William Orbit: Ray of Light “broke all the rules”
20 years ago today, Madonna released with her 7th studio album Ray Of Light. The record, which was helmed by acclaimed producer William Orbit, received widespread praise upon its release and is considered by many as her best and most adventurous album. In 2015, on the album’s 17th birthday, we spoke to Orbit about working on the record.
“It was a long time ago – can you believe it’s been 17 years?” Orbit told Official Charts. “I played all the guitars on that album, which was one of the first times I really showed that I knew how to get a guitar going. It was great to get behind an amp for once because it’s not something I do all the time.”
The album, which was released in March 1998, spent two weeks at Number 1 on the Official Albums Chart and to date has spent 137 weeks in the Top 100 (view its full chart run here). Its sales to date (including album equivalent streams) stands at 1.73 million. “I’m very proud of my work on that record – I think it still holds up today,” Orbit continued. “It still gets mentioned a lot, which always amazes me, even considering the fact it’s Madonna. I mean, you don’t just knock one of those kinds of albums out every year, do you?”
Reflecting on their four and a half months experimenting on sounds together in the studio, the producer said: “I’m not even sure the current environment would allow it now in the pop field. Something has happened to pop music at the moment. Back then, there was no fear. Now, everybody is terrified of doing something different and the music industry is stuck in a rut.”
Orbit believes there were “a lot of parallels between Ray Of Light” and the recent Queen Forever album he co-produced, explaining: “I recently watched back some of Queen’s videos, which were very cutting edge at the time, and there’s a definite parallel between what they were doing there and the mindset me and Madonna had when making Ray Of Light. We got in studio, broke all the rules and didn’t really think about the consequences.”
14 years later, the pair reunited on Madonna’s MDNA album. Orbit is credited on six tracks, but the process, he says, was almost the complete opposite to that of Ray Of Light. “All I’ll say is that MDNA was a very, very different process in all respects to that which we’d employed on Ray Of Light – from artistically, to time management, to technical approach. I’ll let you be the judge of the result, but it was a very different beast to Ray Of Light.”
Did the experience put him off working on pop music for good? “I wouldn’t mind having the chance to go in and lock out the bean counters for a bit and do something different. Right now it feels like the whole music industry is sitting in a corner and rocking itself into a coma. The pop world has become a bit toxic.
“That said, you can’t take the pop out of me. I like risk, and – like with Ray Of Light – when someone wants to make an artistic statement and be bold and experimental, that’s when it’s exciting. That’s really what’s it’s all about.”