2003.01.01 - Love Letters From Verona: An Interview With Beth Orton


To quote Gram Parsons, she’s an angel in disguise. In the hottest day of summer, I went all the way to Verona, to meet Beth Orton. "Why you chose this city to promote your new album", i asked. "Cause is fucking beautiful...". Do you need more? She’s brilliant, when she sing or not...
I know you’re just finishing an American tour. How was it?
Amazing. Everywhere sold out. Everywhere we played... like the whole album... the new album. A few old songs. People loved it! We played like nearly a two hour sets.
You were with your band?
Yes.
‘Cause last time you played in Milano...
Just two people. Yeah, it was difficult, that tour (as supporter of Beck). People just talked and talked and talked.
I was lucky enough to catch your soundcheck. I remember you were singing Dolphins, the great Tim Buckely song. Do you still play that song in your concert?
We didn’t actually, not in this tour but I must remember to put that back in.
About the new album, which is fantastic again, another great album. I was waiting very hard for a new album from you, because I loved so much your previous albums, especially Central Reservation.
Thank you.
Some weeks ago, I was talking with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, nd we were talking about sad songs because other interviewers when talking about his songs say how sad they are and he said, ‘I’m not a sad man’. He said that some sad songs made him happy. I’m telling you this because many times people, about your songs as well, they say are sad songs. For me, they have a kind of positive sadness. What do you think about it?
Absolutely. I don’t see how people can be so fuckin’ happy when they’re not like in touch with their honest selves. What is this kind of obsession with being jolly and upbeat, you know? It’s just like it doesn’t exist really. It’s just what we’re told we should be. When actually what we are is complex, multi-dimensional beings who are full of emotion and need and want and desire a peace and all the emotions. I mean otherwise they wouldn’t exist, would they? I like being emotional. I like being alive.
How different was the approach for the new album thinking about Central Reservation, if there was any difference at all. Who produced it?
Well, Victor Van Vugt produced it and then Ben Watt mixed most of it except for Daybreak and Thinking About Tomorrow and in some ways he’s going to be additionally credited for some of the production... and me. I’m also additionally credited for the production too.
How long did you take for recording the whole album?
About eight months.
Eight months?
About that. I mean it was stretched out longer. It probably was just under a year of actual time but if you actually put it together when we were actually in the studio... because, you know I had to look at one point, I had to look for someone to mix the record so that took a bit of time and certain things took longer. In actuality it didn’t take a year.
Where did you record it?
In England, mainly.
And so your approach being in the studio was different before the previous time or...
I just think... I don’t mean to be too kind of like a self-help book but I went into it personally with a different approach which was to just enjoy, or not be there. You know it’s like I found that with my last two records I was kind of hindered by my lack of confidence and a general... I wouldn’t trust my instinct, you know. With this record, it was almost like I went in and made an experiment for me, in trusting myself. So you have that element which is quite a strong thing. I wanted it to be more simple in some ways and I wanted to work with my band and what’s different for this record is I started out... say Ted’s Waltz or Thinking About Tomorrow... are songs that are started with riffs that Ted had. So Ted’s Waltz, he played me a riff and I just started singing and the words and the melody and everything came out at once and Thinking About Tomorrow we were bored senseless in our hotel in Boston and he was just messing around and then I just started singing along. So now it’s different coz usually on my records I go in with... and even if it’s just the two chords I’ll start from there and then they’ll embellish and build around that. So in a way I relinquished some control and in another way I took full control. For me personally... so yeah, for me it was a different approach definitely.
This is great because the sound to me sounded like you alone in a room singing your song, I mean a very intimate sound.
When Central Reservation came out I remember a lot of writers, me included, we wrote this is one of the greatest collections of songs ever.
Ohhhhh
I listened to the new album just a few times to and I need to listen again but I’m sure that this one will go up in the same way. So how do you deal with all these great reviews?
Well the funny thing is I don’t read reviews.
Haha, great.
I’ve never heard that one said so it’s really flattering when I hear it. Because if I read them I think I’d just become self-conscience and I always seem to read the bad ones or something. I think the thing is... I was saying to someone earlier... is I think at a certain point there is a pressure to make another record and is it going to be. What’s going to happen? Is it going to be any good. Not is it going to be better than the last one but just on it’s own, is it gonna be any good. And then what happens is, I write songs a lot anyway and suddenly I’ll just be getting into the songs and then suddenly I’ll have a whole batch of songs and then it’s like... hmmm, like maybe it’s time to go and record an album. And then once it’s that time, it’s kinda the pressure is more like... I had to make this record good. Not in relation to what’s been said. Not into relation of what I’ve done before but just for it’s own thing...
