Beth Orton: The comedown queen stages a comeback

She had a troubled youth, then her music became the melancholy soundtrack for tired clubbers, but Beth Orton appears to have found happiness in motherhood – and William Blake.

"Do you remember," says the man in the café, "when you pissed in a pint mug?" Beth Orton laughs. "I remember," she says, "you cutting off the roof of your Morris Minor van. You were so high on mushrooms! He decided," she explains, perhaps seeing the surprise on my face, "that it was like a tin of sardines, and he could peel the lid off."

Five minutes ago, when Beth Orton arrived, in this very chic and very shabby (which is how you know it’s very chic) café in Dalston, it was she who was feeling tired. She was, she said, still suffering from jetlag after her recent American tour. She was sure, she said, that she’d be fine, but when she doesn’t sleep she has “no filter”. The interview, she explained, which is meant to be for her British tour, might be “a bit like that”. And then, in an almost empty café, in a city of eight million, a man she knew when she was 17 walked in.

“Oh my God! How are you? That,” she said, turning to me, “is Luke’s brother!” The man looked surprised. “Do you know Luke?” For a moment, I was tempted to lie, but I had to say it: “No.”

Luke, it turns out, was the boyfriend Beth Orton had when she was 17. “We could do the whole interview,” she says, “about that period in my life. It would be genius! It was probably,” she says, “the foundation of everything.” And then, at a speed that has me feeling tired, she bombards the man with memories: of his mother, who translates Russian poetry, of the poems Luke used to write her, of “smoking joints in a layby” and hitching from Norwich to Saxmundham “in the pitch black”. It was, she says, and she sounds a little bit wistful when she says it, “before any self-consciousness”. Before, she adds, because she does sometimes sound a bit like an American teenager, even though she grew up in Norwich, and then in Dalston, and speaks in a voice that’s London with a slight Norfolk twang, “any, like, ‘who am I?’”

Beth Orton looks a bit like a teenager, too. She does, it’s true, have a few lines round her eyes. She is, it’s true, now 41. But there’s something about the way she moves, and walks, and waves her hands, that makes you think of a teenager who’s still, in spite of everything, quite shy. It’s 16 years since the release of Trailer Park, the album that launched her, after collaborations with William Orbit, and the Chemical Brothers, as an artist in her own right. The album, which was nominated for two BRIT awards, and which she thinks of as her first, even though she’d already made one that was only released in Japan, mixed electronic sound with pure, incantatory song. The sound was widely called “folktronica”, and became her hallmark. It continued in Central Reservation, which came out in 1999, and in Daybreaker, which came out in 2002, and was in the album Top 10. In her last album, Comfort of Strangers, which came out in 2006, the balance in the mix changed to something that was less like electronica, and more like folk. And after that, for six years, there was silence.

The story of those six years, for those who have read the interviews, already has the force of myth. It’s a story, according to the publicity material supplied by her PR, of “renewal”. It starts with Beth Orton, the wild child, having a baby of her own. It continues with a cow shed in Norfolk and songs written “in the dead of night, when spiders mend their webs”. It continues, too, with another baby, and love. It is, in other words, a story of an earth mother and a rural idyll, and of a restless soul finding a kind of redemption through domestic harmony, and love. The result, apparently, is this lovely, lyrical album, Sugaring Season, which came out in October, and which has been hailed as “beautiful”, “brilliant”,  “soulful” and even a “masterpiece”.

Sugaring Season is certainly soulful. It has a tender clarity that some of her previous work lacks. The lyrics conjure up an almost mystical world, of magpies, and dawn choruses, and shimmering leaves, and “old crows”, that feels as if it was glimpsed in the half-light of night and dawn. In songs like “Call Me the Breeze”, which will be released as a single on 3 December, and “Mystery”, there’s a sense of reaching out to nature, and wanting to be a part of it. “Come and sing a song,” she says in “Mystery”, almost as if she’s speaking to the universe: “Fall soft upon the thought/ Mystery is born”.

It sounds, I tell her, when she and the man in the café have finally swapped numbers, as if the past six years have been a time of finding a kind of peace. Have they? Orton looks up, and I can see she really wants to get the answer right. “In a way,” she says, “what he said about tinkering was the most relevant.” She means what “Luke’s brother” said about his mother’s approach to the translations of the Russian poems she can’t, apparently, leave alone. “That was the thing, going back and back. I just enjoyed the idea of poems I liked.”

