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Interview: Beth Orton - New Zealand Shows

Interview: Beth Orton - New Zealand Shows

Chris Cudby / Tuesday 9th April, 2024 11:26AM

UK songwriting giant Beth Orton returns to Aotearoa with band next week, playing her first local headline shows since 2013 at Tāmaki Makaurau's The Powerstation and Pōneke's St James Theatre. Praised by Pitchfork as "the best work" from an oeuvre spanning eight acclaimed studio albums, including collaborations with The Chemical Brothers and Andrew Weatherall, Chris Cudby got on the line with the BRIT Award winning artist, who illuminated the holographic depths of her 2022 self-produced latest long player Weather Alive and more...

Beth Orton

Saturday 20th April - The Powerstation, Auckland
Sunday 21st April - St James Theatre, Wellington

Tickets on sale via Ticketmaster

Chris Cudby: So much has changed in the world since you were last here in New Zealand in 2013. Who will be in your band for these shows coming up this month?

Beth Orton: I have a guy called Ben Sloan who is fantastic drummer, who I have just done two US tours and a UK tour with. Beautiful drummer, plays with Moses Sumney. A guy from Australia called James Gilligan, one of Julia Stone's right hand men. Jesse Chandler who's also goes under Pneumatic Tubes. He's in a band called Midlake and he has then gone on... he's in the band with Mercury Rev. He's also multi-instrumentalist with me. It's a very beautiful band and then along the way, we'll be bumping into friends, which is very nice.

You've had such a remarkable career so far. Your latest album Weather Alive sounds like a fresh artistic chapter in itself, it was really well received critically as well. Songs such as 'Friday Night' make me recall things like The Blue Nile, some people have talked about Talk Talk as a point of reference. It has such a distinct sound from the previous album Kidsticks... How did you go through the process of creating the sound / instrumentation of the record? Was there a workshopping process?

No, other than my life has been a constant workshopping process. Some of the loveliest things that people have said is, within the record, it's pulled together the strands of many years of work. It's pulled together what I've held beloved. And I think that that's true, as someone who's made a record when I was 49. That's called experience I think. Cannot deny the genius musicianship as well, of the people who played on the record. I do feel there's a culmination... I feel lucky that I've been given the opportunity in an industry that doesn't often give that chance, for people to grow and to learn my craft. Because I haven't been as successful as some people, in a way, I've been lucky enough to be ignored long enough to get on and get good at what I do. I think the workshopping was definitely my life. Definitely the experiences I had over the years working with many amazing people and working with a lot of producers.

With this record I didn't mean to produce it... To a certain degree it was a collaborative effort, in terms of the fact that by the time it in the studio, it was in lockdown. There was three days in the main studio and there was one day in my friend's studio, where I had Tom Skinner drummer and his friend Tom Herbert come in and play with me. Everything we did was one or two takes, three takes maximum. Then I gave it to my label and then within about three months, they dropped me. I had already started the process in the second lockdown, of teasing out what was there and what was really magical. Because at that point it was drums, bass, voice, piano — and some additional piano from a guy called Sam Beste who's amazing, and also some vibes. But really that was the core. Then it was a case of, had nothing to lose and no one was going to hear it. That was actually the process of writing the record as well, I was writing on a piano. I didn't have a record label, particularly. I probably could have if I tried, I don't know. I'd sort of given up a bit on the whole idea of trying to make it work in an industry and instead I realised that I just truly love what I do. I think that spurred something in the songs, an honesty possibly.

So then it was just me and these tracks, these extended takes where the band is sort of learning the songs. For example, 'Weather Alive' was three takes of people learning it, and then taking that and saying — it was the best take there was. What if that's the intro and I just take the verse out and I take the B sections out and they become instrumentals. I just started to play. Then I invited other musicians and Shahzad Ismaily got involved. He was a wonderful and very inspiring person because I have to be honest, I also did start to lose a bit of confidence in the fact that I'd been dropped. It was a bit of a blow but at the same time it was a relief. But he came on board and he was very supportive, again remotely because we were back in lockdown by this point. He would send me these ideas and half half done takes and beautiful, inspired moments and and I started to really dig into the editing. Then I was working with a wonderful woman called Francine Perry who's a beautiful engineer. She'd been giving me Logic lessons.

