‘I was losing words. I didn’t remember the week before’: Beth Orton on chronic illness, MeToo and motherhood | Pop and rock
In aspirational Hampstead in north London, Beth Orton says people don’t know what to make of her. “Everyone’s poking you with sticks,” she says. “‘What are you, are you successful? What kind of music do you make, what’s your thing?’ I don’t know, I’m just muddling through. I’m a fucking mess, all right? I’ve become a ‘mother’. I meet my children at the gates of the school. And I don’t know if I am that person, but I’m trying to be. I’m also a singer and a songwriter, and I’ve been famous – did that happen, I’m not sure? Trying to incorporate all those incredibly disparate bits of the self into one is … I just don’t know any more. I don’t know who the fuck I am.”
Motherhood, waning fame and the strangeness of a new neighbourhood are just some of the challenges Orton has faced on the way to her darkest album to date, Weather Alive, along with grief, multiple chronic illnesses, label rejection and financial instability, all of them creating a centrifuge that flung apart but also concentrated her sense of self.
Despite her doubts, she certainly was famous, beginning with her 1997 debut album Trailer Park, the definitive sound of 90s comedowns alongside Portishead. With her sunlit moorland of a voice, she won the Brit award for best female artist in 2000 following her second album, the magnificently romantic Central Reservation. Both went gold and she hit the UK Top 10 with her next, Daybreaker, but in truth it was overproduced and underwritten. “I started to strive for something that just wasn’t … it all got a bit messy and confusing and you lose your way,” she says, over a cup of tea in a local pub. “I’m not a fucking folk singer, a tidy little girl, it’s never been that way. The first gig I went to of my own volition was the Fall when I was 12. I learned to just go: ‘OK, I am all these very contradictory parts and it’s all right to just encompass that.’”
Unfairly associated in some listeners’ minds with chillout compilations and the horrible label “folktronica”, Orton’s unwillingness to cleave to a neat genre has left her underrated, but she hasn’t been short on returns to form, such as 2006’s Comfort of Strangers and 2012’s stunning Sugaring Season. Weather Alive, made with musicians including saxophonist Alabaster DePlume and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, is another one: “There’s no denying I went deep on this record,” she says. “It’s heavy as fuck.”
The nature imagery she has long used is now cast in gloom – “We’re talking about something on the way out” – and her voice goes to uncharted depths, as on Lonely, a song borne out of that aforementioned loss of self. “There’s so many ways to be lonely in this world,” she says. “Not to complain, but motherhood is lonely.”
Orton’s 2016 album Kidsticks was made with software, a “creative sidestep” that allowed her to work and parent at the same time, though it was a bit fussy and inconsequential. While she calls her daughter and son “the biggest love story of my life”, being a mother chafed against her identity. “Definitely. What made Kidsticks possible was that I didn’t have to dig into anything too deep, emotionally speaking, But what I really needed was to go deep again. And to do that is to abandon my children. It seriously is.” Orton recalls packing a bag for a photoshoot next to her daughter. “It was sort of like shoving her into orbit: ‘Yeah, see ya later, I’m off to do this thing that I do.’ Because doing what I do, it is all-encompassing … I have to let go of this mother part of me.”
On Lonely, she sings one couplet – “And who’d dare to love me / I’m a whore / I’m too exposed / Honey, I’m rubbed raw” – in a chesty snarl unlike anything in her catalogue. “As a woman you have so few options as to who to be. Being a mother, you learn that. It’s set in stone, in marble, that’s where you belong, and fit.” There’s a note of pride and defiance to the way she sings those lines, I say. “Exactly: Fuck you. I’m a whore. And I’m a mother. What are you going to do about it?” She grins and cringes. “Whenever I read myself swearing, I’m like: ‘Jesus, be quiet.’”
She says the move to Hampstead from Dalston, five miles east, was more of a culture shock than her previous move to Los Angeles, 5,500 miles west. Dalston had been the teenage Orton’s home with her divorced mother (“Vodka and white bread seemed to be what we lived off”), and a nominal base for years afterwards, although her parents were both dead by her 20s, and she had few ties to anything much as a young musician. “I’d go home and it was: ‘Hi, four walls, how are you doing?’ No one; tumbleweed.” She remembers trying to cajole her band into staying abroad after a tour for Central Reservation. “They were like: ‘Some of us have people to go home to, Beth.’ I was like: whoa, that hurt, ouch, OK, fair enough.”
Her life settled somewhat on meeting her husband and her son’s father, the folk singer Sam Amidon (her daughter is from a previous relationship), and the family set up in LA’s Laurel Canyon. But the cost of US healthcare brought them back to the UK in 2015.
When she was 17, Orton was diagnosed with the digestive ailment Crohn’s disease and put on the steroid prednisolone. “I was out drinking on it, drugging, living the life. The highs were very high and the lows were very low. And it seems to have – possibly, it’s unclear – had a neurological impact.” She began suffering from what are called complex partial seizures, where she wouldn’t lose consciousness, “so I could carry on – and I carried on for years. And because Crohn’s disease is very painful you learn to cover it up a lot and carry on. And truly, the alcohol and weed really helped, because it just took the pain away.” But after the move to the US, the seizures started happening many times a day. “I was losing words: one day I just did not remember what happened the week before.” Anti-epileptic medication has since kept the seizures at bay, and she now manages her Crohn’s through diet rather than drugs, and has given up alcohol. “In learning to take care of my kids, I learned to take care of myself,” she says, comparing her life now with the “benign neglect” she faced as a child: “By the time I was 19, I had barely any teeth.”
