Beth Orton’s eighth studio album, Weather Alive, has been five years in the making. The Norfolk-born singer-songwriter first rose to fame with Trailer Park (1996) and Central Reservation (1999), two albums that helped define the era for many.
She suggests a no-frills approach to songwriting that first started with just an acoustic guitar on those early records. The 51-year-old returned to that simpler methodology after finding “an old battered piano” in Camden Market, now sitting in a shed at the bottom of her garden.
“I came back to an instrument that I didn’t know well but loved. I don’t consider myself a pianist but when I started I didn’t consider myself a guitarist or a composer. I found myself simplifying, I played a note that evoked other nuances, there was a beautiful resonance.”
At the time, she did not have a record deal, was living in London, and her children, a 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, had started school again.
Weather Alive’s title track is a textured, flashy sound that contrasts with the more electronic sound of their previous album, Kidsticks (2016).
“This record was born out of isolation,” explains Orton, “I wasn’t interested in bringing in other musicians, I’ve relied on collaboration in the past, I went into this wondering what I could conjure up on my own.”
Seasoned jazz drummer Tom Skinner, currently playing in Radiohead’s side project The Smile, was the first musician invited to work on the album. Orton has particular affection for Skinner’s contribution to the album’s closing track, Unwritten.
“I’m very particular about that song, that’s where it all started,” Orton recalls. “Tom then brought in Tom Herbert on bass and that’s how it became more of a band record.”
In addition to Skinner, he brought together a fascinating array of musicians to play on the record. Among them was Alabaster dePlume (Angus Fairbairn) on sax. Orton had been enjoying his expressive instrumental work and sent him an invitation to play on the record.
“It was like a color palette and it started flowing, I had been listening to his album To Cy & Lee (Instrumentals Vol.1) that he did in 2020 and I just fell in love, it’s amazing. I had this wonderful three-month stint sculpting the record and what had been brought in, this record is like the weather, it started to take on a life of its own.”
Perhaps one of the most evocative tracks is Arms Around A Memory, which features a nod to both New York and Johnny Thunders.
“He played the sax all the way through the track and I told him if he played right at the end like in the New York subway when you hear the sax, that’s the most New York sound you can get. The Johnny Thunders song, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory, was a song I grew up with a lot as a kid. It was the song my brother played when my mother died.”
Orton lost his parents when he was still a teenager.
“The song got the message across, I guess, my whole life I learned everything through song, that’s been my flexibility. The lyrics were very meaningful to me and they are so moving.
“Arms Around Around A Memory was about somehow having my daughter and my children and not letting go of life when it came to me and making the decision to accept having a family under difficult circumstances.”
It is at this point that Orton’s daughter arrives at the door, at first mistaken for the family dog.
“She is 15 years old and goes to the park to hang out with friends, everything that is happening now would have happened smoothly in recent years, it is difficult to know who was most affected by the pandemic, I think the domino effect continues , no matter who you are. We are living in very difficult and very interesting times.”
Orton has enjoyed a successful string of collaborations including with William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers. While working on the album, he heard about the loss of two others, electronic music legend Andrew Weatherall and American producer Hal Willner. Both men were widely recognized as mavericks in their field and their loss was deeply felt by many in the music community.
“Hal was unique, we need people like him, those exceptional and eccentric people who love and inspire. Also with Andrew, our working relationship was really special, it allowed me to go deeper into my songs.
“Selfishly, I would have liked to continue working with him and he left. I’m sorry I didn’t, we could have come so far. He continued to do amazing work with other people.”
It was in 2002 that Orton worked with Ryan Adams, when the pair co-wrote This One’s Gonna Bruise, which appears in it.
Since then, the American singer-songwriter has had allegations of sexual misconduct in 2019.
“He’s complicated,” says Orton. “What has emerged is very important, an abuse of power is an abuse of power wherever you look at it! I have specific feelings about what it means to be a woman in this industry and I think that attention needs to be raised. People take advantage of situations, writing songs is a perfect way to shine a light on someone who is really hurtful.”
Adams wrote English Girls Approximately and released it on her Love Is Hell album two years after they first worked together.
“It’s a bit of a nasty song, I was like, ‘That’s really not right.’ You can not say that; creating a whole story that didn’t necessarily happen.
“It’s complex, I don’t want to demystify and I love the mystery that surrounds music, I don’t think things should be literal because there is danger in taking everything apart, there is no art left if someone goes to that but to put someone’s passport details in a song, to be so forensic, that’s a hard line to walk when it’s not grounded in reality. I can’t speak for Ryan, I don’t see Ryan. The best moment I had was with This One’s Gonna Bruise, which happened in the first half hour it came in.
“He said, ‘I’ve written a song, do you want to hear it?’ That’s what I loved about him, that enthusiasm.” Talking about his 1973 track from
Kidsticks acknowledges his references to an era that featured Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power and the New York Dolls’ self-titled debut.
“It was a nod and a wink,” he laughs. “My childhood was surrounded by Iggy Pop and punks and all these amazing influences, if I had to go to a psychiatrist they would think I have some kind of OCD, I can’t leave any stone unturned… 1973 is the year! He left these messages in songs but nobody answers, you are the first person”.
Orton singles out three key Scottish musicians whose impact on wider music is immeasurable. “I grew up with Dougie MacLean when he was 8 or 9 years old.
My mom’s best friend married him, so his records and music in those early years were a big part of my childhood. He was also a huge influence as a person. John Martyn was my next big influence. I hadn’t heard anything like this before, I just adored it. It’s the openness, the emotional honesty and music that was a bit experimental, it had this soundscape, it wasn’t directly acoustic.”
The final key guide to this triumvirate of Scottish luminaries was Bert Jansch, who would invite Orton to appear on his memorable album Black Swan (2006).
“Bert gave me guitar lessons and suddenly I was playing with him on stage, that was my lesson,” he recalls.
Decades later, all those influences continue to bear fruit.
- Weather Alive premieres Friday, September 23