William Orbit
Photo by Evapix

William Orbit: “I’m absolutely open”

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Short Profile

Name: William Mark Wainwright
DOB: 15 December 1965
Place of birth: Shoreditch, London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Musician, record producer

William Orbit's new album The Painter is out now via Warner Music.

Mr. Orbit, you’ve worked as a musician, a music producer, a composer, and an artist. Does it sometimes feel like you’ve lived several different lives in one?

I do dwell on that thought sometimes, and it does feel like that very much so. I mean, my life up to the age of 16, and my life before I studied music between the ages of 17 to 23, were very different. And then at 23, getting into music where it paid rent and I didn't have to do anything else to earn a living, that feels like a different life, too. Within music especially, there's been definitely three or four utterly, utterly separate mindsets.

Are you nostalgic for those earlier, younger lives?

Well, the age thing… You don't realize at the time, but the reason why all the doors were open was because of that. I certainly didn't realize it, I had no idea at the time. You can hear it, it can't be faked. I don't know what it is, I’ve tried to deconstruct it many times… There's something fearless in it. And I do feel very fearless at the moment. I'm aware that I'm not going to sound young on my new record, The Painter, no one's going to listen to it thinking, "Ah, that's a 23 year old’s music," that isn’t going to happen. But I do feel the same sense of fearlessness as I did when I was younger. And I've only ever had that a few times in my life.

“When you’re working, you just don’t get musical disagreements. It’s so rare. It doesn’t happen because you’re in this common cause.”

How was it to collaborate with so many artists for this album — rather than collaborating with them on their music, like when you were producing and remixing for artists like Blur, Queen, and Prince?

Making the album, the whole thing has been fun and it came really easy. I’ve never had so much fun in life, working with my favorite singers who gave me their best stuff. Collaboration gives me a great gift. I know what I want, and I'm very clear. And I know that they know I know what I want! But I'm absolutely open. I'm very diplomatic. There’s never a disagreement. When you're working, you just don't get musical disagreements, maybe in some cases you might get procedural disagreements, technically speaking; but musically speaking, it's so rare. It doesn't happen because you're in this common cause. Musicians are great communicators, you know, someone will tell you, “Oh, it needs to sound like butterflies kissing concrete." And you’re like, “Oh, okay. Got it!”

Apparently artists would sometimes just hum a melody to you, and you could make a song out of that.

I love that. Acapella, you know? Hum a melody and a lyric into a phone and send it to me on a file and I'll just be in heaven, cloaking it in majesty. So working with singers in this case, they were all great, we had some fun times. And working with a label, it's been a joy. I think that’s good, you know, you have to have a feeling for it. I don't want to sound smug, but I mean, I'm in a very good place. Because for a while, I was really just fed up with the wall of difference.

You mean that you felt that people were apathetic towards your work for a time?

I honestly thought that it was all over! For the first time in my life I just thought, "The thing I've always taken for granted seems to have left me," and it was devastating, actually. There were times where I couldn't even bear to look at a studio. The laptop that I use stayed firmly closed under a pile of books. I'm never short of ideas but the idea of manifesting them just seemed irksome… I had a lack of confidence. And the last time I felt this way was in 1996, when little did I know what was coming.

That was leading up to your production of Madonna’s Grammy-winning album, Ray of Light, right?

Yes, that was leading up to Ray of Light. I didn't know it at the time, of course but I felt that similar unbridled sense of it all flying away, with or without me. At that time, I was full of life’s fucked-up-ness, and I wasn't able to really get the best out of it. Unlike now, as you know, an elderly statesman, now I've figured out how to enjoy the process. I’ve still maybe got that same wall of indifference, but I just don't care anymore. It doesn't bother me. My only enduring hope is that other people don't have to last so long before they figure this out. There's no need to suffer for your art, at all. I think suffering for your art is a good story, but I just don't think it applies.

“When you’re on the crest of a wave, you don’t know in which direction the path is leading off. But you know what? You just go down it.”

What was it that changed your mind and helped you put that wall of indifference to the side?

That’s a tough one. I don't know… There’s an artist called Maeve that I sort of signed up, nurtured her with her music; she's a terrific songwriter. And I said I would work with her, so I had to flip open my laptop! I decided to learn how to use some different software and when I did that, it started to click, just slowly! The process of things coming back, it's got a momentum of its own, like a snowball: “I did something today that I've never done before, and I enjoyed it.” And just like that, that can set the movement rolling in the right direction again. I think life is a series of waves, and there's always a crest of a wave, the high point in the curve. When you're on the crest of a wave, you don't know in which direction the path is leading off, and it's probably not a straight one anyway. But you know what? You just go down it.

Does the certainty of that uncertainty make it easier to try things out musically without worrying about what will happen?

Honestly, I regard the whole of life as one giant improv session! Simple as that. But at the time of making a song, none of us actually have that clarity to worry about how we’ll look back at it. So the time is always of the moment. For me, looking back now, I'm happy with most of it. What I don't like is my really early stuff, you know, often you look back at an artist’s early stuff and it's got a spark, it's got something! Mine is terrible!

You once said that your work from the eighties features this classic snare drum sound that you now find unbearable.

(Laughs) Drums are the age giveaway to music! So when I’m not paying attention to drums too much, I'm happier. Funnily enough about the eighties; I don't listen to music in life normally, I just don't, but riding around in taxis, you do, they’re always playing magic FM type of thing. Eighties song after eighties song. You find yourself singing them, but there's always this snare drum — it's like that was the only snare we had!

Have you ever heard your own music in a taxi?

Oh, it happens, of course! Sometimes I'm watching a TV show and I'm getting a familiar feeling, I'm getting déjà vu… And it's because, oh, that's my music! (Laughs) But now I can look back on a good one and enjoy it.