Behind the music 

Beth Orton on making Comfort of Strangers

Some musicians are incredibly productive, recording songs as if they were opening the floodgates of their minds. Others let their music slowly emerge from their psyches, fermenting like fine wine, before eventually yielding a handful of carefully crafted compositions. British singer/songwriter Beth Orton counts herself in the latter camp.

It's been four years since Orton released her last full-length album, 2002's Daybreaker. Bearing production from Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl, the disc was her most successful to date, cracking the U.S. Top 40 and U.K. Top 10 charts. But its dramatic, sometimes ornate qualities garnered uneven reviews from critics, fans and even Orton herself. "I think there's some beautiful songs there," she now says. "[But] they got a little overshadowed by production. It's nobody's fault but mine."

In contrast, much of Orton's new album, Comfort of Strangers, is just her, producer (and famed singer/guitarist) Jim O'Rourke and drummer Tim Barnes. The musical backdrops are tastefully simple, allowing Orton's sharp, weathered voice to pierce and weave around songs of heartbreak and personal growth.

Time moves so sure/Runs rings around the trees/Its silence mocking/In the wind against the leaves/For all your loss and gain/The soul defines its suffering/An illusion is hope born from fear/And now you're right back here/Safe in my arms my dear, Orton sings on "Safe in Your Arms." Her songwriting, full of offhand observations and unusual choruses, takes time to digest. But listeners who make the effort are justly rewarded with insights not often found, even within the emotionally rich singer/songwriter world she occupies.

The uncompromising Comfort of Strangers, a strong effort that is drawing praise from those same critics who dismissed Daybreaker, resulted from years of professional tumult. During that time, she struggled to evolve from a folk/electronic artist known for working with dance producers like Watt, Chemical Brothers and William Orbit, if only "the songs dictated it." Here, Orton describes how she finished making Comfort of Strangers:

"I think that when I wrote the first batch of songs [for Comfort of Strangers], I got into this whole thing of, like, 'I'm going to produce myself. I'm just going to make it voice and guitar.' I don't know ... I thought that was the way to keep the integrity and the honesty ... Then I changed my mind and thought, 'Production on my own is just going to be dreadful.'"

"I heard this guy, [singer/songwriter] M. Ward, performing. And I heard a record of his. I went to see him play live, and I thought, 'Oh, god, maybe he could help me.' [M. Ward and I] did a little bit of recording. That didn't really happen for me because ... I didn't really want to make a record that sounded like [his] kind of sound. He has a very particular sound."

"Then I tried recording with another guy called Kieran Hebden (better known as folktronica artist Four Tet). That was really interesting as well. But that wasn't it either.

"[Meanwhile, I met Jim O'Rourke] 10 years ago when I made Trailer Park. I can't remember who introduced us, and he can't remember who introduced us. But all I know is, I walked away with a CD of, like, eight songs that he had produced and worked on."

"I completely forgot about it until I heard [O'Rourke's] Halfway to a Threeway EP. Then I immediately listened to Eureka and Insignificance. I just loved the sound of his records. I loved the warmth and the sonic depth. It was just something really beautiful. And I loved his guitar playing.

"I got his e-mail, and I contacted him. I said, 'I don't know if you remember me. I'm sure you don't. But I just want you to know that I love your guitar playing. I love the production on your records. I wonder if you'd be interested in hearing some of the songs that I'm working on.'"

"Basically, he wrote back to me, 'Yes, I completely remember you.' He was very flattered that I picked up on his guitar playing. And he said, 'No one had really heard it like that before.' So we arranged to meet a couple of months later in the first week of January. And we did. It was just brilliant. I don't know ... I didn't really get beyond playing him many songs because we talked so much, and he had a whole kind of view on the way my voice has been recorded in the past, and how it should be recorded now, and about the music that should be around the songs. I've worked with some amazing musicians, and it's no bad thing to them. ... I write very simply. I think Jim's approach was just to enhance what was already there, not to try and complicate it or make it more highbrow when it's just sort of what it is. In a way, the simplicity brought out a kind of complexity in what's there. But also, I think maybe, lyrically, and maybe melodically too these songs are more complex than other ones I've written before.

"I just want to make good music. Until that time, I don't really see the point of releasing anything until it's right. Having said that, you could argue that I should get it out if and when [it's done]. Some people do that. I guess I'm maybe too much of a perfectionist."

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