English singer-songwriter Beth Orton recently released Weather Alive, her eighth studio album, which is full of poetic, intense songs that conjure a moody, serene and meditative state. (listen to the title track below) She brilliantly shares her intimate ruminations about love, loss, uncertainty and the impermanence of life. References to the natural world help her express thoughts and feelings; melody as much as lyrics communicates her ideas.
She spoke with me from Vermont — where her husband, musician Sam Amidon, grew up — about how she came to write the album’s deeply personal songs, and how telling her stories is possibly an inherited trait from her inspiring mother, writer and activist Christine Orton. We discussed the way the atmosphere she creates in these songs inform us about her emotional truths, and how she finds sparks in life through nature.
She just finished her European tour, which she said was “amazing” and “really great,” and starts her United States tour in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1
She was surprised by the positive reception at the European shows, “given that the record literally had just come out.” I’m not surprised as an immersive listen to the album — her first since 2016’s Kidsticks — pulls me into a trance. There are artists, such as Joni Mitchell, who leave me still for a moment after listening to their music, feeling emotionally drained and satisfied. Orton’s pensive songs have the same impact.
Orton will perform at The Music Hall at World Café Live, Philadelphia, Nov. 2; The Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, Nov. 3; and the Bowery Ballroom in New York, Nov. 5. For information, visit bethortonofficial.com/tour.
When you’ve lived long enough — as Orton, 51, has — to bury your parents, develop health problems, raise children, face career challenges and watch your revered colleagues die, there is a lot to share. And she bravely does so.
Color and texture are added by her talented team, including Tom Skinner on drums; Tom Herbert on bass; Shahzad Ismaily on guitar, keyboards, drums, harmonica and bass; Sam Beste on vibraphone and piano; Francine Perry on synths; Aaron Roche on trombone; and Alabaster DePlume on saxophone.
Orton spoke with me about two chronic conditions she has endured: Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel disease) and temporal lobe epilepsy. One of the consequences of the latter condition has been memory loss.
“When I hit 40, I decided that I’m going to be that woman who gets well,” she said. “What I found is that getting well is a slow process.”
Assisted by a careful diet and yoga, she has had a relatively quiescent period with Crohn’s symptoms “for the last few years,” she said, adding “I had experienced a form of temporal lobe epilepsy that’s not convulsive. I had, for many years, seizures, and it affected me and my memory. During the writing of these songs, I was coming down to Earth from that. It wasn’t that I healed through music. I was describing my process of healing and getting well.
“When I started to write the songs, I was not brilliantly well. It wasn’t obvious. But I wasn’t the person I used to be. I was trying to figure my way through. It was a time of kind of waking up to a lot of stuff. It’s really hard to speak about because it’s so abstract in and of itself.
“In a way, putting that atmosphere to music is less about what the songs are about literally, and more about the atmosphere of the record. It’s definitely someone coming out of this kind of postictal dream world” — an altered state of consciousness after an epileptic seizure — “into reality again.
“Some days were better than others. It’s hard to discuss in the cold light of day. I think that’s possibly why the music has the depth it has: because it was the only place I could find to have a conversation with myself, (by making) the sound of how it felt.”
So this process was easier than having a conversation about your symptoms?
“Definitely,” she said. “There are no words for how it feels sometimes, how dislocated and isolated. That’s the funny thing about the pandemic and about going into the lockdown. I was one of those people who found the lockdown strangely comforting, strangely connecting; I felt like we were all on the same page. My sense of the world was suddenly in keeping with many others. With people who were having this sense of isolation and dislocation, it made a lot more sense.
“The world was suddenly looking to protect the most vulnerable and look after people and I just found that a beautiful language that was suddenly prevalent. It was global. It was touching everyone at the same time.”
But then pandemic fatigue occurred. “There was an extraordinary spring and it was very beautiful for a moment,” she said. “Then, of course, it fell into its strangeness and the moneyed people went off on their holidays to the Caribbean and kept doing their houses up and suddenly there was a dislocation.
“I just felt that there was this beautiful philosophy that I wished would continue, but sadly it hasn’t. At the same time, I do believe it will have taken effect somehow.”
Orton is the mother to two young children. I found that when I had children, my attention to them encouraged me to take better care of my symptoms from Crohn’s disease. I asked Orton if that was the case for her.
“Definitely,” she said. “I have to be strong and I have to be well physically and emotionally and psychologically and I had to let go of a lot of bullshit to learn to be a parent. I miss some of my own bullshit.
“I’m joking. I really do not miss the bullshit.”
