In 2006 Beth Orton announced she was pregnant. Later that year, she cancelled the tour to promote her fourth album The Comfort Of Strangers on the advice of a doctor, and, aside from the odd, very low-key show here or there, disappeared from view.
Six years on, she’s back with a new album, Sugaring Season, perhaps her most direct and confident sounding work. And she’s also on the road, coming to the Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on Monday, December 10.
So what happened in between?
The short answer is ‘lots’. The long answer is a little more complicated...
‘Comfort Of Strangers came out in February 2006, and for some reason I lost so much confidence,’ says Beth on her tour bus between Seattle and Vancouver.
‘Not because it didn’t sell well, or this, that and the other. I just felt very vulnerable at that time.
‘The album changed a lot of things in my life. Lots of painful stuff came up, and it left me feeling vulnerable, so the idea of being out in the public was really scary.’
She says she tried a few performances to test the water, but they left her ‘earth-shatteringly frightened’ and undid things even further.
Being pregnant was initially a worry for her too. ‘I thought it was the end of the world when I found out I was pregnant,’ she admits.
‘I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ and for so many reasons.
‘I was on my own, and I ended up moving to a house in the middle of nowhere in Norfolk [in Diss, not too far from where she grew up in Dereham] when Nancy was born, just the two of us.’
Finding a sort of contentment with her daughter but fearful she was losing herself in motherhood, Orton started writing at a frantic pace, desperate to cling on to something of her own.
One of the songs that arrived during that time and made it onto Sugaring Season is called Last Trees Of Autumn.
‘I felt like I was hanging on to the last shred of me, you know, your last leaves of autumn, but my body was coming on like the first shoots of spring. It was like I was slowly coming alive whether I liked it or not.’
Orton recalls it as a pivotal time. Nevertheless she was inspired by the natural world around her and what she had picked up from guitar lessons she had taken with folk legend Bert Jansch.
And then she met American singer songwriter Sam Amidon, who she married last year.
They have a son, Arthur, giving Orton the family she always wanted, but never thought she’d have.
The change in circumstance prompted more songs to flow out of Orton, and when it came to recording the album she called Tucker Martine, acclaimed producer and husband of Portland-based artist Laura Veirs. (Veirs’s Carbon/Glacier is one of Orton’s favourite-ever albums.)
Martine agreed to work with her, and the pair started planning which musicians they would invite to join the project, then Orton headed for Oregon with Sam, Nancy and newborn Arthur for a whistlestop recording session.
Although they were in Portland for two weeks, they had just three days with the full band to get things done.
‘I never felt like we had any time constraints, even though we only had those three days,’ she says.
‘It was that easy, and everyone was so excited. From the moment I walked into the studio, I loved it.
‘It’s very rare. It was like this serendipitous thing. I went in with 18 songs, and I loved every one of them, but it got quickly whittled down. If it didn’t come together really quickly, we moved on.’
Orton’s confidence has now fully returned, even surpassing previous levels. For the first time since her career began aged 19, after being discovered by Madonna collaborator William Orbit, she’s had time to play with music in a way she never has before.
Ever since debut Trailer Park propelled her to critical acclaim in 1997, everything Orton has written and recorded has been released, and subsequently scrutinised, but having disappeared from the public eye, dropped by her record label EMI, and with the thought at the back of her mind that she’d never again release any music, she says she felt more free than ever – ‘like a child playing in the mud for the first time’.
The resulting album, she says, is the culmination of Orton finding herself as a guitarist and a songwriter.
And she adds that the album’s title is a metaphor for the transformation 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 then sweetness comes.’
Beth reveals that a journalist recently told her she sounded really happy on Sugaring Season.
‘I went on at them for ages saying it wasn’t that black and white, that there are ups and downs to being a parent and all that.
‘But when I think about it, I recorded this new album with my four-month-old son asleep on the sofa next to me and husband and daughter in the next room.
‘It was a really happy time. It was lovely, as all this has been. Creating a family is something I’ve always longed for, you know, a proper family with a husband and kids.
‘It’s not something I ever thought would happen, but it has.
‘And it’s amazing.’