William Orbit interview: the pop pioneer on Madonna, Harvey Weinstein and coming back from the brink

Musician, composer and producer William Orbit - Pester PR
Musician, composer and producer William Orbit - Pester PR

For the past two-and-a-half decades, William Orbit has been considering everything that went wrong. After producing Madonna’s career-defining 1998 album Ray Of Light, earning multiple Grammys, and selling hundreds of millions of records, he went into the millennium positioned to be the pop doyen of the 2000s. But in the years that followed, Orbit felt his relevance waning. Losing himself to a fog of inconsequentialism, he steadily lost faith in his own power and ability to impact the world with his art. “My downfall began quite soon after 2000, the end of my purple period,” he says on a call from Venice, where he now lives; enunciating each word like a thespian.

For years, he avoided his studio “my lovely, beautiful refuge”, to the point where he couldn’t open its door without feeling sick. “I’d allowed myself to be strong-armed into doing things that wore me out. I should have taken a holiday. It’s exactly the thing I advise other artists. It’s exactly the thing I wish Amy Winehouse would have done.”

Following decades of depression and disillusionment – which eventually resulted in a major psychotic break – at 65, Orbit is experiencing a period of creative rebirth and artistic redemption. The Painter, his first solo album in almost a decade, is the product of this reemergence. With appearances from recurring collaborators Beth Orton and Katie Melua, as well as new friends, including Canadian-Colombian talent Lido Pimienta The Painter is still decidedly, fixedly the sound of Orbit. “It’s so me,” he says, “there’s no broad sweep in styles; I did exactly what would bring me happiness.” It’s an album that recalls his earlier sound.

Orbit was born William Wainwright to two school teachers in Palmers Green London and, after busking around Europe, opened his own studio. His breakout hit was, rather surprisingly, Harry Enfield’s legendary Loadsamoney (Doin’ Up The House). Since then Orbit’s music has always brought together contrasting elements: the acoustic with the electronic; the ancient with the futuristic. With a vision distinctly his, any pop star who’s been within his orbit has emerged with a unique product. Listen to Feel Good Time by P!NK, to Pure Shores by All Saints, to Electrical Storm by U2 – and you’ll hear these major pop acts like you’ve never heard them before: spiritually expansive, globally influenced, drenched in romance and dreams.

Indeed, few have transposed the psychedelia of romance into sound like Orbit. That moment as you fall in love, when everything around you seems to speed up and judder, and the little globe which contains you and your beloved has you landlocked in a times-topping reverie: That moment is a William Orbit song. Orbit makes music in a romantic tradition. (Romance, in this sense, meaning both an immediate beeline to the heart, as well as a Beethovian sense of drama). “I see my songs as a play with characters going in and out of battle scenes and reflective scenes. Everything is drama,” he says. “And I’m always trying to get back to that dream-like place.”

Promotional art for Orbit’s new album, The Painter - Pester PR
Promotional art for Orbit’s new album, The Painter - Pester PR

Orbit’s own dreams are narrative-driven and complex. “I love it when you drift off to sleep and there comes a point where your thoughts decide themselves – that’s how I like the music to feel as well,” he says. “Because I am in a dream state when I do it. No matter how technical it is, pushing faders around and twanging guitars, there comes a point when there is definitely a dream state.”

In a 2019 interview with Mojo, Madonna – apparently, one of the most dreamed about celebrities – complained about Orbit’s sleeping habits in the studio. “He napped too much,” she said. “Oh, come on!” Orbit responds when I put the remark to him. “I like to take naps but that was in place of proper sleep. It was exhausting.” But Madonna, he concedes, had to crack the whip. “Madonna can be very pushy. She’s the pushiest. I celebrate it because that’s how we got the album done.”