But do you still listen to your older albums or...
I don’t listen to it anymore. I can’t, I don’t know why but I think one day when I’m old I may just sit back and go... ahhhh... but until that day I just got to keep going forward, you know I’ve already moved on from this
But I think tha’s healthy, you know.
Yes, of course. Last time you had great musicians on your album like Ben Harper and Dr. John. This time you have Ryan Adams, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Marr. How about these great musicians...
Are these people your personal friends or you just were thinking: I need Emmylou Harris or...
Basically with this record I didn’t want any collaborators except for my band. I wanted to make it very pure, because I always find I’m talking about collaborators and I’m this and I’m that and I never talk about my band enough and so on and so forth and having said that... and also I wanted it to be very close to home, very family. Almost like a family situation and one thing led to another. I mean, Tom and Ed I do consider part of that family. William Orbit, obviously is there from the beginning. It’s all his fault anyway that I’m doing what I’m doing, you know. But then with Ryan Adams, I heard Heartbreaker and I loved it. It just made me so proud to be a songwriter when I heard that. I was like wow! It moved me, inspired me, it made my day better.
Did you know his old band, Whiskeytown?
Yeah, but I didn’t ever put them together. I didn’t know Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown were one and the same. So, there’s my ignorance for you. So, yeah, I got my people to call his people and I’ve never really done that before. I’ve only ever worked with people I’ve just met along the way and we just got along really well. But I don’t have like a hit list. I don’t have like a list of people and I’m not ticking it off, you know. It really is just what happens. With Emmylou Harris I met her when I did a Lilith Tour in America and on the first date she was there in Nashville, when she introduced herself to me and introduced me to other people there. She was just so sweet to me and on the last night I gave her a necklace and I never expected to see her again. Anyway four years later, this year, I went to see her do a Landmine concert and she was wearing my necklace.
Oh wow.
...And she didn’t know I was coming and she just decided... she’s like "oh my god! I’m wearing your necklace" and I was like... and I’d taken God Song along to play her just to see what she thought of it... if I was in the right ballpark coz she loved Sugar Boy off Trailer Park so I knew she appreciated that kind of thing.
That’s a great story
Yeah and then I just thought "fuck it", I was watching the gig and I was just like "I’m gonna ask her to sing on it" and then I was like "you can’t" and then I’m like "I’m going to". So in the end, I put it in an envelope with a letter and then I talked to her afterwards about it. I just didn’t dare ask her so I gave it to John Prine who was also doing the gig and he’s amazing. I got to talk to him. So I was chatting to him and I was like "Hey John Prine, will you give this to Emmylou? I’m too shy to ask her". And I put a note in and she called me and she said she’d love to.
How nice. She’s a fantastic singer.
Yeah, she’s amazing.
I think your voices together are fantastic.
That’s good.
Ryan Adams, he sings on the Concrete Sky and he wrote O.K.
Yes. I think O.K. is going to be called This One’s Gonna Bruise...
Is the song especially written for you? Because I know he writes so many songs all the time.
Basically he came in the studio and I expected him just to sing backup vocals and in the end he was just.. it was just... it was amazing. We were in there til like 7 in the morning and he was like "I got this song. You have to sing it!" I heard it and I was like "fucking right! I have to sing it! I’d love to sing it!" And we did like... we run through it a few times and then we went in and we recorded it and we did one take and that’s that one, on the record.
Great. And Johnny Marr?
Yeah, I met him, funny enough, a Lilith tour. It was the last date I played in America, it was in LA on the Lilith tour. I went to the hospitality tent to get my tea and my dinner later on and I was chatting to a friend of mine who’s Beck’s engineer bloke and there was this other guy there and I was just talking to them both and then I got into this conversation with this guy here and we were talking for like twenty minutes and I said "What do you do anyway?" and he said "I’m a guitarist." And I’m "Oh really, who? Anyone I might’ve heard of?" And he’s like "Yeah, The Smiths." And I’m like "Fuckin’ oh you’re Johnny Marr!!" Oh God and then it turned out we were staying in the same hotel. So then it was like "We have to play." So he came up to my room and we sat on the balcony with a bottle of wine and played guitar and I had a few songs. I had Concrete Sky and I played it to him and he was like "Fuckin’ I’ll have to work on that." So he added all these chords and helped me with the melody on the chorus and shit.
That ís great. On the song Paris Train there is this big orchestra arrangement. How did you get the idea for this arrangement?
