Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with WFUV.
When Beth Orton relocated to California a couple of years ago, the acclaimed British musician seized the opportunity to rediscover herself through her music. Entering the third decade of a storied career known for fluid songwriting and a haunting voice, Beth found liberation in her new surroundings, while also looking to her own past for inspiration. When musicians talk about going back to their roots, it's usually an excuse to pull out a battered old acoustic to create some bare-bones music. In Beth's case, going back to her roots meant something very different.
Infused with the wide-open natural power of Los Angeles and the spirit of her early recordings with electronic legends William Orbit, Andrew Weatherall, and Kieran Hebden, Beth found a new groove through a series of synth loops she created with Andrew Hung (Fuck Buttons). Over the course of the next 16 months, Beth worked on the record, bringing in further contributors like George Lewis Jr. (Twin Shadow), Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear), composer Dustin O'Halloran, and veteran multi-instrumentalists Shahzad Ismaily and Alain Johannes.
Beth's seventh album, Kidsticks, is resolutely focused--a rare chance to hear an established artist plugged in and reworking her writing process with wide-eyed glee. Beth plays almost all of the synth and keyboard parts on the record, with nary an acoustic guitar to be heard.
Moving to LA and uprooting her family proved a catalyst for new adventures. Seeking to experiment musically, Beth invited her fellow countryman Hung to join her for a visit. She cleared her schedule for a week and a half, during which the duo could play around in a friend's studio garage in Pasadena. There was initially very little expectation, as Beth was mostly looking for an interesting place to start the creative process.
"A pivotal moment for me was when I was looking around the space and innocently asked, 'How should we do this?'" Beth says. "And Andy said, 'Why don't you just play keyboards?' and I'm like, 'Alright …' I never touched an acoustic guitar during the making of the record."
At the end of the period in the garage, Hung returned to the UK and Beth started the process of expanding the loops into full-fledged compositions by writing words and melodies. "It was about nine months of working on vocal and lyrical ideas, and hearing possibilities for where things could go."
Eager for live musicians to play on the album, she connected with an array of talented musicians: engineer Jake Aron, Lewis, Taylor, Johannes, O'Halloran, percussionist Lucky Paul, and her old friend Oli Kraus. Beth was officially her own producer for the first time. She was inspired by the freedom of orchestrating the work of her guests. "I've never made a record where there's not someone there to go, 'What do you think?'" she says. "I went into the studio, and I had to direct people on what to do and what I wanted. It was really empowering and liberating."
The resulting record--mixed by David Wrench (Caribou / Hot Chip)--plays on themes of identity and misplaced time, nostalgia, and acceptance. The Blondie-inspired "1973" features Beth playing with melody and serves as an ode to the memory of a whole period of her life before guitars and gigs. "Moon" is a grooving reminder that we are all completely ruled by the same forces. The slow-building "Petals" is a story of loss and rebirth.
Elsewhere, "Flesh and Blood" is a sweet, cheeky love song, with its earnest refrain of "life after life." Beth explains: "For me, 'life after life' is just another way of saying life after death--a second chance, something so precious and all too rare. A little feel in the dark for happiness. It's about acceptance and our fallibility, how we shape meaning from nothing and how meaning shapes us." Meanwhile, the spoken-word of "Corduroy Legs" is about Beth's son, with scattershot drums mimicking the sound of little legs in corduroy trousers running upstairs. Beth's children are present throughout the record, and were often present in the room while she was writing and recording at home. And that love--given and felt--is a huge theme on Kidsticks.
The album closes with the eponymous song, "Kidsticks"--a lilting, playful instrumental that Beth says epitomizes the spirit of the record and brings the process full circle. "It's the sound of the childlike spirit from which the record was born, piecing things together in an open state of awe--playing like kids do with sticks, making music out of anything and everything. That track is the original unaltered loop from the first session in the studio--how the record ends is how the record began."
Echoing that cyclical rebirth, Beth looks back fondly on her time spent in Los Angeles. "I don't think I could have made this record in England," she says. "I needed to go somewhere where I had no history in order to relearn it all and to be whoever I was in the moment without any baggage. Quite a lot of growing up went on there--the way I was allowed to let this record happen. And not to say that LA is this magical land of fairies--it certainly isn't. I came up against some brutal people, but it's life. It's a place. Wherever you go, there you are."