Beth Orton shuns the usual interview settings--a record company conference room, say, or a favorite new restaurant--in favor of a restful hour in her own second-floor flat.
“This is my home, the first one I’ve had on my own, and I love it here,” she says with the excitement of someone showing off a new puppy. She’s sitting on a couch in a sparsely furnished front room in a mostly residential, working-class area of western London.
“This feeling is new to me because I’ve never been one to settle down,” she says. “When I recorded the album, I was sleeping on the floor in a friend’s place. But it’s a time in my life when it feels nice to have something of your own. When I’m not [touring], my idea of a good night is just sitting here watching videos or listening to my albums.”
On the floor behind her are stacks of records, which are divided almost equally between two pop genres that are often considered polar opposites: the ‘60s singer-songwriter tradition of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and the contemporary techno-dance movement popularized by the Chemical Brothers and Goldie.
It’s precisely the marriage of those two styles that helped inject Orton’s debut album, “Trailer Park,” with an adventurous and appealing edge.
While much has been said over the last 18 months about an impending merger of song-oriented and dance-conscious styles, Orton is one of the few artists who has ventured into that territory in convincing fashion. It’s easy to classify the songs on “Trailer Park” as folk, but there are subtle, trance-like dance textures in the arrangements that certify this album’s late-'90s copyright.
Though the collection hasn’t reached the national sales charts in the U.S., critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been enthusiastic.
“Trailer Park” finished No. 19 in the Village Voice’s year-end poll of more than 400 U.S. pop critics, ahead of albums by such other admired figures as Fiona Apple, Ben Folds Five, Ron Sexsmith and Elliott Smith.
Rolling Stone magazine named the album one of the year’s 10 best, and Spin hailed Orton’s music as a “deft blend of pastoral acoustics and dance-floor effects that builds a lazy, introspective atmosphere, perfectly suited to Orton’s ruminations on love and spiritual ambition.”
A tall, rail-thin woman of 27, Orton seems both pleased and a bit puzzled by the talk about her being a trailblazer.
“It all came about quite naturally,” she says of her musical direction, lighting a cigarette as she sits on a couch. “I love going to clubs and dancing my socks off. . . . At the same time, there was a point around 17 when I discovered Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and the excitement of songs that summarized in just a couple of minutes exactly what I was feeling. . . .
“When I made my record, I wanted to draw on both things. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can go out and go mad in a club and then come home and listen to Joni Mitchell and be totally inside my head. It wasn’t an attempt to be [in tune] with what’s happening today, but just drawing upon everything I love about music.”
Because Orton’s songs have such a searching, rootless feel, “Trailer Park” is the perfect title for her album. But the name was largely an accident.
“The original title was ‘Winnebago,’ ” she says, smiling at the incongruity of an album named for the big motor homes. (She abandoned it because of potential copyright violation.) “It sounds odd now, but I just loved the sound of the word and I guess it does suggest the same kind of restlessness as ‘Trailer Park.’ ”
She adopted the second title after becoming fascinated with trailer parks during a trip early last year to Southern California’s Mojave Desert to make a video for the album.
“I didn’t even know what a trailer park was until I got to California,” she says. “But I could identify with the lifestyle. . . . The urge to keep moving, not be tied down.
“When I was young, me and my mum had this plan to live on a boat one day . . . with loads of animals. I also thought for a while about living with a friend in a mobile home.”
Orton’s music is infused with the sweet melancholy of someone who knows better than to count on anything being permanent, including relationships.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she says when asked about the album’s tone. “Even as a child, I just loved sad songs. That was my thing. The funny thing is I remember being quite happy as a child. I was very bright and breezy, but I also had this very serious side.”
At times, as in “Live as You Dream,” she combats the melancholy with a brightness reminiscent of Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” right down to the hopscotch mannerisms of the vocal. On the moodier “Galaxy of Emptiness,” however, there is the aching delicacy of Tim Hardin, whose often-recorded “Reason to Believe” is one of the great songs in the helpless romantic tradition.
Geoff Travis, who as a manager or record executive has worked with such cutting-edge British acts as the Smiths, Pulp, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, is now managing Orton. He describes her as someone whose “dedication to music is total. . . . someone who is unafraid to explore her feelings and her music.”
Admits Orton, “I used to be so intimidated by music. I thought my future was in acting because it seemed easy to lose yourself in a character in a play, but to actually put your feelings into a song, . . . that seemed something only that other people could do.
“Even after I started singing and had put together a band, I made sure the guitar was so loud that no one could hear me. When you step on a stage, people think you have all the confidence in the world, but I’m still very introverted. There’s part of me that still finds it amazing that anyone would want to hear what I’ve got to say.”
Orton might still be acting if William Orbit, the high-profile British dance-music producer who co-wrote and co-produced much of Madonna’s stylish new “Ray of Light” album, hadn’t heard something that he liked in her voice around 1990 when he attended a play in which she had a minor part. He asked her afterward if she had ever thought about making a record.
“There was something about the tone of her speaking voice that made me think there was something unique there, and I don’t know how seriously she took that notion,” Orbit said by phone from Spain, where he was on a promotional tour with Madonna.
Orbit and Orton ended up working together in the studio for nearly two years. For her it was a dream come true.
Born in Norwich, a quiet little town about two hours from London by train, Orton and her two older brothers were raised by their mother after Orton’s father died when she was 11.
Her mother, a writer and activist who crusaded for better child care laws, moved the family to London in the mid-'80s for work reasons.
“After I got out of school, I joined this theater company that played the seaside resorts of England, and we had no money, so we’d camp in a park wherever we went,” Orton recalls. “We’d stay up late at night and listen to tapes, and that’s when I started being pulled into music, into writing.”
Eventually, Orton moved back to London and worked as a barmaid in a pub for a year while she continued to pursue acting. It was around that time that she met Orbit. Because she didn’t do any live shows during the time they worked together, Orton remained insecure about her singing.
The breakthrough was in the fall of 1994 when the Chemical Brothers, one of the leading forces in techno, asked her to sing a track on their “Exit Planet Dust” album. “We just love her voice,” the duo’s Tom Rowlands said at the time.
The endorsement was especially important coming from someone whose total interest in music seemed to be tied to the sounds that he could cajole from a battery of synthesizers--and it meant a lot to Orton, who got the courage to begin actively pursing a career.
“Trailer Park,” released in the U.S. last year by BMG-distributed Dedicated Records, generated enough interest within the music industry for Orton to be offered a spot on the Lilith Fair tour, and she was so well-received that she’ll rejoin the tour this summer, after she finishes a new album.
“To be honest, I always saw a potential, but I didn’t know quite how it would develop,” producer Orbit says. “But I love her record. She has worked very hard to realize her vision. I think her next album is going to be enormous. My guess is she’ll move further into folk, but she’ll bring in strands of contemporary electronic in ways that are unexpected.”
About her next record, Orton says, “People keep asking me what it’s going to be like, as if I had some master plan, but the only thing I know is that the music will continue to represent what I feel.
“There have been a lot of changes in my life, but there are some things that never change. There’ll always be part of me that feels unworthy and part of me that is incredibly optimistic. And that’s what my music is about, trying to sort out the two extremes.”