Beth Orton's 'Comfort of Strangers'

On her latest album, Comfort of Strangers, musician Beth Orton moves away from the electronica sound she is known for, relying instead on the simple sounds of her voice and guitar. Independent music critic Christian Bordal has a review.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

English singer-songwriter Beth Orton got her start in electronica. She became the darling of the club remix set.

Ms. BETH ORTON (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Want to keep your dream alive. Going to keep it with mine.

BRAND: But with her latest album, she's decided to pare down and go all analog. She spoke about her new record, Comfort of Strangers, with music critic Christian Bordal.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL, reporting:

Beth Orton didn't start out wanting to be a singer. She had youthful fantasies of being a nurse, a ballerina. Then, at the age of 19, she stumbled into an acting job.

Ms. ORTON: I was a waitress, and I told someone I'd love to act, and they were like, oh, there's a play, and you should go and audition for it. So I did, and got the part, and I ended up touring Russia with this very experimental kind of phids(ph) company. I suppose they were like the jazz improvisation of the acting world. But it was during this that I found out I could sing and a producer called William Orbit came to see one of the plays, and he became very sort of enamored with me, and...

BORDAL: And the rest, as they say...

(Soundclip of music)

BODAL: William Orbitz is a well-known English dance club mixer and pop electronica composer. Singing and writing with him led to gigs with other electronica types, like the Chemical Brothers. As a result, her solo records so far have exhibited an appealing tug-of-war between Beth's natural folky instincts and the electronic production techniques of her collaborators.

Ms. ORTON: (Singing) I know the stars that shine on me look brighter than you and I will ever be. I know there's an answer to the question...

BORDAL: In her latest release, Comfort of Strangers, Orton finally rebelled against any electronic touch. She told me the songs are recorded mostly live in one or two takes to analog tape, no crazy digital editing, no programming, sequencing, drum loops. In short, none of the stuff that everyone else is into now.

Ms. ORTON: (Singing) Our love is better than not enough. I'd rather have no love than messing with the wrong stuff. Just the comfort of strangers.

Ms. ORTON: I've always thought that if I could make a record, just voice and guitar, then I'm the real thing. Then it's real, and until I can do that, then I'm not a master at my craft, or something like that. I don't know, and anyways, but I never have done that, and I think when I started writing these songs, I thought, oh, my gosh, these could be the songs that make up that record.

(Soundbite of music)

BORDAL: To hear Orton tell it, it sounds like her career has come very easily, but like all of us, she's had her private trials and tribulations, some of which appear obliquely in her lyrics. I asked her about one song in particular on her new album called Safe in your Arms.

Ms. ORTON: (Singing) Home is where the heartbreak wraps cold around my bones. Forgive me if I promised to forget what I have known.

Ms. ORTON: Well, I have to be honest, home isn't such an easy place to be, and I don't want to complain. Please don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I love my job, right? But part of that is to go away a lot and to be forever coming back and starting again, and starting again, and rootless, and staying rootless. Home is where the heart is, and sometimes, I suppose I feel like the heart is being taken out of my home.

Ms. ORTON: (Singing) For all your loss and gain, the soul defines the suffering, an illusion is hope born from fear, and now you're right back here safe in my arms, my dear.

BORDAL: Maybe one reason she's worked so well with electronic composers is her quality of cool. Even with real instruments and analog tape, Beth Orton's music has a calm, flowing beauty, and though her words may reflect bitter-sweetly on relationships and the vicissitudes of life, it's the serene balance, even optimism, of her voice that lulls you gently when she sings.

Ms. ORTON: (Singing) My love's a star, you only saw the traces of...

BRAND: That's independent music critic, Christian Bordal, reviewing Beth Orton's new album, Comfort of Strangers.

Ms. ORTON: (Singing) People always catching names too late, and we're all sorry there's no time to make the change. I could hear rebellion rising. I could feel the stars aligning...

BRAND: And there's more to come on NPR's DAY TO DAY.

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