11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
A hit album is a double-edged sword, and for Beth Orton, 1996's Trailer Park was exactly that. A new beginning in a music career that had false-started with a Japan-only album of clubby popscapes, Superpinkymandy, it cast the Norwich-born songstrel into an abyss of self-doubt from which - she reveals to MOJO - she is only now emerging.
"If I'm really, really honest, I have to say I didn't really understand it," she explains. "Why do they like it? What's going on? Why am I doing gigs? I'd be on my way to a gig and I'd be thinking, This makes no sense! I can't even sing! I couldn't own it at all."
And yet Trailer Park's re-release - in Sony's double-disc Legacy Edition format - has become an opportunity for positive reflection. On a chaotic, pre-Trailerpark existence of experimental theatre and post-house musical excursions with onetime boyfriend William Orbit. On the death of her mother and the shadow it cast on her early songs. On the deep weirdness of the fame and acclaim that came her way.
One of music's most charming and candid interviewees - you keep wanting to hug her and tell her how good she is - Orton is true to form, cackling at the absurdity of the "pop star" existence, full of funny voices and disarming asides.
So over chorizo and jerusalem artichokes in a North London organic pub, she talks Danny Eccleston through the genesis of her genre-defining album and the trials that followed.
The material you recorded with William Orbit, on Strange Cargo III and the Superpinkymandy album: did that feel right? Or were you already thinking, I want to be playing something different?
It wasn't quite like that. I wanted to be a serious highbrow actress and here I was in a recording studio with this guy out of Bassomatic, who were not my kind of music at all. And this guy's also my boyfriend, and I was 19 and he was really nice - I'd pop pills in his mouth and we'd just lie about. But at the same time I was putting my mum's clothes in black bin bags because she'd just died.
William would tell me I could sing, which I never believed. But he recorded me singing some lines from Catch A Falling Star by Françoise Hardy, I went off to Thailand and when I came back he'd made a demo of it. Then he recorded some other things, including Water From A Vine Leaf [on Strange Cargo III] and next he wanted us to do a Beth Orton project. But I really didn't know what to make of it at all. I didn't have any control and I wasn't sure if I liked his style of music.
William told me that I should write songs about how I feel, and that's how I ended up writing [Trailer Park opener] She Cries Your Name to some chords he had. I was pretending to be Rickie Lee Jones, just singing along, and those were the words that came out. I had all this other stuff going on in the chorus and William urged me to cut it down. "Just sing 'She cries your name' over and over. That's the chorus." He was always giving me these little tutorials: "When you become a famous pop star..." He wanted to be my mentor. I was like, Fuck off! I was a feisty 19-year-old who'd just lost her mum. Maybe I was what's called "difficult".
I just walked out of the studio one day. It was very upsetting, very emotional. But I just couldn't do it anymore. We'd made this one album - Superpinkymandy - which only came out Japan.
Why only Japan...?
No-one else wanted it! Why would they? This record by this weird girl. It was alright being in a studio with William being weird me but take me out of that environment and put me in a meeting with a record company and it was, "What? Who?"
At the same time, you were dabbling in theatre, and you toured in an adaption of A Season In Hell. What was that like?
I loved it. I was working as a waitress in this restaurant, Uppers, on Upper St, Islington. This girl alerted me to an audition at the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick. I auditioned to play Verlaine's mother, who kept aborted foetuses in jars on the kitchen table. The same afternoon, they called me and told me I'd got the part.
The company was really influenced by Peter Brook's theories about drama [in the book The Empty Space]. We rehearsed on Mersea island, which is joined to the coast of Essex by a causeway that's covered at high tide. I was there with three men, and I didn't give it a second thought, no thought about safety, being in this cut-off place with three random strangers. One morning I woke a bit late and went downstairs and they're all sitting in silence, really cross, and proceeded to give me this lecture on responsibility, really heavy. I was like, "What are you tawkin abaht? Yer gonna give yerself cancer!"
The play was going to go to Russia - that was my number one reason for getting involved - but we lost funding. I ended up ringing up the British Council, this 19-year-old girl hustling for subsidies! And I got it together! We went to Russia after all.
