By Emily J. Weitz; Photo by Jo Metson Scott
Beth Orton’s voice is so sweet and natural that one could reasonably conclude that the English singer-songwriter’s journey to fame has been a perfectly smooth one. And while every career has its twists and turns, Ms. Orton has been seemingly pulled toward musical stardom by an invisible current.
The first song she ever wrote—when she was just 9—was for her mother. Her mother’s friend, a Scottish folk singer, loved it and insisted that they record it.
Becoming a professional musician “wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do,” she said, “but it just keeps coming up in my life. It’s like a recurring dream. I retire again and again, but the fact is I like making music so I keep making music.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, of course, but Ms. Orton does find that when her music comes naturally, it often makes for a better result.
“I find if I’m trying too hard in anything,” she says, “it’s usually not the right direction. But it’s a fine line. Effort is important. It’s complicated.”
Ms. Orton walks that line, particularly in her collaborations. Even though there’s a folky, simple quality to her music, she frequently works with electronic artists such as the Chemical Brothers or William Orbit. This juxtaposition of the warm with the ethereal creates tension and edgy beauty.
“Comfort isn’t always the most interesting thing to listen to,” she says. “People are looking for where the edges meet: the interplay between forces. That’s what happens when I work with electronic artists.”
Ms. Orton has become known for this “folktronica” sound, although her collaborations with other artists cross genres and include musicians such as Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams.
Most recently, composer and arranger Nico Muhly remixed the track “Mystery” from Ms. Orton’s 2010 album “Sugaring Season.” The remixed song will be a unique part of her current tour, which includes a Saturday show at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC). “Mystery” had a warmth at its core that Mr. Muhly replaced with electronic sounds that create a sense of detachment where there was once connection.
The sense of connection and warmth in her original, unadulterated work is the source of much of Ms. Orton’s inspiration, though she probably wouldn’t say it is so simple.
“It’s a conversation I’m having with someone,” she says, “but I’m not entirely sure who. It’s a conversation I need to have, and it becomes a song. It’s often a feeling of reassuring.”
That was particularly true, she says, on her older albums, like Trailer Park (1996).
“I wanted my songs to reassure,” she says, though she’s quick to add that it isn’t out of pure altruism that she’s making music. “My need to connect is my need.”
The feeling of the songs that Ms. Orton writes is palpable, and because of that she says she finds it difficult to sing the same songs again and again. There’s something deep within her that is a part of the song, and it comes out through the lyrics and the music, and also through the feeling she conveys.
“When I first made ‘Trailer Park’,” she recalls, “my best friend said ‘Oh no, what have you done? People are going to be able to reach right in and touch you.’ In a way, she was right.”
But the feelings that were present when Ms. Orton created those songs may have changed, now that she’s cut six albums, had children and lived a dozen more years.
“The reason you can’t sing a song like you did when you first wrote it is you stop hearing it in the same way,” she says. “When you first write a song, the melody and the words, they all combine to create feeling, and I don’t know how to describe it, but you put your feet in the same holes so many times that you stop feeling it, and that’s a shame.”
So she keeps creating, armed with her experience in the present moment. Her voice, a reassuring hum in the ears of those who listen.
“Am I reassuring myself?” she asks. “A friend? I don’t know. I’ve always had this thing of wanting to be that rock in that moment, and it’s a good place to write from. It’s a good place to create music from.”
Beth Orton will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, February 15, at 8 pm. Tickets are $40. The PAC is located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Call 288-2350 or visit whbpac.org for tickets.