I said there’s time to get it back as they get older. She laughed.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find a channel back through to talking about something that you made so privately and personally,” she said, adding that on Weather Alive, she attempted to “dig deeper — like, what would it be like to explore certain truths and certain story lines.
“One of the side effects of the seizures was a lot of memory issues and not being able to remember, because remembering brought on seizures — that was a trigger for me and that was quite a brutal twist for me and a very strange conundrum. It would send me … and I’d be gone.”
Though Orton usually accompanies herself on guitar, an old soot-filled piano helped birth this album. She bought it at London’s Camden Market from a used-piano dealer after moving to her current home in London; its resonant sounds inspired her to play simple songs at first — in her home studio, formerly a garden shed — and then to write the lyrics and create the melodies that became Weather Alive.
Orton said that while she has written a few songs on piano before, “I don’t think I ended up playing piano on the records,” adding that “what happened with this record is that I went back to an instrument that I have loved and I play with and I have fun with, but I had never done this much writing and spent this much time on it.
“When I made Central Reservation (1999) and Trailer Park (1996), I wasn’t a guitarist — I used the guitar as a way of accessing melodies and, as it happened, two chords … I’m still playing those two-chord songs … it’s funny … I think then I tried to be good at guitar. So maybe going back to piano is allowing myself again to be a complete beginner and I’ve talked about that with every record. Coming to music as a beginner. It’s a very powerful place to start from.”
So trying something new is freeing?
“Yeah, you’re not coming with expectation, and this piano was particularly lovely because it was very old, very resonant, very warm and sensitive to the touch. I’ve been playing a few other pianos … when people come and visit my shed and I say, ‘This is the piano’ … people say, ‘Oh yes, that’s pretty good. It has a lovely tone.’ ”
Orton showed me a photo of her piano from her Instagram page and smiled, as people do when sharing baby pictures.
“One of the things that started to happen when I was playing at the piano was that other memories came back — like, further away memories,” she said. “And that was really lovely and I started to record them into music.”
Orton has worked in the past with artists such as William Orbit, the Chemical Brothers, Ryan Adams and Bert Jansch. Self-producing an album for the first time in her 30-year career, Orton — who has “loved so many people I’ve worked with,” she said — found that this allowed her to stay focused on her vision.
“I felt like I could serve the essential nature of the song,” she said. “I could hold onto the atmosphere of the initial spark of the song. I could see it through to its conclusion. I found myself not getting knocked off course, which was really lovely. It’s so easy … someone can raise an eyebrow and you start questioning yourself.
“I was suddenly aware of how easy it is to lose memories. And because now I was engineering myself and I was able to record everything as I went, I became slightly obsessive about it with taking notes, taking notes, constantly taking notes. I’ve always been a note taker since I was a kid. I want to write that down to remember it, or because it’s so interesting.
“My mom was a writer so I’ve always had that need for communication and talking and to jot things down.”
The album created a safe passageway to remembering and understanding the past.
“When I started to write for this record, it allowed me to fall back into memory in a very safe way,” she said. “But also in a very deep way, because I started to conjure up the past. It was a kind of divination process, feeling for when the atmosphere felt strongest and where I could have a sense of self that might be gone. I wanted to just have a quiet chat with myself and preserve the memory in music.”
In the achingly beautiful, smoky Weather Alive song “Lonely,” she explores a sense of loneliness that feels so familiar and so frightening: a loneliness that occurs as we change identities and leave ourselves or other people behind. There are many ways we can find ourselves lonely; Orton started early with the loss of her parents, who both died by the time she was 19. With Roche’s grieving trombone accompanying her, she sings:
And I’m falling, falling, I can see I don’t know what is good for me
But lonely, lonely, lonely likes my company
And who’d dare to love me?
I’m a whore
I’m too exposed, honey
I’m rubbed raw and all that makes it better is your touch.
Her pain is palpable, but her spirit defiant. As the song concludes, she repeatedly whispers the word “lonely,” with the saddest fading trombone.
“It’s about a love affair,” she said. “The center of that story is the idea that the greatest love has been with ‘lonely’ — with this loneliness. With all those songs on this record, there’s transference and projection. It’s like, ‘Am I the lonely?’ or is the loneliness the relationship I’m having? But then it’s like a little appraisal of all the relationships from the mother, the father — this deal that we are given throughout life that creates the bond that we hold forever. And it’s that constant juggling. At the same time, it’s finding poetry … in all those stories. It’s so ridiculous to talk about.”
No, it’s fascinating, like talking about a poem.
