It’s extraordinary how unchanged Beth Orton appears, given the skirmishes over her very selfhood she has apparently fought in the six years since her last album. Clad in a mirrored dress and glittery shoes – they purposely echo the vast disco ball that spins above the crowd in this plush north London venue – the Norfolk-born, London-based singer and multi-instrumentalist seems miraculously consistent with longstanding perceptions of her.
She’s the same coltish, mop-haired presence as ever, always a little nervous (“agh, breathe….”), despite a long career spent casting a spell over listeners with her daubed diction and long-fingered guitar work. Behind her stands the stalwart upright bassist Ali Friend from Red Snapper; their association dates back to 1995. Orton’s hits, such as She Cries Your Name, and other foundational tracks (Central Reservation) abide in her set list, albeit as updates rearranged for this particular band, which now includes Peter Wareham of Melt Yourself Down on saxophone and electronic artist and gauzy support act Hinako Omori on synths.
We know Beth Orton, or we think we do: she has a permanent seat in the culture, thanks to the immediate success of her folk-leaning but rave-savvy debut album, 1996’s Trailer Park, and its successor, Central Reservation (1999). These went hand in hand with a clutch of high-profile crossover collaborations (the Chemical Brothers). Her more exploratory later albums have always been worth investigating; Comfort of Strangers (2006) and Sugaring Season (2012) are particularly enduring.
Weather Alive could be her best record yet, in which her old albatrosses ‘folktronica’ and ‘comedown’ are outpaced
Behind every discography, though, is an ongoing tussle between an artist’s self-perception and the reckonings of others: music journalists, fans, record labels and producers, with female artists being particularly prone to industry advice on optimising their offering. “I have lived as a satellite,” is one lyric that sings out tonight from a recent Orton song called Haunted Satellite. Perhaps it alludes to Orton coming in and out of the orbits of people such as, say, electronic producer William Orbit.
Or it could mean something quite different, more personal; her work has often been allusive, and there is much to unpack on her latest album, Weather Alive, out last month. Despite the American road references of Orton’s early records, the natural world has long been a major subplot in her work as well, and Weather Alive is, among many things, an extended piece of nature writing. Our own haunted satellite, the moon, figures.
At its best, Orton’s performance tonight feels “naturalistic”, in the sense that it is dappled and often understated, with drummer Ben Sloan and guitarist Stephen Patota (“He’s from Cincinnati!”) adding to the ebbing and flowing thrum of the electronics and the discreet, ambient groan of the sax. Orton travels between a fairy-light-lit keyboard and her acoustic guitar, back and forth between selves, perhaps. Sometimes, her mid-period stuff can sound a bit ploddy next to her classy new jazz-adjacent compositions. It’s as though she has grown into her parched voice, too; you’re reminded of Chan Marshall of Cat Power, another female artist whose three-dimensional backstory informs her distinctive vocal style.
‘Back and forth between selves’: Orton on acoustic guitar, and band, at Koko. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
If you remove the rose-tint of 90s nostalgia from the equation and try to conceive of a Orton shorn of old signifiers, Weather Alive could be her best record yet – a hard-to-define work in which her old albatrosses, “folktronica” and “comedown”, are definitively outpaced. Composing on a wayward old piano and leaning into the ache in her voice, she self-produced her own music for the first time, and self-financed it after her then-label proved a bad fit. The results exist in a kind of dream state, with less-moored instrumentation dovetailing into the kind of oscillating electronics that have little to do with dance music.
Her eighth album overall is also an attempt to redefine not just what kind of artist Orton now wants to be, but aspects of selfhood more fundamental than that. She has spoken about how her medication for Crohn’s disease coupled with her lifestyle may have led to her experiencing seizures, which were sometimes misunderstood as panic attacks; how this zigzag path of misdiagnosis led to her feeling not just unwell but profoundly dislocated from herself, suffering memory loss.
“And I got to questioning my credibility, like you’re the reliable witness to what I feel,” she exhales on a love song called Arms Around a Memory. The title is a seeming reference to Johnny Thunders’s You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory; both are songs that attempt to figure out what is real.
“How would we know, ever in the unknowing?” Orton wonders on Unwritten, “I’m sure we made a promise, but you never know.” As ever, many of her best lines come out half-chewed, following folk, blues and soul traditions that privilege the mouthfeel of vocals. Beaming, she makes mention tonight of how she didn’t think anyone would ever hear her latest record, how she was “freaking out” about its release. Now, she says, she is “excited” for people to hear it, and – perhaps – see her as she is now.