Beth Orton emerged from the British trip-hop dance scene as a singer/songwriter who directed her talents toward making amplified folk music in a refreshingly different vein. Orton, who lent vocal tracks for the likes of William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers prior to her solo career, found her way to the forefront of a new wave that Village Voice writer Julie Taraska termed “pastoral electronica … an amalgamation of ’60s folk and processed beats.” Orton’s cheerless but haunting voice and songs about morbidity and tragic romances, and earned a slew of critical accolades for her two albums, 1997’s Trailer Park and her 1999 release Central Reservation. As an article in Rolling Stone noted, “Orton weaves English folk, confessional songwriting, and high-tech arrangements into a modern rhythmic approach.”
Orton was born in 1970 in Norfolk, a city in the east of England, but moved to the London area with her family as a young teen. Always fascinated by words and the English language, she wrote poetry and stories from a young age. As an adult she worked in a pub for a time, and began her own catering company for film sets that she called Fat Beth’s Lunchbox. From her parents she inherited an appreciation for a wide range of music including Sixties-era folk ensembles. From her rebellious older brothers she gleaned an awareness of punk, but Orton turned her creative energies toward a career in the theater. “I had a huge love of music, but it was something I never thought I was worthy of,” Orton told Billboard’s Dylan Siegler.
She appeared in London productions after studying drama, and even toured Russia “as a spitting, corseted whore in a play about Arthur Rimbaud,” wrote Murphy Williams in Harper’s Bazaar. In a hip London bar one night in 1989 she met ambient electrónica producer William Orbit. Sitting on the barstool next to Orton at Quiet Storm, Orbit was struck by Orton’s speaking voice, and convinced her to join him in the studio. They recorded “Don’t Wanna Know About Evil” together, a cover from 1970s folk singer John Martyn. Orton then went on to work with several other acts including the Chemical Brothers on their groundbreaking 1995 LP Exit Planet Dust and the trip-hop act Red Snapper. “When I started singing, I just couldn’t stop,” Orton told Siegler. “Music satisfied this need in me—it was the expression I was looking for.”
The exposure to studios and songwriters inspired Orton to begin writing her own songs. As she did so, a friend introduced her to the work of legendary, though somewhat forgotten, Chicago jazz singer Terry Callier. Village Voice writer Natasha Stovall explained that Callier’s music had achieved a cultish fandom among London
Born December 1970 in Norfolk, England.
Once ran a film-set catering business; stage actress in London, England, late 1980s; recorded “Don’t Wanna Know about Evil” with William Orbit as Spill; recorded with Chemical Brothers and Red Snapper; solo debut Trailer Park released in late 1996 on the Heavenly/DeConstruction label.
Awards: Trailer Park named one of the ten best albums of 1997 by Rolling Stone magazine.
Addresses: Home —London, England. Record Company—Arista Records, 6 W. 57th St., New York NY 10019.
music scenesters by that point. “Callier’s ‘60s and ‘70s recordings cook soul, folk, jazz, love, politics, and religion,” wrote Stovall, and “guided by his example, Orton mixed her emotive free-associations and creamy melodies down into laid-back turntable soundscapes” that became her debut album, Trailer Park.
Released in the U.K. in 1996 and on the Heavenly/DeConstruction label the following year in the United States, Trailer Park was somewhat of a departure from the production-heavy blips and beeps of William Orbit. The album instead featured Orton using a folk guitar but backing it with dance beats. The album was produced by highly regarded studio whiz Victor Van Vught, who had worked with Nick Cave, and Andrew Weatherall.
A single from Trailer Park, “She Cries Your Name,” was released but Orton did not tour in support of it, though she did open some dates for the Beautiful South, John Cale and John Martyn. In a talk with Billboard writer Paul Sexton in late 1996, Orton agreed with the difficulty of neatly categorizing her style. “Folk, jazz, and hiphop all rolled into one,” she theorized, adding, “at the end of the day, it’s just good taste. People used to say you couldn’t do a folk song with hip-hop. I know it’s all the rage now, but I swear, four years ago you couldn’t get anybody to do it.”
Critical reception for Trailer Park was enthusiastic. “Teetering between a songwriter’s linear development and electronica’s conscious fragmentation, Trailer Park incorporates the sum total of Orton’s experience: the lyrics and melodies she writes on acoustic guitar and the processing and effects of studio engineers,” noted Taraska in the Village Voice. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called Orton’s debut “one of those rare albums you could play for absolutely anyone and know they’d like it.” By 1999, Trailer Park had snowballed into an underground success in the United States, selling over 90,000 copies.
Orton eventually did begin making live forays into North America, and found a warm reception in cities like Chicago and San Francisco. She also spent time on the Lilith Fair touring festival in 1998, where she met one of her more famous fans, Emmylou Harris. Returning to the studio she rehired Van Vught along with David Roback of Mazzy Star for her 1999 release Central Reservation. This time, however, Orton wrote nearly everything herself. Some of the tracks reflected her own circumstances—both of her parents had passed away—and musically, she headed in a different direction that distanced her from the intense beats of the electrónica movement. In place of heavy drum loops was a greater emphasis on the guitar, the piano and conga drums.
Central Reservation also included several notable guest collaborators or performers. Ben Harper helped out on its first single, “Stolen Car,” while New Orleans bluesman Dr. John and Callier appeared on other tracks. Dr. John had been working in the same studio complex and liked her work so much that he offered his services. Ben Watt from Everything but the Girl also made an appearance on the record.
Orton won wide critical acclaim for Central Reservation. “From a universe of elements, Orton has cobbled together on Central Reservation a sound both trippy and straightforward,” opined Stovall in the Village Voice. Regarding Orton’s progression as a songwriter and musician, Stovall wrote that she displays “an almost mystical relationship with sounds and words … Central Reservation bypasses the cortex and goes straight for raw nerves; perhaps that’s why Orton doesn’t print out her lyrics, because you have to hear them to understand.”
Billboards Siegler also found Central Reservation a solid example of a developing artist. “The orchestration is lusher, the vocals are more dynamic and confident, and the artist’s game of genre hopscotch is intact,” Siegler declared. Writing in Newsweek, Karen Schoemertermed the record “a glorious accomplishment… her songs drift along on oceans of strings, with brushed and Stax-style organ adding cushions of soul.” Rolling StonewiXer was no less impressed writing, “Central Reservation generates a special buzz of its own.”
Trailer Park, Heavenly/DeConstruction, 1996.
Central Reservation, Heavenly/DeConstruction, 1999.
Billboard, December 14, 1996; February 13, 1999.
Esquire, February 1999.
Harper’s Bazaar, September 1998.
Newsweek, March 15, 1999.
Rolling Stone, December 24, 1998; March 18, 1999;
Village Voice, May 13, 1997; April 13, 1999.
Born: Norfolk, England, 14 December 1970
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: Daybreaker (2002)
Hit songs since 1990: "She Cries Your Name," "Stolen Car," "Concrete Sky"
Beth Orton began in the British trip-hop dance scene, which melded hip-hop beats with trippy, atmospheric touches, usually achieved with synthesizers and drum programming. As a solo artist with a haunting, reedlike voice, she combined a love of folk music with ethereal, otherworldly synthesizer touches. Prior to her solo career she appeared as a guest vocalist on albums by the U.K. electronica duo the Chemical Brothers. On her own she produced three solo albums and various collaborations.
Though Orton has an unmistakable singing voice, she started out wanting to be an actress. It was not until she met fellow Briton, William Orbit, a producer and mixer known for his work with rock stars Sting and Madonna, that she turned to singing. Impressed by her speaking voice, Orbit invited her into the studio to record a song. He introduced her to people in the music business, and in 1996 she released a debut album, Trailer Park, to critical acclaim. Though Orton did not tour to support the album—she opened for other artists—she developed a strong following. By the time she released her second album, Central Reservation (1999), her debut had sold 90,000 copies in the United States. Steady airplay on Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) radio stations helped ignite sales. The single "She Cries Your Name," a haunting song with cellos, minimal rhythmic touches, and acoustic guitar, proved to be a breakthrough.
In 1997 Rolling Stone magazine named Trailer Park one of the top ten albums of the year. Orton's lyrics can be elliptical and abstract, but also touched with wisdom. In the bluesy, slow tempo piano tune "Sweetest Decline," she sings, "What's the use in regrets? / They're just things we haven't done yet / What are regrets? They're just lessons we haven't learned yet."
Orton's third album, Daybreaker (2002), possesses a spirited crispness and buoyancy that earlier efforts lacked. Although some critics considered it overproduced, others found Daybreaker a lovely record that brings Orton's crackling alto to the fore. On Daybreaker Orton collaborates with revered country singer Emmylou Harris and the prolific alternative country singer/songwriter Ryan Adams.
Though Orton emerged from the dance scene, her own music is ethereal and spare, combining the best of acoustic instruments with the processed sounds of synthesizers
and backbeats. Orton demonstrated that the honest delivery of folk music could bring a humanizing touch to the chilly, otherworldly aspects of electronic music.
Trailer Park (Dedicated/Heavenly, 1996); Best Bit EP (Heavenly, 1997); Central Reservation (Heavenly/Arista, 1999); Daybreaker (Astralwerks/Heavenly, 2002).