English singer/songwriter Beth Orton’s latest album Weather Alive was one of the most critically acclaimed records of 2022, landing on year-end ‘Best of 2022’ lists from NPR, Pitchfork, and The New York Times—the latter of which praised Orton for her “modal vocal phrases and marveling [stories].” Pitchfork also named the title track a Best New Track, calling it “a slow-burning tour de force,” while The Late Late Show with James Corden invited Orton and her band to perform album highlight “Fractals.”
Orton self-produced Weather Alive, laying the foundations of the album on an upright piano that she installed in her garden shed at home in London. When the time was right, Orton invited an incredible group of collaborators to join her across the album’s eight tracks, including jazz poet Alabaster DePlume, The Smile drummer Tom Skinner, multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily and Mercury Prize nominated bassist Tom Herbert of The Invisible. The musicians locked naturally into Orton’s sensibilities, expanding the emotive and dream-like world she’d created and conjuring a deeply meditative atmosphere that remains long after the final note has evaporated.
Orton has long been regarded as possessing one of the most unique and expressive voices in music – a voice that has grown evermore rich and wise over time. Her 1996 debut, Trailer Park, pioneered a synthesis of electronic and acoustic sounds, while its 1999 follow-up, Central Reservation, garnered international success. Further albums like the Jim O’Rourke-produced Comfort of Strangers and 2016’s largely electronic Kidsticks co-produced by Orton deepened the breadth of her craft. A turbulent life that progressed with long periods of ill health slowed her down and made for experience that she was only able to process through music. She began to spend more time making music at the piano than on guitar and the songs she wrote turned into the eight-track Weather Alive, the first album she’s ever self-produced in her nearly 30-year career.
“Music has always worked as a way of seeing,” she says. “I found myself writing until the words lost sense, which is really scary in the real world but really interesting when you’re making music. It gives all meaning new meaning. One of the most exciting elements of writing songs is how they reveal their truth as the process develops.” Indeed, the first notes of the album-opening title track usher the listener into an expansive, emotive and dream-like world of sound with little precedence in Orton’s prior work. The artist challenged herself to create music accordingly. Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden or Alice Coltrane come to mind at times throughout the record.
“I had brought myself a cheap old piano but it had a resonance that really spoke to me, almost an emotional resonance. I could explore in a way I wasn’t able to on guitar — I was able to find a depth, a voice I’d never trusted before. I worked with the atmosphere the piano created as an instrument in and of itself.” On producing she enthused “It wasn’t about proving myself to myself. That would be reductive, but in the end I did find capabilities I wasn’t aware I held. This was a collaboration between my unconscious self and some wonderful musicians and the piano was the constant anchor.”
The musicians locked naturally into Orton’s sensibilities, expanding the new sonic world she’d created. “Every person it attracted brought their sensitivity and love, and I think responded to the vulnerability,” she says. This intuitive interplay is best heard on songs like “Fractals,” “That track is a beautiful example of the nature of collaboration, where people come to the songs as they are, why else would I want to work with them unless I love what they bring,” she says. “I would not have been able to conjure that music without these musicians.”
In time, additional players helped add nuance and color to the music, including Shahzad Ismaily on guitar, drums, harmonica, bass and Moog, Sam Beste on vibraphone, Francine Perry on synths and Alabaster dePlume on saxophone. “Diving into what they brought was really magical,” says Orton. “The palette I had to play with was exquisite, and the players were extraordinary.” Working remotely from her garden, Orton took everything that had been played and spent four months sculpting the raw materials into what has become the final record.
Even when the lyrics lean into stream of consciousness, Orton’s signature storytelling is on frequent display throughout Weather Alive, from the warm, Proust-referencing “Friday Night” (“Though we never do get too close, I still hold you now and then,” Orton sings) and the bittersweet recollections of “Arms Around a Memory” (“Didn’t we make a beautiful life in your eighth-floor walkup that night?”) to the shimmering ambivalence of the seven-minute closer “Unwritten” (“I was sure we made a promise, but you never know”).
“This record explores all of that. I’m talking about my experiences possibly in a more personal way then I ever have but the important part will be how this music makes other people feel. It’s not a finished masterpiece, it is a collaboration with time, of someone struggling to make sense. And in that struggle, something beautiful got made.”
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