“Someone’s poem, I could talk about it all day,” she said.
Does this song suggest a loneliness deep inside or one that might arise from the loss of your parents at an early age?
“The wonderful thing about writing songs is that nothing is literal, right?” she said. “And life isn’t literal.
“It would just be too impossible to sum up. I really love the idea of this prismic kind of writing. You take something and you keep turning it over and over and over. The idea of one thread, and you see it from every side, every angle. And on different days I have my own clarity about what a song’s about and I remember, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, of course that was a thread.’ Or, ‘The root of this song is x, y and z, and I can sum it up.’ But I won’t remember that moment today. It comes and goes.
“It’s a deep song, is all I will say. It’s probably too deep for a Tuesday morning at 10:30 with jet lag!”
I asked her if writing reminds her of the birthing process, as it does for me.
“Yes, it felt like I was some kind of doula to the music,” she said. “I had to get out of the way and allow the process to do its thing while, at the same time, making sure that everything was good, everything was on track … To give the best to the songs and to allow the best space to the music.”
At times during her career, Orton has thought of leaving the music industry. But she has endured.
“I never really saw myself as staying in it, anyway, so for me the idea of leaving is never too far away,” she said. “I always thought it was a phase I was going through, and I just kept going deeper and deeper and loving it more and more.”
When her daughter was an infant, she played Nick Drake songs to ease her to sleep, along with Amidon’s music. “My daughter,” she said, “asked me last night: When she was little, ‘Didn’t you play me your music?’ And I said, ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ she asked me. I wouldn’t even think of it. I went through this phase when I had kids, wondering what I was meant to do … trying to align all these parts of who I was meant to be … and now I was a mother as well, and it seemed like the negotiation within me … how do I make time for all these things in me? … how is that possible and what’s the justification for it?
“I did keep writing songs even when it was for no one or nothing. In fact, in some ways that was the most enjoyable time I’ve ever spent making music.”
She never lost that piece of her; mothers, we know, are multi-faceted.
“The kids were back at school and I could dig deeper again and I could go back to who I am,” she said, adding that “I had an internal dialogue around it because we are brought up to have these delineations … like I should give it up because it’s a narcissistic pursuit, rather than that is what makes me who I am and, therefore, will make me a better parent because I will be fulfilled.
“I have total respect for mothers who think it’s enough just being a parent … to try to do more is a lot. For me, I need to find the balance between what I love in my art, and it took me awhile to dig as deep as I wanted to when I had kids. Like you don’t want to scare them (laughs).”
She cherishes her mother’s work in the ’70s and ’80s. “She wrote about social issues,” said Orton. “And just before she died, she put a bill through Parliament to get affordable child care for parents, as Hillary Clinton did … her whole thing was social justice. She was someone who lived her politics. … (there is) this Catch-22 where parents need to work, want to work, and they end up spending more money on child care than they can earn. She thought that was ridiculous.
“My mom got a double-decker bus and she drove it with a creche for kids to the poorest, most out-of-the-way places in England where we were from, and took the creche to kids. She wrote a book about, ‘Who cares for the carers?’
“She was a brilliant lady who would be in her time now. She was ahead of the curve. She was always thinking about what was missing in the social sector and what needed to be done. She wrote for The Guardian. … She always ended up trying to fight for people who didn’t have a voice.
“When I was 8, she left my dad and kind of ran off with the circus, but the circus was an arts center in the small town we were from and the arts center had a summer camp. She helped run that when I was between the ages of 8 and 12. Then we moved to London. She worked for an (organization assisting) single parents that’s now massive. My mom did all this grass-roots stuff. She’d walk away from it and it would blow up. It would become huge. She wasn’t really interested in the glory, just was just interested in the hard work. She was a true socialist in the true sense of the word. She believed in doing unto others as you’d have done unto yourself. She died in 1989.”
She sounds great. I love her!
“You would love her,” she said, and with emphasis added: “You would love her. She could talk to anyone. She could pull the story out of a rock because she was genuinely interested in other people. It was her power. You would love her. I know. I can tell. She’d get in (a conversation) and the talk was endless.”
Orton shares with her mother a penchant for telling stories that reveal emotional truths.
“She would find the most remote village in Norfolk, where we were from, a real run-down village that’s about to be wiped off the face of the Earth, and she would talk with the oldest members of the community and get their stories and put it in a little pamphlet-style bound book. Of course, now she would be renown as some kind of artist for doing that. To her, people’s stories were so important — the untold stories of people was everything to her.”
