Following an absence from music that included becoming a single mother, marriage to singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and a second child, Beth Orton returned with her first new album in six years on Monday (1 October). However with many of the songs on Sugaring Season - named after the time of the year when trees can be tapped to make syrup - beginning life as something Orton did to pass the time after the birth of her oldest daughter, the singer wasn't sure if they would ever end-up on record. Fortunately she spent time spent with her friend, the late Burt Jansch and was offered a record deal without even needing to make a demo. To explain this regeneration and her new record, the singer-songwriter recently sat down with Q for afternoon tea to discuss how she was drawn back into music. How the devil are you? "All right thanks. It's strange to be back doing this sort of thing again, a bit weird, but I'm proud of the record so I'm happy to do this. It's strange, but good!"
There's obviously been a big gap between your last record. Did you call this album Sugaring Season because you had to harvest these songs at the right moment? "That's a nice way to put it, harvesting songs. I did harvest it at the right moment. I was talking to a friend of mine who said, You could have made it three years ago, you had enough songs then... but it wasn't the right time. Timing is a funny thing. It was definitely about feeling I was in the right place with my life. Though funnily I ended-up getting pregnant again [just before recording] and that gave me another year on it. Oh well! [laughs]."
When you finished your last album, 2006's Comfort Of Strangers, was taking a break always the plan? "At the end of the last one I didn't know if I'd ever make another record. It was like, Oh well, that was that then! I loved my last record and I was pretty sad that it never saw more light of day, but then I go pregnant. I toured it for five-and-a-half months, then the doctor told me I should probably stop getting on an aeroplane, so I did. Then I was working with Bert Jansch. It was very challenging to work with him in a good way, but still I didn't feel, Way hey! I wasn't with my label or management, I had a child on my own... so I thought I was done. Then bit by bit, it just started to bubble up again, this desire to write. That's what led it, I was writing the songs anyway."
And then you got dropped by EMI... "I didn't mind that, I knew it was coming anyway. It was kind of a liberation, you know: at least I'm not where I'm not wanted. It was alright, they paid me! It was fine. Things just came bit by bit. I moved to the countryside for the summer, I lived back where I'm from but actually that was fucking exhausting so I came right back to London again [laughs] got back on with it. And here I am, I've made a record. It was hard fought and hard won. I came back through the music and I suppose in a way it was more vital than ever that I write because it was the place where I could give myself some peace and quiet - time to myself away from my daughter. I love her to pieces but we all need some time."
Were the songs you writing different to what you'd done before because there was no deadlines or record deal? "It wasn't so much that exactly, the difference was I kept coming back to things and made them really complete. With every record I've ever made there's always been this, like, Argh! People would say, Well if you got it perfect why would you bother making another record. I'd go, Good answer! It would sort of satiate me for about an hour. This time I really had the time to keep edging it and moving it, nothing too dramatic, but I was writing it until I was finished. When I went into the studio the songs were really, really complete."
Did it matter to you if anyone ever heard these songs then? "I actually liked that! It meant I could make all the noise I wanted. Make a God awful noise, make a beautiful noise, sing in a silly voice, make-up sounds, sing in voicings that didn't suit me necessarily but were really satisfying and interesting to play around with. I just messed about. This is some of the songs. There's a whole other load of songs that I'm equally attached to. I realised that the first thing I ever did got released. That isn't an inverted brag, I know it's a lucky situation as well, but at the same time it meant I never really got a chance to experiment. I had a real desire to catch up with myself and I got that chance."
You had your teenage, experimental phase in the middle of your career rather than at the beginning? "Exactly! Perfect. I got to mess around, I went back to university - well not back, I never went - I went to university, I went to live in the country, just playing around with all sorts of things really. At the same time I was really challenged by being a single parent, I found it really hard. I found mothering quite easy though. I was surprised, I had a maternal instinct - Where did that come from? You lose all the bullshit when you have a child, all the artifice falls away and you're left with who you are. That was the raw material and I think it meant I dug a little deeper into my writing. You have limitations, I used to talk about being helped by working within my limitations but I learned that with no one looking I could step over the limitations, I found there was actually a different line. Maybe there wasn't a limitation at all, you step off into the void and find out what else is out there. I'm not saying I've reinvented the wheel, but for myself I've gone a little deeper."
