In Conversation: William Orbit

How the revered producer finally found self-acceptance...

“I’m about to move to Venice for a year,” says William Orbit. “I’m not going for negative reasons – I’m going to paint there. I love the nuances of the colours. I love Italian. Why not? Who doesn’t want to be in Venice?”

Though he is synonymous with his work as a big-name producer for Madonna, U2 and Blur, Orbit prefers to describes himself as a painter as well as a musician. His interest in painting arose as a therapeutic response to a breakdown caused by an archetypal crisis of confidence. Appropriately, his new album – his first for over eight years – is called ‘The Painter’, even though he insists that his two interests rarely, if ever, overlap with one another. 

A perennial collaborator for most of his career, the album features vocal contributions from Georgia, Katie Melua, Polly Scattergood, Beth Orton, Natalie Walker, Ali Love, Orbit’s Torch Song partner Laurie Mayer and others, as well as his trademark approach to lush production. ‘The Painter’ is an album of hopefulness and optimism, a much-needed antidote for a world where positivity seems to be in short supply.

Everything has to start somewhere and ideas don’t form in a vacuum. In the case of ‘The Painter’, the album arose out of specific emotional, mental and creative challenges stretching back years. “In chemistry, when rain precipitates out of water vapour, it needs something to start it,” offers Orbit. “It needs to be seeded with something for that precipitation to begin. And I think that’s the same with all creativity: you need a seed of some kind. It can be an artificial thing or a construct just to get yourself started. It can be a comment by somebody. A brief. It depends on who you are and why you do it, but you do need something to start with. There’s no such thing as a blank piece of paper.”

There was a time when William Orbit could do no wrong. He found his first round of success with Torch Song, the group he formed with Laurie Mayer and Grant Gilbert that signed to Miles Copeland’s IRS imprint in 1983. Orbit was by then already working from his own London studio – Guerilla – and honing his adaptable production style, something that would become increasingly important as the 1980s progressed. After the lights went out on the electronic pop of Torch Song, Orbit made a sharp pivot toward nascent dance music, working with the likes of Mark Moore’s S’Express, Betty Boo and Malcolm McLaren and co-writing and pseudonymously producing Harry Enfield’s novelty dance hit ‘Loadsamoney (Doin’ Up The House)’, before forming his own celebrated dance unit Bassomatic.

In parallel to Bassomatic, Orbit remixed the great, the good and the forgotten. Belinda Carlisle, Seal, Erasure, Prince, Oleta Adams and Depeche Mode all farmed out tracks to Orbit to add his distinctive sonic identity. He was asked to remix Madonna’s controversial ‘Justify My Love’ in 1990, beginning an association that led to his production of her 1997 renaissance album ‘Ray Of Life’ and splitting production duties with Mirwais Ahmadzaï on 2000’s ‘Music’. From there, things snowballed further with production credits for Melanie C, Blur, All Saints, Ricky Martin, P!nk, U2 and many more. To say that Orbit had his fingerprints all over this pivotal period of popular music culture would be a gross understatement.

In Conversation: William Orbit

The old adage goes that the higher you climb, the further you fall. That was what happened to Orbit, by then decamped from London to California. “I didn’t pace myself correctly after that successful period,” he says with a sigh. “It was all going great, but I didn’t pace myself correctly at all. I had no idea how to do it, and I just started to peter out and disconnect. Suddenly I couldn’t get the engagement I wanted. I was getting more frustrated and I just felt less and less relevant. Suddenly it felt like, ‘What’s the point in doing music?’ I always had ideas but I just couldn’t get anybody to work with me. It just felt like I was meeting with a wall of indifference. The pain was getting to me more than I realised, and that’s what set me off feeling bad about myself. Then some other stuff happened in life, and when it all happens at once it can knock you over. And that’s what happened.”

While living in California, William Orbit developed his initial interest in painting. He also gained another passion. “I got into drugs,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I’d never been a drug person. I was always really cautious about drugs. Fortunately, I didn’t get into the addictive ones – that’s a terrible pit that people can fall into. I was taking all the others. It wasn’t like I was trying to fight an addiction. It was just a spiral of overactivity and trying to deal with bad stuff, and getting more and more high, basically, until I was right up there. And then I came out of that and got terribly down.”

