Of two minds, Beth Orton sees the songwriting one as smarter

The New York TimesOctober 4, 2012 

Singer-songwriter Beth Orton released her latest album, Sugaring Season, on Tuesday. On it, she continues to depart from an electronic sound.


Beth Orton was falling in love. At Retrofret, a vintage instrument dealer in Brooklyn, N.Y., she grew smitten this summer month with a Gibson Southern Jumbo from the 1940s: a spruce-topped, dreadnought-size guitar with a throaty low register and a price tag of more than $7,000.

"It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful and also it's doing this thing to my voice," Orton said.

She's a tall, slender woman who speaks in eager staccato bursts that couldn't be more different from her sustained, otherworldly singing voice. Cradling the guitar in her lap, she began the fluttery, syncopated two-chord strum of Dawn Patrol from her first album in six years, Sugaring Season, out this week. "Beneath the noise there was silence/ And what was left was ours to surprise us," she sang, in a melody like a stone skipping across the repeated chords.

The music rippled and resonated through the room. Then Orton switched to the guitar she has cherished for 12 years, a smaller, lighter-toned vintage Levin that she had brought with her for comparison. She began the same song, and tapered off. "I've been playing this guitar nonstop," she said sadly. "And suddenly it feels like a stranger."

But she left without the jumbo guitar, pondering how to afford it.

The incantatory union of voice and guitar — what Orton calls "the mantralike quality" of her music — is at the core of most songs on Sugaring Season, a quietly spellbinding album. The arrangements are hand-played, not electronic, and the songs are filled with imagery of time and nature, freedom and determination.

"I won't turn back, I've seen the sun/ I won't turn back, not for anyone," Orton sings in the album's first song, Magpie.

Pattern and resonance make Orton's solo concerts rapt, hypnotic experiences, punctuated with gawky jokes between songs.

Performing is "like being there and not being there," says Orton, who isn't scheduled for any shows near Lexington. "It's like a pure meditation. I don't know what it is. Maybe I shamanize myself in the room."

Meditation unlocked her music from the start. Orton, 41, grew up in rural Norfolk, England; her father died when she was 11, her mother when Orton was 19. Left on her own, she dared herself to try things. She went to Thailand for three months to meditate with Buddhist nuns, sometimes for 36 hours at a time without sleeping or eating. Almost immediately after returning to England, she said, "I started writing songs in earnest."

Those songs, beginning with her 1996 debut album Trailer Park, join the immediate and the timeless, the personal and the archetypal, in music that's full of improbable combinations. Although Orton came of age in the England of punk, post-punk and electronic raves, she was drawn to guitar-slinging songwriters like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Her own sense of melody holds echoes of Celtic tradition; her voice, smoky and torn at the edges, brings melancholy and pain close to the surface. But she was discovered by William Orbit, the producer best known for his hits with Madonna.

The first recordings Orton released were electronics-laced tracks, made with Orbit and then with the electronic dance-music team the Chemical Brothers. Trailer Park accompanied her not only with acoustic guitar and string-section arrangements, but with trip-hop beats and electronic sounds; she became the darling of folktronica. Orton also drew on American R&B, particularly soul ballads with their own slow-rolling vamps.

Her second album, Central Reservation in 1999, melded the acoustic and electronic with even more assurance and won her a Brit award, the British equivalent of a Grammy, as best female artist. Electronics continued to glimmer at the edges of her 2003 album, Daybreaker, along with stronger jazz and soul undercurrents.

But with Comfort of Strangers in 2006, the electronics receded, traded for the sound of a live band. That continues on Sugaring Season. "The electronic part of it has just over the years become less and less important to me," she said. "I just really got into my hands and my guitar and this visceral sense of what I was doing."

Her lyrics have always poured out thoughts of longing, solitude and steadfastness that rise toward the philosophical. "You want to learn the trick to turn/ What's not so pretty into something more beautiful," she sings in Something More Beautiful, a stark piano song that becomes a rawly declaimed soul ballad.

"I'm an intense little writer," Orton said, smiling. "I've learned to not make myself prettier than I am."

She added: "The songwriting brain is much smarter than me. I'm not that person. It makes connections that I don't make necessarily."

Although Orton wrote a song called Sugaring Season, it didn't end up on the album.

"It's a beautiful poetic phrase," she said. "These long cold nights and then this slight upping in the temperature in the day would create an upsurgence in the tree, and the sap would rise, and it would create some sugar. But you'd have to have a lot of sap for every little bit of sugar. I like the chemistry of the idea that that's the creative process for me. It's taking it all and just making a little bit of sugar."

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