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15 November 2022

William Orbit: “If you confound Madonna, a red mist comes down”

The producer worked his magic with Britney Spears, All Saints and Blur. In his sixties a drug binge and breakdown forced him to reassess.

By Kate Mossman

It was summer 2011 in New York and Madonna and William Orbit were hard at work on a song called “Gang Bang”. The studio near Times Square was tucked away behind a soup kitchen. As evening drew in Madonna announced that she had been advised to see a sunset, because she was taking a flight the next day. Orbit understood this to be an instruction from one of her many gurus. The ladders to the studio roof were rusty and vertical: as her small feet scaled them, he became convinced she was going to slip and die on his watch. They could not see the sun through the water tanks of the Manhattan skyline, so they climbed down and headed east instead. Madonna tarried near the theatres of Broadway, hiding behind tourists with her hood up, and singing show-tunes.

They saw the sunset from a traffic island in the middle of Fifth Avenue, but when they returned to the studio Orbit discovered the trip had been a ruse. In his absence, an engineer had got into “Gang Bang” and changed his beats. “Musicians have this skilful, passive-aggressive way of asserting themselves,” he says. “All you had to do, Madonna, was ask me. You know, sometimes, there are looks you never forget? I still remember the look of triumph on her face.” The dynamic between megastars and superproducers is mysterious, but it is surprising to hear that Madonna would go to such lengths to avoid her own getting into a strop.

Orbit stands in socks in the headquarters of Dolby Sound, in Soho, purveyors of agonisingly loud cinema. His silver forelock gives him a certain boyishness but his right arm is frozen from an injury caused by carrying a heavy shopping bag. His bicep does not work – he demonstrates, lifting right arm with left, as though animating the hand of a puppet.

A few months back a walking stick arrived in the post for Orbit from Japan, a gift from a fan. In that country, he explains, this was seen as a gesture of respect. But Orbit wrote back explaining that the crooked head of the cane reflected, to his mind, disability, whereas a Gandalf-style staff would suggest strength: the Japanese fan, a craftsman, is making him one of those.

At Dolby, in advance of a multimedia launch of his new album The Painter, Orbit shifts himself into his leather jacket to avoid the air conditioning. His lunch is an entire bar of Green and Black’s chocolate. He has an unusual way of mirroring back what you say to him, allowing you to finish his sentences, but he is jumpy from not being allowed to smoke in the studio. He carries a notepad and writes down orders with a thick pencil: “Get more wipes for iPads!”

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Although we are here to talk about music (“my album is a grower, not a shower!”) the room is hung with the paintings he’s made in the last four years. One shows a mixing desk looking out on an intergalactic nightscape, an oxygen tank on the floor, out of which reach the tentacles of an octopus. In the hot seat, where there should be a producer, is the silhouette of a hunched man made of white powder – “I was quite powdery at that point,” he says. He applied the powder with a catapult, but he won’t tell me if it’s real cocaine. Is this what it feels like, sitting in his studio? “It’s exactly what it feels like,” he says. “I didn’t start to enjoy my life until two years ago. If you write this up a certain way I’m going to come across as a really bitter saddo.”

When Orbit would DJ at the Buckingham Palace staff party, he was given his own liveried footman, who presented him with a CD of the National Anthem to play at 11pm (the queen always left the party at nine). He found the experience interesting because it was one of the few times he wasn’t allowed to mix the track: “No echoes. Exactly the right speed!” 

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These days he is troubled by the fact that he has too many projects – “I confuse people.” If only he was good at one thing, he says, he would be so happy. Yet Orbit is one of a handful of producers whose sound was so tangible, so based in melody and songwriting, that he became a star alongside Madonna, whose late Nineties redesign – the warm, technicolour, cowgirl Madonna – he oversaw with “Ray of Light”, “Beautiful Stranger” and “America Pie”. Then there was “Pure Shores” by All Saints, the millennium’s dream pop, encapsulating that strange moment when everyone on the plane to Thailand was reading The Beach, and book and film and soundtrack merged just like Tilda Swinton and Leonardo DiCaprio under the sea. Blur and Britney had Orbit too. His PR could not find a synonym for the word “quintessential” when writing the press release for his new album, so many times did he have to describe the familiar golden sound. If only he were good at one thing

William Orbit’s rock and roll life appears to have run back to front. Three years ago, at the age of 61, he had his first major drugs binge. He had returned to London, where he was born, from Los Angeles, where he had lived for many years in some obscurity, and took up residence in the Leonard Hotel near Hyde Park: the Michelin starred restaurant Locatelli was his room service. He had his own house five minutes’ walk away in Connaught Square, near Tony Blair’s, but he only used it as a lock-up.