In the early nineties, Orbit had been making a name for himself in the ambient and electronic underground at a time when the pop world and the alternative were barely in conversation beyond remixes (something which Orbit did prolifically, putting his spin on the likes of Prince, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk). He was a rogue choice, then – to say the least – for Madonna’s seventh album. A fan of his remixes of her own material, Madonna brought Orbit to a studio in Burbank, Los Angeles, where they buried themselves for a period of several weeks.

They emerged with Madonna’s most critically acclaimed album to date. Towards the end of the decade, Ray of Light helped to forge a clearer bridge between the mainstream and alternative. It wasn’t such a jump, then, when Blur asked him to produce their sixth album 13 almost immediately after.

Fourteen years later, Orbit had a moment of deja vu as Madonna asked him to help produce her 12th album MDNA, and Blur asked for his services soon after. Neither project brought him anywhere near the success of his purple period.

Madonna flew Orbit out to her studio in New York while she worked on W.E., the album’s complementary film, which came executively produced by Harvey Weinstein. “He had a terrible energy; dark and oppressive and adversarial,” Orbit says. “Madonna can hold her own with anybody, but she was on foreign turf. she’d come in every day after a screening with him and I think it informed her mood during the album making, I think it affected it. It was quite stressful.” No singles ever emerged from the album; Orbit’s work was treated as an afterthought. “I have mixed feelings about that record,” he says. Meanwhile, his work with Blur never saw the light of day.

A year later, Britney Spears brought him in to produce a track named Alien for her eighth album Britney Jean (a song which soon became one of her favourites). “Yes, she liked to play that one live a lot and she liked to call me up,” says Orbit. The two of them had been friendly for at least a decade prior to working together. Spears would take trips to see him in London, where “she was very gracious with her American twang and my Englishness.” He describes the experience of working on Alien as a “dark environment”.  But “Britney,” he says, “I love you. I think you’re terrific.”

In the mid-2010s, Orbit’s work dried up. He began taking on songwriting-for-hire jobs and quickly became disillusioned with his impulse to make music. “I’d send tracks to people and then I wouldn’t hear back, so I became increasingly indifferent,” he says. “I’m an artist. A comedian who goes on-stage and gets less laughs starts to wilt. An actor who’s not getting the parts, they lose mojo. That was happening to me. My personality’s tied up with my creativity and reaching people, connecting with people. It wasn’t happening so my personality was wilting.”

‘This is the happiest time of my life’: Orbit says he has found some peace - Pester PR
‘This is the happiest time of my life’: Orbit says he has found some peace - Pester PR

Orbit was left without any confidence or self-worth, something he puts down to his childhood. “It wasn’t a happy one,” he says. “That can affect you as you grow up. It’ll ambush you unless you get on top of it.” For Orbit, the wall of dejection and indifference became insurmountable.

His studio in Los Angeles, which faced the water on Venice Beach went long unattended. With the waves knocking at the rocks on which it stood, “everything corroded,” he says. “The ocean corroded my music.” For three years, he painted furiously instead. “It was at a time when I felt that no matter what I did it was just invisible. It took away a bit of my force.”

In his early sixties, he turned to drugs for the first time since he was 17. “I had a try of them again and it wasn’t horrible, it was kind of fun.” Orbit, who describes himself as “all or nothing with these things” experienced a series of psychotic episodes, until he was eventually sectioned under the mental health act. He remembers sitting on a gurney for 24 hours in the A&E ward at St. Mary’s in Paddington. “I was out of the way, observing,” he says. “It was one of the happiest times of my life,” That sense of divine purpose and manic euphoria soon dissipated, and Orbit crashed.

“Now I’m slowly coming back to a steady state. This is the happiest time of my life, but it’s not a crazy, manic happiness. It’s measured,” he says. Today, he credits much of that happiness to everything he got wrong during his purple period. “I had Grammys, I had multi-million selling records, critical acclaim, big bucks, total focus... not this time around, this is much more subtle. I feel the same purpleness – but it’s a brighter, happier purple, and I’m really enjoying the process.”

The Painter is out August 26 via Warner