Interview: Beth Orton
We catch up with the distinguished songwriter to ask whether it’s possible to write with a live audience in mind
The release of Kidsticks, the sixth studio album from ‘folktronica’ pioneer Beth Orton, was rightfully met with great acclaim, and earned itself our own Album Of The Month award. It’s a record which manages to sound free and innovative whilst also recalling some of the work on her 1996 debut Trailer Park, and is another high point in a consistently excellent career.
Although one of the UK’s best-loved artists, Orton relocated to California a couple of years ago and the wide-open spaces of Los Angeles also influenced Kidsticks’ inventive sound. Beth returns this month to begin her national tour in support of the album. We were able to check in with her, before she hits the road, to talk about the upcoming live shows and how it’s not always possible to know which songs are going to make the grade live…
How have the shows been going so far?
“It’s been great. We did three weeks in America and some festivals over the summer. They were really good and it’s interesting to see how the old material and new material work next to each other, the juxtaposition of that, and how they inform each other. It’s lovely.”
Do you like to recreate your songs as they appear on the album when playing them live?
“With the newer songs, we have a guitarist rather than another keyboard player so that’s a reinvention, but it’s such a sonic situation it’s hard to say. I do change it up yet it’s still the record, if you know what I mean, just a different kind of sound. It’s very powerful and it’s interesting.”
Are you nervous about playing keyboards live?
“I’m pretty nervous about it all.”
Do you instinctively know how to balance the old and new material?
“Yes, to a degree and then through trial and error as well. You figure it out.”
Are there certain songs you feel that you have to play?
“Well there are certain songs that people ask for every time that I do not play, so I guess not. But there are some songs that I still get a kick out of playing and it works well overall. The new material breathes new life into the old material.”
Is that a natural thing?
“It’s something you work towards and it either works or it doesn’t. Through trial and error and rehearsals you might learn that actually a song isn’t figuring into things. Then sometimes in the moment you can change it up, drop a song or add a song, and I love that spontaneity.”
Have you ever finished a song and thought to yourself that it’s going to sound great live? Is that even in your mind when you’re writing and recording?
“Of course yes, it pops in and you’re like, ‘Bloody hell I wonder what this will be like live?’ There are also certain songs, like Dawnstar on this record, that I don’t really know how they would work live and actually it’s become one of our favourites to play, and I think one of the favourites of the audience as well. It really translates and has grown beautifully live. You often think this will be great live but in practice you never know why or how this will translate live.”
Is the reverse ever true, that you think something will be amazing live yet it hasn’t quite translated?
“That’s a tricky one; it’s not so much like that. I’ll forget about a certain song and just won’t play it live. But again, you write a whole new batch and then suddenly an old song takes on a new meaning and you’re like ‘I should put that in, that’ll be amazing.’ But it’s not as if I’ll say, ‘Oh no that one’s shit, I’m not playing that again.’ There’s a song off Trailer Park called Live As You Dream and I just find it painfully embarrassing, so I don’t play that. And people always want me to play Concrete Sky but I’m always like ‘no.’ It’s not because I think they’re bad, but there’s a time and a place and I have to be personally excited by it or I can’t engage. I suppose that’s why putting it in context with the new material sometimes re-contextualises the song and then I might add it to the set again. You never know when that will happen.”
As an audience member it’s often the case that a song will have a different meaning to you than the writer intended.
“Of course, every time. You never write a song intending it to be meant as a certain thing; you’re just aware that it means a certain thing to you. That can be line-by-line: each line of a song can have a different profound meaning to me, but to someone else it will have a cohesive overall meaning. I have no control or say – and nor do I want it – over how people interpret or live with those songs.”
Would you ever start writing a song with the question of how it will sound live in mind?
“You just never know. You can think you’re writing the greatest live song ever and it just doesn’t translate. Again, it’s a bit like the lyrics, it’s not up to me, the meaning that the audience make of something.
“I think some people can do it. There are so many songwriters out there who work that way and I have great respect for them, but I don’t. I also don’t read music and I’m not even sure half the time whether it’s minor or major. I mean, on some level I am, but I just can’t concern myself with it. I don’t have that kind of education. I just get on and write. I probably could educate myself to work out which chords build to a certain impetus that would work well live, or create this feeling in people or this kind of mood. I admire people who can do that, but consciously I’ve just never done it.”
Maybe that’s writing from the heart rather than from the head?
“Well I write from the head as well, when I’m writing words and so on. I think a lot about the words that I write, though some of them are off the cuff. Then there’s the decision about what to leave and what to say, and that’s a battle sometimes between the head and the heart. The head wants to get all involved and thinks it knows better and the heart’s like ‘f**k off!’ It’s about knowing what to leave and what to take and what to allow to stay as something I don’t really understand, rather than shave all the edges off and make it into a meaning that is very fixed. There’s just so many ways to do it and I would say it’s more instinctual than head or heart because they’re both involved.”
Have you noticed your audience change? In particular, how it’s a norm now for people to record gigs on their phones?
“Yeah it’s horrible when people film you. I don’t like that. I find that quite off-putting and the new thing of people looking at their phone and not realising that their face is completely lit up. But that’s alright. You do wonder what the concentration level is, but it’s up to me to engage people and I’m not going to blame that on a changing time. I think it’s up to the artist to engage their audience.”
Are there special places on tour that you always look forward to playing?
“It’s just lovely to catch up with people along the way, I have to say. You get a chance to say ‘I’m in your town’ and you have a great excuse to catch up. But again it’s so unknown, you might have no connection with somewhere and you end up having the loveliest gig you can imagine. It’s such a surprise. With all these things I’ve learnt just to not have any expectations.”
Can you remember an incredible live show that you’ve seen which influenced you?
“One thing about having kids is that I don’t go out and see much live music at the moment but I remember seeing Terry Callier at the Jazz Café in 1997 and that was pretty extraordinary.”
We’d like to finish by asking what you think makes a great song?
“For me, what makes a great song is when it changes something in you, when it enlightens you in some way or moves you emotionally. But I don’t really know, other than it’s the people who love it that make a song great.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell