Orton Hears a Who

Singer-songwriter Beth Orton has many sides, and she likes them all.

With electronica spreading at the speed of a super-virus, adhering itself to every known genre of music and producing new hybrid strains faster than anyone can affix names to them, it would be convenient to accuse London-based singer-songwriter Beth Orton of being a dabbler in trip-hop. After all, her debut album, Trailer Park, contains a number of tracks that bear the stamp of programmed psychedelia. Other numbers, however, resemble lilting pop nuggets or the simplest folk ballads. Pigeonhole her at your own risk.

In Orton's view, categorization is something to avoid, not embrace. "The way I describe it is this," she says in a cockney accent that freely disposes of random consonants. "If I was a painter, I wouldn't just use pencils; I'd probably use oils and crayons and all sorts of things. And if I was an actor, I wouldn't just do theater; I would do TV and film and poetry readings and this, that and the other. Being a musician, I use the same sort of logic. I'm just going to experiment with ideas and sounds and ways of expressing songs and the music that goes around them."

Of the analogies above, acting is the one with which Orton, 27, has the most experience. A Brit who grew up in Norwich, set on the flat, Nebraska-like plains of Norfolk County, U.K., she originally envisioned herself as a thespian. She still speaks warmly about the discipline and sees parallels between it and her current pursuits. "I like all roles," she notes. "I like all characters. I like getting inside someone else's character. It's fun, because then you don't have to be yourself for a little while. I think the thing with musicians is that they act in life and then they are themselves on stage. I worked that out yesterday. I think music and theater are different, see, because with theater you're always speaking someone else's words. Well, not always, but often. And with music, you're speaking your own words."

The subdued, introspective flavor of Trailer Park is in strong contrast to much of the bile she spewed forth when acting. "I was doing Verlaine and Rimbaud, and that was quite extreme--much more extreme than what I do. I'm quite understated. I like understatement as much as overstatement."

In this spirit, Orton describes the events that led to her becoming a musician as a "happy accident." Six years ago, her performance as part of a fringe-theater production based on the life of Rimbaud sparked the imagination of William Orbit, a longtime luminary on the dance-music circuit. He later asked Orton to read a few lines for inclusion on a recording by one of his side projects, Strange Cargo. After fulfilling his wishes, Orton got drunk and started singing as Orbit's tape recorder rolled--an impromptu exhibition that ultimately led them to co-write "Water From a Vine Leaf" for Strange Cargo. Shortly thereafter, the Chemical Brothers recruited Orton to contribute vocals to "Alive: Alone," a come-down tune that concludes their wildly popular Exit Planet Dust disc. She also guested with the acoustic hip-hop outfit Red Snapper, whence she snagged one of the key members of the Trailer Park supporting cast, upright bassist Ali Friend.

Guitarist Ted Barnes and drummer Will Blanchford of the Sandals, an acid-jazz combo, also lent their expertise to Orton's endeavor, helping her to flesh out compositions that, beneath their computer-driven beats, hark back to the folk rock of the early Seventies. When she was sixteen, she points out, she was smitten with Joni Mitchell's signature platter, Blue, as well as the offerings of Rickie Lee Jones and Neil Young. Three years later she discovered the late Nick Drake. Anyone familiar with Drake's voice, a remote, medieval-sounding instrument that suggests a small fire burning in a great castle hall, will be struck by its resemblance to Orton's.

Another influence on Orton, whether she would admit to it or not, is Americana. The artwork on Trailer Park, including a cover photo of Orton lounging on the graying asphalt of a parking lot in blue jeans and Converse All-Stars and a liner shot that pictures her sipping from a straw while slumping over a diner-style lunch counter, fairly oozes heartland sensibilities. It comes as something of a surprise, then, when she reveals that she first came to the States after completing the CD, in order to play a couple of West Coast dates and to film a video for her first single, the lovely "She Cries Your Name." She insists that this sojourn was not swathed in expectations. According to her, "I didn't really have any mythic ideas about it. I'm not a very good 'preconceptor.' I don't really have preconceptions, because I've just always been disappointed when I did. But I really like what I found in America. I like the intelligence. I think it's a good intelligence, a good understanding I found quite a lot of. And I found more humor than I thought there would be. I found myself laughing more than I thought I would. There's a preconception that Americans aren't very ironic. But they are highly ironic. And I really enjoyed it, actually."

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