t’s been well over six years since Beth Orton released Comfort of Strangers, the stunning and record-deal-ending fourth album that would usher in a long period of public respite for the acclaimed singer/songwriter. Outside of the music-industry microscope, Orton took on a number of new challenges, including single-motherdom, marriage, and the birth of a second child, all the while continuing to pen songs in private.
A Lilith Fair staple and potent collaborator for electronic-music masters The Chemical Brothers, Orton embodies the singer/songwriter aesthetic; she composes and performs mostly on acoustic guitar, and her songs are personal, love-filled, and often imagery-laden landscapes delivered in a soothingly strong voice. Still, her work has always stood out as a fuller and more dynamic take on the game.
Most recently, she released Sugaring Season, her fifth studio album and first output since Comfort of Strangers. Like its predecessors, Season finds Orton’s voice at the forefront, delivering lines that are romantic, haunting, and expressive. It’s also easily one of Orton’s finest and most naturalistic outputs to date. This Saturday, Orton takes to the stage at the Lobero Theatre for a performance in support of Sugaring Season. Recently, I spoke to her about motherhood, touring, and the changing face of the music industry.
What prompted you to get back into the studio? I hadn’t really stopped writing; I just hadn’t been very public with it until now. I got to a point where I had a certain amount of songs, and I felt really strongly that they could make a good record, so that’s when I started looking for a producer. That’s when I met Tucker Martine.
How did Martine fit into Sugaring Season? He was integral. He was like the midwife — he saw it through. He’s a very present individual. If I wanted to play the band a song, he had his eye on that, and he had the foresight to press record. He never thought, “Oh, they’re just having a run through, and I’ll leave them to it.” He had his ears open all the time. He was just a joy to work with. He was fantastic.
How did you settle on the album title? “Sugaring season” is an expression people use in Vermont, and I wrote a song around the title, just because I thought it was a beautiful expression. I thought it was a really nice title for a record, but that was simply because it sounded so beautiful. When I got to hear about what it actually meant — it’s this time of year when the sap rises in the trees, when there are these long cold nights and these slightly warmer days, and that creates this tension that allows the sap to rise. Then the more I heard — that you have to get a lot of sap to make a little bit of sugar and that the sap can be quite bitter — it spoke a lot about the process of creating songs and my experience over the last six years trying to extract the sugar out of situations.
How did motherhood weigh in on the writing process? Over the last six years, when I was left to my own devices, it was one of the most creative periods. Having children, I had to find a different discipline, and I had to make time to write. I would set aside time to write, and sometimes it would be to just get out of the way of the children and find some peace and quiet for myself, but something always came of it, whether it was good or bad. Also, the whole sleep-deprivation thing, which is a torture in some countries — I was up at strange times of the night and day. And a lot of the time it was like, “Well, I might as well do something.” There was this between-worlds kind of time of writing, as well as a lot of sober, during-the-day writing that went into making these songs.
After six years away, do you sense a shift in the industry? Have things changed? I don’t know; the nuts and the bolts seem to be the same. Everyone keeps saying, “Oh, it’s so different.” I can see an industry in decline. I’ve been going along and hearing stories about people and reflecting on how it was, and I can see it. On the other hand, this positive and kind of naïve voice comes in, and I think, well, isn’t it fantastic to have the Internet? Isn’t it fantastic that the choice is being put back into the hands of the individual instead of the tastemakers? It’s not ruled by what’s on the radio. Are you number this or number that? Who gives a toss? At the end of the day, it’s just about quality, and I think quality has become really important again. The mainstream has gone particularly crap in a lot of ways, but at the same time, there’s this undercurrent, this movement beneath that that I think is really exciting. I don’t think it’s the death of music. Maybe it’s the death of the music industry as we know it, but that’s not necessarily the worst thing.
How have the shows been thus far? The shows have been great. Being on the road is grueling. My son got a cold halfway through, so I got the cold, and baby colds are kind of like being hit on the head with a baseball bat. It’s been intense. It’s a new experience, and yet it’s an old experience, too. I remember why I stopped doing this for a while. [Laughs.] But it’s beautiful to connect to the audience, and it’s wonderful to sing the songs. I’m so grateful for it, I really really am, but it’s an intense way of living.
Beth Orton plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St., #205) on Saturday, October 20, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.