Just how much of a mad professor is William Orbit? This is Mixmag’s second time sitting down with this most scientific of dance music producers, and yet again, it’s a conversational delight from start to finish. In 2022, he may be a 65-year-old pop and dance music oracle but thanks to his early work in 90s outfit Bassomatic, his solo record 'Strange Cargo' and later LP production for Blur and Beth Orton, he’s never lost his relevance as a top tier producer.
Aside from his exciting imminent move to Venice, William has one other musical manoeuvre up his sleeve — the arrival of a new solo album, his first in eight years. Like Madonna, Orbit has also returned to his major label motherland at Warner Records, and that’s where we meet for the interview. Big and bold, ‘The Painter’ is a beautiful piece of work that’s already been preceded by the sweet and artistically apt first single ‘Colours Colliding’ with Polly Scattergood. The album is also an emotional outpouring of art for William, who also designed and painted all of the record's blue-hued artwork.
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Elsewhere on the new record, he’s also collaborated with Domino’s synth-pop queen Georgia, Colorado trip hopper Natalie Walker and Ghanaian-American sound engineer, singer and songwriter Gloria Kaba. With his space-exploring moniker appearing on over 200 million record sales to date, William is no slouch in the production department and while he’s always happy to look back, ‘The Painter’ shows that his easel is always looking ahead to what’s coming next.
Hello William, we’re back in the room again! Today my prop is a copy of ‘Justify My Love’, which has your name on the front sleeve as a remixer: was this the jump-off point for you and Madonna?
It was! I’d been working with Warner, with Rob Dickins who was the then CEO, he said: “you should make a connection with Madonna,” which at that time was going to be a remix. The multitrack recording came through and I did what I do. I remember getting a call from Lenny Kravitz, literally ringing me to say “I got your number – it was on this cassette – thanks for making my vocals sound so good on this track!” I said, “Lenny, they were wonderful vocals” and he was very pleased. I subsequently found Lenny to be one of the best people in the world at what they do. We both worked together, so to speak, when we both did performance for Madonna. I had seen him at work in the studio but he came down to the Rainforest Fund Benefit that Sting did at Carnegie Hall in 2010 where Lenny was on guitar. Standing astride Madonna as only he can do. Me tapping away at the keyboards in the background and thinking: “Lenny’s playing my chords!” Such a great guy and very, very supportive.
So that cassette was quite important.
Yes! And then as you did in those days, you left your number on the cassette box and I wrote that on there. What happened was I did another mix for Madonna, through the same channels, for ‘Erotica’, afterwards when I was in LA, Rob Dickins said: “go and see Freddie DeMann. Freddie was Madonna's manager in the early days — I played him 'Water From A Vine Leaf', and he said: “This is the kind of track Madonna would love in the gym!” Around ‘96, I made a record I thought would be a new Strange Cargo record but wasn’t and it wasn’t connecting with Warner so the suggestion was, "Why don’t you send it out to Madonna?" I didn’t follow up. Later I got a call from Madonna saying “I finally got the tapes you sent! Very late, what’s that all about!” Very Madonna. She said: "I think we’ve got something." So they sorted me a flight and hotel and it all started from there. We recorded at The Hit Factory in New York as if it was a thing that was ordained. An incredible musical experience from the get-go.
You also remixed another Balearic record I loved in 1990, called ‘Rhythm Of Life’.
Oleta Adams! Yes. [Sings] I can bring the whole thing to life in my head just like that. It was never a hit.
And then came Prince, of course.
I did those with Mark Moore from S Xpress. We did ‘Electric Chair’ and ‘The Future’ and ‘Batdance’. It was very exciting to do that. I never met Prince but I did become good friends – and still am to this day – with Wendy Melvoin [AKA guitarist Wendy of Wendy And Lisa], who I think is the most marvelous musician.
And now you’re back on Warner, and we are here.
It does feel like family. I just really enjoy being on the label, there’s no where else I want to be now.
Why did you decide to come back?
We did the Anjunadeep thing (‘Starbeam’) which was brilliant and then I spoke to Warner who were immediately interested and we decided to pick up where we left off.
You did the artwork on ‘The Painter’ too.
I know! I never learned so much about layout. I became a painter! Which is what I do, even though it’s not something I am known for. I thought what better place to put all this out that on a beautiful piece of vinyl artwork, what better way to manifest?
Was it a joy making this record?
A joy from start to finish. Even doing the metadata, I love it all.
We hear you’re moving to Venice next.
I haven’t been abroad for three years but I am moving to Venice. No billboards! No crazy cyclists on the roads! Beautiful colours everywhere in the city of love! I am going to explore my Italian heritage. I went out there for the first time when I drove down to Venice and stopped off and fell in love with the city in a nanosecond with all of its glory. I was on a gondola and I was looking at antique properties and I decided to put down a footprint here immediately. It’s the perfect place. I never think far when I make plans for life. Anything can happen at the drop of a hat in my life, which is exciting and I like it that way. I am surrounded by people I trust.
Let’s talk about Polly Scattergood, who sings ‘Colours Colliding’.
Well, Katie Melua came out of the blue first way back when. I produced her album and she said you must meet my best friend Polly and she is one of the most unique voices. The song she’d already written ten years ago and I am bringing it back — anyone who knows me will say: “I know this tune!” and that’s because I have been singing it everywhere. Polly has something natural and unique and so right for Jools Holland. I found a new side to Polly. We’ve got 4 Brit School alumni on there.
It seems like when you meet creative people, you put them in your pocket?
I like that - absolutely. It could be two decades. Something happens. And you’re right, I love to curate people and I love to see people at their best. I’m a professional creative and my fascination is people from all walks of life. Creativity is about mitigating mortality, whether we are religious or not. And what’s more creative than creating a family? Any mother does that from the nursery. And there are other creative ways but there is also service: people who are of service, especially if they are looking after people’s wellbeing. So kindness is fundamental.
Do you have a radar about these things?
These are very interesting questions! First of all, musicians can spot other musicians at the airport. And the other thing is just recently, there have been people who just had a certain demeanour and I thought we would both benefit from a hello. A couple of times when I did make that effort, it was wonderful to have an interaction. You just have to be open. And you must have no fear.
‘The Painter’ by William Orbit is out on August 26th 2022
Ralph Moore is Mixmag's Music Director, follow him on Twitter