When people -- and critics in particular -- pinpoint you as the epicenter of an innovative sound, it can be difficult to try something new, according to singer/songwriter Beth Orton.
But for her sophomore album, Central Reservation, Orton said she had to push aside the spare pairing of folk acoustics and modern electronica that defined her acclaimed debut, Trailer Park (1997).
"A lot of people were saying I should make another Trailer Park, but I didn't want to make another one," the 29-year-old Brit, and upcoming Lilith Fair participant, said during a recent SonicNet/Yahoo chat. "I think the people were into it. There was a vibe captured there and it was very special."
For Central Reservation, released in March, Orton pursued a much warmer -- at times even lush -- sound, on such songs as "Sweetest Decline" (RealAudio excerpt). To help her realize that vision, she enlisted, song by song, a team's worth of collaborators more respected for their musicianship than for the potential to sell more CDs: folkie Ben Harper, New Orleans pianist Dr. John, guitarist David Robox of neo-psychedelics Mazzy Star and even John Wood, the original producer for '60s and '70s cult musician Nick Drake.
While Orton concedes the songs on her album are born of her own experiences, she skips the chance to explicate them, preferring to leave the songs' depths up to the imaginations of listeners. Nonetheless, she does offer some guideposts to the direction of a song, including the album-opening "Stolen Car"
"It's about breaking the chain, breaking the pattern, the discontinuation of old habits -- or not, as the case may be," Orton said.
"Every line speaks the language of love/ But never held the meaning I was thinking of," she sings atop a busy, multitextured mix, before a buzzing electric guitar wedges itself into the foreground.
Although Orton can't be classified as a traditional folk singer, she writes on acoustic guitar. Still, it wasn't that guitar sound that first brought her notice, but rather her vocals on the Chemical Brothers' electronica cut "Alive Alone." She later worked with William Orbit -- who crafted Madonna's electronica makeover -- on Trailer Park and its acoustic/electronic meldings, including the seductive "She Cries Your Name."
The Chemical Brothers' Ed Simons has since become a fan of the singer he and partner Ed Simons helped launch. "I like [Central Reservation]," he said recently. "It's a grower."
While Central Reservation was written almost entirely in the studio without demos or rehearsing, Orton said the creative process doesn't stop there, but continues onstage. She's found this especially true of the lilting "Sweetest Decline."
"It's still the same song, but you never sing the same song twice," she said. "It opens up in a new way every night; that's the great thing about touring."
On Saturday (June 19), Orton will perform at the Boston stop of the outdoor Fleadh Fest, wrapping up two weeks of a U.S. club tour.
Orton will return to U.S. venues in July, when she plays the second stage on the opening eight dates of the Lilith Fair, July 8-17. As a veteran of the female-centered tour -- she also played on the outing's inaugural run in '97 -- Orton said the bonds created have the potential to grow profoundly.
"There was a special energy there and it made me quite emotional to be there," she said. "My big bond was with [country singer] Emmylou Harris, she was just so sweet. She plants a good seed wherever she goes. No pretenses. When you do what you love to do, then you're just happy."