On Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton finds beauty in the details
Big career moments don’t usually arrive with the stealth of Beth Orton’s new album. Ten years after she first arrived on the pop radar, her latest effort, Comfort of Strangers (Astralwerks), is winning the British singer-songwriter a new wave of appreciation. But the impact wasn’t immediate.
“I really feel like it’s a grower,” Orton says, talking on a cell phone from a soundcheck in Denver recently. “When I first gave a copy to a couple of people, they’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s really great’?”—and here, she notches her voice up into a little sing-songy trill, to emphasize a commonplace response. “But there’d be this other thing of ‘Oh, I really like it,’ but suddenly I’d get this text or an e-mail or a phone call and they’d be, like, ‘Hang on, a minute! This is fucking great!’ It was like a penny kept dropping, but it would take a minute.”
Orton credits the record’s success to her collaboration with überproducer Jim O’Rourke, the former Chicagoan whose intuitive yet encyclopedic skills have been put to notable use by such bands as Wilco, Sonic Youth and Stereolab. They first met ten years ago (“Neither of us can remember when”), but it wasn’t until Orton picked up O’Rourke’s song-based, acoustic guitar–driven 1999 EP, Halfway to a Threeway (Drag City), in late 2004 that something clicked.
“I was just mesmerized,” she says. “I thought the guitar playing was stunning.” By the following spring, the two were recording Comfort in a New York studio with several of O’Rourke’s colleagues from the city’s experimental/improv scene, such as percussionist Tim Barnes and cellist Okkyung Lee. “He just got it. He had a total vision of how he wanted my voice to be heard and what he felt would best serve the songs. That was his big deal. You’ve got to serve the songs. It can’t be about a musician’s ego. It’s whatever is good for the song.”
The music on Comfort is grounded in an organic, live-in-the-studio feel that evokes elements of 1970s folk and rock without ever getting too specific. As Orton suggests, at first listen a lot of the nuances could pass you by. But, then, the way her voice shifts along a particular lyric, or the way the rhythms attentively bustle, or a vibrant guitar lick catches you short. Orton’s songs have always dwelled in a kind of sweet, drizzly melancholy, dreamy state, but they’ve never sounded this immediate from instant to instant.
“What’s really great about working with Jim was his attention to the drama, to the details of the story,” Orton says. “He’d say, ‘You know where you say, “Diddley-diddley-duh”?’ I’ve never worked with anyone—musicians—who gives a fuck about what I’m saying. As for me, that’s where it starts. Sometimes, it’s not on first listen the most perfect vocal, but if you give it time you realize it’s the most fuckin’ heartfelt one.”
The singer, who at age 13 moved to East London, where she played drums in schoolkid bands with names like the Ream Team, speaks in a disarming accent that turns what to wot. She explains that there was a precise strategy behind the project.
“We wanted to be the new—what were they called?—Fleetwood Mac. I’m not sure which one I was meant to be,” she says.
Oh, come on, which one?
“I don’t know, I don’t know. Lindsey Buckingham?”
Right answer. But Orton’s “process,” though deliberate, doesn’t sound nearly as tortured as the former Mac frontman. She’s not one of those Randy Newman characters who clocks in after breakfast and spends the day at the piano.
“I never try,” she says. “ If I don’t have a thought in my head, if I don’t feel it, I don’t do it. It’s like a hunger. If I’m not hungry, what’s the point? I don’t force-feed myself and I don’t force myself to write songs and sing songs. I squirrel away ideas and I live and go about my daily life and suddenly it seems to come in a big rush, and then I write and I write and I write until it’s finished.”
What she does, Orton says, is “put a little Post-it note in the sky.”
Beth Orton plays Vic Theatre Monday 3.