“My voice is a bit like a piano with a dodgy key on it or something,” Beth Orton chuckles quietly over the phone as her tour bus rumbles toward the Canadian border. Her analogy would hardly startle any fan; the 35-year-old Briton’s vocal style has long been celebrated for the “flaws” that make it so warm and enthralling. It’s hoarse and unrefined, prone to cracks and croaks as it slides from dusky murmur to ardent falsetto — qualities that render her melancholy lyrics that much more immediate and affecting.
In this case, however, Orton is lamenting the nasty lung infection that’s plagued her for the whole of her current North American tour, which comes to Avalon on April 8. Its weakening effect on her delivery was evident the previous evening at Seattle’s Showbox Theatre, a gig she calls “shambolic” before politely but firmly steering the conversation elsewhere. “Let’s not talk about it anymore. Thinking about it does my head in.”
Although her voice was breaking more than usual that night, and a slight cough punctured the occasional melody, it all gave a heightened sense of beauty to her songs as Orton and her four-piece backing band pushed through a nearly two-hour set, leaning on material from her new fourth album, Comfort of Strangers (Astralwerks). Given the disc’s lyrics, which struggle between hope and heartbreak, righteous indignation and self-immolation, hanging on and letting go, Orton’s genuine struggles on stage seemed fitting.
Comfort of Strangers is her most intimate, confessional disc to date, and the one of which she’s the most proud. “While the rest of my world is falling to pieces around me, at least my work stands up. And I stand by it, you know? It’s almost the one thing I can find rhyme and reason to in my life.”
Unhappy with 2002’s Daybreaker (Astralwerks), Orton sought a new beginning with Strangers. Encouraged by producer Jim O’Rourke, she did away with the electronic beats and textures of her previous material and focused on her country-folk side, crafting simple, organic compositions centered on her acoustic guitar and colored by piano, violins, harmonica, and restrained percussion. Freeing herself from her past, she says, allowed her to tap back into the joy she used to derive from songwriting. “Coming up with songs is the most wonderful feeling there is. It’s a lovely process, having the songs flow out and then fiddling with them. I’ll be out somewhere and I’ll be like, ‘Oooh!’, thinking to myself how I can make a song better, and then I just wanna run home. It’s like going home to a lover. I get really excited to go home to that.”
She’s also thrilled that most of her fans have embraced the change. “It’s really amazing. Like, ‘Oh my God, these people keep riding on this funny little road with me!’ I’m quite good at losing people, you know. Whether I mean to or not, I tend to shake people off.”