Beth Orton’s voice is the milky cloud of cream in your coffee gently dispersing like last light before the twilight. Her trilling coo is sweet and tender but also urgent and foreboding. Almost two decades ago, the U.K. songstress was the girl-of the-moment first highlighted on dance tracks (William Orbit, Chemical Brothers) and then on her own award-winning solo releases.
But it’s been six years since Orton’s last album, Comfort of Strangers. After having a couple children, getting married and moving to the country, it seemed like something that maybe wasn’t going to happen again. In a way she lost her nerve, making the arrival of her latest, Sugaring Season, that much more special.
“It does feel like a new beginning,” she says from a tour stop, trying to be heard over her screaming 1-year old, Arthur. Husband/opening act Sam Amidon calms the kid while she talks. “It does feel like a while ago. In a way it seems quite surreal. The record coming out and playing new songs with old songs, and trying to make it seem more seamless.”
Working with Orbit and The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowland encouraged Orton to initially incorporate electronic background textures and loops with her singer/songwriter folk. The wags dubbed it “folktronica.” Her 1996 debut, Trailer Park, received the U.K.’s Mercury Prize, given to the year’s best English album. The droning textures, the spare subtle strum and her siren vocals were quite affecting.
But it’s more than a pretty tone — her voice possesses rare plaintive power. It’s poised between doubt and assurance. On her finest track, “Stolen Car” (off 1999’s Central Reservation) she believes a rekindled flame’s claim, to have “stood for every known abuse that was ever, that was ever promised to anyone like you / Don’t you wish you knew better by now when you’re old enough not to?”
She discovers her mistake after a night of drinking: “I see a face drive like a stolen car / Gets harder to hide when you’re hitching a ride, harder to hide what you really saw / Oh yeah you stand for every known abuse I’ve ever seen or went through / Don’t I wish I knew better by now, well I think I’m starting to.”
When Orton had her first child, Anne, five years ago, it started to change Orton’s outlook. Suddenly the things she found so precious changed. “That artifice starts to fall away and you start writing from your inside out instead of the outside in,” she says. “It’s a much more restful way of living and working.”
By the time Arthur was born last year, she was in an entirely different place, ready to make music again. The tension between doubt and assurance that had so shaped her music in her 20s and early 30s had dissipated with age, replaced by inner confidence and diffidence.
“Sometimes the doubt does keep you in check, but sometimes it serves to kind of suffocate,” she says. “I hope that my doubt is now manifested in humility and I think that’s possibly a healthier, more positive way of galvanizing that questioning. I think I confused [doubt] with humility before, and now I understand they’re quite different things.”
The result is a beautiful album that feels placid and unburdened. It’s highlighted by tracks like the haunting, string-laden-yet-understated “Something More Beautiful.” On it Orton trades the trick of turning “what’s not so pretty into something more beautiful” for the ability to turn “what could be sorrow into some kind of mercy.” From the hopeful waltz of “See Through Blue” to the lilting “I Wasn’t Born To Follow,” Orton finds a sweet spot of possibility and comfort.
But not too much comfort. She’s been performing solo for the first time in a while, another challenge with its own rewards. “I have set myself a bit of a bloody — it takes a lot of energy to actually be that vulnerable,” she says. “But when it works it’s so satisfying to do it that way.”
She’s not about to give up the band and go solo. While her alone on guitar or piano may represent the song’s heart and soul, that’s not sufficient.
“It may be the heart and soul, but you need the lungs, the kidneys, the legs, the arms, the head and the hair. You need all the elements to make a full thing,” she says. “For me, working with these musicians is like breathing air, it’s invaluable.”
But for this tour anyway, Orton will channel an MRI and the third eye offering a direct window into her heart and soul.
Beth Orton plays the Fox Theatre Friday, Oct. 12.