Beth Orton is in a slightly bewildered state. We’ve just called her hotel room in New York but she has just stepped off a plane, and is juggling talking about a new album with shoehorning one husband and two children in to the room, not to mention dealing with an unhealthy dose of jetlag. As a result she apologises for sometimes drifting out of focus during the course of the interview, but in reality she proves an engaging subject.
Sugaring Season is the reason for the call. It’s Beth’s first album in six years, over which time she has become both a wife and a mother. Fair, then, to assume her approach to songwriting has changed in that time, though she finds it difficult to put a finger on it. “It has changed – but it’s hard to say how. I’m not sure I find it easy to find out for myself. It’s definitely altered a lot though. Personally I think it’s gone a bit deeper.” She breaks off. “Sorry about this, my entire family is now arriving into the hotel room!” There is a short intermission while wires are untangled. “Where was I? Yes, it’s changed. I could wax lyrical on how it’s changed, but it’s hard to say what it might be. I might not connect to it. I’ve been trying to express but sometimes you have to not tell. There’s definitely a different record in Sugaring Season, and I’m very happy with it. There is an assurance to the recording and the writing, possibly because I had more time.”
Her music does however retain an ‘outdoors’ quality, and it feels like there are strong connections with the outdoors. She agrees. “That’s definitely true, that nature is a huge inspiration for this record, more so than ever. It’s a big part of what gets you through the day. I was inspired by a writer, what’s his name, Walter of Evesham, he’s been a big inspiration and I’ve been dipping in to his books. I’ve certainly been contemplating nature, but not in a whimsical sense. There is also a focus on big skies – it is a wide open sound, with a lot of space in the music.”
The writing process began in private, often in the small hours. “It did, but not all of it. There was a degree of writing in the middle of the night, but as time went on I got more focus and I got more time in the day. You know that middle of the night time where you feel like you’re the only one alive? I was being woken up and not getting back to sleep, so that was where my inspiration began.”
Recording took place in Portland, working with Tucker Martine. “As a place it was a side note, really, because the whole experience was in the studio, and we didn’t go anywhere except to get our burritos! It was completely Tucker’s world. He was a lovely guy to work with, a brilliant man. We had some great musicians and string arrangements, and it was lovely how it came together.”
And has her writing changed as a result of motherhood? “Definitely. I had to get more focussed when I was writing. You get a different perspective on life, and it can be very challenging having children. You find changes occur at both ends, from being a responsible parent to seeing life through a child’s eyes. It’s really inspiring because you go deep in to their world, and experience their wonderment. There’s a lack of self consciousness with children, and they’re not worried what people think of them.”
We talk some more of the album, and Beth describes her return to a more acoustic sound as “an inspiration for sure, getting back to that state. She admits, however, to finding it difficult seeing her own secretive songs transferred to the public domain. “Yeah, it feels horrible really. I did a gig the other night and found myself thinking that it’s always been time that I put myself on the line. What I’m not shifting in is honesty but I’m less self indulgent now I think. I find though that with honesty I still haven’t built up any resilience to doing a gig and having it not go very well. You get people saying ‘Tell us a joke!’, and I don’t feel like doing it. I can have a laugh but at the moment it all feels a bit real. I’m not being stuck up, and I think what I’m doing now is kind of brave, but I’m not too sure why. It’s not that I’ve not been honest before, but it’s been more about the drama associated with it rather than whittling it down to the make-up. It’s the perspective I’ve got through having a baby. With the lack of time you get you have to have more focus.”
It is true she is taking a more direct view of her own music. “However many people there are in the audience, this is what it is right now. Is it electronic or is it ‘folky’? Actually, I fucking hate that word because folk is beautiful, I love all music but for this record and for my last I have loved the immediacy of saying this is what it is. The strings were an overdub but other than that it was pretty live. I want to make music, but it is hard to bring it in to the world!”
It is the process of sitting on her record from completion until its release into the public domain that Beth finds so difficult. “Oh god, it’s unbearable. It’s all the expectation, because I’ve said all this stuff. So much dignity is in silence, but suddenly I’m in to that sense of defining myself. It’s changed now that it’s out, but in that period where it’s not out yet, it’s abstract and strange. I do find it odd to be back in the world in that way, but on the other hand I had a brilliant gig at the Port Eliot Festival, that was a fantastic time with good old friends, so there’s that element.”
“I did a gig the other night and found myself thinking that it’s always been time that I put myself on the line” – Beth Orton
She does notice a difference on her return, though. “Sometimes it’s a lovely gig or sometimes it’s a weird promotion, but I find I like the online thing more now, with music not being run by one or two tastemakers. The corporate side of things can be a bit scary.”
Despite her absence, Beth has kept her hand in on the live circuit. “I did some touring in the US and Ireland, and a few little gigs round England, to earn a bit of money but also to keep my hand in and try a few things out. That was often reflected in to the songs that I wrote. In terms of writing the record it was very private, the musicians hadn’t heard them when we came to record – it was only really Sam my husband who had heard them.”
An influence on her new work was the now sadly departed Bert Jansch. “We made the Black Swan record back in 2006, where I sang on a few songs with him, and then we did a few gigs, played guitar round his house, and he gave me some lessons. It was lovely to work with him.” Sadly that’s where the interview ends, as Beth is on to the next caller – but with Sugaring Season released into the wild, she has plans already. “I’ve had my eye on this guitar here in New York,” she gushes excitedly, “and I’m going to go and buy it. I hope you’ll be hearing it on the next record!”
Beth Orton’s new album Sugaring Season is out now through ANTI-. She begins her UK tour on 25 November at Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms, ending on 13 December at Glasgow’s Oran Mor. Further information can be found here.