Beth Orton releases ‘Weather Alive’ album

Beth Orton releases 'Weather Alive' album

Beth Orton’s “Weather Alive” is an album bustling with firsts.

Orton has been a working musician for nearly 30 years. In that time she has distinguished herself as a ruminative folk artist whose “two-finger ditties” (her phrase) are soulfully strummed, but “Weather Alive” is Orton’s first album to make copious use of the piano. It is also her first album to be released in conjunction with Partisan Records. It is her first album, really, to take life on life’s terms.

Humanity’s rougher edges typically hover in the foreground of an Orton composition. With “Weather Alive,” Orton has done something out of character: she’s made a record that is self-content, self-affirming and hopeful. The title track in particular is a glowy dreamscape, a paean to simple and in this case bodily pleasures. Orton nails the physical sensations of drinking in gorgeous scenery.

“Some people write songs to people or about people,” Orton says. “With this record, I wrote to something much more intangible. It was a sensory record. I would write to that light — I would write to that feeling when the light burst through the trees.”

Though Orton, in concert later this week at the Irish American Heritage Center, is rightly admired as a poetess of British folk-rock, her closest analog might be a poetess of Francophone cinema: Claire Denis. “Weather Alive” has a good deal in common with Denis’ film “Friday Night,” in which two Parisians — strangers — converge for an unplanned tryst never to be repeated again. Both the film and the album are examples of delicate, perfectly appointed minimalism. Both revel in a kind of hushed intimacy. By coincidence, Orton studied drama and has worked as an actress (most recently in the festival fave “Light Years”).

Orton’s approach is not wily or gamesmanlike: “I’ve never contrived a plan,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, this is what my next move will be! How clever!’ I’ve never thought it through in that respect.” Still, the singer’s willingness to confound preconceptions has always been apparent; it proved especially eventful in the last album cycle. There was much furor over “Kidsticks,” Orton’s 2016 record, an experiment in syncopated pop music that left some listeners feeling bushwhacked. Orton describes Kidsticks as “very off-the-cuff.”

This time it’s different. “Weather Alive” plays out much as you’d expect from the inaugural single, which incidentally is titled “Friday Night.” Orton calls the album “really meditative … I was really engaging with this idea of peace.” Her vocals are craggy but comforting, her arrangements cavernous (especially the horn and woodwind fanfare that dominates “Haunted Satellite”) but sublimely mellow.

“Weather Alive” was a happy accident. It may not have materialized but for a fateful stroll in Camden, the eternally bohemian North London neighborhood. Orton was stopped in her tracks by an upright piano, a rinky-dink hand-me-down that even the shopkeeper cautioned against buying.

“He had this one piano at the back of the room — it just had the most beautiful warmth and a really lovely resonance,” Orton says. “I was like, ‘How about this one?’ And he says, ‘Oh, no, you don’t want that! That’s my grandmum’s piano.’” Orton persisted and, well, the rest is history.

Back then Orton was living with Camden friends and trying to make sense of the carnage around her, which seemed to multiply with ever greater velocity. Britain was in a bad way politically speaking; then came the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Orton, “Weather Alive” is suggestive of “a very particular moment and very particular circumstances.”

“I got really quite bitter about it,” Orton says of COVID-19. “The fact that people couldn’t pull together on this one thing.” Britons are famous for their “wartime spirit,” as Orton calls it, but the virus was too big a logjam even for these historically resilient isles.

Given its origins, “Weather Alive” has a remarkable sense of equilibrium; this record is utterly at peace with itself. How did Orton pull it off? She found communion in her local music scene.

Her first recruit was Tom Skinner, a London rhythm guru known for his work with The Smile, a jazzified Radiohead spinoff. Orton’s instructions for Skinner — she wanted something “percussive” and “imaginative” — were elliptical, even vague, but it didn’t take long for the pair to make concrete progress. Their formative sessions resulted in “Fractals,” one of the album’s rockingest, boomingest tunes, as well as the fetching album closer “Unwritten.” Also involved at this stage was Skinner’s friend, the Mercury Prize-winning Tom Herbert.

Orton’s operation later expanded to include saxophonist Alabaster dePlume, whose part-time pursuits are too plenteous to list here, and guitar wonk Grey McMurray. Yet much of the heavy lifting was done by Orton and Orton alone. “Weather Alive” was her first stab at self-production, which for any musician without prior experience is a meteoric event. She met the challenge with unstinting focus (“If I hadn’t seen this through, I would have been really demoralized,” Orton says). It helped that Orton, who had taken courses on the weedier, more technical aspects of songcraft, was probably more learned than the average newbie.

“There were no drawbacks,” she says. “I had incredible raw material, beautiful players, beautiful songs. I just dug in and it became this incredibly creative, interesting experiment.”

Orton is too modest. Her “experiment” is in fact a feast for the senses, a tranquil and radiant mood piece; folk-rock meets cinéma du look. Now there’s a first.

7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 with Heather Woods Broderick at the Mayfair Theatre at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave.; tickets $40 at

Matthew Richards is a freelance writer.

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