Beth Orton: Songs of love and renewal

After her mother died, Beth Orton set out to conquer her anxieties, first through bullfighting, then through singing. Nick Duerden caught up with her backstage in Boston, on the world tour for her fourth album
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The pizza arrives, stuffed with peppers and pepperoni and as large as Luxembourg, and Beth Orton's face folds into a frown. Minutes ago, she was starving; now she has had an abrupt change of heart. "It looks disgusting," she says, closing the takeaway box and tossing it to one side.

We are sitting backstage in the Avalon Ballroom, in Boston, where she will play to a packed house later tonight, and the pizza was to have constituted lunch for the singer. She is already pale and weak with bronchitis, and needs her protein. She hunts around for a calorific substitute, but with little success. "Suppose I'll have to make do with this, then..."

"This", it turns out, is a mug of peppermint tea, into which she dunks a succession of biscuits. "I'm not doing very well here, am I?"

Culinary dissatisfaction aside, Orton's world tour, the American leg of which she is half-way through when we meet, has gone rather well. Reaction to her fourth album, Comfort of Strangers, has been roundly positive, and fan worship, she suggests, is becoming increasingly reverential. "I'm not kidding," she says through a permanent curtain of strawberry-blond hair. "The love from the crowd every night is astonishing. I swear that I could fall forward and they would catch me and hold me aloft. Isn't that precious?"

Though she may have difficulty in admitting it, it's a reaction Orton needs now more than ever. The exquisitely gentle Comfort of Strangers came from three years of disillusion and despair: with her (now former) management team, with countless record producers (whom she dismissed, one by one) and with her private life.

"Yes, but we don't have to talk about all that, do we?" Orton, a woman prone to sudden mood-swings, now becomes annoyed: "Doing English press is really odd. You lot ask me weird questions. Here in America, they've more... more respect, somehow."

So the British show a lack of respect towards her? "There you go!" she flares. "You see? I didn't say that. I didn't even mention the word 'respect'." She did. "OK, well... anyway." She reaches behind her, now mischievous. "Fancy some pizza?"

By her own grudging admission, Orton hasn't had an easy life. She was born in Norwich 35 years ago. Her parents split up when she was eight, and her father died suddenly three years later. At 19, she lost her mother to cancer and, in a state of some bewilderment, fled to Thailand, where she studied meditation with Buddhist nuns. Music has been the levelling force in what has otherwise been a fairly tumultuous existence.

"I've made my life a billion times more complicated than it ever needed to be," she concedes, "and I don't particularly like that about myself. But I'm learning, I am, learning as I go. My trouble is, I talk too much. I'm too honest. Perhaps I should shut up more?" Pausing for the briefest of breaths, she quickly continues: "But then, no, maybe I shouldn't. Art is all about blood and guts and honesty, after all, and I want people to be moved by my blood and guts, I really do - but, argh!" She is wailing now, holding her head in her hands. "Oh Christ, does that sound wanky? I'm talking too much again, aren't I?"

Shortly after her mother died, Orton decided to confront as many fears as possible. She had a fear of bulls, and so went to Spain and faced one in a ring. She was terrified of being the centre of attention, and so she trained to be an actress, putting on a succession of plays in a small west London theatre. It was here that she met music producer William Orbit with whom she embarked upon a short affair. It was he, having heard her humming around the house, who first suggested she sing. The very idea appalled her, "and so I gave it a go".

With some success, too. In 1996, she released Trailer Park, a bewitching folk album with an electronic pulse. The media anointed her the Comedown Queen, a tag she hated but which was fuelled by collaborating with Primal Scream and Chemical Brothers. Two years later came the Brit Award-winning Central Reservation. And 2002's Daybreaker featured collaborations with Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris.

Orton has rarely felt comfortable in the public eye. She hated the way her personal tragedies had become public, and when it was revealed that she suffered from Crohn's disease, she loathed being music's Sick Girl. "It's all very well living a certain life," she says, "but to see it transformed into print can be shocking - and painful. It's not nice."

She no longer suffers from Crohn's, a condition often considered incurable, but refuses now to discuss it. Similarly, the turmoil she endured immediately before recording Comfort of Strangers is something she'd rather keep to herself, but she cannot, and dives heedlessly in. "Oh God, what do you want me to say? Stuff went on, private stuff, I lost some people I really loved: one of my best friends from childhood, and somebody else I considered the love of my life. And then also, I'd hit my thirties, and that wasn't easy. It makes you take stock, doesn't it?

"You know, life has been... eventful. I've had a lot of mental-ness, yes, and maybe if I hadn't been so obsessed with music, I'd be married by now, I'd have kids... But then, perhaps I've learnt everything I needed to learn through my music." Voice raised, she duly convinces herself. "Yes! I have! I wish I'd been a little less complicated, sure, but otherwise..."

Recently, Orton has been thinking of going back to acting. She has an agent in Hollywood and was recently offered a shot at a starring role alongside Cameron Diaz in the romantic comedy In Her Shoes. However, she had an attack of nerves, and failed to show for the audition. "But that will change," she promises. "I will find the courage to act again!" In the meantime, she is happy to focus on her music, convinced that Comfort of Strangers is the album she was always meant to make. "I love it; I think it's really very special."

Several hours later, whippet thin behind her acoustic guitar, she is playing her warm and wonderful songs in a bronchial burr to 600 Bostonians, many of whom are gay women. Post-show, the backstage area is thronged with gay fans, all wanting autographs. She beams and signs away, and looks, I tell her, happy.

"Happy? I'm not sure I like that word, but I have a sense of - a sense of liking who I am these days, and that's got to be a good thing, right?"

The curtain of hair momentarily parts, and she offers an unambiguously warm smile. Let's hope it lasts.

Beth Orton plays at the Wireless Festival, Hyde Park, London, 24 June