Five years ago, Beth Orton was unsure she would ever make a record again. Going deeper into her art, her craft, Orton wasn’t concerned whether the songs she was writing would be heard by anyone else. She certainly wasn’t envisioning that a few years later they would make up Sugaring Season, arguably the most important album of her career...
The roots of Sugaring Season began in a “cow barn” at the end of a dirt lane in Norfolk in the summer of 2007. Orton, having split from her label and raising an infant daughter on her own, packed up her life in London and moved back to where she was from. “I was on my own, challenged like I had never been, with few resources,” explains Orton.
So she did what she knew best: she played. “It was a long summer, and I set up a little studio in the back garden and just got deeper into what I was making. Singing in different voices, messing around with my guitar,” says Orton. Whilepregnant, Orton had begun taking weekly guitar lessons from her friend and collaborator, folk legend Bert Jansch, who introduced her to the alternate guitar tunings which were a minor revelation for the singer.
After years of touring and living a public existence, suddenly she was isolated and away from the life she had known thus far, which allowed her to incubate her work with no expectations of the end results. “I was truly doing it just for myself.” Orton’s first song “Water From A Vine Leaf,” her 1993 collaboration with William Orbit, had become a hit and effectively launched Orton’s career. From that time, every song she’d made was public, born into the audience. Now her work was entirely her own, a secret she was keeping to herself.
Orton recalls it as a painful but pivotal time. Nevertheless she was inspired by the natural world around her, her new family and what she had picked up in her weekly visits to Jansch.
Upon returning to Norfolk, Orton had begun a tacit collaboration with old friends, which brought about an epiphany.
Spending the summer quietly woodshedding while her daughter slept fundamentally changed something in Orton, the bedrock of her life had shifted and who she was as an artist had evolved. She had the experience of becoming a mother and “meanwhile, I was finding a whole world within my guitar.” The songs “Dawn Chorus,” about being awakened by the breeze, and Orton’s tribute to her daughter, “See Through Blue,” were both written during those early barn days.
Orton began setting aside time every day for working on her songwriting. “That’s what came of having children. It forced me to make time, to make it a discipline,” says the singer. “It was my only time for myself, because as a parent, you are constantly interrupted by someone who has needs greater than yours.”
Equally she found herself writing in the dead of night, often after being woken up or while the house was silent and all were asleep. By the time her daughter was three, Orton had a significant cache of songs from her many and varied writing sessions. With the help and encouragement of her (then soon-to-be) husband, the singer-songwriter Sam Amidon, Orton began to revisit, finish and finesse some of tracks she’d amassed. His encouragement renewed Orton’s spirit. “He must have heard my quiet ambitions whispering out my ears while I slept,” she says, laughing. He was insistent, prodding her back onto the path. Along the way, Orton had become fearless in her pursuit of her muse and deeply devoted to her songwriting process. “The truth was I had held onto some hope, that I might one day put these songs out. There was a strong voice that was always fighting the doubt.”
Around this time Orton struck a deal with ANTI- and her honed tracks were ready to be put to tape. An admirer of Tucker Martine’s work on his wife Laura Viers’ Carbon Glacier, Orton reached out to him and found that the producer was receptive the artistic parameters of Orton’s inspirations, Roberta Flack’s First Take and Pentangle’s The Pentangle. Martine helped assemble a studio band with just 5 days scheduled for recording the basic tracks.
The core ensemble – Orton, drummer Brian Blade, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and keyboardist Rob Burger, augmented by either Sam Amidon or Ted Barnes on second acoustic guitar – played live on the floor, with an increasingly heightened sense of excitement and musical exchange as each new song was tackled. "We walked into the room, some of us meeting for the first time, others old friends, and started to record." There were no charts, no click tracks, with the players hearing the songs for the first time as they played. Martine captured everything to tape as it happened, and many moments on the album reflect the true spontaneity of the moment: the take of “Candles” that appears on the album, for example, is not even a ‘first take’ but actually is the rehearsal take, where the musicians were playing along to learn the song without realizing that the machine was rolling.
The resulting album is the culmination of Orton finding herself as a guitarist and a songwriter. Sugaring Season is Orton’s purest artistic statement to date. “I like being older and not feeling like I have to contain my work.” For Orton, the album’s title serves as a metaphor for the epic but internal and transformative process behind its making. “Sugaring Season is about the time of year when the trees are tapped for maple syrup. It takes a lot of sap to make a little bit of syrup. But what makes the sap sweet and what makes it flow are these long, cold nights alternating with those ever so slightly warmer days - beauty and melancholy mixed together - and after that, that’s when the sweetness comes.”
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