There was an upside to that survival-of-the-fittest upbringing. She emerged with “a perspective of sheer experimentation” tailor-made for a particularly febrile musical moment, with an activist’s sense that culture mattered, a poet’s feel for lyrics, an actress’ instinct for delivery – and that voice.
“People asked ‘how did you do it?” she says of her sudden arrival. “And I said ‘you should have seen my household!’”
She was at once seasoned and completely free. “When I started I so didn’t know what I was doing. I thought ‘why can’t you do that with that?’ I didn’t have any constraints to what I did. And there was so much around at the time: reggae, dubstep … and Portishead and Massive Attack doing beautiful things. I thought ‘if I can make music, I would like to make it that way’, and that has never left me.”
That spirit imbues every note of her sixth and latest album, Kidsticks, “every step of which”, she says, “was an experiment in sound.” Produced with Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons, the contrast with her last outing, 2012’s Sugaring Season, a tour de force of exquisite, pared-back folk, could not be starker. Kidsticks is a bold, hallucinatory departure that has been hailed by Rolling Stone Australia “as an album of stunning contradictions; of breathiness and clarity, of innocence and insight, of drama and simplicity … that redefines the established singer’s career. Although the wildness and uninhibited range of musical devices strikes first, Orton is a master of creating space.”
And like Sugaring Season, on which Orton has never sounded better, it finds her in rare voice. After battling the Crohn’s disease that followed the birth of each of her two children – and affected her voice – she has found whole new dimensions in the instrument that has always defined her. “I got well and my voice got well,” she says. “It’s lovely to have my voice back and my powers back and to come back with a band and play all the music I have ever made in Australia, which I have always loved and has always been good to me, as one of my first stops.”
Beth Orton will play the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on Tuesday 13 June as part of Vivid LIVE festival.