Beth Orton is in no mood to talk. With a U.S. tour only days away, the last thing she wants to do is discuss her latest disc, Central Reservation, or anything else that requires more than a monosyllabic answer. What Orton wants is to get back to her rehearsal space in New York City.
Despite her reticent, impatient demeanor over the phone, the English-born singer is quite the opposite when it comes to her music: handcrafted slices of honesty, despair, and hope. Simple folk melodies float over a drum loop or abstract electronic sounds. In theory, they would collide; on disc, they gel.
On her debut, Trailer Park, and recent follow-up, Orton has accomplished the seemingly impossible: bridging the monumental gap between folk and electronica. "I kind of see it, but I don't get too hung up on it," she says. "I write songs and put music to them. People I work with put music to them. I'm faithful to the song, ultimately. What the song is crying out for is what it gets."
The six-foot singer didn't have delusions of musical grandeur growing up. While she showed a casual interest in theater during her late teens, it seemed to be just something to do rather than a career choice. Singing was something she did while she vacuumed--she found comfort in the droning sound. Her life was changed after a chance meeting with then-unknown dance producer William Orbit, now known for his work with Madonna on Ray of Light. Orton bummed a cigarette off him in a London bar, and he was intrigued by her unique speaking voice. He worked with the unpolished singer over the next two years, indoctrinating her into the dark world of electronic music.
Word of Orton's unusual delivery and subtle nature began to spread. Her vocal contribution on "Alive: Alone," from the Chemical Brothers' debut disc Dig Your Own Hole, introduced Orton to generation ecstasy.
Though she received a warm reception within the London techno scene, Orton's true musical voice had yet to be heard. Her debut disc would feature an obvious folk influence--Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones come to mind. Her gentle acoustic guitar melodies and insightful lyrics were supplemented with unobtrusive samples and beats. The music appealed to Lilith Fair folks and served as the perfect comedown from a night of raving.
The down-to-earth singer isn't sure how to take the attention, which has grown at a slow but steady pace. "I'm not sure that I'm that famous," Orton says. "Am I? Well, I don't know. Yeah, I think it's scary. I think, as the songwriter, part of that for me is being observing. I think it's scary to think of somebody being observed, other than being the observer. You know what I mean?"
Orton continues to delve into her past, as well as her current life. "Pass in Time," from her latest disc, is a cathartic peace offering that deals with her father's death--when she was eleven--and her mother's abrupt passing, when she was nineteen. Given a month to live, Orton's mother died a week after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Life is neither fair nor easy, and Orton does her share of healing on Central Reservation.
"I have to sing about honesty," she says. "I kind of hate liars. So I write honestly, I suppose. As honest as it can be. Because you know, what's honest this minute isn't going to be very honest the next minute. Honesty is quite a subjective thing really. . . I don't consciously do it, but often I look back and say to myself, 'Well, that's obviously more personal than I realized.' Yeah, I have regrets, but I don't think other people would know what I was talking about anyway in my own life. At the end of the day, I've chosen to write like that, and I have to stand by it, really."
Orton has won the luxury of being able to record with whomever she wishes. For Central Reservation, she assembled a highly talented group of musicians: guitar virtuoso Ben Harper, piano player Dr. John, and her jazz hero, Terry Callier. The album is filled with chapters of love and life, and Orton's voice leads the way, as the musicians provide the nuance and atmosphere.
Orton has a Dusty Springfield quality about her. She knows how to sing within the song's melody without getting in its way. Her tardy entrances, unusual pauses, and other vocal idiosyncrasies give her music a refreshing feel, as if she is retraining the listener on how to listen. "I like it when it's almost always falling apart--about on the verge of falling to pieces, and then it doesn't quite," she says. "Not being in it, but ahead of it."
As the conversation progresses, Orton begins to expand on her nos and yeahs. This includes discussing a theme in her music: optimism. No matter how dire the situation she presents, there is always a silver lining, if you look for it. When questioned about the lyric "Everything is going to be all right," Orton sounds as though she is trying to convince herself as much as her audience.
"You can have a heap of shit on your head and still be a good person," she says. "You can still do the right thing."
Beth Orton, with Joe Henry. 9 p.m., Friday, June 11, Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats, $12.50 ($15 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.