Pop: She can't imagine being told what to do

Singers don't come much more solo than Beth Orton.
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The Independent Culture
When Beth Orton laughs, her face crinkles up and her eyes sparkle from under her fringe. She waves her long arms about like a child on tartrazine and emits a noise that resembles the last gurgle of water as it drains from a bath.

The idea of Orton convulsed with laughter seems inappropriate considering her reputation as one of music's cardinal "miserabilists". The wistful melancholy of her debut album, Trailer Park , earned her the title "The Comedown Queen"; ravers would use her folk-tinged melodies to wallow in their post-party depression. Her self-doubt is amply documented in a series of interviews in which she has expressed fears of being deemed a fraud, while her hollow cheeks and skinny limbs have been the subject of constant interest.

But Orton arrives in a flurry of laughter. "Are we going to have breakfast?" she asks no one in particular, tossing her baby-pink gloves across the room and flopping into an armchair. "Hi. I'm Beth," she adds, brightly. This was not the wounded waif that I had been expecting.

"I used to be worried that I wasn't any good and someone was going to point at me and say, 'That girl's not wearing any clothes!', she explains, as if chastising her childhood self. "But I've learned to check those feelings, as everyone does."

Orton, 28, has every reason to be pleased. Before releasing her first album, in 1996, she had already completed vocal mixes for The Chemical Brothers, Red Snapper and Underworld. Within a year of its release, her album sold more than 300,000 copies and earned her a nomination for a Mercury Music Prize. Her forthcoming album, Central Reservation, boasts contributions from Dr John and Ben Harper, while indie film impresario Hal Hartley offered to shoot one of her videos. "I have been disgustingly lucky," she admits, "But musicians simply like to work with musicians - it's the most normal thing in the world, especially among solo artists."

Despite her label as "singer-songwriter" - a term seemingly afforded to any woman who writes her own music and plays guitar - Orton's penetrating brand of soul-folk has set her apart from the sixth-form ranting of Sheryl, Tori and Alanis, and has prompted comparisons with Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro.

The mere mention of the term "singer-songwriter" unleashes a torrent of bile. "I wanted to be an antidote to all that," she cries. "I don't like being tagged as some sort of spokesperson for menstruation." She is keen to point out that an equal number of men and women attend her gigs. "I don't listen to Neil Young and think: 'Pah! That's a man singing.' If a woman gets strength from listening to my music then that's brilliant, but if a man does, that's brilliant too. My responsibility is in being a human being, not just a woman."

Orton never even intended to be a musician. As teenagers, her brothers used to bore her with their band-related anecdotes, while her parents would subject her to the New York Dolls and Southern Death Cult. Her first love was acting, and when her family moved to London from her native Norfolk in the late Eighties, she joined Anna Scher's acting school, a training ground for aspiring girl bands and stars of Grange Hill.

Her first foray into music came when she was in her early 20s after a chance encounter with the producer William Orbit, best known now for producing Madonna's Ray of Light album. "When I asked him for a cigarette at a party he homed in on my voice and asked me to speak on one of his records. When we were recording, I was a bit drunk and jolly, so I sang a few lines from 'Catch A Falling Star'. It just went on from there."

One thing Orton learned from Orbit was how to conduct herself as a solo artist. "William is a bit of a control freak and it has rubbed off on me. This way I get to do things how I want and run around working with different people as well." Did she ever consider being in a band? "It never happened and now it's gone so far that I cannot really imagine being told what to do." Orton's personal life hasn't been as charmed as her career. Her father died before she hit puberty and her mother when she was in her late teens. For the last few years she has suffered from a recurring bowel illness, Crohn's disease. "It was getting to affect my life and my music," she says. "It took a long time to make the new record because of that."

Crohn's disease causes chronic abdominal pain as well as weight loss and anaemia, but Orton is confident that she will conquer it. "I'm treating it as if me and this thing live in the same house. We don't particularly get on but we live there and we've got to find a compromise. I'm hopeful that there is a way of combating it through diet and lifestyle change."

Orton's new album covers territory already trodden in Trailer Park - particularly in her repeated expressions of insecurity and isolation - while her cracked vocals still evoke an image of someone on the brink of tears. But there is a positive side to it - in lyrics that reflect her enlightened attitude to her illness. "What's the use in regrets?" she asks in "Sweetest Decline". "They're just things we haven't done yet." In "Feel To Believe" she is insistently hopeful. "If one truth leads to another/There isn't one we cannot discover."

She admits that writing the album was a cathartic experience, but denies using her work as therapy. "Last year, everything came home to roost," she explains. "The more honest I was with myself, the more stuff came up. But these things are not unique to me: I'm talking about things which affect almost everyone."

Orton is certainly dealing with deeply personal matters, and she is concerned about the searching questions that the album may provoke. "I'm aware that it is my fault," she says, wrapping the tassels on her scarf around her hand so that the tips of her fingers turn purple. "What am I supposed to do, start editing myself?" But then she lets slip a sneaky smile. "Music is supposed provoke questions, isn't it? And besides, I've just realised that I don't actually have to answer them."

'Central Reservation' is out on Heavenly Records on 15 March. The first single, "Stolen Car", will be released on 1 March.

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