It’s been nearly six years since Beth Orton — the English singer/songwriter known for pioneering “folktronica” back in the mid-’90s — last released a proper album. Having found herself at odds with the music business and with a newborn daughter to raise, Orton retreated to the English countryside in an effort to either rediscover what she loved about making music or, perhaps, close the door on that chapter of her life. Luckily, Orton’s sojourn to the country led her back to writing songs and, eventually, to the recording of Sugaring Season. Recorded in Portland, Oregon over the course of five days (with Tucker Martine taking on production duties), the record is not only the warmest, most organic-sounding thing Orton has ever released, it’s also probably the most beautiful. I had the chance to sit down and share a cup of tea with Orton during her recent visit to NYC. Not surprisingly, she was just as lovely as her music might lead you to believe.
STEREOGUM: I have to say that I think this record came just at the right time.
BETH ORTON: How so?
STEREOGUM: Well, when I received it, it was the first slightly cold day in New York where it felt kind of autumnal outside. I put it on with the windows open and it was just the perfect soundtrack to my day.
ORTON: Awww. Thank you very much.
STEREOGUM: It’s perfectly suited to this time of year. Maybe that’s just me projecting that, but ….
ORTON: No, I’ve always wanted to make a record that was released this time of year, and then I go and make a perfect October record with a spring name.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] After being out of the office for so long, how does it feel to have to do this kind of press stuff again?
ORTON: A bit nerve wracking. It depends on the day. Last night I slept pretty well, but sometimes I think, “Wow, I’m putting all these words out into the world,” and it’s not the songs, really, but the interviews. And then you think, “Wow that’s a lot of words, I feel like my whole room is full of all the words I’ve said.” And then I feel really unusual about it or uncomfortable about it. I just have to let that go. And there is a lot of letting go and being all right with stuff that you’ve said off the top of your head, when usually I spend a lot of time working on the words that I put out into the world. You know, I’ve spent the last six years working on this record. That would be ridiculous to complain about, but it’s not so much complaining as noticing that it is unusual. And then there is the whole touring side of it.
STEREOGUM: I understand that at one point, about six years ago, you were essentially done with the music business. What led to that? Were you just sick of all the bullshit involved?
ORTON: Well, I got pregnant as soon as I released that last record. And I was told to stop touring by a doctor, because flying wouldn’t be good for the baby and certain conditions that I was in, so I stopped touring. Then I lost a lot of confidence somehow, in between that and having my baby and bringing her up a bit. At that time, I started working with Burt Jansch. I gave myself to him in a way, just started hanging at his house a lot and playing music. I loved my last record but I just lost confidence in a way. And after the record, I didn’t have a label because EMI was folding, and I was one of the acts they dropped — which was fine, actually.
And then, well, it was quite a hot subject for me. What would I do now? I thought about going to university and studying writing, literature, blah blah blah. But I didn’t do that, I moved back to the countryside and started to fiddle with some tunings; I was already in GarageBand working with some bits, and working with Tom Roland from the Chemical Brothers. We were both just working on some songs –- one of them is called “Winter Breeze” and one was called “See Through Blue” — and those were actually the beginning of sort of feeling like, well, going back into that kind of process.
In the end I went to Norfolk, and it was when I was there … that I started recording. I sort of veered away from what I was doing with Tom, and there was only so much I could bring to that project anyway, so it sort of started to peter out — with no ill will at all. I love Tom. At the same time, I started getting more and more back into guitar, and I guess from working with Burt, and the literal nature of having something right next to your stomach — this intimate relationship with an instrument — it felt good. There was no disconnection from what I was doing. So then I started to write and a chorus came, and then bit by bit more of the songs started to reveal themselves.
Being in the country was a bit hardcore, so me and my daughter went back to London and found some old songs and played around with those a bit, and then suddenly I just got on a roll and I start putting time away during the day to work … and not just working on a whim, like I had been. When the baby was asleep I would work on music.
It was an amazing high, you know? I started to speak to Anti-, and that was great, and then I signed with them. The one thing I did sort of stick to was the Roberta Flack First Take record –- the grooves and the bass. That record was a huge inspiration. That sound. And at the end of the day, the way the record all came together through the sound and the musicians, it sort of is that record. I mean it isn’t, but it has the same elements of it for sure. So, that’s my six-year synopsis. [Laughs] Does that make any sense?
STEREOGUM: I’ve had so many conversations like this recently. So many musicians that either got left high and dry because of the collapsing music business or people who simply got burned out by the grind of being a working musician. So many people have said to me, “I had to step off the treadmill and reevaluate … What are my expectations? What am I looking for out of this?”
ORTON: I have to admit that was a big part of what happened to me. I could afford to stop for a while, and I also had a child to bring up. But it was a humungous reevaluation. There was a sense of, is this really what I’m going to be doing? Going out on a tour again, going out on a limb again? Putting yourself out there to be an idiot again, or be made an idiot out of? What is it now?
STEREOGUM: This record sounds as if it springs from a very natural place.
ORTON: Do you miss the electronic element of what I do? Or what I’ve done before?
STEREOGUM: I didn’t really think about it, actually. I love those records, and I’ve seen you perform before, but … maybe it’s just my personal bias, but as someone who gets sent a million records, I have fatigue sometimes. I get sent so much music that is stereotypically … um ….
