William Orbit may be the opposite of what most people think of when they use the term “rock star.” In fact, he is probably known as much for his work behind the scenes as a producer and remixer as he is an artist in his own right. But Orbit does have a hit record to his credit—an album of classical pieces, reworked into a contemporary electronica context. Orbit’s biggest achievement of the past several years was his production work on Madonna’s Ray of Light album.
Orbit, who has been described by the British magazine The Face as having “the poise of a praying mantis and the attention span and inquisitive enthusiasm of a child,” was born on December 15, 1956, in London, England, and raised in Shoreditch, East London. The eldest of two sons born to a pair of schoolteachers, Orbit left school at age 16, much to his parents’ chagrin. He was given the appellation Orbit—his family name is Wainwright—by friends who found him somewhat spacey. On his own, he subsisted on a series of low-paying jobs—working in a furniture warehouse, as an accounting temp, and as a fruit picker. “I spent years just drifting around, doing jobs that I hated,” Orbit told the London Saturday Times. “When people talk of something being soul-destroying, I know exactly what they mean. And the cause of it lies not in the work, no matter how boring that might be. It’s to do with the environment and the amount of respect—or lack of it—that you’re accorded as a human being. It’s being treated as worthless, day in and day out, that destroys people’s souls. I knew I wanted to be creative, but couldn’t figure out what it was that I was meant to do. The wanting something else was like this fire inside me. It used to burn me up.” To add fuel to the fire, Orbit married at age 19 and had a daughter. He and his wife split up soon after, and Orbit moved in with a friend who was stockpiling recording equipment with an eye toward developing a studio. “It triggered this total renaissance within me,” he told the Saturday Times. “Suddenly, I could see what I was meant to be doing with myself.”
Orbit first emerged on the pop scene with the group Torch Song, which consisted of Orbit, Laurie Mayer, and Grant Gilbert. The trio began writing and performing in 1981, and by 1983 had been signed by I.R.S. Records, the label owned by Miles Copeland (manager of the Police and brother to the band’s drummer Stewart Copeland). They released their first solo artist, “If You Love Somebody Set Them; as Orbit also began his work as a producer, twiddling the knobs for an EP by Crown of Thorns and a single by Kate Gardner. Torch Song lasted for two more albums, Wish Thing in 1984 and Ecstasy in 1985. Orbit was laying the groundwork for his solo career even then, and producing and remixing tracks for ever more high-profiled artists. He co-produced Sting’s debut single as a solo artist,” If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” and remixed and
Born William Wainwright on December 15, 1956, in London, England; married and divorced; one daughter.
Producer, remixer, and solo artist; started as part of an experimental 1980s pop group, Torch Song; became known for his remixes of hits by Sting, Peter Gabriel, Prince, and many others; released a series of ambient electronica albums under the moniker Strange Cargo, 1990s; co-wrote songs with Madonna and produced her Grammy-winning Ray of Light album; released an album of classical music remade in a contemporary electronica mode.
Awards: (With Madonna) Grammy Awards, Best Pop Album and Best Dance Album 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Maverick Recording Company, 9348 Civic Center Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, (310) 385-7800. Website— http://www.williamorbit.com.
engineered ex-Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle’s album Belinda.
At any given time, Orbit seems to have several projects on his plate, but there is a method to whatever madness it causes. “I’ve always worked that way,” Orbit told CDNOW. “Even before I was successful, I was doing lots of different things at once. I’ve just got that kind of mind that tends to flit between things, much to the irritation of some people I work with, because they want me to pursue a linear agenda. There’s a downside, but the very strong upside is that you stay fresh, and you come up with new ideas constantly. I’m happy when I’ve got three different computers, each one with a different song on it, and I’m trotting around between them. Multitasking, I think, is the term. When it gets to the point where it’s stressful, then it’s not fun anymore.”
Orbit’s solo career began in 1987 with the album Orbit, which he now disavows for unspecified reasons, and the first of his Strange Cargo projects in a style that The Face calls “sub-aquatic ambient.” As the ’80s closed out and the ’90s began, Orbit’s list of clients grew by leaps and bounds as he was asked to work on projects by Prince (he and friend Mark Moore remixed “Batdance,” “The Future,” and “Electric Chair”), Erasure, Human League, Julian Lennon, Gary Numan, Jimmy Sommerville, Shakespear’s Sister, Sex Pistols’ Svengali Malcolm McLaren, and many others. Strange Cargo II was released in 1990. That same year Orbit cofounded his own imprint, Guerilla Records, and released the rave-ready album BassOmatic, which featured the single “Fascinating Rhythm,” a hit that landed Orbit on the English TV show Top of the Pops. The album was released in the United States the following year.
