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10 Questions for Musician Beth Orton | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Musician Beth Orton

10 Questions for Musician Beth Orton

The singer-songwriter talks about California, EDM, music-making, money and more

Standing out as a folk-electronic original

Beth Orton (b 1970) is a singer-songwriter who first came to prominence via her collaborations with the Chemical Brothers, at the start of both their careers. She recorded an album with the producer William Orbit in 1993 but it was her 1995 album, Trailer Park, a canny amalgamation of folk and electronica, that really put her on the map as a solo artist.

Since then, spending increasing amounts of time in the US, she has recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums, the latest of which, Kidsticks, her seventh, appears in May. She will be performing two special concerts at the Brighton Festival on May 27-28, which will cast an overview of her career, as well as previewing new material.

THOMAS H GREEN: You performed at the American all-women touring festival, the Lilith Fair, in 1997 – what was that like?

BETH ORTON: It was a good experience but huge, in a way quite overwhelming. I wasn’t always comfortable with it being this kind of movement of womanliness. Politically speaking I wasn’t entirely convinced, and it wasn’t music I loved, it was the kind of singer-songwritery stuff I’ve tried really hard to avoid. Yet there I was, surrounded by it. I found myself liking things I didn’t want to, like Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan, who ran the whole thing. Emmylou Harris did it which was extraordinary. Coming from England I had all these judgemental attitudes but they’re really nice people.

What are your prime memories of making the 2001 American independent film Southlander?

I don’t have many memories of that time. I had a lot of fun, very silly. I get it mixed up because Steve Hanft, the director, also did the video for my song “Best Bit”. It was jolly. I haven’t looked at in years and sort of forget I ever did it. I’m sure I’d enjoy it if I watched it.

How is California?

I moved back last September but lived in LA for two years before that. I went for work, intending to record for a few months, but ended up staying. It’s a place that's simultaneously riddled with cars and pollution but incredibly close to all sorts of incredibly beautiful nature. There are some incredibly false people but also some beautiful real people. It all exists in tandem. The thing I found really inspiring was the amount of incredibly talented musicians who live there. It’s one of the major cities left where you can afford to live and be creative.

While your music is critically acclaimed and reasonably popular, you’re hardly prolific and don’t tour all the time how do you make a living from it?

Some money comes from the TV synch stuff and, I don’t know, I tour quite a bit. I get by. I do alright. Music is an unusual way to earn a living now but you muddle by.

There was amazing music, a time of great change and hope... For 24 hours I’d hang out with some poets and revolutionaries and hear some beautiful music

Robert Wyatt considers his debut solo album The End of an Ear as juvenilia and tends to be dismissive of it, regarding his second album Rock Bottom as his true debut. This seems to be how you regard SuperpinkyMandy, the album you recorded with William Orbit in 1993, in relation to Trailer Park. Is that true?

Yeah, SuperpinkyMandy is very much a William Orbit record. I wrote the songs but he very much drove the sound. I was put through a machine, is how I feel about that, in that a machine created the sound of my voice. I felt very much in that time I wasn’t sure whether it was coming from him or me. I think what happened is it pushed me to prove myself. From thereon I chose my musicians, I wrote my songs, chose the producers – from thereon I steered my course.

What do you think about the whole EDM boom, with dance music taking America by storm these last five years?

The EDM boom has been going on a lot longer than that, with the Chemical Brothers and so on. As far as the last five years go, I haven’t paid it any real attention. It’s not on my radar at all.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

Erykah Badu’s new record [But You Caint Use My Phone], also Joanna Newsom’s new record [Divers]. I’m not terribly well connected but those records I like. We have music on all the time at home, a whole slew of things. We all have playlists, a little dance party with me and the kids. If it’s my son, it’s Octonauts to Thelonious Monk, if it’s my husband, it’s Wayne Shorter to… I don’t know, he listens to everything, and my daughter is really into Blondie and Paul Simon.

If you had a time machine and could go back anywhere for 24 hours, where would you go?

Maybe I’d go to the mid-Sixties, when it was all going off with Martin Luther King and politically there was a sense of revolution, the rise of civil rights. I might go back to that period. There was amazing music, a time of great change and hope, also a very difficult time. For 24 hours I’d hang out with some poets and revolutionaries and hear some beautiful music.

What do you have forthcoming this year?

The new album, Kidsticks, comes out at the end of May. I’m doing the two Brighton Festival gigs and Rough Trade East in London, then touring America for almost a month. I’m playing a few festivals. One I’m very excited about is Caught by the River at Fulham Palace on the first weekend in August, then there will be more touring the UK in September.

Find Brighton Festival tickets

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