Noise Annoys: Beth Orton on electronic LP Kidsticks and Irish tour
Veteran indie singer/songwriter Beth Orton went fully electronic with her last album, 2016's acclaimed Kidsticks. Ahead of her Irish tour this weekend, she told Noise Annoys why switching her trusty guitar for synths helped re-invigorate her love of making music
HI BETH, are you looking forward to coming back to Ireland? It's been a while.
Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it – I was very disappointed that it wasn't on the main tour [for Kidsticks, back in 2016], so it's very exciting.
That was your first tour performing live with electronic instruments, did your machines behave themselves?
It was tricky to start off with, because basically the record had never been played live before. So, when it came to rehearsing up a live set, it was like "wow, how the f*** do we do this?!".
And then, yes, the machines are very naughty and they do have minds of their own. We kept finding ourselves about to go onstage when, for some reason, everything would suddenly be down.
At one gig I was at the side of the stage thinking, 'right I'll just have to go on with my acoustic guitar then' but then literally as I went to walk on, the crew tried the same thing they'd already tried 12 times before and suddenly everything worked again.
That was quite hairy! I'd never played keyboards on stage before, so the first few shows of that tour were definitely a bit like live rehearsals.
What is your live set-up going to be for this Irish tour?
I'm doing it as a duo with Grey [McMurray, multi-instrumentalist] and we are looking at doing our favourite songs from every record, not just Kidsticks.
He plays electric guitar and, although there will be some electronics, we won't be reliant on electronics quite as much as we have been – not for technical reasons, more for creative ones.
We thought it would be really exciting to do a whole range of songs on this tour with Kidsticks kind of driving that feel. So, it's not an acoustic show as such, but it is a duo show.
There's an intimacy while also bringing in some of that Kidsticks 'sonic landscape' as well – without wanting to sound totally pretentious!
You've got quite a back catalogue to draw upon at this point. Is it hard to cater for everyone at the shows?
Well, I did this thing last year in Australia where at, before the very first gig, I just did a little poll on Facebook where I asked the audience "By the way, what songs would be good for you to hear?".
It was really interesting: there weren't any great surprises, but I did get some really lovely messages about particular songs had meant to people.
So [for this tour] I'm sort of going into my favourite songs and the songs that resonated most off Kidsticks – there'll be a whole selection.
I noticed that, touring with the bigger band, the intimacy gets lost a little bit. Exploring sounds on the last album has been very exciting for me in terms of how to put things across live, but also what's going to be nice about doing this as a duo is that it helps me to remember that I'm a songwriter – these songs have lyrics and they have melodies which are also really important for me to get across.
And hopefully, I'll be able to interact a bit more with the audiences on this tour – if I don't get too shy!
It's been almost two years since Kidsticks. Are you thinking about the next record yet?
Yeah, I'm very keen to make another record – I'm writing right now. And the way I made Kidsticks, writing on keyboards to very simple beats and loops, has been very instructive.
It was Andy [from F*** Buttons, who co-produced] who first put the keyboard infront of me and it was quite a powerful thing to suddenly have in my control.
I've always found singing over other people's work quite hard, so it was really smart of him to just give me the keyboard and let me create my own melodies.
I don't think either of us knew what would come of it, but in the 10 days we spent together – literally just laughing and being silly most of the time – I would just play these really basic parts.
By day three I'd be able to start layering other parts and while I was playing he'd be changing sounds, which also affected what I was playing to a degree.
Over the next year and a half, I kept writing to these loops: I'd send stuff to Andy and he'd send stuff back and then he kind of gave me the power to go with it where I wanted.
I'm not sure if he understood the beast that he'd unleashed, but I was suddenly given a lot of control in an arena I'd never worked in before. I started to write to sounds and beats rather than my acoustic guitar.
But yet the album retains the warm, human feel of your previous work – was that a concious effort?
Definitely: at a certain point I decided I needed live instrumentation, so I brought in a friend who added some really beautiful, interesting Moog sounds and bass sounds. I was like "oh my god!"
Then I met Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear and he really started to work the songs I was writing. He understood how to shape what we were doing around melody, which was so exciting – the bassline on Snow came out of the very first session we did.
I was really into TuneYards at the time and all her layering of vocals, so Snow was my attempt at that. 1973 sounded like Talking Heads to me and I was also inspired by Japan, on songs like Wave or Falling.
I know that's very 1980s, but it was a part of my life! It was really lovely to be able to dig into that history – to find other voices within me and pull on other inspirations than this very brilliant folk thing that happened to me.
That was a big part of my life – but it wasn't necessarily all of my life.
So, where do you go from here?
In a funny way, I've actually returned more to the songs. This time around, my experiment is going to be to play on acoustic piano – but I'm now aware that I can do anything I want with whatever I play on keys.
It's all about keeping the adventure alive and constantly changing. I don't think I've ever veered from that – but the last record was definitely something I'd always wanted to try, so the fact it happened so naturally was really lovely.
It was very freeing. I made my electronic debut and I'm really f***ing happy with it!
:: Beth Orton plays The Limelight 2 in Belfast tomorrow night, Whelan's in Dublin on Sunday February 4 and Galway's Roisin Dubh on Monday February 5