all about Madonna

William Orbit on Madonna, Ray Of Light : Keyboard Magazine

When you say “germ,” are you talking about backing tracks with no melodies?

Some had melodic lines, but it really was a whole selection of… It ran all the way from complete tracks, really, to just bare-bones backing tracks on which she subsequently put her lyrics and melodies. They were all different, and that’s why to me the album sounds quite varied. Some people tell me it’s contiguous sounding, but I hear a lot of stylistic variation. The tracks were done in different ways, which I understand isn’t the way Madonna usually works. She normally has a more set approach to making an album. But we didn’t have a strict method of working; we changed it all the time.

Were there preliminary demo sessions before you officially started recording?

We met at her house in New York, and she played me some things that she’d worked on with other people. So we were really just getting in sync with each other at that point. Then we booked time at the Hit Factory in New York City later that week, and that was pretty exciting because that was the first time I heard her sing her parts. And so we proceeded to go through the tracks and rough out what we were going to do.

Were all of your keyboards set up in the studio at that point?

No. Everything was mainly on tape. We were focusing on vocals during those sessions. It wasn’t until later that I went back to England, packed up my gear, and brought it over.

And what gear was that?

How did I know you would ask me that? Oh, it’s all in a pile there if you wanna look at it . It’s not a ton of gear. Most of it is pretty retro; a Korg MS-20, a [Roland] Juno-106, a [Roland] JD-800. Much of the album was done on a Juno-106. You can get so much out of that synth. Also a significant amount of it was done on the MS-20 – the more spiky sounds. A few things that people think are guitar are actually the MS-20. And then there were a few more bits and pieces: a few modules, a Yamaha DX7, a Novation Bass Statlon, a [Roland] JP-8000, a lot of Roland stuff. I’ve always liked Roland stuff.
I have to say, I don’t consider myself a keyboardist at all. You know, I’m a two-fingered virtuoso. Wax pencils play a large part in my playing. I draw on the keys, and I use them to label what I’m doing – what samples are assigned to what key, and so on. Sequencing plays a large part, obviously.

Madonna - Keyboard / July 1998

What sequencer did you use on this record?

I started the whole thing on an Atari [ST] system with [Steinberg] Cubase II, I didn’t know that was unusual until about two-thirds of the way through, when people would comment on it. At one point the thing even caught fire. Really. Smoke coming out of it. It was like, “What’s that smell? Oh, it’s burning components.” But the funniest memory was Madonna, who doesn’t do a lot keyboard playing, messing around on a keyboard marked up with grease pencils. I mean, picture Madonna, the biggest pop star in the world, playing with this retro gear that you could buy for $50 in the Recycler. Later in the project, when Marius Devries (of Massive Attack fame) came in to work on a couple of tracks, I was blown away by what he was doing in [Digidesign] Pro Tools. I bought my own system soon after that and now I can’t leave it alone. My friends Rico Conning and Damian Wagner were around a lot during the Larrabee sessions doing additional programming work.

Madonna has said in other interviews that this record was painfully slow to make.

[Laughs] Indeed. It took a long time to do the album, months. And it wasn’t like we were slacking, but there were so many details going in. We actually did have to work fast, and there were many times when we had to move on. One of Madonna’s favorite phrases was: “Don’t gild the lily.” In other words, keep it rough, and don’t perfect it too much. It’s a natural urge for computer buffs to perfect everything because they can, and we were very wary of that. By perfecting, you can lose the character of it, and she always had an eye out for that.

Let’s dissect a couple of songs from Ray of Light.

Sure, but it’s important to point out that they were all done differently. There’s nothing wrong with making albums in a formulated way, but in this instance, it definitely wasn’t that way. It was serendipity. At first I was only in there to do a couple of tracks. It wasn’t clear that I was going to do the whole album, and that, again, led to the sort of disarray with the way it was conducted.