Songwriter, musician and all-round chart supremo of four decades, William Orbit has clearly lost neither his producerly nouse, nor his knack for a good story. His new album, ‘The Painter’, is a wistful, hypnotic and thoroughly immersive voyage into sound

As you might expect from an album called ‘The Painter’, William Orbit’s first long-player in over eight years is suffused with vibrancy and colour… although light cannot exist without darkness. Its origins lie in the epiphany the feted musician and producer experienced while staying at Two Bunch Palms Resort in Desert Hot Springs, California, a wellness retreat once infamous as a hideout for America’s most notorious gangster.

“It was actually established by Al Capone,” says Orbit, sitting adjacent to me at his Bayswater apartment in central London, between us a long coffee table loaded with sundry recording devices. “He would go out there when the train lines were opened up and kick back without the risk of getting gunned down in the streets of Chicago. I’m not big on crystals and all that, but it was a magical nexus with a native indigenous population long before the invading Westerners came. And here it is now, this lovely place with the spa and the pool and all the usual things.”

Yet, having gone there in an attempt to quit smoking, Orbit was feeling too prickly to indulge in the usual benefits of a health retreat. So his companions suggested he attend a nearby “Vino and Van Gogh” art class, where people would show up and have their glasses filled as they sploshed cheap acrylics around. It did the trick.

“I got a brush in my hand and that was it. I fell in love. When I got back home to Los Angeles, I bought loads of oils and canvases on Amazon and just de-stressed and got stuck in. And then it went boom.”

He spent the next three years vigorously pursuing his new hobby, ruining the carpets in his Redondo Bay home with powder and pigment splatters. The fruits of his endeavours – more than 150 radiant pictures, some on canvas and others drawn digitally – can be seen on his website. And this love of colour has since translated into ‘The Painter’, notably on tracks like ‘Bank Of Wildflowers’, featuring Mercury Award nominee Georgia, and on Orbit’s cover of Polly Scattergood’s ‘Colours Colliding’.

It was the guitar that first hooked the young William Mark Wainwright. He grew up with Anglo-Italian parents in Palmers Green, North London. His working-class mum and dad had middle-class aspirations, became teachers and would only listen to classical music at home, along with the BBC Home Service – the precursor of Radio 4.

“I came from one of those homes where it was only classical – belovedly so,” he says. “And I enjoyed it – it was my language of music. I can remember as a very young boy, maybe 10 years old, making up symphonies in my head when I couldn’t sleep.”

Years later, in 1999, he would take Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ into the UK Top 10, peaking at Number Four. The synth rendition, which he performed by ear, has become an ambient classic. Getting music into the charts is no mean feat – his parents must have been very proud, I suggest.

“No, they weren’t into those things,” says Orbit sheepishly. “I’ve got a sibling who’s never uttered the name of any of the artists I’ve worked with or the name of the songs I’ve done or any award I might have won, and my parents are pretty much the same. So that’s not so great.”

He looks hurt when he says this.

“But hey, I made it,” he adds. “I don’t need their affirmation.”

Yet it was his dad who inadvertently set Orbit on his way, when he gave his son an Italian guitar that he’d picked up while on national service in Yemen.

“It was designed for the ladies, you know, and he always had it in this black wooden case,” recalls Orbit. “I picked it up one day and was struggling with it, and he said, ‘I’ll show you how to tune it’. And basically, that was it – he never got it back. It became mine.”

Later, he was a Hendrix devotee and gravitated towards the electric guitar, and it’s the instrument he still feels most at home with, explaining that he uses them “as synthesisers”.

A second seminal moment came in 1971, when the 14-year-old William – or Mark, as he was known then – borrowed his uncle’s tape recorder.

“I loved it. I could make a noise, run the tape back and play it. I was chopping it up and sticking it together, putting it backwards, recording all sorts of things. But I’d stick the tape together with Sellotape and that’s not advisable, because the glue oozes out, and over time it gubbins up the works.”

