Beth Orton: 'These Songs Are My Little Bit Of Sugar'
In the late 1990s, Beth Orton set the music world buzzing with her singular sound: part folk, part electronica. But six years ago, she found herself at a life-changing juncture: pregnant with her first child — and dropped from her record label.
Orton gave serious thought to leaving the industry altogether. Then, she started over: She began studying under one of Britain's premier folk guitarists, Bert Jansch, and the new sense of discipline lit a fire in her once again. Now, she's delivered perhaps the most critically acclaimed album of her career, Sugaring Season.
Orton spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about the making of Sugaring Season and the meaning behind the title, as well as how a trip to Thailand at age 19 made her a better guitar player.
On how songwriting is like maple syrup
"Sugaring season is the season when you tap the trees for sugar that turns into maple syrup. I've married someone from Vermont, so it's an expression I kept hearing, and I'm like, 'What is that? That's just so beautiful.' I like the idea it's the very, very first murmurings of spring. And I liked also the idea that sometimes you can smell that spring in the air even though it's the dead of winter; you just get that vague glimpse of it, and there's that sense of hope that it brings. I just thought, all in all, it just creates this wonderful imagery of writing songs: For me, it takes a lot of experience to make a little bit of sugar. These songs are my little bit of sugar, I think."
On Bert Jansch's influence on the album
"He opened my mind to the idea of open tunings. ... I think it became part of this idea of, how essential is it? Is this just another noise or is this something beautiful? It was like the purist part of myself came out. I learned to embrace my individuality, and if that meant writing a song on one chord over and over again, then that's what I do. And I love that kind of meditative quality of repetition."
On meditation and discipline
"When I was 19, my mom passed away very suddenly. ... She left [me and my brothers] 2,000 pounds each. It was a bit like a fable — you know, what do we do with our money? I bought a ticket to Thailand with some friends, and then we all kind of peeled off. Me and this girl, she's like, 'I know of this place we can go and meditate.' And I was like, 'Meditation, what's that?' I didn't know what she was talking about. I went because it sounded like a laugh. After a while I just opened up to it.
"The strangest thing was, it was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I left there and never meditated again. I was like, 'I could go do anything now — get my heart broken and just meditate it away, and it'll be fine.' And then I started to play guitar and it became much more natural. I think what happened was, the discipline and the focus that I learned in the monastery became the same discipline and focus that I write with."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
And it's time, now, for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE CRIES YOUR NAME")
BETH ORTON: (Singing) She cries your name, three times again...
LYDEN: In the late-'90s, Beth Orton set the music world buzzing with her singular sound - part folk, part electronica. But six years ago, she found herself at a life-changing juncture: pregnant with her first child, and dropped from her recording label. She gave serious thought to leaving the industry altogether.
And then, Beth Orton started over. She began studying under one of Britain's premier folk guitarists, and that lit a fire under her once more. Now, she's delivered perhaps the most critically acclaimed album of her career. It's called "Sugaring Season."
ORTON: Sugaring season is the season when you tap the trees for sugar that turns into maple syrup. And it's a word that - I've married someone from Vermont, so it's an expression I kept hearing. And I was like, what is that? That's just so beautiful. And I like the idea; that it's very, very first murmurings of spring. And, you know, sometimes you can smell that spring in the air, even though it's the dead of winter. You just get that vague glimpse of it, and there's that sense of hope that it brings. And I just thought all in all, it just creates this wonderful sort of imagery of writing songs. It's - for me, it's like, you know, it takes a lot of experience to make a little bit of sugar. And...
ORTON: ...and these songs are my little bit of sugar, I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE OF GRACE")
ORTON: (Singing) It was here before we noticed it, and it'll be here when we're gone. And if I push you away, well let me be the first to say that oh, I've seen your light, it's in the harbor, come on pull me all the faster back to the selfsame day.
LYDEN: And I love it that you brought up your husband here. You're recently married. You have a child together.
LYDEN: And that's Sam Amidon.
LYDEN: And I'd like to ask you how you did use the time that you took, away from touring and performing, before this record?
ORTON: Yeah. I mean, I had my daughter, Nancy, and then I kind of reconsidered whether I wanted to - to - I don't know, whether it was really something to continue with; with a child, you know? And then around that time, I met Bert Jansch, and I started working with him. Pretty much, when I found out I was pregnant, at five and a half months, I stopped touring. And I just kind of ended up giving myself over to Bert, really. And I spent the next couple of years, you know, working with him - spending time at his house, learning about guitar, learning to sing with him. And I think, for me, that was quite satisfying.
