(Originally published at 13thfloor.co.nz)
UK singer/songwriter Beth Orton is returning to our shores on late June for three shows. The last time she was here, back in 2013, her focus was on Folk but this time she’s returning with a new work, her sixth studio album Kidsticks, which was released last May, an album that marks a distinct turn towards a purely electronic sound for Orton and the bold step of co-producing.
I phoned Beth Orton at the un-a godly hour of 8.30 on a Friday morning (actually 7.30PM, London time, but definitely not Rock’n’Roll). She’s a little battle weary, having endured a slew of Kiwi and Aussie journos responding to her recent tour announcement. Initially, it’s a prickly exchange, but she eases up when I let slip that I’m on the tail end of the list because I had to do the school drop off and so ended up with the last time slot. “Aww,” she mews before asking more about my children.
The last time I spoke to Orton was back in 2013. I had been on the school run then, too. She was peddling 2012’s Sugaring Season, a more folky effort that was the sum of the parts of being a solo mum in Norfolk, her marriage to musician Sam Amidon, the birth of her son, and second child Arthur and moving to the USA to live. Back then, she was trying to shrug off the unwanted label “the Comedown Queen”, which had been applied to her when her first album, Trailer Park came out. Both came to us as something of a de-stress tonic amongst the heady chaos of mid-90s rave culture.
Orton spent two years in LA (her husband’s American) and moved her family back to East London around 2015 where she reckons she’ll stay ‘for a bit’. She told me that while she misses the peacefulness of Laurel Canyon, she still defines herself very much as “a Brit’ and and was missing those connection. For her previous album, the move to the sunshine was necessary for a creative shakeup, she says but the older you get the harder it is to keep uprooting yourself and your family. She does admit that London’s harder than she remembers. ‘With BREXIT, the elections and everything the place is more stressful. Even the music industry is harder’.
We turn our attention to her latest album, Kidsticks, which was partly a result of moving back to that ‘harder’ place, even though it’s where she now feels most grounded. It’s a considerably more adventurous album than her previous releases. She chose the title, she says, “because for me it has that joyous feel of kids playing music with sticks”. That said, it’s miles away from the introspective trip-folk she made with William Orbit replacing her usual samples and guitars with a dizzying swirl of words and sonic collages.
Many of the songs have single-word titles – Snow, Moon, Wave, Petals – but only occasionally do they approach familiar Orton territory. Snow, for example starts with an abrasive, harsh clang, perhaps the opposite of what’s expected. Mainly they are more like abstract paintings. So it’s unclear how the titles came about. You can’t call these folkie or fragile, I suggest. And sometimes her voice is almost unrecognizable. “That’s deliberate,” she says. “I wanted to be constantly changing dynamics. This time I wrote everything on a keyboard, instead of guitars.”
It was her co-producer Andrew Hung (Fuck Buttons) who originally encouraged her to try using a keyboard. “Giving me that gave me more control, in a way, I think. In the past it was other producers that provided everything (she’s especially referencing Andrew Orbit and all the men that she’s worked with). Music is still a very male dominated industry so it was good that I could take some control. For me that was new. I was playing with synths, with my own basslines, everything. I got to build my own sound. It was great to experiment and play without too much thinking.” She explains that to some degree there’s a sense of wonderment to just making sounds, creating music out of nothing. Like a child with a new toy, as if she’ sneer played it before.
But with everything now hanging off this new infrastructure she also felt somewhat vulnerable. “When I played keys on my recent UK tour I got a sense of how different it was. It was tricky at first. You feel so exposed and out of your comfort zone. On the first night we lost all the power so nothing was working until right on curtain time. So that was unsettling. That’s the kind of thing that reminds you that this music is very much reliant on the digital world and that’s exposing. It wasn’t that I could jump up and just play my guitar like before.”
Adopting the keyboard, and the techno-desk, seems to be a bit of a paradox given that when I last talked to her she told me she’d taken guitar lessons from the venerable Bert Jansch in an effort to ground her music in the English folk tradition. So, it seems Kidsticks is a complete rejection of all that. “No. Not really,” Orton claims (and I can hear something defensive in her tone), “Learning from Bert meant I could take on the hard core, season folk players. I was trying to be more serious and dedicated to my craft. I think this album is a reaction to that. Look, I’d was done with performing just as an English singer-songwriter. I think I’d taken that as far as I wanted. I got to a point where I needed to find Something new, both creatively and physically (by this she means moving to London).”
