Everything is circular, everything returns.
Take Beth Orton: the English artist rose to fame through her stunning blend of pastoral folk and piercing electronics, a fusion of old and new, analogue and digital.
Since then, she's taken to exploring rather more song-based climes, largely eschewing - although never fully departing from - her love of new technology.
New album 'Kidsticks', though, is something of a return to basics. Fuck Buttons' Andrew Hung gains a production credit, while Beth Orton has spoken about her renewed fascination with the impact electronic music can have on the humble art of the song.
So, here we go again. Or is it? If 'Kidsticks' is indeed a return to familiar climes, then the journey takes in new meanders, new directions, and finds that the destination has changed in rather marvellous ways over the years.
Clash sent some questions over to Beth's new home in California to enquire a little further.
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First of all, Beth, we should talk about your relocation to California. Why was this? What draws you towards the state?
More than anything the weather! Also friends. I had some friends there and was encouraged to do a short house swap. That became a couple of years once I got making the record.
We're told in the press note that you started the writing process on this record by playing with electronic loops. What equipment do you use? And why return to this method of working?
In keeping with a sense of adventure and discovery, it was a new place to go creatively. Andrew Hung and I talked about working together after he did a remix of "Mystery" on my last record Sugaring Season. Andrew flew out from London for 10 days and we worked in a studio in my friend's back garden. We worked on Ableton and Massive - I played on a small Casio keyboard. It was a brand new experience, something new to try, beginners mind and I wanted to see how it would affect my writing.
Electronic music has always been an influence on you, did your interest in it ever really go away? Do you think that the idea of a loop, a recurring pattern that evolves and shifts, has always been present in your work?
I have always had an eye out and ear out for interesting electronic music or interesting music of any kind. I have a love for dance music and a powerful rhythm regardless of whether it's acoustic or electric. Even on acoustic guitar I am playing patterns and thinking about rhythm and subtle shifts in texture.
We're told the record was partially inspired by the “wide open nature of Los Angeles”. Is this a factor? Do you mean the landscape here, and the way that impacts psychologically? Or the city, and the way this effects the inhabitants?
I guess I mean the landscape and the way that impacted me psychologically - the big sky and the wide open landscape of LA, but also the city that has many cities within it. I needed to make changes in my life- I was looking for a sense of renewal and discovery. I have always loved California and I had quite a powerful experience in Los Angeles.
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The choice of Andrew Hung as producer is inspired – the record feels like an incredibly natural collaboration. How did you met? Was he recommended to you, or were you in contact already?
Andrew wasn’t brought on board to be a producer, he came along to just try something new, very open ended and it just so happened that when we worked together it worked really well. I played the keyboards and he sculpted the sounds and programmed drums. He ended up co producing the record with me.
What were you looking for after making this choice? Did you have an end point in sight, or was Andrew's recruitment more about establishing a certain kind of process?
It was about exploring ideas. I was looking to shake things up and explore different ways of working.
Was the material largely written by the time Andrew came on board? Did he assist in the writing process, or was his role more in sound, in arrangement?
The record started with the loops. That was Andy’s main involvement was in the writing process. I played the keys and he chaged the sounds and that sculpted a mood. I wrote all my melodies and words and a lot of the keyboard parts.
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The record was mainly recorded in friend's gardens and my front room...
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Where was the album recorded? Did you work together, or via email?
The record was mainly recorded in friend's gardens and my front room. After the initial 10 days Andrew and I spent writing the initial loops he flew back to London. I stayed in LA and built songs around the four bar loops. I would email what I was doing to Andy and he would add bits and pieces and help with some of the arranging. After a few months I started bringing in live musicians and that brought a whole new dimension to things. Jake Aron and Chris Taylor were crucial at this time, Jake recorded the live musicians with me and helped with additional production on Moon especially. Chris Taylor helped synthesize the live instrumentation with the electronic beats and my songs.
You started from loops, so how did they prompt each song? Did they provide an inherent structure, or were you free to move wherever you liked?
I started with loops that were built from melodies I played and wrote on the keyboard so they were a natural place for me to write from. The difference was the sounds of each part I played. That was Andy’s magic; choosing the right sound.
There wasn’t a lot of structure in terms of “song” structure. The loops were four bars long and repeated over and over. I wrote songs that very much built an arrangement that wasn’t actually there. I would email these song ideas to Andy and he would play with drums and other pads to enhance. Finally, though, it was bringing the live players in that really gave the music shape to the shape of the songs I was writing, if that makes sense!
Did you find the loop process impacted on the way you wrote lyrics? Did you find there was a shift in the way you used words?
The fact of writing to loops definitely had an impact. Maybe more so because a keyboard allowed a different length and breadth of my vocal range. Also possibly that it wasn’t the insular process that writing on a guitar can become. Words wise I imagine that the beat would effect a certain emotion for sure. I love to play with bringing disparate elements together so I was in my element playing with this new approach.
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It’s like I cracked a template...
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How did you bring the material all together as a coherent project? Was there a lot of final editing? And how big a role did Andrew and David Wrench (mixer) play?
I helped bring it into a coherent space by always being at the center of the work- that was my role as co-producer. Editing was a massive part of the process, choosing what to keep and what to leave was the hardest work I’ve ever done on any record. Of course Andy chipped away as we went too. Sometimes he edited a little too much out and part of my job was keeping a complete opinion and not letting the record veer one way or another.
Towards the end of the process Andrew did some initial mixing but the final piece of the puzzle came together when David Wrench started mixing in London. Finally David flew out to LA and he and I spent a week going through everything and he mixed the record with me bouncing around excitedly in my friends spare room!
Why the title 'Kidsticks'? The record is billed as a return to roots – in a way, does this feel more youthful, innocent?
It’s a return to roots in the sense that I am exploring electronic music again. I started in the electronic music world when I began as a songwriter. I’ve never revisited it or explored it quite as deeply as I have on 'Kidsticks'.
Given the record was so studio based, how will this work in your live show? It's always fascinating for fans to see an artist curate their own catalogue, will you be pulling out / removing older songs to fit around this new record?
It’s working well. I have a powerful band and we double up on instruments. We are using backing tracks but also bringing in the live feel of the record too. It’s actually amazing putting in older songs along side the new record. It’s quite a surreal experience for the audience I would hope. I love the perspective the newer tracks give to the old and vice versa.
This feels like an extremely creative process, can you envisage working like this again? Or do you feel the need to change this process once more?
It was a particularly creative record to make in every respect. There is a lot that I will take from here and bring into the making of my next records. It’s like I cracked a template and built a new one that is incredibly exciting to me and I look forward to further explorations in sound!
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'Kidsticks' is out now.
Catch Beth Orton at the following shows:
6 London Caught by the River Thames Festival
24 Norwich Waterfront
25 Cambridge Junction
27 Gateshead Sage 2
28 Birmingham O2 Institute 2
29 Bristol Anson Rooms
1 Oxford O2 Academy 1
2 Glasgow Saint Lukes
3 Leeds Beckett Students’ Union
4 Manchester Cathedral
6 London O2 Forum Kentish Town