Orbit eventually found himself being sectioned and hospitalised. The experience provided the wake-up call he needed to get his life back on track. Painting became an outlet and a form of therapy. His experience and the openness with which he talks about it can be seen as part of a greater spirit of awareness about mental ill health issues in the entertainment industry. “I’m 65,” he says. “My parents’ generation didn’t talk about anything, and I had the kind of upbringing where you just don’t talk about this stuff. You kind of suck it up. A bit of tolerance and a bit of toughness in your system is good, but then it can get to the point where, no, it’s not. If you’ve got broken leg, or you’ve caught pneumonia, you’re not going to suck it up and stay at home – you’re going to get help. Mental health issues are actually harming people and they need to talk about it.”

Given the depths of despair that Orbit found himself in, he regards his recover and ability to function again as a “miracle”. “I can’t quite believe it, to be honest,” he admits. “It was less than two years ago. I’m not gonna let that happen to me again, and I wouldn’t like to see it happen to anybody else around me within my circle. I want to talk about it. I want to help in any way I can.”

It’s easy to see his return to music as part of his process of recovery. It involved going to back to basics, and relearning something that – to anyone charting Orbit’s career – would appear to come completely naturally to him. Specifically, William Orbit re-learned how to use ProTools, the digital audio workstation software he’s been using for decades.

“The more you know, the more you don’t,” he insists. “If you work fast and intuitively you don’t have time to read manuals. When it comes to ProTools, I’m an absolute ninja, but I decided to take a course in how to use it. It was really good to go back to basics. Lesson one asked, ‘What is sound? What is a computer?’ And then three minutes in, it was, ‘Now let’s take a look at the time bar.’ All of this stuff is fundamental, and aimed at people who have no idea how it works, who are coming in completely out of the blue. People like me can benefit from that too, however. I started to think, ‘You know what, I actually could start looking at it that way too. I can really benefit from this.’ It’s a really good thing. I’d recommend anybody do it. It’s fun.”

Going back to first principles and re-learning his craft allowed William Orbit to rediscover his passion for making music again, but without the excessive pressure and expectation that he placed upon himself before his breakdown. “I only need to do this for the beauty of it,” he reflects. “I don’t have to worry about it.” ‘The Painter’ was the product of that realisation.

There are three things that hit you about ‘The Painter’. One is a sense of almost Balearic warmth. “That was really  important,” says Orbit. “I wanted this to sound optimistic and hopeful, like everything’s going to be okay. I really like chill out music, and that was a determining factor in how I approached this album. I made a conscious decision, for the first time ever, that I was going to make a record that was chill out all the way through. I didn’t want to veer anywhere too dark or too far ambient. To me it feels like pre-club music. You know – everybody’s in their hotel rooms or around the pool and they’re all playing this music to get in the mood for going out.”

The other defining characteristic of ‘The Painter’ is its layers. “I really admire musicians who can do something very stripped down,” explains Orbit. “I love tech house. Some of the best tech house is just one excellent sound, and then another excellent sound which together makes a beautiful sequence. It’s dry as a bone and completely in your face. I love it, but I find it difficult to make music like that, because I like to layer things. I want the mystery of the layers interacting with with each other and the happy accidents that happen with that, like different colours of paint mingling into another one. To me that’s like it’s telling me something. It’s very much the same with music, when you see patterns in something that weren’t intended. You get these kinds of clashes, and these moments where things work so harmoniously that you just didn’t see coming.”

Like those colours mixing in with one another, it’s easy to imagine that the process of making music and painting have fused together for William Orbit over time. Though he sees parallels, he also sees them as very separate things. “When I’m making art, I absolutely don’t listen to music,” he insists. “I listen to podcasts or audiobooks. If I listen to music, I want to start thinking about music. When I’m painting, I want to think about what my hands and soul are doing with that art. When it’s music, it’s all about the music.

“The thing is, both the painting and music come from the same creative source – me,” he continues. “A lot of the creative processes that you’re using relate to the other one. Thinking about colour, and form, and texture, and repetition, for example. You’re applying them to both media.”

