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[whitespace] Beth Orton
Photograph by Valerie Philips

Girlfriend Out of Coma: Beth Orton takes the 'dour' out of troubadour.

Freedom Rock

Trip-hop chanteuse Beth Orton emerges from her shell on 'Daybreak'

By Susan Moll

FIVE YEARS into her career, singer/songwriter Beth Orton can already pack the Warfield, the domain of perky princesses like Nelly Furtado and Pink. Orton's mournful lyrical narratives and acoustic folk/trip-hop fusionry have won her a steadily growing and feverishly ardent critical and fan following since her debut, Trailer Park, arrived in 1997.

It's odd when you consider that Orton is perceived as a wan granola-girl folkie with the occasional trip-hop leaning and a leaden heart. She recognizes that whatever image she has, like her songs, gets interpreted differently from fan to fan.

"My friends are just like, 'Who is that that they're talking about in the newspaper, 'cause it's not you!'" Orton says. "Now it's unusual to people for me to be who I am. Sometimes, it's confused me quite a lot--like, 'Is that what people want me to be?' I'm not, like, a Catholic, but there's a purity to what I do. You can get lost in identities that people put on you. I do sense that sometimes I disappoint people when they meet me. They want to meet this kind of ... deep sort of person." She sighs. "Oh, well."

In many ways, Orton's last outing, 1999's Central Reservation, was a record born under a bad sign, clouded by depression and its creator's ongoing bout with the debilitating Crohn's disease. Though she's been pigeonholed as the consummate downcast troubadour, similar to Lucinda Williams, there's no hiding the happiness Orton basks in on her third full-length release, Daybreaker. Gone is the girl with the weather-beaten soul who shouldered a shattering pain.

Amid the tidal strings of the rapturous "Paris Train" she surrenders to romantic abandon. On "Anywhere," she explores her sensual side alongside torchy jazz beats and smoky horns. It's a striking contrast to the heavy-hearted balladeer who, just a few years ago, sang of being "just alive enough to die."

Daybreaker not only led to collaborations with ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, William Orbit, Everything but the Girl's Ben Watt and the Chemical Brothers (who gave the title track its tripadelic grooves), it reunited Orton with the crew with whom she made Central Reservation and its predecessor, Trailer Park: multi-instrumentalist Ted Barnes, bassist Ali Friend, pianist Sean Read and drummer Will Blanchard.

"There's different ways of writing on this album," Orton explains. "There's me coming with songs; there's me and Ted sitting together and him coming up with a riff and me writing my words and melodies over the top as well. Like 'Ted's Waltz' was a riff he had. He was playing it, and I just opened my mouth and out came that song, words and all, everything!"

After digging into her crate of unreleased tracks for "Carmella" and "Concrete Sky," Orton convinced former Lilith Fair cohort Emmylou Harris to lend her angelic warble to the confessional "God Song." Ryan Adams, who provided guitar, piano and harmony vocals for "Concrete Sky," supplied her with an original "OK," which was retitled "This One's Gonna Bruise."

"He played it to me, and it just blew my head off," Orton raves. "It was so right at that point in my life to sing that song. We were in the studio till 7 in the morning, just playing each others' songs and talking and drinking. I've never collaborated with anyone like that before, with that complete understanding or whatever."

Daybreaker is a dramatic unveiling of a newly confident, increasingly sure-footed Orton slowly emerging. Toward the end of Central Reservation, Orton vowed not to waste a single second living in hell as if it were some kind of heaven--a promise she's made good on.

"At the moment, every time I pick up my guitar I come up with something, and I'm just allowing it to come and go, and if it sticks, it sticks," she says. "It's not hard at the moment, but then again it doesn't have to be, 'cause I've made a record, and it's the most precious free time in a way, creatively." She sighs contentedly. "I'm just, like, free."

Beth Orton performs Monday (Aug. 19) at 8pm at the Warfield Theatre, 982 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. (408.998.TIXS)

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From the August 15-21, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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