“Living in hotels is the finest thing,” he says. “You’re in a womb that’s going along 24 hours a day. You get your sheets changed whenever you want to: whoever has that? And when people come and see you, and they’re treated well, because it’s a hotel.”

Around this period he began, in his own words, to become a little “over-excited” about a few projects. “There’s things you can look out for. One is delusions of grandeur. It’s good to have overconfidence, I suppose. It’s good to have vaulted ambitions. But there comes a point: ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t real…’ ” He bought a large house in Ripley, Surrey, and envisioned opening a kind of retreat there. When his plan collapsed, Orbit – who, as you’ll have gathered, is firmly ensconced in the establishment – moved to Chipping Norton to live in the cheese farm of his friend Alex James from Blur.

At several festivals that summer, with Chipping Norton friends, he started to take a lot of cocaine: to his surprise and delight he discovered that it made him find other people more interesting (“No one ever says that about cocaine!”). Weed, ketamine and acid followed, and after entering a fugue state one night he ended up in hospital in Bambury. Later, he had a full blown breakdown on Praed Street in Paddington, believing he was a special agent sent to protect Prince Harry (“This was before Harry and Meghan left the royals,” he points out). He was sectioned in St Mary’s Hospital for 28 days. “I was so disappointed in myself. I felt I was just nothing.” After a long recovery, and on the cusp of his 12th album, he moved again, to Venice.

I called him there, on Zoom, after our London meeting and he was visibly more relaxed. He picked up his laptop, and a tapestry with unicorns and medieval maidens flashed briefly on the screen as he angled it out of the window to show Campo San Polo, the second largest square after St Mark’s, with al fresco lunchers and a 16th-century church. “There is a sonorousness to the bells in Italy,” he says. “I’ve been in villages in England where they’re out of tune, and it kills me.” He has recorded the bells with ProTools.

[See also: PJ Harvey on superstition, dialect and poetry]

Why Venice? “LA is slow, you know, and there’s family in London and it got a bit complicated, whereas here… I just wanted to be somewhere beautiful, Kate.”

Orbit is trying to find relatives here. His Italian grandfather was a car mechanic who emigrated to England in the Thirties and worked in the Hornchurch aerodrome, fixing up planes for the Royal Airforce. His uncle served in the Special Boat Service aged 18 “in these bloody horrible, smelling-of-fart-and-diesel things. He was not emotionally suited to it.” His mother’s other brother became a leading physicist at the Trinity College Cavendish labs in Cambridge.

His parents were teachers in Palmers Green, north London – a headmistress and a head of English. It is a classic post-war story in one sense: leaving working class roots to shift up the scale meant drawing a line under the past. But in talking to Orbit I am reminded of others of his generation – writers, creatives – who could not secure their parents’ approval or interest in their work, not just at the start when they were struggling artists but well into millionairedom – a frustating, confusing lack of recognition: “They got bang into the middle of middle class and when they got there, they fought for it. Pop music was a threat. There was a giant void between the post-war generation and the boomers, a generation gap there had never been before, and there never would be again. Imagine having parents that liked what you do…”

 In some, it was something to kick against but in William Orbit, at 65, it is an open wound, blurring the line between child and successful, adult self. In our forty-minute interview he uses the phrase “my fault” eight times.

“Until recently, if a door slammed somewhere I thought someone was angry with me. I get very happy when I overhear a parent talking with their child in a respectful way. But sometimes you think, ‘No, no, don’t talk to your children like that, it’s not their fault.’ I’d tell my teachers that I hated my mother, and nobody thought to look into it.”

His brother Nick is a scientist, working in the research labs at Hewlett-Packard. He has, Orbit tells me, never uttered the title of a piece of music he has written, or even said the word “Grammy”, for that matter.

“An aggressive lack of interest, a weaponised thing,” he says. “I always think, when you’re trying to gauge these very difficult family things, you have to look at the metrics. Let’s tabulate certain things that are irrefutable. Has this person ever mentioned your children? How many times have you mentioned their children? There’s a lot in this column and not a lot in that column, and that’s bad. It took me 50 years to see it. You buy into it, you think it’s your fault.”

