After six years away, two children, a marriage and returning to Norfolk, the twice Mercury Music Prize-nominated singer Beth Orton is back.
Sugaring Season, her sixth album, was recorded in Portland with producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists) and refers to the season that trees are tapped for syrup.
The title and record aim to capture the beauty and melancholy in the natural world as long cold nights make way for warmer days, which turns maple trees sweet.
Much of the inspiration comes from the period Orton spent living as a single mother in the East Anglian countryside. She retreated to Diss close to her childhood home of Dereham after the birth of her daughter, Nancy.
Six-year-old Nancy now has a younger brother, Arthur. His father is American folk singer Sam Amiston, who Orton married last year.
Orton, now 41, first came to attention in 1993 after collaborating with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers.
After an under-the-radar debut, SuperPinkyMandy, she won a devoted following with Trailer Park in 1996 (notable as one of the first records to mix folk, electronic and hip hop) and Central Reservation in 1999.
Daybreaker, a poppier effort with contributions from Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris, was a top-ten in 2002.
She had considered a career away from music – to go to university or to write a novel – but decided to follow up 2006 studio album Comfort Of Strangers when ideas started to flow in the night hours while Nancy slept.
She spoke to The Guide via email...
Your life, to the outsider at least, seems bliss… what compelled you to want to tour again?
“I found the last few years fertile ground for writing and had a whole new gaggle of songs. I went back to Norfolk for a summer. I wrote in the garden and lived up a dirt track in an old cow shed. (It was converted for humans though!)”
How did Nancy’s arrival make its way into the songs?
“I wrote in the dead of night and termed it the time when spiders mend their webs because it felt like those were the only other creatures awake. I liked the idea I was open to a world that I would otherwise be asleep to.”
How important is nature to the record? The lyric on Last Leaves Of Autumn, “Life is long and I’ve gone and got a past”, seems pertinent…
“The album is very inspired by nature. There is a sense of cycles and seasons. I find any time of year good for reflection but autumn is a particularly poignant time.
“What makes the line about life being long and having got a past pertinent is the paradox with the idea before, about living life as though every second might be the last.
“There is this fine line between living in the moment and allowing time to be elastic, and trying to live for tomorrow and time becoming concrete.”
What was it about William Blake’s Poison Tree that made you want to put it to music?
“I had a song I was writing with a melody I liked but words I wasn’t sure of. I was at a friend’s house and stumbled upon the William Blake poem Poison Tree and as I read it I was overwhelmed by the idea that it would fit the melody of the song I was working on.
“I ran home and tried the words with the song and they fitted perfectly. It all came together without much over thinking.”
Laura Veirs features on Dawn Chorus – tell us about the collaboration…
“Laura Viers is the wife of Tucker Martine who produced Sugaring Season. I am a massive fan of Laura and especially her album Carbon Glacier. It was fantastic to have her sing on the record. Her voice took the songs into a whole other sphere.”
You played a memorial show for Terry Callier on November 28. He contributed to Central Reservation. You’ve said his music keeps you grounded. Does that still ring true?
“Terry and I sang together and we made music that was the most wonderful connection and one that went beyond words of advice. He was a beautiful man and a wonderful communicator.
“I don’t know how he made the music he did, where that came from, but his dying is a loss, not just of the man but of an other-worldly voice, lyricist and musician.”
Can you tell us about hooking up with Bert Jansch who got you playing guitar again?
“I met Bert at a folk festival we were both playing at around the time I was writing Comfort Of Strangers.
“His influence has percolated its way into my life in ways I can hardly describe.
“He became a great friend, one I mostly communicated with through music. I learnt more than I can put in a sentence through spending time playing guitar and singing with him.”
St George’s Church, St George’s Road, Brighton, Friday, November 30. Starts 7pm, SOLD OUT. Call 01273 606312