When did you feel you could make a record with these songs? "Well when I signed with Anti , that made a big difference. They didn't even want to hear some songs, they just went: You're Beth Orton! That was pretty nice [laughs]. That led me to the fact I was probably going to have to make another record. My husband, who I met around the same time, he was very encouraging. He told me the songs were really good and I should finish them. It just happened quite naturally."
What was it like going back into the studio though and realising that the outside world was going to hear your hobby? "I didn't think about it, I was so excited to be back in a studio. It was like giving me a tall glass of water, I just gulped it down! I didn't know I'd ever get back there. The feeling in the room was so exciting. It's funny, it felt really good. I didn't know where it was going to go so I just lived in the moment. It's like being given a second chance, you relish it."
You recorded the album in Portland, what was that experience like? "It was really liberating. I must admit towards the end of my [second] pregnancy I knew I was going and it was what got me through the labour [laughs] I swear to God! The midwife was telling me to thing of something nice and I was screaming: I'm going to make a record! It was brilliant. It was good to not be so isolated, I was getting less isolated the more time I was spending with Sam. We had a baby, then I had his extended family, my life became full! It went from one extreme to the other, one minute I was isolated the next there were people everywhere! It was a complete reversal, it was very nice."
Having written lots of songs, why did these ten suggest themselves as an album? "To be honest, we went in with 18 songs and these were the ones that we finished. Some of them didn't get finished, they weren't ready. The songs were ready - well, there was a couple of them that weren't done, which I realised in the stduio - but some of them just didn't come together. It just didn't happen, so save it for the next record. So it whittled down to these ten songs. There were a couple more I was dying to have on the record but they just weren't ready. I know they're all there waiting and I'm fine with that."
You obviously wrote these songs in a very different situation to the one you're in now, do the lyrics tell you anything about yourself back then? "Yeah! Someone was telling me the other day that when you write some people use a certain part of the brain and it means that the bit that's social, the bit that's sitting here now shuts down. I think that's what happens with me. I don't really have a context for the part of me that writes. I realised much later the part of me that writes is much smarter than any other part of me. I don't even know the connection it's making. It really does feel like an It, another being. I'm always amazed when I look back and put the pieces together. I often do that interviews, people ask me questions and I think, I never thought of that, brilliant! I'm often surprised at the underlying themes of songs."
Well your album has quite a rural, pastoral feel, yet you just said you fled the countryside... "It has got a rural, pastoral feel but a lot of that was written in the dead centre of London, in Kings Cross. I used to live at the top of Pentonville Road, in those really tall houses in the square at the top. I lived right at the top of one of those buildings and there was a tree that had grown all the way to the top, to where I slept. The branches would come right onto the balcony and it was almost like living in a tree house. The whole of Last Leaves Of Autumn was written right there. It's still nature, it's always there, it's always evolving and it always blows my mind. It's constant and that's so reassuring. I definitely talk about the cycles of the seasons and, as you said, I'm harvesting songs."
What are your live plans now? "I start touring America first, and then I'll be over in November and December. I'm touring solo. I could play but I did get lessons with Burt Jansch, there's a certain kudos to that. I learned a lot. I didn't really have lessons, I just ended up making a record with him, doing some gigs with him and hanging out. He became my friend, he was a good egg. It's given me the confidence to do solo shows. I've got much better at it. It's a really nice way of reworking old songs as being much more intimate with the audience really gets the songs across. It's much easier for me, I get to hold the crowd."
As your touring, wow do you feel about the scene now? When you first emerged people called you a folkie because it was a bit of a novelty, now there's loads of folk-inspired acts. Are you their elder stateswoman? "To fucking right I am! [laughs] I'm not that keen on the Mumfords & Sons [sic] I find it a bit hard to swallow. Laura Marling's really talented, amazing voice and an amazing writer. I don't feel I fit in with that though. I don't want to fit in with any trend now, really. I'm quite happy to plough my own furrow, but I like that there's all these young 'uns, it's good! Have I met any of them? Not really, I don't get out much [laughs]." Paul Stokes @Stokesie