The recording process for Kidsticks was deliberately or consequentially protracted, depending on your point of view. It initially began in fits and starts in LA sheds and back-garden studios and then, later, in her front room “with the kids running around, tripping over leads and amps. The opposite of your usual cold, sterile recording studio.”.
It all began with Hung’s stark, scratchy loops and her early synth tracks. Then she felt it was important to in bring other musicians “ground my melodies. Digital stuff is good but I’m still a live performer and I still needed real instruments. The whole thing took 18 months, with Orton writing her lyrics on tour and then bringing in a range of performers from LA’s indie music community including Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr, Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear) and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily.
The album’s other producer was Andrew Hung of Bristol electronic/experimental duo Fuck Buttons. Orton originally worked with him when he remixed one of her tracks from Sugaring Season. Orton’s musical trajectory from 1006’s Trailer Park and Central Reservation (1999), through the tentative electronica Daybreaker (2002) to the dry, harsh folk of Comfort of Strangers (2006) and on to her more upbeat, song-based Sugaring Season (2012), has been a documentary of constant changing between styles – often guided, directed or supported by a collection of surprising and varied collaborators. They include William Orbit, Andrew Wetherall, Johnny Marr, the Chemical Brothers and Jim O’Rourke. And as it could be thought that Orton’s direction is something of a mysterious journey: a free spirit, paradoxically looking for somewhere to fit in. “No, I wouldn’t say that,” she argues,”I just like to mix things up – change locations, styles, ideas.”
I have to ask why it’s important that she needed to co-produce this album because Producers, males in particular, often want to impose their vision over of what is, really someone else’s material. “This is such a male dominated industry, and sometimes you have to fight to get your ideas across. It happened a bit with Andy but not majorly. There’s the producer that has the overall vision of the sound and direction and then there’s the producer that makes the music, loops and the details. We worked together on that (she doesn’t divulge exactly which did what but is very clear that this is her music and that she played that major role in the creative process.” She does acknowledge that working with others is a two-way street, with the traffic sometimes heavier on one side. “I’ve been lucky to work with some really amazing and inspiring people. Sometimes I got carried away by their Ideas and I certainly went down many side roads, I guess.” She admits that in the past she’d become a bit obsessed with certain sound directions working with Jim O’Rourke or Roback made. “Often what they did was was genius, but it was their genius. This time I wanted some of that.”
Kidsticks is a record of multiple points – there’s a lot of references to falling – falling in love; letting go of the self (even if unintentionally) and there’s even a song by that name. Falling includes a very disturbing lyric: “Now my phone book is filling up with dead friends, and I wonder who would answer if I called them.” I’ve been asked that a lot today. I When you grow older, loss and dying becomes something you become more aware of. I’ve got all these numbers in my phone of people who’ve died or I don’t see anymore or don’t work with. Oddly, I forget to delete their names. I think it’s a sort of modern way to stay connected with the past and the people we’ve lost. It’s like these markers, lie visiting graves or old flats or places where we used to go, you know? We still visit their names when we whizz through the address book”.
Family is also important and it shines through in the album with a number of ‘Flesh and Bone’ love songs to her husband, including Dawnstar and a spoken word or poetry piece, an ode to her mother who died after from illness when she was only 19. Then there’s Corduroy Legs, the other spoken-word piece, a nod to motherhood – “a hand reaches to me, across the banished sea, and holds me, holds me holding you”. “I wrote that when I was a single parent, with a tiny baby, living in my mother’s house in Norfolk. Just us against the world. It’s about being alone with a child but also being motherless and helpless without the support networks mothers should have to raise a child. But then I realise it didn’t matter. It was all OK.” The reference to corduroy legs was added later. “That’s (Her son) Arthur as a toddler thumping down the stairs. It was the right sound to go with the music and the right description of optimism. but don’t over think it.”
The last time Orton was here she played churches around the country, predominantly as a solo folk artist. “I remember that tour, such pretty locations. I’ll have a band and digital toys. It’ll be a different experience. But,” she adds,”I’ll still bring my guitar. I’m planning to do stuff from all my albums. I just want to bring the best from my career.”