William Orbit: The Methods and Machinery behind Madonna’s Ray Of Light
From the original underwear-clad party girl to her latest alter-ego – the all-black and tattooed Veronica Electronica in the “Frozen” video – Madonna has made an indelible time-stamp on history with her ever-changing fashion and musical sensibilities. Some of her expeditions have mined more gold than others, but this time she’s really hit the nail on the head.
Ray of Light (Maverick) is her most mature effort to date, by far. Gone for the most part are the sex-me-up lyrics and sugar—pop productions. The words on Ray of tight reflect a first-time mother’s emotional and spiritual growth. And the productions are stunning… a masterful mix oi spiky synths, chopped samples, and stark orchestration. Just as Bjork did with Mark Bell on Homogenic, Madonna met her magical match in producer/songwriter William Orbit. Followers of experimental electronic music will need no introduction to William Orbit. He’s been breaking boundaries in the ambient underground for years. His Strange Cargo series laid the groundwork for countless modern electronic artists, and his remix list reads like a whos who of rock and pop.
Keyboard was invited to spend an afternoon at 0rbit’s home studio recently… a treat, to say the least. He was remodeling on the day of our interview, so gear was piled waist high and from end to end. It was our first encounter with William, so we didn’t know quite what to expect. Born and bred in England, would he fit the typical British I’d—rather-not-reveal-how-I-make-my-music mold?
Turns out he was anything but tight-lipped, or ordinary. William’s a bit of a rare bird. He’s tall, lanky, gap-toothed, and has a set of quirky, rubbery facial expressions that demand your attention. A genuine character, and with no detectable negative attitude, William is as warm and gentlemanly as they come. But best of all for us keyboard types, he’s a veritable gold mine of electronic music know-how. Years after his entry into the international music scene he remains on the leading edge of the experimental curve, and is as vital now as ever.
“William is a complete madman genius,” according to Madonna. “I’d come to him with an idea of where I wanted to go musically, hum melodies or read lyrics, and then leave him alone in the laboratory. Sometimes he’d go in the direction I wanted and sometimes he’d swerve off somewhere else entirely. We’d end up with trance tracks that were eight minutes long and then keep adding and subtracting until we had real verses and choruses. We really put our noses to the grindstone.”
Despite the fact that Orbit has been on more records than an average musician would in a dozen lifetimes, he’s as passionate about the Ray of Light release as if it were his first. “I don’t mind talking about it at aIl,” he enthuses, “I was so involved in it. I didn’t feel like it was just a gun-for-hire situation. Obviously it was Madonna’s record, but I’m as proud of it as if I’d done it myself.”
When we told him how many spins we’d given the disc already, he smiled and said, “This record is meant to be listened to many times, but the thing I’m pleased about is that it gets some people on the first play. If someone asked me if I preferred to have a record that grabbed people by the balls straight away but became tiresome soon after versus one that took forever to get into but kept people replaying it, obviously I’d go for the latter. And normally I do. But the downside to that is things often don’t ever get heard by anybody that way. The pleasant surprise about this record is that there’s an instantness about it, even though it’s definitely meant to be played over a period of time. Another funny thing is that there lsn’t a consensus on the tracks. People will usually agree broadly on which of the songs they prefer, but here there’s a real admitted division. There are some tracks that people generally like, like ‘Drowned World,’ but there are others that polarize opinion, like ‘Shanti.’ They either play it all the time obsessively or skip it on the CD. There’s been quite a lot of dispute, and it’s been murder choosing singles.”
Speaking of which, “Ray of Light” was picked as the second single to follow the hugely successful debut of “Frozen.” The third single “will probably be ‘Power of Goodbye,'” says Orbit.
Here’s what William had to say about the making of Ray of Light, including how he got the job, how the sessions progressed, and what tools and techniques he used to give Madonna her most mesmerizing sound to date.
Being asked to produce Madonna’s new record must have sent skyrockets shooting in your head. Tell us how you landed this gig?
I was talking to Guy Oseary, who runs Maverick, and he mentioned that Madonna was looking for material. It just so happened I had a lot of tapes of half-formed ideas lying around, so when he asked me to send some stuff over I was happy to just knock off a DAT with miscellaneous bits on it.
Was the DAT well received?
I sent it to her and she was back on the phone within five days. She’d already starting writing to it. So we had a long chat, and I could tell straightaway that she was serious. I’m quite guarded about people who might take the tracks and miss the point, but I knew she got it. And so I went out there and we started working on the album.
Describe the material that was on your demo.
Many of the ideas were fairly formed. The germ of, say, “Drowned World” was on that tape, although if you compare it to what you hear on the album you’ll hear quite a progression. The germ of “Mer Girl” was on that tape. And so she ran with the ball, threw it back to me, and then for the last stage of the project we worked at Larrabee (Studios in Southern California) in a more conventional way.