‘I’m more famous in the music industry than I am to the general public. I’m invisible to the public,’ says songwriter and producer William Orbit wryly.
It’s an astute observation from a musician far better known for his production clients than his own songs. But he’s worked with some of the biggest pop stars of the past 20 years. Madonna, Blur, Britney Spears and All Saints are just some of the heavy hitters to benefit from his studio touch. It’s an impressive list of collaborators (most notably on Madonna’s Ray of Light and Music albums where his work collected three Grammy Awards) and one which has allowed him to take up his own niche position, existing slightly to the left of the mainstream music biz.
Recent productions include co-writing and co-producing the Chris Brown international hit Don’t Wake Me Up and Britney Spears’ latest album, Britney Jean. Perhaps more excitingly, he recently appeared at London’s LEAF festival to deliver a live multi-media performance featuring tracks from his illustrious career and a Q&A.
M called him up ahead of his LEAF performance to talk production, pop and why musicians should never work for free…
How did you first get into music?
The first time I sat down and listened to music, I put Jimi Hendrix records on at half speed. Then I worked out the chords. I knew I was never going to be him but I wanted to learn an instrument. It was the first time I listened to a record in a musical way.
There was no real starting point or record that said ‘this is it – I’m going to be a musician’. It was hearing a series of records which got me more and more frustrated because I wasn’t a professional musician.
So it was a long period of trying to break into music?
I didn’t earn a penny from music until I was 23. The career aspect did not start until that age. But I was always playing with instruments before then.
What have you learned from collaborations such as those with Madonna or Britney Spears?
Collaboration is how you learn your craft. I built this studio and ran it and learned a great deal from working with others. It gives you this wide experience of seeing how others operate in the music business.
Even now when someone sends you a logic session to work on or remix, you see all these plug ins and techniques – it makes you ask why do they do that.
I could start something next week and employ a tip from the week before. I have a lot of moments where I go ‘fuck why didn’t I know this before – it’s so obvious’. I’ve wasted so much time! I’ll never get those hours back.
How do you write your songs?
I just do what I do. There aren’t any rules. If it’s in a commercial world, then there are far more expectations and limitations. You can’t deliver a nine minute pop song. Although the songs we’ve done with Britney [Alien] are quite out there.
I don’t see myself as a songwriter at the minute. It’s not my strongest skill. Although there’s nothing like having something in the charts to make you confident in your own ideas. The best thing is when somebody first pays money for your music. No matter how much it is, it’s the best bit of money you’ll ever earn.
Who has been the most inspiring collaborator?
Laurie Mayer, the original member of Torch Song. We met in ‘79 and she’s an inspiration. I’ve got so much from Madonna about crafting productions. She’s such a musical talent who I’ve worked with.
Rob Dickens was the chairman of Warner Music who got me into the whole classical side of things. He started me in a new direction.
Have you a technique for resolving creative differences in the studio?
Usually you music your way forward. You shouldn’t have to debate it. I have to say that with the kind of collaborations I do, arguing is rare. We’re both in the same park. You put out an idea and you know whether it needs improvement. With the fundamental music, you don’t get much in the way of arguments. That surprises people. The best instinct prevails and we trust each other.
Bono once said – ‘we all come up with ideas, bring them in and mercilessly kick the shit out of them’. There’s no sugaring of the pill. If that idea can dust itself off and struggle on, then it’s in the charts. This is why records take some time to make as they’re constantly being reshaped.
The hardest thing is getting people to see ahead with a track. You have an idea and may have had this one which stands up. It’s good. You’d risk your house for it. But you can’t get the idea across because they can’t see the vision. Out of the tracks I’ve done, 20 have gone on to do really, really well – I knew that when they were being written. It became a point of certainty. If I’ve got that certainty, and someone doesn’t see it, I get very frustrated.
What gives you that feeling?
You feel it in the same part of your soul. The test is sometime after you’ve done it, after you’ve heard it a substantial number of times, and you still reach for it. You keep liking it.
Is it tougher now for songwriters to survive and make a living out of music than it was before?
It is harder to make a living. You have to work twice as hard for less money. That goes for many people in society. If you want to be rich, work in banking.
But it is more exciting. I have to say I’ve never been part of the business. When it’s a big artist, I just hand in the best piece of music possible. Someone else goes and does the business. I never get involved in the marketing. If I’m lucky I get a royalty cheque.
Now I can earn a bit more off my own music because I can put it out myself. I’m a digital distribution company. I can do my own art. That’s wonderful. It’s good to be able to do what we do without having to use a record company.
The other side of it is you don’t sell 25m records anymore. That’s difficult. But most musicians don’t have those problems anymore so we just need to get over ourselves. Money would flow in because of these crazy CD sales. You’d just spend it thinking it would go on forever. Most musicians are quite feckless. We’re not financial planners. Now we’re getting back to what it’s all about which is making the music.
What does the future hold in store for you?
I know I’ll be doing some writing with Adele in the new year. I’ll be in Las Vegas in the new year too. I work in a studio there. I’ll be there with Britney I hope. Other than that, just keeping healthy and wise.