ORTON: Indie? Hipster?
STEREOGUM: I guess you could say that. After a certain point I just want something that sounds sincere. People seem to be afraid of sincerity or earnestness. I get sent so much of what might be considered “challenging” or “experimental” music, much of which I love, but when I hear a record that is just really simple and beautiful and earnest, it’s so refreshing.
ORTON: Yeah, or people are trying TOO hard to be earnest there is the flip side of the coin. “Everyone is being so earnest!”
STEREOGUM: Yeah. So whenever I hear something that resonates from a very human, natural place, at least for me personally it really strikes a cord. And also hearing really great musicians play so well together in such a simple, unfussy way, I love that.
ORTON: Yeah, I hear you. The band came together to record and we basically had three days. It wasn’t a lot of time to second guess, and it did come from a very honest, natural place. I’d follow through on a process in a way that I’d never properly done. But I know what you mean — it’s like a really good rock and roll record, that can be really refreshing thing too.
STEREOGUM: It’s almost indistinguishable and impossible to define what makes something work that way and what doesn’t.
ORTON: Yeah. I know.
STEREOGUM: Just being a straightforward rock and roll record or acoustic-y folk record or whatever … but when it works, it really works. It’s still possible to do things in that milieu that sound fresh, even though it’s hardly reinventing the wheel.
ORTON: It is a fine line between good folk music and absolute awfulness. It drives me nuts.
STEREOGUM: I noticed that you referenced a Pentangle record.
ORTON: Yeah, and Anne Briggs as well.
STEREOGUM: Did you grow up with that kind of classically English folk music?
ORTON: Yeah. I grew up with folk music, but all kinds of music. I grew up with my brother’s rock collection, which was a huge part of my life because we lived in a small house at that point in our lives. It was everywhere. My mom worked at an art center where all these people came through … It was small English towns where things happened young and you grow up in a way that you are sort of left to your own devices. We were largely unsupervised much of the time.
STEREOGUM: That’s sort of like how I grew up. Very different — I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, which is probably quite different from a small English town — but similar in that we were often just left outside to do whatever we pleased. It makes me laugh now, especially when I see how my New York City friends are with their children.
ORTON: In what way?
STEREOGUM: I always just think about how, when we were old enough to walk, they were like, “Here is the door, go outside, and come back if you break your arm or when it gets dark.” We were very much left to our own devices and we all turned out OK. But my neighbors are freaked out about the kind of carrots that they have at our deli.
ORTON: If you are going to live in the city, then why have a kid in the city? I battle with this pretty much every single day. Where to bring them up now?
STEREOGUM: How will it be touring? Will you just all tour together, you and the kids?
ORTON: Yeah pretty much. Got a lot to work out. Logistics ….
STEREOGUM: Are you doing a lot more press stuff today?
ORTON: No, but I am going to go back and look at a guitar. I did an interview at a guitar shop, and I found a guitar. It was the most beautiful guitar I’ve ever played ever. It’s gorgeous and I went away and was like, “There is no way I can afford it.” But I’m going back today to look at it, because yesterday I found out that I was owed some money. I was like, OK, if it’s the same amount as this guitar, I’m going to buy it. And it was.
STEREOGUM: That’s nice. It was meant to be then.
ORTON: So nice.
STEREOGUM: How many guitars do you take on tour?
ORTON: One! I’ve got one fucking guitar. It’s ridiculous.
STEREOGUM: Oh, so you need two.
ORTON: I know, it’s ridiculous — come on I do! I let my brother borrow one of my guitars and he said “No you didn’t let me borrow this you gave it to me!” But I did get that back so I have that as a backup.
STEREOGUM: I feel like that when I go in record stores – it feels like I’m high, I go crazy, I’ll be walking toward the check out stand and ill be like “Why am I doing this?” I don’t even need or want most of whatever happens to be in my hands. A guitar is different though … it’s your job.
ORTON: I know, right? I’ve spent three weeks thinking about it, and I need it for this tour, so we’ll see. I was doing research on it last night and it turns out it was Brian Jones’s guitar of choice and all this classic stuff.
STEREOGUM: What kind of guitar is it? Not that I know …
ORTON: It’s a Gibson. It has a beautiful sound. Anyway, I’m obsessed.
STEREOGUM: I think you should get it. Not to be an enabler …
ORTON: [Laughs] OK, good.
STEREOGUM: Think of all the music you’ll make with it. It’s an investment in everyone’s future.
STEREOGUM: So when do you leave for Nashville? Tomorrow?
ORTON: Yeah, tomorrow. Then maybe I should get a guitar in Nashville? But when am I going to have time to guitar shop in Nashville? I don’t have time to do it. It’s now or never.
STEREOGUM: I’ll be curious to find out if you actually buy it.
ORTON: I know! I’ll be fucking curious to know as well. I’ll let you know.
STEREOGUM: I am pretty clueless about how much guitars can be.
ORTON: Really a lot of money. It can be disgusting. But also, you know, this one’s not THAT much. Well maybe that’s not true …
STEREOGUM: It’s an investment.
ORTON: It’s an investment for all our lives.
Beth Orton’s Sugaring Season is out now on Anti-.