Beth Orton Finds New Magic on ‘Weather Alive’

In between the vintage stalls, food vendors, clothing, crafts, and other bric-a-brac of Camden Market in London, Beth Orton happened upon a little piano workshop. Inside Camden Piano Rescue was a graveyard of beat-up, working, and rescued instruments stacked atop one another, including one that helped the British singer and songwriter find some magic.

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“You would play one note and about 10 would come out,” Orton tells American Songwriter, “because all the strings were so old that they would reverberate and that was really lovely.”

Orton offered 300 quid (approximately $350) for the piece in addition to trading in an old Berry Piano in exchange, which the shopkeeper eventually brought to Africa. “He was just a beautiful, good-hearted soul,” says the British singer and songwriter of late Camden Piano Rescue piano dealer, Desmond O’Keeffe, who passed away in 2018. O’Keefe would often refurbish pianos and personally transport the instruments to remote villages in Africa or into the Himalayas so children could hear Mozart for the very first time. 

“He was someone who would ship an instrument as far as Mozambique on his back, if necessary, just to share the experience,” adds Orton. “He just wanted to spread the love.”

The piano became the core of Orton’s eighth album, Weather Alive (Partisan Records), a collection of songs exploring personal, and broader, revelations.

“I wanted to be one of those women who are all sorted and put together someday but at 40, I kept getting messier and things just kept going wrong,” Orton continues. “This record explores all of that. I’m talking about my experiences possibly in a more personal way than I ever have but the important part will be how this music makes other people feel. It’s not a finished masterpiece. It is a collaboration with time, of someone struggling to make sense, and in that struggle, something beautiful got made.”

Self-produced by Orton out of her London home studio with arrangements contributed and compiled from a collective of musicians, including drummer Tom Skinner of Sons of Kemet and the Thom Yorke-fronted Smile, along with bassist Tom Herbert of The Invisible, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and jazz poet Alabaster dePlume. 

Unraveled in time, nothing is calculated in the steady pulse of “Weather Alive” and Orton’s vocals piercing through the longing And the world calling out to me / But the world out beyond my reach and referencing Proust—But I’ve been dreaming of Proust all in my bed / And he speaks to me in my sleep / And he takes me to the other side / With his Madeleine and friends—on the slow beating “Friday Night,” jazzier elements of “Fractals” and the more nostalgic “Arms Around a Memory” and through seven-plus minute closer “Unwritten.”

Weather Alive was a portal into a more conscious state. “Through the writing of these songs and the making of this music, I found my way back to the world around me,” says Orton, “a way to reach nature and the people I love and care about.” 

Orton spoke to American Songwriter about writing and self-producing Weather Alive, and the magic of finding that old piano.

American Songwriter: “Weather Alive” was the centerpiece for the remaining song. What stories—personal, universal, or even more abstract—did you explore within these eight songs?

Beth Orton: I really worked hard at the songs as pieces in their own right, as a songwriter, and as someone searching for a kind of resonant truth. I was exploring through the music and pulling on my own experience, as always. It’s a very healing thing to do. It’s also wrapped in more human enigmas. I love philosophy. If I could go back and study, I would study social sciences. I would study human geography. 

I get to explore themes and some of them start off personal and then they kind of develop into what I hope is a broader narrative and a broader perspective on something. I just try and see from all angles and keep turning a theme over and over and over. I love how threads are pulled together and make a greater truth. That to me is when it becomes really interesting writing, and how the melody emphasizes or plays with that. 

AS: Sonically, the album moves seamlessly and is very meditative. Were the songs meant to bleed into one another in a way, or stand apart?

BO: Each time I write a line, I love how a line can correspond to another. I feel like each of these songs don’t drift into each other. I think they’re very unique little worlds for themselves. They’re all these little satellites moving around each other, and it’s interesting how they speak to each other.

Fractals” explores this idea. It’s exploring the idea of control, like if I do this what will be the outcome? If I forgive, I will be forgiven. If I do the right thing, the right thing will happen. It’s kind of this magical thinking, like when someone dies, and you think “that’s so unfair. They had so much to give. They had so much to do.” And under that heading, I would also ask “who are those people?” I see it as prismatic thinking. You look through one angle, and it opens up into many at the same time. There’s this kind of universal law and these patterns. If you look up at a tree, you see the cosmos. At the same time, one imagines that we have control over our destiny, but actually the pattern isn’t ours to dictate and to do so is some kind of magical thinking. 

At the same time, there is also this trust in the fact that if you fall into the law of nature, you will be held. It’s also this idea that what we most take for granted, what is most under our noses is what actually sometimes holds the most magic.

For me, some of the most wonderful experiences are those of serendipity and otherworldliness in meeting with other people and my collaboration with other people. There’s a sacredness there.

AS: You self-produced the entire album. What were some of the welcome nuances and surprises working with Tom Skinner and your collection of collaborators?

BO: I was able to just sort of dig a bit deeper and I wanted to go back into the engineering. I learned so much on the fly with the first record, which was my first of involvement in production and I wanted to learn again. I also realized I wanted to make a piano record. I wanted to make something really spare, and I contacted Tom Skinner, who I’ve known for 15 years, and I sent him four songs. At the same time, I was still working going from piano to guitar to MIDI, so I was sort of building my own band around the songs. I was adding new colors to them all the time. 

When we went into the studio, Tom brought in Tom Herbert, who plays bass and we recorded the song “Unwritten” with this beautiful loop that he’d [Skinner] written on drums, and I had my Midi going and we played that live, and took it from there.

It becomes more interesting with the more universal, prismatic idea of a theme, and how that develops. It’s not always linear. A song like “Lonely” is really exploring love, but it’s also this kind of unfortunate thing that gets stuck when you’re little, these experiences you have when you’re younger and how some things get stuck in stone and recreate stories in your life.

AS: You mentioned serendipity. Finding that piano in Camden was serendipitous in making this album.

BO: Exactly! See, that’s the thing. That’s where the magic is. I couldn’t control that magic. And magic is what the universe opened up for me or I was opened up to—I don’t know. So that’s where I believe in magic. It was just little things like that little gifts along the way. And I’m so grateful for those things. And yet at the same time, it’s those things we can so easily take for granted.

When I would sit at the piano I would find memories and I would find little lost photographs of like times and it was there was something very special. It was just a lovely way to write again, and suddenly be able to go a bit deeper. It’s almost like you put down the floodgates, like ‘Okay, I’ve got kids, I’ve got to keep this together,” and then gradually with the piano it just opened, opened, opened, and then all these times and thoughts and feelings that I sort of had to hold a little bit inside just came to the surface.

AS: There’s a sense of “to be continued” on Weather Alive. Are you continuing with this new wave of songs?

BO: There’s actually a part two and part three. This is just one piece of a bigger story.

Photos: Eliot Lee Hazel /Shore Fire Media

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