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Beth Orton gets back to basics with ‘Comfort’

‘I’ve always wanted to make an acoustic album’ says the singer
/ Source: The Associated Press

Beth Orton could never understand why some performers would go on tour and refuse to sing their most popular songs once they hit the stage.

“It seemed really selfish,” says Orton, reflecting on her experiences as a fan. “They’d do different arrangements and they were rubbish, and I would be like, ‘Why are they doing that? Why don’t they just play the ones we like?”’

But Orton risks leaving her fans in a similar state of befuddlement when she goes on tour this month. Though Orton’s career has been defined by her electronica-tinged folk grooves, she doesn’t plan to sing any of them this time out.

Instead, she’ll be focusing on music from “Comfort of Strangers,” her first studio album in four years. Its pared down, acoustic-centered songs emphasize Orton’s emotion-cracked voice and songwriting prowess and mark a departure for the 35-year-old singer-songwriter — a departure that was a long time coming, in Orton’s view.

“I’ve always wanted to make an acoustic album, I’ve always wanted to make a voice and guitar record, but I never thought I was a good-enough guitar player nor a good-enough singer nor a good-enough writer,” says the tall, lanky Brit, dressed in sweats and swiping bits of bagels as she talks.

But when she first heard what she had written, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, now is the time,’ and I knew if I didn’t do it now, I may never do it.”

And she believes in those songs so much that she’s certain once her fans hear her performing them, they won’t be pining away for her old ones.

“I feel bad in some ways saying this because I don’t want to diminish what I did before or any of the musicians I worked with or any of the people I worked with, because I’m not,” she says earnestly. “But I just need a breath of fresh air, I need that — and I’ve got it.”

“I have always felt that this was a record that Beth needed to make,” says Errol Kolosine, general manager of her label, Astralwerks. “Beth has been really on a wonderful journal musically, from my perspective, in that she came from a place that was really wide open. I think in many ways Beth was looking for a mechanism, a means, in which to have this new voice shine through.”

‘In my mind I had moved on’Given Orton’s success since her 1996 solo debut with “Trailer Park,” one might wonder why she would feel the need to navigate a new artistic course. After all, she was revered for lyrics that captured the bitterness, suffering and occasional joys of mundane life with a unique and clever perspective. Add to that the fusion of ambient grooves with a folk subtext, and Orton was one of the more original artists on the scene.

“Beth has a gift of evoking an emotion with her song that really touches people,” Kolosine says.

But after 2002’s “Daybreaker,” Orton felt the need for that fresh air — and fresh material. Though the disc was acclaimed and featured key collaborations with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams, by the time she was midway through the “Daybreaker” tour she was growing weary of performing the songs from the album — and the rest of her catalog.

“I had to keep touring these songs; they were songs I loved, but I knew I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons anymore. It wasn’t that I meant to do it like that, it’s just how it goes,” says Orton. “The world I was living in wasn’t the world I listened to. ... In my mind I had moved on, but in my life, I hadn’t moved on in any way I wanted to.”

Frustrated and in need of a break, Orton took time off after the “Daybreaker” tour, and spent part of it far away from her Norfolk, England, home — in Africa and Australia. Once overseas, she discovered her creative vision — an abundance of it.

“I was there for a month and I just started to write and write and write,” she says of her time in Africa. “And there was a difference in how it was coming out. I really felt like it was the truest voice, it was the voice I recognized — it was my own.”

Once Orton found her voice, she wanted to present it in the most organic way she could, so she abandoned what was becoming her signature sound — electronic-based backbeats — for more basic background music, such as a guitar or piano.

“I knew it had to be spare, I knew it had to be pure and stripped down and it had to keep the integrity of the songs,” she says, then adds with a laugh: “My blueprint was always to make a folk, gospel-soul record with like a country tear dribbling down its cheek.”

Orton linked with guitarist and producer Jim O’Rourke to help her hone her sound. In the end the record didn’t turn out to be just a guitar and voice record — there are a few more layers involved — but it was sparse enough and true enough to Orton’s original blueprint.

“I just wanted to work within my own limitations, strengths, and hit my head on my own expectations, not anyone else’s ... What can I bring to the table? And I found what I bring. I bring songs, I bring words, I bring guitar playing, and I sing to my style and I actually have quite an individual style,” she says, proudly.

And its Orton’s style that will always be the focal point for her fans, and not the beats or the layers that might surround it, says Kolosine.

“There’s no reason for Beth to repeat herself; an artist deserves and demands to evolve,” he says. “This record represents the culmination of everything she’s done up until now. There’s a whole different type of vernacular that Beth has brought to her skill set; I can’t wait to hear what she does next.”