LYDEN: Beth, Bert Jansch died about a year ago. Do you hear his influence on this record?
ORTON: I do hear his influence on the record. In the most sort of basic way, he opened my mind to the ideas of open tunings, and so on and so forth.
LYDEN: Which is what? Explain, please, what that is.
ORTON: Well, it's like - just messing around, playing; and just finding different tunings on the guitar, basically. And, I mean, that's something else that, you know, Joni Mitchell's always done. She was always like, messing around with tunings, making up her own tunings. And I think it became part of this idea of, like, how essential is it? Is this just another noise, or is this something beautiful? The purest part of myself came out.
So I learned to sort of embrace my individuality. And if that meant writing a song in one chord, over and over again, then that's what I do, you know. And I love that kind of - like, meditative quality of just - kind of - the repetition.
LYDEN: Which cut on this CD would you - sort of say, exemplifies that?
ORTON: "Magpie," definitely.
LYDEN: The first one. Mm-hmm.
ORTON: I mean, yeah, essentially, when I just started, you know, playing that around and around and around and around and around - for me, it's like a mantra. It's like, there's a mantra quality to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGPIE")
ORTON: (Singing) Magpie, magpie, I stand here watching the world go by. I wonder, do you ever question why? Oh, crow, crow, I'm standing here wondering what you know, you've seen more of the day than I could dream.
LYDEN: You went to Thailand, as a younger woman - right? - for...
LYDEN: Could you tell us about that, for a kind of meditative time - as you were speaking of?
ORTON: Yeah. Well, when I was 19, my mum passed away very suddenly. She got cancer, and she died very suddenly - over a week. And I nursed her - and huge thing in my life, very proud of that experi - I know it's a funny word to use, but it was actually one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. Nursing someone who's dying was - was an absolute privilege. And when she died, she left us all 2,000 pounds each. And it was a bit like a fable, you know, what do we do with our money?
And I bought a ticket to Thailand with some friends, and then we all kind of peeled off. And me and this girl, she was like, I know of this place where you go and meditate. And I was like, meditation - what's that? I didn't know what she was talking about. Anyway, I went because it sounded like a laugh. After a while, I just opened up to it. It was like, you know, it was living in a monastery with nuns and monks. Like, you know, and it meant eating food from 5 till mid-day, and then fasting for the rest of the day. It meant we started meditating 15 minutes a day - walking and sitting, walking and sitting - and it would then go up to half an hour.
And then went up to an hour walking, and an hour sitting; and then it went up to, basically, 14 hours a day of meditation. I wasn't very well when I went there. And it was just extraordinary, what happened. I went in, and I was on steroids. I stopped all medications, stuff like that. I mean, it was just bizarre.
LYDEN: Do you use any of this today in your work, would you say?
ORTON: Well, the strangest thing is, it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. And I left there, and I never meditated again. I was like oh, well, I mean, I could go do anything now. I can do anything. You know, get my heart broken? I'll just meditate it away; it'll be fine. And then I started to play guitar, and it became much more natural. And I think what happened was, the discipline and the focus that I learned in the monastery, became the same discipline and focus that I write with.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDLES")
ORTON: (Singing) She'll blow them stars out just like candles. She'll conduct the clouds to move at certain angles.
LYDEN: Beth Orton, you have gotten just lovely reviews; I mean, some of the best that you've ever had. And that's just got to feel so good, especially - you know, I was talking to Bonnie Raitt earlier this year - especially when one has stepped away for a while; as she also did, for personal reasons.
ORTON: I mean, I was talking to a friend of mine last night, and she's an actress. And I know that with them - you make films and stuff, it's more of a team. But this was a team effort, you know? It was like - it was such an amazing band; such an amazing producer; and such a wonderful coming together of timing and people, and falling into place. And so I do feel - just so grateful for all of that. To hear what people are saying - and they're reflecting, pretty much, my experience of making this record - is very nice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME THE BREEZE")
LYDEN: That's Beth Orton. Her new album is called "Sugaring Season." It's really been a pleasure. Thank you so much, and good luck to you.
ORTON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME THE BREEZE")
ORTON: (Singing) Call me the sea, call me the stream, call me the sky, call me the leaves. Hear my call - hello, lo, lo, lo lo, lo, lo, lo.
LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - on iTunes, or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on "programs," and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.