Two years ago he cut his brother out of his life. “Oh dear, I do wish I had prepared for this interview,” he says, putting his head in his hands. “I had this vast cloud of thoughts about it and I coalesced it down to something very simple: ‘William, if you can just get it down to two or three sentences that explain it – say about that thing about metrics – in a clear, simple way.’ Maybe I could send you an email, just to follow up…”

When Orbit hit upon the sound that became “Ray of Light” he had been working with Madonna for a month, just the two of them, and had been issued with several notice periods. The moment came during a jam: him on guitar “and a Korg MS20 with no midi,” he says, getting excited. “Record it fast because the sound will change in an hour as the oscillator heats up. It was completely analogue, patch chords, everything. Spontaneous, just with echo. It turned everything around. I knew I had a job. I was being fired every day. But her brother was nodding away.”

He recently did a DJ mix of the song in Dolby Atmos and came across old tapes with Madonna breaking out into opera after the vocal, which she achieved in just one take. Exhausted from the recording period, Orbit developed serious flu and decided to go at it, not with rest but by working with Madonna’s hot yoga teacher.

He was taken on by a new American manager as his career rocketed. “I was almost begging him, ‘Please, let me have some time off,’ and I don’t know why I had such little self-confidence. That’s what I always thought about Amy Winehouse: could she not be on a beach somewhere, getting bored? Getting a suntan, getting restless, thinking up new tunes, can’t wait to get back in the studio but on her own time? Why should she rush? But the people on trickle-down never allow that to happen, they need to keep the mill turning, and when somebody says, ‘If you stop, you’ll lose everything,’ we believe that.”

[See also: Surrender: praying in the church of Bono]

Orbit got his break from Miles Copeland, the music mogul who launched Jools Holland and the Police (whose drummer, Stewart Copeland, was his brother). I called Copeland in the south of France, where he spoke from his den. He remembered a “tall nerd”, one member of the electronic trio Torch Song, in the early Eighties; he was blown away by what Orbit had done with their track “Prepare To Energize”, working on a little eight-track system in his squat in Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill.

“I re-recorded it on a 24-track for thousands of pounds, and the version everyone listens to, to this day, is the demo,” he says. “He is one of the few people I’ve come across in my career who I’d describe as a genius. He had an awareness of playing with space and time that I’ve only ever heard in one act before, and that was Pink Floyd.”

Producers have a magician air about them, I suggest to Orbit: they make gold out of an ordinary song. “I’m hard-working and diligent. I’m really good at details, and I get flashes of inspiration, that’s it,” he says. “That may account for my huge body of work – I got through it being unsettled in myself for so long.

“Luckily I’m at the stage where I can enjoy it. People say, ‘When’s the wedding?’ They assume I’ve got someone new, but I haven’t! It’s self-awareness! Disconnecting from family expectations, and realising that it’s not all your fault.” He prefers hearing his hits in shops because no one is paying attention. “In Whole Foods in Kensington they often play ‘Ray of Light’, and I rather like it.”

Orbit was recently contacted by a production company wanting to pitch him as a kind of Grayson Perry of music, for a series on Netflix or BBC: “Drawing lines between topics that people haven’t necessarily seen, fresh territory, not walking around waving my arms.” You can imagine this. Orbit is an intellectual without snobbery, and his Palmers Green accent is comforting. He had been considering their proposal when we met in London. “But they won’t know what’s hit ‘em!” he said.

He had reimagined the series, and wanted access to a serving Navy attack submarine for an episode on subsonic sound (“it’s not impossible”). The final episode would be about a “huge popstar”. He wanted Britney: “I don’t want Madonna, there would always have to be negotiation. If you confound her, a red mist comes down and it’s a battle. It needs to be someone who is part of the machine – I love working with actors, they have been trained since birth to do what they’re told. I worked with Gwyneth once and she actually needed me to shout action.” He is waiting to hear back on his proposal.

His PA buzzes the intercom. He’ll meet her down in the café in the square, he says. “I’ll have octopus. Actually salmon and chips.” He will give his Venice flat over to Italian relatives for the whole of October while he travels to Austria. “Well at this age you can choose your family, can’t you?”

The album reviews were good but he doesn’t seem bothered. If he could do three things forever, he told me in London, he would continue his epic poem about the 16th-century pageant the Field of Cloth of Gold (“I can write that up in pretty decent iambic”), get a radio show and do more paintings. He showed me his cross section of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress American bomber ridden by an orchestra of fantastical, Boschian animals. He traced the painting with his thumb. He’d give this one to his daughter, he said, who was born when he was 19. “If people told me, ‘I’d like to have that on my wall’,” he added, “I’d set about doing only that for a year. And I’d be so happy.”

“The Painter” by William Orbit is out now on Universal

[See also: The high-art cabaret of Christine and the Queens’ Redcar]

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