Beth Orton

For those who have never met her, the general perception of Beth Orton is that she is an embodiment of all the sadness the human spirit can muster. Or at least that’s what comes across on her albums, now numbering at four, hence the nicknames “the comedown queen” and “the queen of heartbreak.” Though Orton’s life is not at all devoid of unhappiness — much like anyone else’s — she assures us that misery is not the defining characteristic.

Prior to her most recent full-length, Comfort of Strangers, Orton was flattened by a couple of life’s tragedies. These events hit her hard enough to raise doubts about whether she would even make another record. The resultant action was that Orton started doing what she does best — writing songs to spare her own sanity, the process of which yielded a vantage point into a woman being perhaps more honest with herself than ever before.

“If you spend a year writing a song, it becomes like speaking to yourself,” says Orton. “I answer my own questions and, within that, find solutions. Once the solutions are found, I go back and re-write until they become coded. I hope that through the course of writing, the songs become universal. It becomes a more rounded piece of work rather than the ramblings of a madwoman screaming into the void.”

Working in an acoustic environment this time around allows Orton’s hollow, hoarse tones to be brought to the forefront, becoming ever more soul-baring than before. Part of this can be attributed to the actual environment in which she was recording — two weeks at Sear Sound in New York City — and whom she was recording with: Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke, drummer Tim Barnes, and accompanied by engineer TJ Doherty.

“It was understood that it was me at my most honest and vulnerable, and a space was created,” says Orton. “It was just so safe . . . and fun, as well. I could go in and sing something really beautiful, give it all the emotion I had, but at the same time come out and really laugh, crack some irreverent joke, and it would be beautiful. Musically it’s really honest. The sound is honest, an honesty that goes beyond the words, and an openness that goes through everything.”

O’Rourke and Doherty managed to capture Orton’s tangible vulnerability on Comfort utilizing a Shure SM-57 microphone for her voice, which — along with all the instruments — are recorded in analog. This is primarily what Doherty attributes the overwhelmingly acoustic nature of Comfort to. “Her musicality was there, and she performed with such integrity that it was simple to record her honestly,” he says. “We had great respect for her musical ideas and she listened to us when we made suggestions.”

“There wasn’t a thing we didn’t discuss,” Orton concurs. “At the same time, we didn’t discuss too much. It was very spontaneous and instinctual. I never felt it was taken out of my hands. It never went to this other place I didn’t understand. For the first time, I had a producer I had ultimate confidence in. It was easier in that sense because I totally trusted his vision.”

This sense of trust is new for Orton who, in the past, had a tendency to bring in musicians to fill in the gaps she couldn’t manage on her own. On Comfort, Orton takes on the primary guitar playing duties — this is after extensive weekly lessons with legendary guitarist Burt Yanch. These lessons have had an effect, not only on Orton’s improved playing, but also in opening up her style, which has taken on a bit of an American country rock quality.

To capture this particular vibe, Orton used an acoustic guitar miked with a Neumann U47 and a Beyer M160. O’Rourke complements Orton using a Gibson EB2 bass guitar played through an Ampeg B12 and AKG C12 bass amplifier. Barnes joins them using a kit assembled from pieces generated in the ’60s from Slingerland. His kit is meticulously miked with Coles 4038s on the overheads, a Sennheiser 421 and an AKG D12 E on the kick, a Shure SM57 ribbon on the top and bottom of the snare, a Sennheiser 441 dynamic on the hi-hat, AKG C12As on the toms, and an AKG C24 for the drum room. These are compressed with a Fairchild 670, as well as two compressors built by Bob Fine, military compressors, an RCA BA-6A limiting amplifier simplified schematic, and two Teletronics LA-2A tube compressor/limiters.

What is missing, but not missed, is any effects or processing on the recorded material. Focusing more on miking, Doherty shares one particular tip that is exclusive to his sessions. “The Sennheiser 441 is pointed completely off-axis, about eight inches away from the edge of the hat facing the back of the kit. The hi-hat sounds more like a sample because there is nothing there other than a hi-hat. No snare, no room, no kit.”

Once recording is completed, O’Rourke steps up to the console for the mix, but does so with the philosophy that the music comes first. Doherty explains, “[O’Rourke] may be one of the only engineers I have seen that mix for the music. Other mix engineers have all the bus compressors and inserts and effects dialed in before they have even plugged in the Firewire drive into the G5.“

He continues, “[O’Rourke] brings up all the faders and listens to the song. Then he moves the faders around until he gets the most musical result, after which I print it. Sometimes a hair of top was added because we were working with 15 IPS. Mixing had the very occasional roll of 22 or 27Hz. Many of the songs were tracked and mixed with no EQ, and the bulk of the songs at mastering required no EQ. I thought that was extraordinary.”

“I needed the trust [in O’Rourke],” Orton admits. “It’s been tough for years. I had been drowning. I went into this downward spiral. I stopped writing for months, then becoming really inspired. I didn’t stop writing. I’d literally have to force myself to sleep at one in the afternoon after writing all night. They were written without being for anyone but me. To a degree, you could call that confessional, which is a word I’ve always balked at. I have nothing to hide in that way any more. If that’s what I do, that’s what I do.”