It just evolved. I asked my friend Grey Mcmurray to bring some guitars to it. He also bought some vocals. This very genuine patchwork of beautiful musicianship and me being left for hours. It was three months fully of being immersed in this world of colour and having my own palette, of amazing players but also just my own imagination to be like — "Well fuck it if it was just me, I'd do that. If no one was in the room to tell me what to do..." Of course there was no one in the room, by that point all my critics had left all, all the ghosts of other voices had left and I was just... doing it. That was the workshop.

You've talked about the emotional heaviness of the lyrics on Weather Alive — did that arise in conjunction with the recording of the album, or did you have song ideas before you made the sound of it?

The songs were very much written. I started in earnest writing the songs in the end of 2017, 2018, 2019. So yeah, these were written songs. They weren't like sketches. I have talked about the heaviness, but I've talked about a lot of things and it's funny in retrospect. I just honest to god made a record having no clue that it would be heard. I know it's a good story and all but it is the truth. By the time it was coming out and being so well received, I was trying to come up with things to say, because I just didn't really know what to say. I made this piece of work with people I loved and alone, then I had to talk about it like I knew what it was. I didn't know what it was, I didn't know really what it meant or what the songs were, or how heavy they were. I don't think they're heavy, I think there's deep. I think there's a depth to the record, there's a depth to the words and it's someone really following through their process. I suppose I didn't shy away from the depth — I did when I was in the studio, for a minute. A couple of the songs I completely changed the words to go in the studio with, because I was shy of singing what I had. But that quickly went away. I think if anything, I went deeper into it. I got braver and braver as I went.

That makes sense in relation to themes of memory that run through the album. Are you already at work on the next record?

Yeah, I am. I just did some recording and I'm really excited. I am very happy. Just gotta get on and finish it when I get back from Australia.

Your music has been featured in a variety of high profile films and television shows over the years, all floating out there on streaming services and things like that. I turned on the television just the other day and I saw Vanilla Sky (featuring Orton with The Chemical Bros' 'Where Do I Begin') for the first time, I'd never seen it before. Do things like Dawson's Creek still attract new fans to your music?

I try and forget that Dawson's Creek ever happened. I meet people and they're perfectly nice... I don't think I've ever even watched Dawson's Creek. Blessed be that people come and tell me that that's where they found my music. I'm like, amazing. No idea, but that's so cool.

I was interested to learn that you once worked as a pizza waitress and ran a catering company. I worked in pizza at one point in my life, so I'm curious. Do you feel you brought any lessons from those experiences into your musical life?

If you didn't get a job when you were like sixteen what were you? You were nothing. Nothing! I tell you. Yes, I do think actually that I am influenced by food and cooking. Yes I do. I mean, not 'Fat Beth's Lunchbox', that was a classic — that was a Primal Scream video I created that company for. I basically was 19 and 20 and I needed to make money, so I was a runner on videos. Then I realised you probably make a bit more money if you are the caterer. I managed to do one video and I don't think I ever got asked back.

When I chat with musicians, they've talked about when they listen to previous records, they can really strongly recall the circumstances surrounding the making of those works. Like a kind of sonic time travel. Do you ever listen to your past records?

No it's funny, but I have I have got plans to try and do that for that exact reason. Because, when we were in lockdown and there was the reissue of Central Reservation and I had to listen to it, it was extraordinary how it brought back memories. I didn't expect it to be quite so, kind of telling. Literally it told me a lot. So I'm interested to do that, but in a a controlled explosion experiment kind of way.

I can imagine it could be intense to listen to more than one album back to back.

I think it could go in many directions at once for sure.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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