Petal Flops And Dancing Cups: Beth Orton Talks


"The title track to me just sounded like kids playing with sticks when they’re little. You hit things, you hit glasses, you hit the floor, you hit the wall. You hit things and you make music out of it. It just reminded me of that sense of playfulness, and at the end of the album it sort of tied in."

In the 23 years since her debut album, and with a celebrated past including collaborations with electronic luminaries such as Andrew Weatherall, William Orbit and Chemical Brothers, Beth Orton has returned to an electronic sound on her forthcoming album 'Kidsticks'. After setting up camp in Los Angeles a couple of years back, she has found a freedom and musical liberation, composing and building sounds and loops for the first time on a keyboard. Then came a little help from co-producer Andrew Hung, from post-rock alchemists Fuck Buttons. Was Beth a fan and did their sound marry to the direction of this new record?

"No not at all, not out of any disrespect. We were introduced by a friend and he did a remix from my last record. I asked him to come out to LA, not for any reason, just for shits & giggles really. He came out and spent ten days with me in my friend's garage at the end of his garden, and this thing came to life. I’d play keyboards, and he would change the sounds and we just came out of it with these loops. He went home, and it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to make some records around these loops. I sent stuff back to Andy, but I realised I wanted to hear some live musicians on these pieces now. It just sort of grew, you know?"

To these ears, there seemed that Fuck Buttons intensity on the album track 'Petals', which rises from a sedate and melancholic tremor to full on sonic wall several minutes later. Was that Andy's doing?

"That has nothing to do with him, that’s funny! The lyrics of it come from a poem I’d been writing for some time, the gentleness & stillness of the track really fitted it. It was about inanimate objects, well maybe not because a plant doesn’t seem inanimate to me. Sort of like when you leave a room and the flowers can go, 'Aw, fuck it, we can all drop off and the petals fall all on the floor, and the cups can start dancing, I don’t fucking know. It’s that kind of grief, when you are so still you become part of the room, and suddenly in that space you observe what happens when you leave the room. It’s sort of death. I thought I want to hear what happens when I leave, I want to hear everything go mental and smash this fucking room up, I wanna have a say over what happens in this room. So when I pulled some musicians in on this I said 'Right, now you go mental!'. It was an emotional need to hear what was going on in that room. I am no longer an object, rather than the room doing it to you, I wanted to do it to the room."

Beth spent most of her childhood in Norfolk, and later moved to London in her teens. Did the widescreen vistas of California and the relocation away from familiar territories influence the sound of the new album?

"It made a huge difference. When you're older and you uproot your family and relocate, it really affects you, I’d forgot. It’s so integral to you, your sense of history, your identity it all gets thrown up in the air and at the same time you just come up against yourself, really hard and fast and you just go 'Fucking hell, hello, this is who I am'. It’s a funny thing at all points. Being in a different climate, it was really liberating and that happened and Andy came out, and then picking up a completely new instrument, playing the keyboard which I’d never done on my records before. I wrote all the sounds on the keyboards, that’s me you hear, all the beats and loops. It all just combined, to my surprise."

"LA had this influence as well, because I think it’s one of the last major cities that a person can afford to live in, and be creative. In a funny way, although it had this opulence you can still rent or even buy in certain areas fairly cheaply. There’s a reason why there’s a lot of musicians that live there. You couldn’t throw a stick without hitting some enormously talented musician, when it came to finding the people I wanted to play on the record, like Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear and Jake Aaron. I didn’t have money or the inclination to spend time in the studio. Everything about it was really homespun, I recorded most of it in my house. The odd afternoon a musician friend would come over and do vocals and I’d run past the cashpoint and get him a couple of hundred dollars, it was just so random. No fancy studio set ups with a mics all over the place, just all done so adhoc really."

"I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to earn my stripes and learn my craft, and it got to a point where it was like, I’ve done that, I’ve been as careful as I can be, and without meaning to I sort of threw caution to the wind. It wasn’t my intention, but that freed me hugely."

On this sceptred isle, the toxicity of our own politicians and Twitter soap boxers, and that of 'future world leader' Donald Trump looks inflammatory. It seems that the distance doesn't dim that view.

"Well, Tory Britain, hello? It ain’t that far different. I don’t wanna be extremist but everyone knows he’s a nutter, I didn’t know anyone who thought different. Even the Republicans you come across think he’s a wanker too. Everyone thinks he’s an arsehole, he’s just a fucking joke. Everyone I know would be Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton. I am interested in American politics and what’s happening there is extremely interesting and Donald Trump is the least of it. It’s funny for all the press he gets, it’s not people you would come up against in daily life, you know, Trump supporters."

"That would really upset me. I mean there is this feeling of American patriotism which is all about Trump, but it’s like England and that twat David Cameron, you wouldn't want to be tarred with that brush, and you wouldn’t tar a whole country in the same way. But yeah, you do have an urge just to check, which side are you own. You have to be careful!" 

This album sees Beth come back to electronica, and she's certainly worked with some pioneers. Why the return to it?

"I just loved the sounds that came from working with a keyboard, it had a propulsion, that came from working with Andy. I really enjoyed it, it was like “Oh yeah” and something had started to happen. It suited my voice and the way I write. It was like a natural progression, but I do think in retrospect, looking back I’d done Trailer Park and I’d done Central Reservation and I was always uncomfortable being a straight ahead folk singer/ songwriter, so that’s why I pulled in people like Andrew Weatherall as example. I don’t really see 'SuperPinkyMandy' as one of my records, it seemed like it was William (Orbit)’s record, and from then on it was really important to stake my own claim on what I did, and make my own music and prove to myself that I could actually do this thing that had come out of nowhere at the age of 19. I hadn’t sung before then really, I had no intention to become a singer or a musician for the rest of my life. So I did those two albums, then I went on for the next couple of albums trying to be good, and along the way I worked with some incredible people and I was very lucky to do so, with Bert Jansch and so forth. I thought I’m only getting 'so good' at this, and that moving on and working with new people was really essential. Going back to a new instrument was like ‘beginners mind’, going back to when I first started writing songs on a guitar. There’s something very special in that, and what was interesting was that I could hear melodies on the keyboard which I couldn’t find on the guitar, which is why I’ve  brought in so many musicians in the past. And in the end I was being who I thought I was ‘meant’ to be, and with this there seemed something that was really freeing about starting again elsewhere, on this ‘cheap as chips’ Casio that Andy had given me."

Had this fresh renaissance been fuelled by any hedonistic nights out?

"I don’t go out much at all. Although there was this little club out in LA called ‘Giorgio's’ which played just out & out gay disco, fucking brilliant, or just dance your arse off to Prince, but not really out and about. My time in LA was just based around the daytime, going to the beach, taking the kids to the mountains or the desert, or cooking shit like that. Boring stuff. But when I do go out, I do it properly, like 'COME ON!'"

Apart from the irregular nights out throwing shapes, Beth hasn't really been following much electronic music of late, but is very keen on some remixes coming from the tracks on the new album.

"I've been listening to Erykah Badu's new record, Anderson Paak too, but I'm just in a world of my own most of the time and not really looking for any outside influences. My daughter likes a lot of Blondie, so I'm having a resurgence on that recently. Having said that, it would be fucking fantastic to get some remixes for these 'Kidsticks' tracks."

It's twenty years since 'Trailer Park', and for Beth all the cliches about "where did the time go" are right.

"To use another, I feel like I’m just starting again at the moment, like 'hold on a minute, I’ve still got loads more to say!' Like a second wind."

Beth Orton – Kidsticks is released by Anti on 27th May 2016 and can be pre-ordered HERE.