When he left school, Orbit didn’t really know what to do with himself. So, at his mother’s insistence, he initially became an office administrator. A glut of itinerant jobs followed, including working at the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam and busking on the streets of Paris, before he found himself back in London, squatting in an old schoolhouse in Paddington. This was at the start of the boom in the North Sea oil industry.

“I managed to blag my way in as a junior draughtsman tech clerk,” says Orbit. “Wow, money! I’d never had any money of my own.”

Photo: Eva Pentel

At the same time, Orbit was starting out in his synthpop group Torch Song with Grant Gilbert and Laurie Mayer. Somewhat fortuitously, right next door to his squat was a second-hand shop full of musical equipment, run by two Italian gentlemen called Giuseppe and Raymondo, and he pretty much bought up their stock. The next few years were a blur of activity. Torch Song didn’t set the world on fire, but Miles Copeland of IRS Records liked them enough to give them a not-insubstantial deal.

That money helped Orbit to establish a more permanent base in Little Venice, where he set up the first incarnation of his Guerilla Studios in his back garden and fitted it out with a 24-track recorder. The competitive rates prompted independent labels such as nearby Mute Records and 4AD to send over their artists to record, with Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Cocteau Twins and Laibach just some of the names that came through the door.

In 1988, Orbit produced the novelty single ‘Loadsamoney (Doin’ Up The House)’ by Harry Enfield. Improbably becoming his first hit, it soared up the charts but wound up in trouble, thanks to its sampling of Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’. He enjoyed hanging out with Enfield, Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson (you can spot Orbit on the ‘Top Of The Pops’ performance via YouTube), although he had enough sense to credit himself as “Billy Beat”.

He scored a big hit in 1990 too, with ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ from his house music outfit Bass-O-Matic’s first album, ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Bass’. Recorded for his Guerilla Records label, which he’d set up that year with DJ John Gosling and former Y Records owner Dick O’Dell, it elevated his status to that of the éminence grise of trance music during the 1990s.

Orbit’s abilities were now getting him noticed by all and sundry, from Betty Boo to the inhabitants of Kling Klang. He was summoned to remix Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’ and afterwards received a call from the man he refers to affectionately as “Ralfie”.

“‘Hello, this is Ralf Hütter here. I’m in London. Can I pop round?’,” says Orbit, retelling the story. “He came to Crouch End on a push bike, wearing one of those suits with short trousers. I was really impressed – who wears something like that? – and we became friends.”

Orbit had recently borrowed a Synclavier from Sting, but he and “Ralfie” were unable to get the thing working.

Throughout this blazing period, he was releasing numbered offerings from his ‘Strange Cargo’ series, which started as a sort of hodgepodge of big band muzak and didn’t really hit its stride until 1993’s ‘Strange Cargo III’, when trip hop was trending. Of one of its most successful tracks, ‘Water From A Vine Leaf’ featuring Beth Orton, which was remixed by Spooky and Underworld, Orbit simply says, “I found myself”.

Perhaps most significantly, he was asked to remix Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ that same year – a foot in the door which, five years later, led to a career-defining moment for him and a renaissance for her.

“Madonna never loses money for her label,” says Orbit. “They’d been projecting five million sales or something like that for her next album, but after ‘Evita’, expectations were medium. And then her producer of choice terminated, and I got a call.

“At the time, I was working on ‘Strange Cargo 5’ and I didn’t have a deal – I’m just an obsessive music maker – so I sent her what I had. She came back to me and said, ‘Can I make a record with that?’, and next thing you know, we’re in business and we’re making ‘Ray Of Light’.

“On the title track, we were both showing off in the studio and I had a guitar on. It’s flying all over the place, and she hits such a pinnacle of vocal excellence that at the end, she just shrieks with laughter and goes into this operatic flow, and I’ve got it all on tape. And she’s like, ‘Wow, what did I just do?’. That’s the best moment with an artist, when they’re shrieking with laughter because they’ve just excelled themselves.”