For a moment, I’m confused. There is a poetic quality to Orton’s songs, but I wouldn’t call them poems. But then she mentions “The Poison Tree”, a setting of Blake’s poem, and “Mystery”, which steals a phrase  (“a mood apart”) from Robert Frost. “I really enjoyed writing the song from the William Blake poem,” she says, “and I went back to it last night, because I knew we were meeting, and I Googled you. I went back to the poem and wondered what it was about it that struck me so intensely.”

I’m touched. I really am touched. While I’ve been preparing for my interview with Beth Orton, she, it turns out, has been preparing for her interview with me. She has noticed that I used to work with poets, and decided to talk about poems. “It’s hard to grasp what it was exactly now,” she says, about Blake’s poem, “but I’m always much better at that than I am at this kind of talking.”

Beth Orton is so modest, and so hesitant, I feel I want to mother her. Even though she’s a mother of two, and I’m not a mother at all. If you could explain a poem, I tell her, wanting to reassure her, there would be no need for the poem. “Exactly!” says Orton. “And what’s the thing? Abstracting? It’s my new favourite word. What does it mean exactly?”

To be honest, I’m not, at least in this context, sure, but I find myself talking about the universal and the particular, and what it is that makes a work of art come alive. “And what is it,” says Orton, “that makes it, because I don’t think I’m in control of that?” I don’t, I tell Orton, think anyone is, and then the horrible thought strikes me that I, who am not an award-winning songwriter who has hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide, am giving a little lecture on the craft to someone who has, and is. It is, I think, time to stop Beth Orton from interviewing me.

So I tell her I like the title Sugaring Season, which, she has said, is “about the time of year when the trees are tapped for maple syrup”, and where “what makes the sap sweet and what makes it flow are these long, cold nights alternating with those ever so slightly warmer days”. What makes the sap sweet, in other words, is “beauty and melancholy mixed together”. That’s an image you don’t have to be a poet, or have worked with poets, to love. It also seems, I tell her, but I don’t want to start another lecture, to be about the alchemy of the creative process, where something gets turned from one thing (thoughts, yearnings, words, guitar chords) into another thing, which is art. What, for her, is the story the album tells?

Orton runs her fingers through her hair, as she often does when she’s thinking. “It’s all seed planting, or renewal, regrowth, things breathing underground, even when you can’t see them,” she says. “I guess the initial writing started when I was pregnant, so that’s a very obvious tie-in there, but I only really thought about it literally last night.” She mentions “Mystery”, and the Robert Frost poem it came from which, she says, uses nature to capture a sense of “innocence regained”. And which, I remind her, is also the message, if poetry can have a message, of Blake.

The story that seems to be out there is of Orton’s pregnancy as a path to joy. But she once said, I remind her, that she didn’t want to have children unless there was a father around to help bring them up. Orton looks startled. “Did I say that? When?” When, I tell her vaguely, because I can’t quite remember, she was younger. “My whole thing,” she says, “has always been, like, I’ve looked at the man I’m with and thought would I bother to have a child with you? I was happy not to have children. If I was going to have a child, it would be because it was an extension of love. So it wasn’t how…” and she doesn’t quite finish the sentence. “I was,” she whispers, even though the café is almost empty, “devastated”.

She tried, she says, to make the relationship she was in work, but it didn’t. “I just thought ‘how the hell am I going to do this? It didn’t feel like a beginning, it felt like an ending. It was,” she says, “the most challenging experience of my whole life.” That, by the way, is saying something. Her own father left her mother when she was eight, and died of a heart attack when she was 11. After a childhood spent feeling like a misfit, bunking off school and sometimes nicking things from shops, Orton was orphaned when her mother died of breast cancer when she was 19.  

She was, she says, “meant to be this freethinking and modern woman”, but when she thought she was facing life as a single mother she felt terrified, and alone. She even felt, she says, remembering stories of her mother collecting money for unmarried mothers with her mother during the war, like a “fallen woman”. But then, after she had her daughter, Nancy, “this miraculous thing” happened. At a dinner given by her friend Antony Hegarty, she met the American folk singer, Sam Amidon. They became friends, and fell in love. Marriage, and another baby, followed. It sounds, I tell her, like happy-ever-after. Is that how it feels?

“Well, definitely. It’s almost, like, this is really enough. Now,” she says, carefully cutting one of the cherry tomatoes that came with her scrambled eggs, “I’m doing the work of it, like touring again, I’m, like, ‘f*** off’.” I have to fight the urge to hug her. Not just because she swears in such an innocent, teenage way, but also because she has just, in effect, told me that she doesn’t want to do the tour she’s here to promote.

It was, she says, around the time of her second album, Central Reservation, and at the height of her success, that she started to feel unhappy doing what she did. “I used to go on stage,” she says, pulling the kind of face you might see on a very stroppy teenager, “and sing like this”.

