influenced music hip among the clubbing community. She considers the description applied to her since then – Queen of Comedown – as somewhat negative, and the description of her music – trip-folk – as redundant.
“I agree with that description in the context of where I was at many years ago,” she says, “but now I think it’s used in a derogatory way. I think it’s a bit of a putdown, to be honest.”
Yet Orton is nothing if not resilient; she may have dipped in and out of the public eye during the past decade (her previous album, Comfort of Strangers, came out six years ago, and she has spent most of that intervening raising two young children), but now that she is in her 40s, she maintains her position as venerable soothsayer to the bemused, confused and downright befuddled. Isn’t that right, Beth? Beth?!?
“Wot? Gosh, I dunno! I’m not sitting on a plateau of knowing and understanding just because I’m 41. I do all right, I reckon; I work it out on a day-to-day basis. I’ve got two kids now – a six-year-old and a one-year-old – and that changes things. Having kids means you have to rearrange everything, really, in hundreds of different ways. It’s hard to say exactly without talking platitudes. It’s just different.”
And for someone who, until their mid-30s, was able to fashion tunes whenever the fancy took her, what’s it like now for this mother of two to get the time to come up with ideas for songs? Does the “pram in the hall” syndrome inhibit creativity for her?
“It’s neither easy nor difficult,” she reasons. “It’s just a different discipline entirely, and you have to work around things. It’s been pretty inspiring having kids; you have to have a private life in order to write songs, and sitting around on a tour bus year after year doesn’t exactly give you much of interest to write about, to be honest. For me, having other people in the house has been quite a rich area to be inspired by. In some ways, I’ve experienced more solitude since having children, and yet at the same time it’s been a bit noisy! But that’s a good paradox.”
It is often said that creating something – be it writing, thinking, painting, and so on – in the dead of night is the best time for ideas to come through. “Yes, that’s right, I think. You get such a sense of privacy writing songs and singing them at a time when people are asleep. It became more of a pleasure than ever, in a way, and I really treasured it. I disciplined myself to write during the day, as well, when I could set time aside for myself as the kids napped. As much as I love my daughter and son, I’ve always been a very independent person, and have always worked. Also, I’m the sole earner, so I have to keep doing what I do.”
Which is, we’re sure you’ll agree, acceptance of almost Zen-like proportions. Speaking of which, Beth, is it true that when you were in your early 20s, before your life was changed forever by music, you once roomed with Buddhist nuns in Thailand?
“That is true . . .” Orton pauses at the triggered memory. “Oh, that was amazing! I’d just turned 20 . . . My mum had died when I was 19, and she left my brother and me £2,000 each, so I bought a ticket to Thailand for an adventure. A friend and I broke away from the main group we were hanging around with, and we saw this place on a hill – we thought it looked like some kind of meditation/spa place. You know, somewhere for a good massage! When we got there, it was full of nuns, meditating 14 hours a day, fasting from noon. I ended up staying there for three months, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. My friend left me there. I’m very interested in religion, or rather the philosophy of religion, and I became fascinated by the way the nuns lived in the monastery. It was a one-off experience, and I knew I’d never do it again. I was right.”
From that point onwards, Orton, perhaps unwittingly, set herself on a course to being regarded as an early-morning sober answer to a late night drunken query. Her influences (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young) resonate in her songwriting, while her attitude (assertive-spiky) is clearly derived from her time as (in her own words) a “right little punk”.
“Punk was so long ago,” she states, “and so for me folk music is the closest there is to the spirit of punk. Why? Folk music is essentially about people, not about fashions or trends. They’re the maddest people, too, folk musicians. The music is so true to itself, it’s about not giving a damn about what other people say or do, and just doing your own thing.”
Which is what Orton has been doing in a rather ramshackle, often frustrating but endearing fashion for the guts of 20 years. She comes across as a genuine person, too, equal parts tough and tender, fractious, frail and impassioned. There was a time, she confirms, when her chill-out, cheerful composure was sidelined by a recurring illness, but this, she says, has receded. Piggybacked onto what is undoubtedly a good, constructive and healthy time for her is the adopting of a less-is-more approach to her craft. Was that what she was aiming for on her new, serene album, Sugaring Season?
“Yeah, I didn’t want to overegg the pudding too much,” she confirms. “Sticking with essentials is what it was all about, really . . . One of my favourite albums is First Take by Roberta Flack, and throughout that record there was rhythm and movement, and yet at the same time there was a stillness to it. That was the blueprint for Sugaring Season. I suppose we were going for a lean and swift job – we recorded it in five days, and we just didn’t over think it. Also, because I had about six years to really work on material, when I went into the studio the songs and myself were very much ready.”
From 2006’s Comfort of Strangers to getting prepared to record Sugaring Season – did she enjoy the time off the album/tour/album treadmill? “Well, I had the kids, obviously, but yes, I did, I really did. And I just took time away from life, too. I had to work to earn money, of course, but I didn’t push it. I came over to Ireland a few times, did quiet gigs, all low-key, but on the whole, it was not only tranquil but also quite prolific. While I didn’t necessarily know that I was writing for an album – I didn’t have a record deal for some time – the writing of songs became even more vital. It’s funny how things work out.”
Maybe some of that Buddhist teaching she experienced all those years ago has rubbed off on her? “Acceptance has been a big theme for me in the past few years,” Orton reveals. “Go with what happens and make the best of it? That’s been a motto, for sure.
“I hope that comes across in the music, as well. Overcoming our past, our stories, and allowing ourselves to move beyond that, and to find strength from it. That’s it, really. That’s what it’s all about.”
Beth Orton’s new album, Sugaring Season, is out next week. She plays Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church on Friday, December 14th