Losing your father, losing your mother, becoming an actress, going to Russia, making records with William Orbit: did you think of yourself as really worldly and grown-up? Or were you just crashing about?
I was kind of in a state of permanent shock, terror. It had been a pretty intense little life and I've always been a bit frantic. I still really envy people who are [mimes cool insouciance]. I'm always amazed by confidence. I just don't get it.
Were you conscious of pouring your life into those songs, or were you working with received conventions? Like, I know songs; they go like this...
I'd ring up William and sob, I feel really awful, and he'd say, Put it in a song. But it wasn't stuff I could really access. Having thought about it a bit, I think the emotion comes from the singing rather than the words. It was like water building up behind a dam, then suddenly there's a small crack and it has to come out. That's what makes it individual.
Touch Me With Your Love was definitely me "writing a song". It's a bit clichéd perhaps, but it has something. Sugar Boy came out of me nicking chords from this blues book - I'd learn one a day. Then I met this crazy guy who I really liked and we went off on a little adventure. And when I came back and pulled out the songs, that's when they became deeply personal. That's when they became expressions of my life rather than "this is what a song sounds like".
Galaxy Of Emptiness just came out of this dreadful feeling [shudders]. Then the words came, and I remember a teacher saying when I left school "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." I incorporated that and something of Eliot's The Waste Land, which I'd loved studying at school.
There's not a lot of clutter or complication on Trailer Park. The songs are very clearly stated.
I couldn't have done it any other way. But a lot of it was down to finding the right band. At one point, I had a band with my brother Rupert on guitar, Steve Cotton on bass. Rupert always complains that I write him out of this story [laughs]. I remember being at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park, me trying to sing Someone's Daughter while Rupert's going [sings horrible rock guitar solo] with his foot on the monitor. I'd met Victor Van Vugt around then, and he produced the demo tape that Heavenly heard. They said, "We like you. But we're not sure about the band"!
I was really into Primal Scream's Screamadelica. [Heavenly label bosses] Geoff Barrett or Martin Kelly suggested I get in a studio with [the Scream's] Andrew Innes and Martin Duffy. So I did, and that's where the reprise of Sugar Boy comes from. And that's how I learned that it's really hard to sing when you're doing speed!
I look back now and I'm really fascinated by my own process, because surely I should have been happy with that - having Primal Scream as my backing band! - but somehow I wasn't. Suddenly some things came back to me. Like, when I was working with Red Snapper back at the very beginning I remember asking the bassist, Ali Friend, "Will you be my bass player if I ever make an album?" And I used to hang out with The Sandals and I always loved their drummer, and that's why we rang Will Blanchard. And I wanted mandolin because I really liked the mandolin on Atlantic Crossing. And I wanted Bert Jansch to play guitar - I was really into him and Nick Drake and The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier.
I went to see Ted Barnes, in a very traditional folky band, and saw Bert on the same bill. I kind of ended up stalking him, turning up at the 12-Bar [club in Soho], anywhere in fact that Bert had a gig. But Bert kept eluding me, and I remember standing in the doorway at the 12-Bar with Ted saying, Where did he go? And Ted saying, "Sod it, it's only a few odd tunings. I'll do it!" And that's how Ted became my guitarist. The keyboard player, Lee Spencer, was a mate. And I knew Sean Read from The Rockingbirds since I was a kid in Norwich, and he played piano. So my sound was this product of the musicians I liked.
Andrew Weatherall mixed three tracks on the record, which is where a lot of that post-Screamadelica atmosphere comes from...
Andrew used to come to this club that me and Tash from Heavenly used to do: Acoustically Heavenly. I'd play my songs, Tash would do some covers. It quickly became a scene, and I didn't understand why it became a scene. But of course it was because a load of Heavenly people came down and made it a scene.
Andrew wanted to produce the album, but I didn't want to abandon Victor or the band and hand everything over to him. But giving him three songs, which kind of weren't working as they were, was a good compromise. Andrew and I had these weird connections. We both were involved in this radical detox regime, quite a political thing that was very selective about where food comes from. No additives, no alcohol. We'd still smoke a load of weed though!
Photos courtesy of Ellen Nolan
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 6:00 AM GMT 27/04/2009