CULTURE

Bringing older ways into her era

The English neo-folk artist Beth Orton has swiftly let the world know that she can pen and render a telling ballad to mesmerizing effect. Endowed with a voice of visceral honesty and natural charm that gently breathes out uncertain emotional states such as fate and desire – dominant themes of her work – Orton’s singing offers shaky yet soothing solace. It may quiver and occasionally swell gently to the dynamics of her intriguing songwriting ideas, but there are no theatrics here. This is a down-to-earth voice aligned with the deliverer’s state of being, a quality that also applies to Orton’s introspective lyrics. They don’t narrate stories but mull over moments in the artist’s life. The heartfelt honesty keeps the listener company on an intimate level; entertained by the voice of a friend, rather than a distant diva. The musical company, though, is mostly somber. Even Orton’s brighter moments tend to feel pensive. This considered, it seemed only natural before an interview to expect a sullen and reserved speaker at the other end of the line. Surprisingly, Orton turned out to be a keener-than-expected talker, one spiced up with good-natured cheek too, in a telephone interview with Kathimerini English Edition ahead of two shows in Greece this week, her first here. «Who told you that?» Orton counter-questioned jestfully with girlish curiosity in far higher pitch than her singing voice, when it was suggested that doing interviews may not be her thing. «No, I like them. I don’t have a problem.» Just back from Australia, where she toured in support of her latest album, «Daybreaker,» her third – not including a Japan-only release as her debut outing – Orton spared the eloquence of her lyrics to settle with the simpler convenience of «fxxxing brilliant» to describe her experience down under. This mix of polish and uncouthness, or old-fashioned charm versus contemporary brattishness, as older generations often tend to believe, can be sensed in Orton’s sound. Guided by folk-tinged singer-songwriters of previous decades – acts such as Rickie Lee Jones, Nick Drake and Tim Buckley – Orton, who writes most of her work on acoustic guitar, runs a discreet streak of dance-scene electronica through her work. During her youth, the 32-year-old Orton avoided rock shows. She favored London’s underground dance subculture, which took off in the late 1980s. Through her nightlife activity, Orton met and eventually worked with William Orbit, a pivotal behind-the-scenes figure in electronica who has produced and remixed countless acts, including Madonna for her stylistic-catch-up album «Ray of Light.» A year ahead of her own debut album, 1996’s «Trailer Park,» Orton had contributed vocals to the enormously popular first album by the Chemical Brothers, «Exit Planet Dust.» Around this time, she also recorded with another innovative dance-culture act, Red Snapper, an interesting acoustic hip-hop collective. As a result, the singer-songwriter’s attachment to folk music was bound to be given a modern touch in her own work. «The way the music’s developed has been quite intentional. I was inspired by the older folk singer-songwriters that I loved listening to, but at the same time, I felt that I was a part of my generation,» Orton said. «I wanted to be of this age and also carry on with the singer-songwriter tradition,» she added. Orton, who used to avoid singing in public and kept her performances limited strictly to a domestic level – to the extent of singing only while vacuuming, to ensure that it was not audible from outside – found solace in music from her uncommonly difficult formative years. «I now enjoy what I do more than what I used to. I suppose, originally, I didn’t really have a choice,» Orton remarked on her first musical steps, while avoiding a deeper visit into her past. The youth’s troubled days began at the age of 8, when her parents separated. Three years later, Orton’s father died suddenly of a heart attack. She spent her high school days, in Norwich, a little over 100 kilometers (61 miles) northeast of London, being heckled as a class freak. By the age of 13, Orton had stopped going to school and took up drinking and hanging out in nightclubs. The following year, her mother decided to take the family to London for a new beginning. Five years after the move, Orton’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away soon afterward. Orton and her brothers inherited a house without quite knowing how to maintain it. Her mother’s death is vented in a song of cathartic poignancy, «Pass In Time,» on Orton’s second album, 1999’s «Central Reservation.» Orton has also had to deal with health problems of her own. She suffers from a non-fatal yet acutely painful intestinal disorder known as Crohn’s Disease, a condition which has occasionally forced Orton to take time off from work and reschedule performances. «Daybreaker,» her latest project, released last summer, continues in the vein of Orton’s previous organic-electronic fusion. Like its predecessor, «Central Reservation» – which, incidentally, earned Orton the Best British Female Artist prize at the Brit Awards, a Grammy equivalent in the UK, in 2000 – «Daybreaker» features an impressive list of guests. Veteran folk-rock artist Emmylou Harris, whom Orton met three years ago on a Lilith Fair tour – a traveling festival of women musicians – sings on one track. Relative newcomer Ryan Adams, a popular «alternative-country» act, provides backing vocals on two songs, including the first single, «Concrete Sky,» which Orton co-wrote with Johnny Marr, the guitarist and songwriter of the now-defunct Smiths. The list of producers is long as well, and includes the Chemical Brothers, Orbit, and Australian producer Victor Van Vugt, best known for his work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as well as other fine compatriot acts, including the long-disbanded Triffids. «Basically, I recorded the album with the people I normally play with, which is how I always do it. But various chance events just added to the list of guests,» said Orton. «I was familiar with Emmylou Harris through old Gram Parsons records. And working with Ryan went really well. We got along really well together.» Responding to a question on where she felt the album’s overall mood stood in comparison to her previous work, Orton kept her judgment open to opinion. «I suppose it’s a subjective thing, really. Some critics have described it as my darkest work yet. Others have called it my most optimistic,» said Orton. «It probably depends on how the listener’s feeling, whether he or she’s feeling depressed or not.»  Though she has played a fair number of solo guitar-vocal performances as well as others with minimal accompaniment, Beth Orton will be backed by a full band for her two shows in Greece. Friday, Gagarin 205 Club, Athens (205 Liosion, tel 210.854.7600-2); Saturday, Mylos Club, Thessaloniki (56 Andreou Georgiou, tel 2310.551.838).