How We Met: Terry Callier & Beth Orton

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The Independent Culture
Terry Callier, 54, grew up in the same Chicago area as Curtis Mayfield. He began recording in 1963 and became known for merging soul, jazz and folk. In the Eighties he turned to computer programming to support his daughter, but in 1991 his music was rediscovered by the acid jazz scene and he returned to the studio. Divorced, he lives in Chicago

Beth Orton, 28, was born in Norfolk. She nearly became an actress before turning to folk music after a chance meeting in 1993 with the producer William Orbit. Since then, she has worked with the Chemical Brothers and toured with Lilith Fair, and both of her albums were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. She lives in London

TERRY CALLIER: I met Beth in 1996 when she came up to me after one of my concerts. She told me she sang and that she would send me a copy of her CD. Sure enough it arrived, and I put it on. I was reading through the notes and I got to the part where she said she'd been listening to my album the New Folk Sound of Terry Callier. I thought, wow, because people often try to hide their influences. Listening to her, I knew that we had something in common. She had some heart that she was putting in the music. That's all I ask from any artistic endeavour, whether it's a novel or a movie or a song - as long as it's got heart, I can deal with it.

People look at us and they see a black American guy and a young English woman and they feel there's not much common ground unless it's something romantic, lust in the dust. But for people to connect on a higher vibe is more difficult, because we are so blinded by the brightness of the world, and spiritual things look dim from here - when it's actually the reverse. The music cuts across age, race and the normal barriers that we've been brainwashed into believing have significance.

Beth used to call me and talk about lyrics, what to do on stage and how to handle situations, interviews, photo-shoots. But a lot of the things we discussed when we first met, we've gone beyond.

Beth and I talked about recording the Fred Neill song "Dolphins". When I ran away from home and went to New York, the first four people I met there were Fred Neill, Josh White Junior, David Crosby and Dino Valenti, who was later in the psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service. Fred Neill had this big baritone voice but he had more feeling in his stuff than most of the folk singers and groups.

Beth tried to back out of working with me, but I said to her that there's a time and place for everything and there's a time for this - now! I told Beth what Miles Davis told Wayne Shorter: you try and sound like me and I'll try and sound like you. But when Beth proposed I sing with her on "Devil's Song", I wasn't sure we needed to talk about the devil at that time. Artists of all kinds, everywhere around the planet, have to start pointing out our essential humanity and the things that relate us to one another. If we don't start doing that, then we don't have any excuses for what happens in the world. The planet may be able to hang together but it won't let us hang on to it.

When our paths cross it's only for a short time - she'll be going to Paris and I'll be going to Holland or something. Some day, we may have time to hang out and write together. I find her songs emotionally riveting. It's just the amount of sensitivity. We're both on that level: we are asking an awful lot of ourselves first and of our audiences too, in terms of being in touch with their feelings. Our music touches people in places they'd rather not be touched!

BETH ORTON: I first heard of Terry when someone gave me The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier. I took it home and that was it - I listened to it constantly, it really captured what I was trying to do with acoustic music. Then a friend of mine took me to see him. The reason I got so close to that friend was because we both had this mission with Terry Callier. If you met someone who liked Terry Callier, you knew you'd get on.

The concert was at the Jazz Cafe and was completely uplifting and joyful. I met Terry afterwards and I said: "Hello, I'm Beth!" He gave me his autograph, and we started sending each other e-mails.

Then someone at my record label said that if I did a song with Terry, I should do "Dolphins", by Fred Neill. It was all complete coincidence, just one of those mad things. I'm big into my little magic. Terry emulated Fred Neill when he was young, and I was emulating Terry and la di da, here we are.

Driving to my friend Meira's house when I was going to meet Terry properly was daunting. I was sitting in the car saying I didn't think it was such a good idea. I nearly went home. Then we were sitting in the studio, and what's amazing is when you're singing so close and you hit the right note, I'd feel it and Terry would look over at me and I'd be like, yeah!

We spent four or five days working together in 1997, one-take wonders a lot of the time. We did "Dolphins" and "Lean On Me", and "Pass In Time". I wanted Terry to sing on "Devil's Song", but he refused.

I've met Terry's daughter, I'm the same age as her, and she's a fan of mine now. When I played Chicago, they both came to the club. Terry is thinking about moving to London and I tell him he should live downstairs at my place. That would be lovely.

When I was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize I took it all in my stride - but I never know what I'm supposed to do in these situations. The worst thing we all do now is edit ourselves, it's gone so deep we are our biggest self-editors. The main thing is that I never do that with Terry, we don't need to.

When I put Terry's music on, I'm grounded. That's why I write songs, to feel connected to the earth, to something. I don't like to be analysed but it's a wonderful thing when you get things off your chest in a song. It's a constant process of shedding, otherwise you go insane. My second album, Central Reservation, is like a floodgate. I can't sing the songs I sing every night without addressing those questions to myself as much as they are to the audience. I'm also really hard on myself when I'm writing, I play with my own mind. I see strength in expressing how you feel, and I see strength in weakness, if weakness is being a decent person or having feelings, being alive. I feel that when I hear Terry's music - his voice, his lyrics. It strikes a chord. His music and his friendship are like anchors in my life.

`Central Reservation' by Beth Orton and `LifeTime' by Terry Callier are both on release now

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