In the four years since Beth Orton released her last album, Daybreaker, the British singer-songwriter, despite the occasional acoustic gig, retreated from public view. But she never stopped working or traveling. Orton took an inspiring trip to Africa, where she became wildly prolific, and has written ceaselessly since, looking inward to find what she calls her "truest voice" as a songwriter. On her fourth album, Comfort of Strangers, due February 7th, Orton reveals those introspective, assured songs, relocating her voice and mining new sonic ground in the process.
For the pared-down record, Orton stripped away the electronic elements and lush orchestrations that were staples of her previous albums. "I wanted to make the music that I liked to listen to, and I wasn't listening to electronic music," she explains. "For me, the thread that runs through everything I love is soul, is folk . . . In the end, it came to me like, 'You know what I want to make? A folk-gospel-soul record with a country tear dripping down its cheek.' But then at the same time, I wanted to do that as sparsely and minimally as possible."
After several attempts — including collaborations with fellow singer/songwriter M. Ward and a go at self-production — Orton found musical chemistry with producer Jim O'Rourke (Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Wilco), who also plays bass and piano on the album. Despite earlier frustrations, Orton says she and O'Rourke shared a musical vision, and their collaboration intuitively felt right. "I had contacted Jim O'Rourke, and I went to meet him and it was incredible," she says. "His vision and my vision just matched completely. He was like, 'It has to be about your voice. The music has to serve your songs.' "
The fourteen tracks on Comfort of Strangers strip away excess and foreground Orton's sultry croon — always the hallmark of her sound — and her guitar playing. But Comfort of Strangers is not skeletal. Instead, O'Rourke's production relies on texture, gently nudging Orton's voice with his bass or supple piano. "The way his bass [is arranged] against my voice, it's like creating another harmony," she says. "He's woven into it other dimensions that aren't exactly obvious at first, but as you listen they really come to life."
The songs' serpentine melodies are invariably surprising. One song, "Rectify," opens liltingly, buoyed by a tick-tock drumbeat and then unhinges in its chorus, transforming into a gospel-tinged shanty. Orton attributes the sound to the spontaneity that permeated the recording sessions. "A song like 'Worms,' the first song on the record — I spent a year writing that song and almost daily I'd go back to it," she says. "It's really simple, but it's the first song I ever wrote on piano so I really wanted to get it right." But after privately obsessing over the song, O'Rourke recorded it after just three playthroughs.
The title track is a haunting folk tune colored by organ sounds. The song's title reflects the creative chemistry Orton discovered with her new collaborators. "I was going to call it Story of O," Orton says with a laugh, referencing the erotic classic. But "Comfort of Strangers" suddenly seemed the most fitting.
"I told the engineer [the album title], and he was like, 'You see? Just like you, me, [drummer] Tim [Barnes] and Jim! We were strangers, and now look what we've done,' " she says. "And I thought, 'Oh yeah, that's really sweet.' It was really lovely. It always amazes me how people can make these extraordinary connections with one another one minute and then be just complete strangers the next. Or be complete strangers and make extraordinary connections that last forever."