Orton was told in her 20s that she could be the poster girl for Crohn’s (“Thanks a lot!”) but struggled with a lack of “fellowship” around her condition. “It was very lonely, incredibly isolating. So during [the Covid-19] lockdown, it was like: dudes, we’re all isolating now, we’ve all got chronic illnesses, yay! I had friends calling me up saying: ‘Ugh, I feel like this.’ And I’m like: ‘Yep.’ It wasn’t schadenfreude – I was like: ‘Oh, I guess it’s OK to want your health, and to slow down.’” Her journey towards better health has “made me a better person, a better mother, and truly I think it’s made an artist out of me. It’s made me pull apart and think: what do you really care about?”
After returning to London, Orton workshopped a musical with the National Theatre, which never amounted to a completed project but helped her write “songs that were more stories”, and she installed a piano in her garden studio. “I’d be with the piano, saying: ‘You’ll never believe what happened.’ Like a crazy lady talking to herself. But I had a room full of critics still; I had my head chock-a-block with: who do you think you are?” In 2019, she signed with a subsidiary of a major label, and was being set up to work with a “super-fancy” producer. “In the last six years, I feel much more ready to meet the world with a new consciousness and be very present and accountable, so I said to the producer: ‘Can we draw on what I’ve been realising?’ And he was like …” She makes an unimpressed face. “Anyway, lockdown happened, he disappeared, the whole thing went to shit.”
The label balked at Orton’s dark demos and dropped her on a phone call while she was driving. “They were like: ‘We’ll rehome you!’ And I was like: ‘I’m not a dog.’” This was October 2020, and she and Amidon had already lost plenty of touring income due to the pandemic. Orton took out a loan to finish the album, put back some bleak lyrics she had held off including (such as the “whore” lines), and self-produced for the first time. After she was dropped, the studio became a place of solace. “By now we’d been through a lockdown and I’d had to be very present for that, but by the second one I was like” – addressing Amidon – “Dude, I’m out of here, I’ll be in the shed if you need me.’ And I’m sorry to all the women that this irritates highly, but I was owed this. And he took over. He has always given me the headspace to be creative, to work, to find the connections. I went back to an incredibly internal space: put that back in, come on, stay honest.”
Two deaths hit her hard, and fed into her songwriting: first Andrew Weatherall, who co-produced Trailer Park. “I was the best folk singer I ever was when I worked with him,” Orton says. “I got very caught up in other people’s storms, other people’s ideas of what I was meant to be and what I was meant to do to be successful, but with him it was like spoken-word poetry singing.” His death helped her realise she had “an unconscious desire to go back to something that had been lost” – those immediate songs.
Then the producer Hal Willner, who in 2006 had brought together Orton alongside Lou Reed, Nick Cave and others in a touring concert tribute to Leonard Cohen, died. “Hal allowed for a freedom of creative expression that I had not had anywhere else,” she says. The song Fractals was “written to him, written to that feeling. When Hal died I felt him so close, and I got into this [feeling of]: I have no control, though my brain is rattling around telling me I have, and everything is a projection anyway.” Her words come in fits and starts. “The spoken part [of me] doesn’t often feel that intelligent, but the writing part is like constellations. It’s multidimensional; your brain makes connections, little rivulets, things I couldn’t do in a conversation.”
She hasn’t always been as lucky with collaborators. “I’ve worked with men in a way that has been tricky. You don’t want to be sexualised, you want to be an equal, and respected … It’s really disheartening. It’s a bigger conversation, really. I would really like to write about it – but I can’t really talk about it. I’m interested in this possession of women via their sexuality, how their sexuality becomes politicised – there’s an ownership that goes on.”
I ask her how she felt seeing the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against Ryan Adams, who later apologised to those people he had “mistreated”. She once knew him well – they recorded together, and dated. “I’m not close to him,” she replies. “I didn’t get involved [when the allegations were made] because I was going through so much in my life, that I was like: I can’t. It’s too much. The #MeToo thing is so powerful and it’s still going on – it’s scratching the surface. What happened there with Ryan was – yeah, I know the experience well. But I don’t feel prepared to talk about it. Because there are tentacles in my life that go back very far … It would hurt me too much to have it misrepresented.”
Free from overbearing men, labels and any outside influence, Weather Alive is an enormously exciting record; at 51, Orton sounds like a woman reinvigorating her craft. “When I put out those first records, success came very quickly,” she remembers. “When that happens, there are things to do to build on success, and a lot of it I think went against my grain. And also, maybe I wasn’t that good at it. I thought it was a phase, for sure – what a funny phase! And then what’s happened over the years is: no, this isn’t a phase. Actually you might just have to admit that you love what you do, and shut the fuck up and get on with it. Accept what is possible, and what hasn’t been possible, and where I might have been able to figure it out a bit better and been a better version of myself. Or wish that other people had been better versions of themselves. And not be afraid of my darkness.”
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