When Terry Callier, the African-American jazz, soul and folk guitarist and singer-songwriter died last month, Orton realised that what she had first found in her music was a family. It was through Callier, who became a kind of father, that she found her “amazing record company” (an “amazing record company” which dropped her when she got pregnant) and her “amazing manager”, but when she went on tour she felt she was out there on her own. Now she travels with her own “lovely fam”, but she still finds going on stage makes her feel exposed. “I’ve come back,” she says, “from this tour feeling really vulnerable. Thinking, oh God, I don’t actually know if I can do this. It is,” she adds, “a lot to carry when you’re doing it solo.”

It must be. It must also have been “a lot to carry” when her mother died, and she suddenly found, at 19, that she was “solo” in the world. Was it? “That,” says Orton, and I have to hide my surprise, “was the biggest high of my life. I was pretty wild, and then when my mum died, I just got wilder.” She joined a theatre company, she says, and went to Russia, and felt “very in touch with life” and “very alive”. And then, of course, there was the party scene. And then, of course, there was “the comedown queen”.  Does it bother her that she’s still sometimes called that, and still associated with people “coming down” from their drug-fuelled highs?

“At the time it kind of bothered me, because it was, like, I’m such a joyful person, f*** off! I was out all night with you! What are you talking about? I’m the f***ing life and soul! It was strange to then be this sort of whimsical, airy figure. Suddenly I was meant to be this ethereal whatever.”

You can see why that would be frustrating. But there was, and is, an ethereal quality to the music, and the voice. And also to the lyrics. Was that partly the drugs? What does she think the drugs gave her? Orton runs her fingers through her hair again. “I’m still wondering myself about that. Does that mean I was a complete addict? Does it mean,” she says, sounding like a Californian who has had quite a lot of therapy, “I have some work to do around that?” But “being an idiot, and dancing on tables” was, she says, “fun”. “The thing is, when I did it with this lot,” she says, meaning the man who’s just gone, and the now famous Luke, “there was an innocence to it, a silliness to it, but then it got a bit intense.”

The other factor she hasn’t mentioned is pain. Orton has Crohns disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause chronic pain. If drugs helped with the pain, you could hardly blame her for knocking a fair few back. Does she think, as I do, about the pain conditions I’ve had to deal with for quite big chunks of my life, that the physical pain was her body saying things she couldn’t?

She nods. “I do. I have this theory now that it’s a kind of politeness. Being in relationships that really are no good for you, but sort of doing it anyway. I had no idea how to extricate myself from situations that made me feel uncomfortable. It was just incredibly bad for my health.” Now it’s my turn to nod. So what effect does she think pain has had on her life?

For a moment, Orton looks torn. “I don’t normally want to talk about it, but I really do think that’s interesting. I was in incredible pain for all of my twenties, and some of my thirties. I was in pain every single day. Do you know when I realised? When I had Nancy, I had an emergency Caesarian and somebody came to visit me, and I didn’t know how to say I’m in pain. And that,” she says, “is what ‘Poison Tree’ is all about.”

And does she, I ask, though I think I know the answer, think the pain she’s had to put up with has made her more alert to other people’s? Orton looks straight at me and her eyes look very blue. “Definitely! My mum taught me always to think of others. I’m like a sponge. I pick up on everyone’s feelings. I can’t bear it if my daughter’s sad. I fill up like a balloon of sorrow.” I don’t think, I tell her, that people can experience powerful emotions in response to music, poetry, or anything else, unless the person who made that music or poetry experienced those powerful emotions, too. Without that pain, I tell her, because I feel like cheering her up, her best work wouldn’t have the directness and clarity that it has.

“Well,” says Beth Orton, because she’s modest and also polite, “I don’t know, but I like where you’re going with that. The female William Blake! It reminds me of that thing you said in one of your articles, that there’s no female Jack the Ripper, and no female Mozart.” Once again, I’m touched by her research. Actually, I tell her, it was me quoting Camille Paglia, but it’s true that there’s no female Jack the Ripper, or Mozart. It’s probably also true that there’s no female William Blake.

Beth Orton, it has to be said, isn’t William Blake. She would, she says, like to write poems, but the songs she has written, apart from the one he wrote, aren’t William Blake. But there is something about them that’s a little bit like him. There’s a childlike quality to Beth Orton, and her work, that makes you think of a lullaby. Perhaps the world needs more lullabies. Perhaps the world, which has plenty of songs of experience, needs some songs of “regained innocence”, too.

‘Call Me the Breeze’ is released on 3 December. Beth Orton’s UK tour starts on 25 November www.anti.com

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