As witticisms go, this one is awfully mediocre. So how did it wind up inspiring "Worms," an entertainingly idiosyncratic song on Comfort of Strangers, the latest CD by Beth Orton? According to the British singer-songwriter, who's better known for seriousness than for one-liners, time and serendipity played major parts.
"I spent a year writing that song," she says. "I had the chords, some chords I really loved. Then I went out one night to a kind of punk-rock/blues venue in London, and somebody told me this really bad joke, and I went home and wrote it down. The next morning, I woke up, got on the piano with a terrible hangover, and started writing this vitriolic, angry song, but one that was kind of jokey, as well, and when I came back to it a few days later, I thought, 'Actually, I quite like that.' And that kept happening. I came back to it and back to it -- sometimes once a week, sometimes a few times a day -- until I was in the studio with Jim O'Rourke," Comfort's producer. "I was playing the song in the other room, and everyone was like, 'What the fuck is that?' So I played it again, and immediately they loved it."
Orton's willingness to expose creative parts of herself that she's previously hidden is a big reason her latest disc is so strong. Her first trio of releases -- 1996's Trailer Park, 1999's Central Reservation and 2002's Daybreaker -- were often praised more for their sound, which mated folk rudiments with electronic instrumentation, than for her compositions, and she understands why. "I've been hiding under production almost forever," she concedes. "Sometimes I think it's because I'm a scaredy-cat, and sometimes I think it's because I entered music via a producer [electro pioneer William Orbit] who was all about soundscapes." While Orton values her previous work, "that doesn't mean you can't change course," she continues. "It doesn't mean I can't say, 'I don't want to do such and such anymore, because that doesn't seem honest to me anymore.'"
Finding the proper balance proved challenging. After Daybreaker, Orton made three attempts to record new tunes, handling production chores herself on one occasion, and also working with pros M. Ward and Kieran Hebden. She wasn't wholly satisfied with these efforts, and neither were the folks at Heavenly, her British label, from which she subsequently split. But O'Rourke, whose credits include Sonic Youth and Wilco, found the key to the project. His mixes are spare yet wonderfully warm, allowing "Rectify," "Absinthe" and other lovely offerings to bask in the glow.
Such numbers are as emotionally open as anything in Orton's repertoire, but she's not worried about endangering her soul by leaving it unprotected. "Someone asked me, 'Do you think music is an invisible cloak? Something that protects you and lets you stand on stage, where you can say whatever the fuck you want?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' It's weird but true, in a funny sort of way. It's like you put it on, and nothing can touch you."
And that's no joke.