I asked her if she feels that she does that, too. “Yes,” she said. “I most connect when I do concerts. … That’s when I think the message of the song comes through, which, I think, is I like to write about a kind of truth. I think there’s something regenerative and I want that, but I don’t think you can have that without being emotionally honest.
“Sometimes on these last gigs, I’ve sung old songs, and I’ve felt them heard in the manner in which they were meant to be written. ‘Central Reservation’ is a song that I wrote about a woman — me, at that moment — owning her sexuality and owning her freedom within a choice she made about having a one-night stand with someone, and it being liberating.
“Sometimes I sing that and then I sing it in conjunction with a song like ‘Stolen Car,’ which is definitely a song about the more difficult side, which is abuse.
“So sometimes I do some of the work my mom did, by connecting to people’s subconscious. If you listen to some of the writing on face value, people think, ‘Oh, it’s really depressing.’ But it’s really about something else.
“What’s so lovely about ‘Weather Alive,’ I think, is that it’s about the atmosphere of the song, not just the words. It’s not so literal.”
In the song’s first few lines, she sings serenely:
In the morning when you’re dawning
In the stillness of the day mist is rising, jewels aligning
And the shadows meet the day
“It’s conjuring atmosphere,” she said. “We were driving the other morning and this light was coming up and this cloud was across the mountain — we were driving between Vermont and Massachusetts through the mountains and there was that kind of mist … there’s a time in the morning and the evening when the light does that certain something and it’s that space between everything, and I wanted to sing to that space and that light and that mist and that feeling that I get when I see that light.
“To me, it’s a reason to live. It’s like, ‘Ah’ (she sighs). It’s that feeling. A lot of these songs’ words come from invoking a kind of light or a feeling or a sense of what I find very beautiful.”
It almost makes me want to cry, I say, quoting the title track. She laughs.
Does she try to live in the moment?
“Definitely,” she said. “I struggle with that a lot. I have a friend who has Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She’s one of my best girlfriends and she and I both have (chronic diseases) — I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease since I was 17 and she’s lived with this. She lives with her imminent demise. Both of our kids are born a month apart. She’s had chemo and the whole nine yards.
“I used to think there was a virtue to living each day like it was your last. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. We all know that we are living each day like it’s our last. It’s actually exhausting. I’ve been finding the balance between never taking anything for granted (but) at the same time there is only now, there is only this. To strive constantly for bigger things, (I think) lacks humility.
“Maybe there’s something in this record about this. It’s honing in on every day’s beautiful moments when you can catch something so evocative as living in the moment. Sometimes everything you need is right here. It’s so cliché, but also so true.”
Orton’s melodies linger, for me, long after the last gorgeous note is played on her new album’s closing song “Unwritten,” co-written with Tom Skinner. She sings with her distinctively raspy and elegant voice, “Oh, my love, had there ever been a Spring?/How would we know, ever in the unknowing/There’s an old man standing by the side of the road/Doesn’t carry that weight no more/He’s a real live wire but for all of his life/He’s now somewhere that he does not know.”
“Fractals” (listen below) a jazzy tune featuring DePlume on saxophone and inspired by the 2020 deaths of Hal Willner and Andrew Weatherall (who co-produced Trailer Park), references magical thinking about love and dreams. She sings:
You lay on your back under spider spun trees
Hallucinated on fractals of green
And thought about living with nothing to lose
With windows to see them before they see you
… you’re every person in your dream
When anything happens, it happens to you
And you, you start believing in magic
Referencing Proust in “Friday Night,” a poetic, romantic song, she connects with nature and sings about uncertainty and loss:
When the sea comes in
It’s hard to believe it’ll ever go out again
Though we never do get too close
I still hold you now and then …
There’s a stillness left after you leave
It’ll speak of what has been
When I’m laying in the dark awake and I’m listening to the rain
Orton can say in a few lines — filled with images that engage all of our senses — what it sometimes takes people a lengthy, intimate conversation or an essay to express.
Lyrics about the transient nature of love and life appeared early in her songwriting career: for example, on her hit “She Cries Your Name,” which was on her 1996 debut album Superpinkymandy and, in a different version, on Trailer Park. She sings:
Falling from the Western slopes to find yourself alone again
Wonderin’ where you have been
Your lonely voice calls across the starlit coast
Reaching out to be seen…
How long can this love remain?
Orton’s songs acknowledge the magic of love and passion while also revealing the depths of loneliness and disappointment. She demonstrates great strength in her fearless pursuit of musically honest expression and, as with all her music, she succeeds with Weather Alive.
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