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."
Her endorsement of the country whose aesthetic she has so embraced is not without exception. For instance, she found Los Angeles unfathomable. "I didn't quite get it," she concedes. "The lifestyle--what life is it? I couldn't quite see how people would spend their days, what they do, where they are, where they have all gone..." But she was fascinated by residents of a Mojave Desert mobile-home colony she visited. They regaled her with intimate tales that reminded her of her lyrics, which balance general despair with doses of optimism and resolve. As she acknowledges, "I've been very honest in my music. Very real. And part of that was because I wanted to be. I wanted to be real. I wanted to be me and express these feelings that I had. I just think truth is more interesting than fiction."
In this regard, she shares much with many of the artists touring as part of the Lillith Fair, a festival dominated by this year's bumper crop of earnest young female singer-songwriters. Orton has appeared on a number of Lillith stops, and while her music might initially seem too electronically enhanced for such an acoustic-oriented showcase, her live sound is not all that dissimilar from those associated with entertainers such as Sarah McLachlan and Jewel. Critics may prefer the Orton compositions that marry folk to smoky dance effects over her more straightforward turns. But whether they like it or not, Orton is slowly moving toward the road most traveled, a path made flat and smooth by a great many of Orton's Lillith peers.
Why? Because, Orton claims, it is difficult to effectively translate prerecorded sounds to the concert format. "When we play live, the atmosphere of the album is expressed sort of acoustically," she explains. "There's drums and electric guitar, but there aren't samplers, and there really isn't anything digital on stage. So therefore, I have bid towards that live and have gone away from anything electronic. But I'm going to leave myself open to change. It's like, if I get a record I really like, I'll play it and play it and play it and get kind of obsessive about it. But then a month or two down the line, I might get a totally different record and get obsessed about that. I suppose I see my own music the same way."
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An example of this phenomenon is Orton's now-waning romance with strings. She became enamored of their sweet scrapings after meeting several players with the group Tindersticks. Her producer, Victor Van Vught (himself a onetime Tindersticks associate), subsequently encouraged Orton to borrow the bow-wielders for her own recording. "I was kind of wary, because I didn't want it to just get drowned out in string chaos," she confesses. "But it seemed right, and then it just sort of grew--like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have one there? Yeah, and wouldn't it be nice there?'" By the time Trailer Park was complete, many of the songs featured violins gliding around each other like swans engaged in a mating dance. But Orton found that some of the more orchestrated ditties did not hold up on stage. "Some songs have their time and their place, and then suddenly they don't work live, whereas they worked last week. They just suddenly go boomp, and you're like, 'Oh, it doesn't work anymore.'" The reason, she believes, is that "the strings had started to play too much on it. It's like if you were painting, you wouldn't just add green--a really dark green--to everything. You have to be aware of that."
To be able to spend her time making such discoveries is a tremendous luxury for Orton. Before she left acting and took up music, she was struggling to get off the dole. "It pulled me out of a lot of weird situations, actually," she says of her career shift. "It really turned my life around. I think music does that. It's a really positive, powerful force in that respect. It can just take the wrongs and makes them right, kind of. It gives you something to live for, and therefore, you want to find the good in things. Just do it right, because you've been given the chance, the opportunity to do some good. To do something that's really interesting and really satisfying as well."
Ben Harper, Beth Orton, Matthew Ryan and Dan Bern. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, August 16, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $22.50, 443-3399. Beth Orton. 9 p.m. Sunday, August 17, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $5, 322-2308.