Child’s Play

A Brit folkie gives a fresh spin to electronic sounds that sparked her career.


After projects with electronic artists William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, Beth Orton quietly
created her own universe in 1996 with Trailer Park, an album that spawned the term “folktronica” with its intoxicating trip-hop blend of folk and electronica. A decade of distinct, genre-blurring albums followed.

Then the English singer/songwriter was dropped by her record label and virtually disappeared for six years. In 2012, a year after she married Vermont-rooted musician Sam Amidon and gave birth to her second child, Orton returned on a new label with Sugaring Season, the most straightforward, acoustic-based album of her career.

But motherhood and marriage haven’t diluted Orton’s artistic wanderlust, as is clear from her free-wheeling follow-up, Kidsticks, out May 27. Twenty years after Trailer Park, the album finds Orton taking a fresh, frisky dive into more wide-ranging electronic terrain, even bringing new shades to her aching, melancholy voice.

Advance single “1973” flirts with synth-pop, while the ethereal, poetic “Petals” glides into a crashing coda slashed by electric guitar. And “Snow” builds choral, polyrhythmic layers that bring to mind Kate Bush, one of Orton’s early inspirations, alongside Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and John Martyn.

“I just needed to shake things up in my life creatively,” says Orton, 45. “It would have been very easy for me to make an acoustic record again and go back down that route, but I needed to do something else. It wasn’t some great influence from the outside. It was an influence from within.”

She co-wrote and produced the album with British electronic artist Andrew Hung, who came to her temporary LA home to build songs from loops. In turn, Orton set aside her acoustic guitar to try her hand at synthesizers. “I played keyboards, which I’ve never done before, and he would change up the sounds.”

Orton compares that intuitive keyboard playing to her guitar sketching on Trailer Park (she later took lessons from Scottish folk icon Bert Jansch for several years, until his death in 2011). “You’re in a good spot creatively when you’re wading out just a bit beyond where your feet can’t touch the bottom,” she says, paraphrasing (“Bless his heart”) David Bowie. “I was just trying to get the melody out and across. So I like to think there’s this beginner’s-mind sense to it all.”

On top of Hung’s programming, Orton gradually brought in musicians who included Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. on guitar, Grizzly Bear bassist/singer Chris Taylor, drummer Guillermo E. Brown and pianist/string arranger Dustin O’Halloran. “I wanted to hear something that moved with the melody that I was writing,” Orton says. “Everything was very ad hoc and very of the moment.”

The whole process, working in home-recording spaces rather than formal studios, proved relaxed and refreshing, she says. “In some ways, [there] was a weight that I needed to lose for a while, this kind of earnestness, my seriousness. I needed to play for a while, and this record is playful. But it’s actually quite deep as well.”

Just don’t try to glean literal meanings from Orton’s lyrics, including the mantra “I’ll astrally project myself into the life of someone else” or “I’ve been through the worst of times that never even came to light,” both lines from “Snow” that launch the album. “I don’t write with a nod-and-a-wink message to people who are in my room or my life at that moment,” she says. “It’s much more abstract.”

Orton will play keyboards and acoustic guitar when she returns to Brighton Music Hall on June 15, fronting a small band of multi-instrumentalists who can recast the sounds of Kidsticks as well as her early classics—possibly including a first-ever stab at one of her Chemical Brothers tracks. However, she surely finds herself in a far different head-space than her early days of electronic dalliance, which followed travels in Thailand after her mother died when Orton was 19.

“I have kids now,” Orton says. “It just opens the world up wider. It means the world is 3-D now. The perspective is so much more interesting and goes in so many more directions.”




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