‘Ray Of Light’ came out in early 1998, and its ubiquity knew no bounds, with Madonna even crossing over to college radio for the first time. Orbit became a man in demand, working with a host of international artists until it stopped being fun, and he retreated into himself for those eight long years.

We should also mention that ‘Pure Shores’, Orbit’s collaboration with All Saints, would have been the best-selling single of the new millennium had it not been for Bob The Builder’s ‘Can We Fix It?’. The lead track for Danny Boyle’s movie, ‘The Beach’, ‘Pure Shores’ was everywhere, and there were rumours that Madge was furious.

“There was a question hanging in the air,” affirms Orbit. “It’s 2000 and we’re making her next record, ‘Music’, and it’s like, ‘Oh, ‘Pure Shores’ could have been one of mine, maybe?’. And it could have been. There was no plan – it just came out. I’m impulsive. I was asked by Danny Boyle to come up with a song for ‘The Beach’, and it had to be very oceanic. I thought of the title ‘Pure Shores’ and got together with Shaznay… what can I say?

“There was a certain ruefulness, but she wasn’t furious. Madonna gets more furious if you’re five minutes late for a session.”

Orbit’s appreciation of nature grew out of the murkiness he experienced several years ago when, aged 61, a first- time foray into cocaine, LSD, mushrooms, weed and MDMA culminated in a four-week involuntary stay at a psychiatric facility following a psychotic episode. His rock bottom precipitated a new outlook and, with it, finer metaphorical weather.

“I was in as dark a place as it is possible to be,” he says. “But I came out of it and had a springtime and was straight into the summer, really, as has been manifested by this record.”

What Orbit calls his “budding curiosity about new things” led him to do something that might feel counterintuitive – he enrolled on a Pro Tools music course online. This, don’t forget, is the producer who has had a hand in around 200 million album sales, with artists like Madonna, U2, Blur and Robbie Williams.

“I’m an ace at Pro Tools, but a few things puzzled me about the new version, so that’s why I signed up,” he explains. “It got me going again. I gradually found my confidence coming back, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this!’. The music started to flow, and suddenly I was on fire.”

For the new album, he went on to work with artists such as Katie Melua, Beth Orton and Laurie Mayer, who he already knew well, and Georgia and Canadian-Colombian artist Lido Pimienta, who he didn’t.

“Sometimes it was a wish list, and sometimes I just contacted them. Like Lido, for instance. I fell in love with her music and her persona and reached out via managers and networking. That’s what you do, and I was happy to get a yes.”

More unusually, ‘Heshima Kwa Hukwe’ is a reworking of a 1985 recording by the late Tanzanian singer Hukwe Zawose, from whose family Orbit sought and received their blessing for the project. Then there’s ‘Second Moon’, featuring a Kenyan field recording from the 1950s, originally released by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey. Orbit makes a point of crediting the Beating Heart project in support of the International Library of African Music.

If attitudes have become more progressive regarding the complex issue of cultural appropriation, what else has changed in the music industry in the 40 years he’s been involved in it?

“A lot,” he says. “Going to studios is a luxury now.”

‘The Painter’ was mastered at Abbey Road, but much of the recording was done right here in Orbit’s flat. It’s a cluttered and homely abode which, were we to try to guess who lived here, ‘Through The Keyhole’-style, would suggest someone who is busy, spends most of their waking hours recording, and lives elsewhere lots of the time.

Orbit has spent the past four decades in, well, orbit, flitting between London and LA, and he’s about to move to Venice for a year. After all, this is the man who once lived into a suite in a Hyde Park hotel for three years because he didn’t like the decor of the “big fat house” he’d just bought in Connaught Square.

“And some things don’t change,” he says, returning to the peculiarities of the music business. “One of the things that’s hard to do is record with a guitar around your neck. It’s a big clunky thing and you kind of need to be near the mic. It can get very awkward with tech, headphones, dongles, guitar cables, and then you suddenly stand up because the phone is ringing and you get…”

He imitates the sound of a guitar being yanked out of its socket.

“That never changes. But everything else is radically different.”

‘The Painter’ is out on Warner

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