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Folk and electronica singer Beth Orton on creating her best work yet


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Behind the glamour and acclaim of any successful musician, there often lurks a life filled with travails and challenges that fuel the artist's deepest work.

Beth Orton is one such artist.

Special correspondent Tom Casciato has this story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tom Casciato: Music has been deeply personal to Beth Orton for as long as she can remember.

Beth Orton, Musician: It was kind of an obsession listening to music. I listened to words, and I listened to melodies, and I analyzed it, but I never really spoke about it to anyone.

When I was little, I played piano, just like up and down, up and down, like that, moving around on the keyboard. And it was just something I loved to do, and I would do it for hours. I would just get lost in it. But -- and I tried, like, piano lessons, but I just got rapped on the knuckles. And it wasn't ever -- I wasn't good at it, so just gave it up.

Tom Casciato: Did you have a sense that you might do it professionally?

Beth Orton: No, none, ever.

Tom Casciato: When still young, she suffered twin blows she didn't know how to come to terms with.

Beth Orton: My mom, when I was 19, she died very suddenly. She had cancer, and just, yes, that was that. And my dad, he died of a heart attack when I was 11.

It is hard to know how to feel about that. Like, how long are you allowed to, like, feel something, or how long are you allowed to miss someone?

Tom Casciato: And how could you even process something at that age?

Beth Orton: Well, exactly. And I think that I didn't. But then, at a certain point, you have to feel it.

Tom Casciato: Beth Orton says she's finally feeling it on her latest release, "Weather Alive," an album described by Pitchfork "as immersive, soothing, and communal, and the best work of her career."

It's a career some 30 years old now. It began at 22 with a unique mix of folk and electronica and included two critically acclaimed records before she was 27. As the century turned, she won the BRIT Award for best female soloist. The sky looked like the limit. But there was a but.

She was numbing pain that was not only emotional, but physical. Her fans didn't know she'd been suffering since she was a teenager with a painful gastrointestinal malady, Crohn's disease.

And when you made those records in the '90s, were you in a lot of physical pain?

Beth Orton: I was in agony. And I would just get on stage and I would do what I had to do, and then I would get offstage, and I would just do what I had to do to numb it.

There were tours that had to be canceled. There was opportunities that I had to, like, be in the hospital ward and be told that I wasn't allowed to do. The interesting thing about having parents is that there's a lot of stuff that goes by the by when you don't have that kind of support system.

And if you have a chronic illness, and you don't have a support system, and you're kind of being really successful, but you're also under a lot of pressure to be more successful, because you're not quite successful, but you are on the cusp of something, it's just like, boom, you don't know where you are.

Tom Casciato: She says a change began to come when she became a parent herself, with a daughter in 2006 and then a son in 2011.

Beth Orton: And the funny thing is, when I had kids, I guess I got emotional sobriety, or tried anyway.

I hadn't really learned the kind of skills of being a human.

Tom Casciato: She's been honing those skills for a decade or so, which also led her toward the raw, image-laden songwriting on "Weather Alive."

Beth Orton: This is a record of someone who's waking up to their own life.

Tom Casciato: The song "Weather Alive" speaks to being overwhelmed by nature's majesty.

Beth Orton: I very much wrote a more sensory exploration. For example, you're walking in a mountain, and the light suddenly bursts through. You know, you get to the top, and the light -- this is what the light does sometimes, and you're like, oh, my goodness.

And like, what would it be to write about that? What is that feeling?

Tom Casciato: Another song called "Lonely" has the singer questioning the parents she lost about her future.

Beth Orton: I look at my children now, it's like 11 and 15, how little they are. When I was 11, I was like out having to kind of like be an adult, when I wasn't an adult.

Tom Casciato: When you do something that is that emotionally open, what it's like sharing your music with your kids? I can imagine your kids, listening to that song, going, gee, mom sounds like she is pretty lonely.

Beth Orton: But, I mean, that's taking it a bit literally.

I mean, obviously, I do sing lonely about 100 times in that song, but it is one of the biggest kind of achievements in life is to be all right alone, is to be alright lonely, is to embrace all of that stuff. But you ask the children. Well, my son does sometimes come in.

He did say this line. He said: "Mommy, sometimes, when you sing, it does sound like you are crying."

Tom Casciato: It sounds like your son was actually beginning to experience something of what art is.

Beth Orton: Yes, exactly.

Tom Casciato: Thirty years on, Beth Orton appears more comfortable than ever with what her art is, and she has some wisdom to impart about it as well.

Beth Orton: Just do what you do. Get out of the way of your own process. Create from the most -- the truest part of yourself.

And then I start sounding like a self-help book. But, I mean, there's a reason all those self-help books get written, I suppose, because it's true.

Tom Casciato: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tom Casciato in Montclair, New Jersey.

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