Well, all the strings are always arranged by Oliver Kraus and Becky Doe. They’ve done it on other albums. Actually this song and Anywhere was arranged by someone called Adam Peters. But basically the brief for Paris Train waswhen I went in to make the album I had two blueprints. I had Paris Texas soundtrack and I had Blade Runner soundtrack and they were my loves and I was like that’s what I want, something like that. Then I finally achieved it. Anyway, on this song me and Ted Barnes, my guitarist, sat down with him and it was just so "Alright we want this kind of basically". I said Blade Runner feel and then they went away and I had all these melodies going and they played around my melodies and stuff and ití’s just incredible and so beautiful.
Yes. Carmella, at the moment is my favorite song. What is that particular song about?
You know, I don’t know what that song’s about. That’s an old song I wrote a long time ago and I never really... I didn’t think much of it. And then by chance I played it to someone and they loved it and it was actually David Roback who I worked on my last record with a bit and he demo’d it and he played it to my managers and they were like "this is a beautiful song". I forgot about it. Then when I was working with Ryan, I played it to Ryan and we recorded it.
I have read here on these notes that God Song you say, in a way, is inspired by the old tradition Frankie and Johnny. Is it?
Yeah.
That is great. I mean... how important is the old folk music to you?
I love it. I love the call and response. I love the old the fact that they told stories and it was all through music and I think that it is a big part of our social kind of interaction that is missing now which is... I think maybe you have more over in Italy or maybe in Spain. You know, people talk and they gossip and they communicate and they tell each other. That’s how we find out about each other and it’s integral to community and folk songs were part of that and I like that tradition definitely and I like the fact that in the old days someone would write a song and then someone else would write a song in response to their song and that’s kind of my response to that song.
Have you ever thought about recording an album of old folk songs?
I thought about recording an album of new folk songs.
New folk songs? Great, hahaha... Your songs, they are such beautiful poetry.
Thank you.
Where do you take your inspiration for your song... from your day by day life or from relationships or whatever?
I think I’m very inspired by people and relationships... and scenery. I really love films. I love seeing. I see music a lot... and reading. Although I’m not a great reader. I go in phases of reading but when I do, I’m very taken or not at all. So I think that... and by scenery, by traveling. Traveling inspires me. Which is what Paris Train is like... lots of journeys rolled into one.
About your songs, do you ever feel that you are giving away too much of yourself in your song, because I know many songwriters, they have this thought especially when they play in front of an audience. They are feeling "Why should I give to these unknown people so much of myself?" What about you?
I know. I’ve had that a couple of times... like in America. Suddenly look around and I’m like "God, is anyone really here? I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know, do you know." But it passes and I don’t feel that I give too much away because... well I suppose maybe with the first couple of albums it really was like that. it was kinda like fuckin’ hell. Like scooping myself out. Like making myself into a boat and the thing is where I want to get to with my songwriting is I want it to be like stories, so it’s not just about me. It’s stories, I’m telling, like the tradition of story telling. So I hope with this album I’ve moved more into that.
You told me and we know that you are still in touch with William Orbit. What do you think of the English electronic music scene today? Do you think it will develop into something interesting?
I do, I do. I think people like Andrew Weatherall are really coming back into the fold (?) and really doing exciting work. I think for tech... there’s lots and lots of bands now. There’s, oh god, ones in Canada, I think maybe you’ve got them all... looking at the European thing coz Norway and Sweden and all these places are all coming up with this incredibly beautiful like folk, like electronic... and it’s just amazing and I’m really, really excited by that definitely. Much more than this awful fucking techno shit that we have pumped everywhere now, like fucking lift music, you know?
And you are the queen of the scene. Somebody wrote that about your music, electronic unplugged.
Yay, that’s cool.
I forgot while you were talking about Ryan Adams. I heard that Brown Sugar you did with him...
Oh yeah.
I was shocked, the first time that I heard that variation of this very famous song. Who did the arranging?
He did. Basically he sat down at the piano and came out with that and I was just like "That’s just fucking incredible! I can’t sing on that." And he was like "Come on man, you’ve got to sing on it." "I don’t fucking want to. I don’t need to, it’s good." And then it went on in the night and I went "ok". So I just got in there and I sang along. You know and I was just like "Take me off it, shit. You know it’s good enough without." But they wouldn’t, so that’s the way it is.
All the best records in the last years keep coming from women. I mean if I had to do a list of the best records and songs it would be women. I was wondering what is happening to the men, because it seems like they are unable to express...
I think women have experienced years and years of emancipation. They are what they are, you know, whether people like it or not. To be a woman is still to be judged in a certain way that... you know.. To be a woman is still a fight. There’s a lot further to go, you know and maybe it’s a secular thing as well but I just think women are still stating their comment. I know where they need to stand in the world. It’s not so long ago that we had no rights whatsoever. You know, ití’s just mental. So maybe it’s because of that.








 

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