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Sugaring spiced up

Beth Orton is a little vexed.

BETH ORTON: “I did so much in those six years that was highly creative, it just went under the radar a bit. It meant I could experiment and play around with my craft.”

Not cross, perhaps, so much as bemused. The English singer-songwriter has returned after six years to find that her fine new album, Sugaring Season, has become defined by a narrative which centres almost entirely around the astonishing news that she became a mother.

"It's incredibly silly," she laughs. "I've been very open but now it's become, 'She's 41 and she's had some kids!' Do they say that about Nick Cave, that he's 46 and he's had children? No. Maybe it's more unusual for a female artist to get that work/life balance. It seems much easier for men in this industry to do that, and I give that credence. But still, other women do do it, right? It ain't that unusual. Get over it."

And so we shall. Although Sugaring Season reflects on motherhood – most notably on the atypically theatrical See Through Blue, which is chamber-folk by way of the Weimar republic – in general it marks no great departure from Orton's past melancholic musings. And as far as maternal bliss goes, there's plenty of doubt, anger and confusion among the pastoral contemplations. "I've had a couple of kids – that's one thing, but it's just one thing," she says. "It's part of the general story, of course it changes your perspective, but it's not something you can hang everything on."

In any case, Orton was hardly hibernating in the years between the birth of her daughter Nancy in December 2006 and the release of Sugaring Season last month. Keen to improve her playing, she took regular lessons from Bert Jansch, the great Scottish guitarist who died earlier this year. The two later played some shows together and became firm friends. His death, she says, "was intense, quite sudden and quite shocking. I just had to keep going. It's hard to talk about."

She also went off to Denton, Texas to perform and record with Midlake. "So it's not like I wasn't making music," she says. "I did so much in those six years that was highly creative, it just went under the radar a bit, which was quite nice. It meant I could experiment and play around with my craft. When you're in the public eye that can be quite hard to do because there's so much to lose."

If not quite firmly in the public eye, Orton has been popping up in its peripheral vision since the release of her second album, Trailer Park, in 1996. An early romance with musician and producer William Orbit and collaborations with the Chemical Brothers and Andrew Weatherall initially saw her labelled the Comedown Queen. She may once have been the raver's folkie of choice, tasked with calming ragged pulses as dawn crept in, but there are few lingering traces of folktronica in her music these days. Sugaring Season is all woody acoustic textures, overlaid with elegant strings and Orton's light, slightly cracked voice.

Recorded in Portland, Oregon, with producer Tucker Martine – also responsible for the excellent new Lau album Race The Loser – and a group of musicians which included Tom Waits's guitarist Marc Ribot, the 10 songs on Sugaring Season constitute only the tip of the iceberg. Orton continued to write prolifically after having her daughter, although as a single mother she suddenly found composing became less about inspiration and more about "making the opportunity: 'OK, this time is set aside and I'm getting a babysitter so I can go off and sit in a room and work for an afternoon'. Or stealing time in the night. That became a focus I'd never really had before, and I started to get much more disciplined with ideas and following them through. That time became very precious to me. God knows, I needed the writing to get away from things. Never have I needed it more."

Orton has since met and married American folk musician Sam Amidon, with whom she has a one-year-old son, Arthur. On her current tour she is performing solo, aside from a few songs where she is accompanied on stage by her husband. Those of us who have seen her play live in the past might be forgiven for believing that it's something she relishes only marginally more than root canal treatment, but that, too, seems to have changed.

"In the past I've had varying degrees of enjoying what I'm doing, but now I feel I'm doing it more on my own terms," she says. "There are ways to play live that are very subtle, and to do it solo and have that intimate connection with the audience is very satisfying."

For those who can't make her Glasgow show tonight, Orton will be returning to Scotland in January to play Celtic Connections, where she will perform as part of the Roaming Roots Revue curated by Roddy Hart. That will be a different kind of concert, though as yet she's "not entirely sure what kind of show it's going to be". For now, she seems entirely bound up in the need to sing these "passionate" new songs. "This album and this tour feel like a beginning to me, but also part of a continuum, a cycle. It's a continuation of my whole life, and that's a breath of fresh air."

Beth Orton plays Oran Mor, Glasgow, tonight. Sugaring Season is out on ANTI.

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