The final thing that ‘The Painter’ impresses itself upon you is how wonderfully well-connected Orbit is. This might nominally be ‘his’ album, but it is also a brilliant example of his skills as a seasoned collaborator. ‘The Painter’ sees him reuniting with artists that he’s worked with before, like Laurie Mayer and Beth Orton. In contrast to his inhibitions and concerns over being relevant, the album sees Orbit applying his production chops to tracks from a rich seam of newer artists like Natalie Walker and Georgia, the tracks with both being standout moments of a brilliantly diverse album. There is a subtle, chameleonic quality to these productions, as if Orbit is adaptably occupying the sonic territory these artists are used to operating in, while also offering flourishes and reference points that are entirely his own.

“I love to collaborate,” he gushes. “It’s one of the joys of what I do. I love it. I’ve collaborated with people at the top of their game and people you’ve never heard on. It’s all good for me. That said if you work with somebody super famous it can slightly queer the pitch of a record. It becomes all about that. I’m not as impressed by superstar guests just for the sake of it as artists and their labels think I will be. I’m an artist, but I’m also a consumer. I listen to music, but I also buy a lot of music. If somebody’s got lots of famous guests on an album, I’m often like, ‘Yeah, but I just wanted you. I love the famous guests. I can buy their stuff, but I just wanted you this time around.’ So I think you have to be careful that you don’t get derailed by the celebrity lineup.”

The haunting, ephemeral lead single from the album, ‘Colours Colliding’ was recorded with Polly Scattergood, whose work William Orbit has admired for years. I enthusiastically mention how beautifully strange and interesting Scattergood’s voice is. (“You must say, ‘William nodding enthusiastically at what you just said,’ in brackets,” says Orbit.)

“She’s wonderful,” he gushes. “She really, really is. Katie Melua introduced us. I was working in the studio with Katie on her album ‘The House’ in 2010. I hadn’t known Katie for very long when she said, ‘You’ve got to meet my best friend from school. She’s called Polly, and she writes the most amazing melodies, really quickly.” So I met Polly, and then Polly is on the record. Their track together is a new version of a song that originally appeared on Scattergood’s second album, ‘Arrows’, in 2013.

“I obsessed over ‘Colours Colliding’ for a long time,” he admits. “This is one of the few tracks I didn’t instigate. It already had a life of its own. And I’ve obsessed on it for maybe ten years. So when Polly got the call saying that I’d finally done a version of it, I think she must have thought, ‘Oh my god!’ I bet she thought it was just something I’d say I’d get around to but never actually do.”

‘The Painter’ reunites William Orbit with Beth Orton, who he began working with before she’d even decided to become a singer. Orbit recorded some of her very first demos, and worked with on her debut rare-as-hen’s-teeth album from 1993, ‘SuperpinkMandy’.

“Beth’s dream, when I met her, was acting,” he remembers. “She was acting in a play. I went to see this play with some friends and got to know her, and we became friends. And then, typically, because I had a studio at the time, and I was always getting a microphone out, I said, ‘Let’s do something creative.’ And when she sang, I was like, ‘Wow! This is something.’ I’ve just watched her develop to the point where I cannot believe her musicality and guitar playing. Her voice and her writing, her lyrics, and her ability to put a band together is just incredible. It’s just a joy to watch her.”

The William Orbit we find with ‘The Painter’ is a self-portrait of an artist finally at peace with himself, his legacy and his skills. “It’s taken me an awfully long time in my life to not have pressures anymore, and to realise that they’re all self-created,” he reflects. “You learn slowly over life how to just slough off those pressures. It was admittedly bit late in my case.

“With ’The Painter’, I’m re-working all the tracks for either one piano, two pianos, or a piano and string quartet. When you do that, every single note of a melody needs to hold up. It could be perceived as something really simple, but there’s a compositional strength that means it endures for a long, long time. I love to write pieces of music that way. I’ve started to accept the possibility that it’s not presumptuous to think of myself as a composer,” he concludes.

‘The Painter’ will be released on August 26th.

Words: Mat Smith / @MJASmith

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.