Orbit is credited with discovering acoustic/ambient singer Beth Orton—the two were romantically linked for a time—and he formed a partnership with her in a duo called Spill in 1992. The group released a single, “Don’t Wanna Know ’Bout Evil,” and released Superpinkymandy a year later but only in Japan and under Orton’s name. Some of Orbit’s most high-profile studio work came from this period, including a remix of Madonna’s “Erotica” and production and session work on Peter Gabriel’s album Us. The third installment of the Strange Cargo albums, Strange Cargo III, was released in 1993.
The launch of another Orbit-related label, N-Gram, which released another Strange Cargo album, this one titled Hinterland, happened in 1995. Orbit also released the first version of the album Pieces in a Modern Style, which featured classical works retooled into ambient soundscapes, but the record had to be immediately withdrawn after the music publisher for composer Arvo Part refused permission for his music to be so radically remade. In part, Orbit’s own naïveté was to blame. “I had copyright difficulties with one of the composers who basically forbade me the use of his piece,” he told CDNOW. “I didn’t ever request it; I didn’t know I had to. I thought you basically did it as best you could, and the business side would take care of itself… I was very upset by it. To be told that your record has to be withdrawn a day after it comes out is pretty hard.”
Under the auspices of his N-Gram label, Orbit reformed Torch Song, and released Toward the Unknown Region in 1996. Another notable production credit from that year was the album Spirit by cellist/vocalist Caroline Lavelle, which was also released on N-Gram. Orbit spent the latter part of 1997 working with Madonna on tracks that would become the multi-platinum selling, Grammy-winning Ray of Light Orbit co-wrote the songs, produced the tracks, and served as the main musician on most of the album.
“Madonna the Creative Force is pretty full-on,” he told the Saturday Times. “Even if she weren’t super-famous, you’d still be in danger of being swept away by her. But I’m very stimulated by the creative process—I love to work. And though I experienced both the agony and ecstasy of the situation, and though it got very intense at times, I still can’t think of anything I’d rather have been doing.” Indeed, it’s a good thing he couldn’t. Ray of Light made Orbit a star in his own right, and he moved his base of operations from England to Santa Monica, California. His next production work was for Britpop sensation Blur, on their album 13. From there he went on to remix Sarah McLachlan’s song “Black” and appear live with Madonna on a number of television shows. In early 1999, Orbit picked up two Grammy Awards, out of Madonna’s four, sharing with her the trophies for Best Pop Album and Best Dance Recording.
At last, Orbit was able to turn his attention back to his own work, and released a final version of Pieces in a Modern Style in early 2000. The album features works by Samuel Barber, John Cage, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Ludwig van Beethoven, and others. A remix of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” actually became a hit on the dance and singles charts.
Most recently Orbit coproduced Madonna’s remake of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and worked with her on three tracks for her new album, Music. Orbit’s greatest triumph, it seems, is being able to keep chaos at bay, and yet somehow make that chaos the inspiration for new works that are fresh and innovative. “I’ve been doing this 20 years,” he told CDNOW. “I’m going to be doing it for 20 or 30 more, and I’m not so unrealistic to think that it’s always going to be like this.”
Orbit, I.R.S., 1987.
Strange Cargo, I.R.S., 1987.
Strange Cargo II, I.R.S., 1990.
Strange Cargo III, Virgin, 1993.
Hinterland, Discovery, 1996.
Best of Strange Cargo, I.R.S., 1996.
Pieces in a Modern Style, Maverick, 2000.
With Torch Song
Wish Thing, I.R.S., 1984.
Ecstasy, I.R.S., 1985.
Exhibit A, I.R.S., 1987.
Toward the Unknown Region, I.R.S., 1996.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Bass, Virgin, 1990.
Science and Melody, Virgin (U.K.), 1991.
Caroline Lavelle, Spirit, Discovery, 1995.
Madonna, Ray of Light, Warner Bros., 1998.
Blur, 73, Virgin, 1999.
Sting,” If You Love Someone Set Them Free” (Torch Song Mix), A&M, 1985.
Prince,” Batdance” (the Batmix and Vickie Vale Mix, with Mark Moore), Warner Bros., 1989.
Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra, “Deep in Vogue,” Epic, 1989.
Erasure, “Supernature” (William Orbit Remix), Sire/Reprise, 1989.
Depeche Mode, “Walking in My Shoes,” Sire, 1993.
Peter Gabriel, “Kiss That Frog” (Mindblender Mix), RealWorld/Virgin U.K., 1993.
Madonna, “Ray of Light” (Liquid Mix and Orbit’s Ultra Violet Mix), Maverick, 1998.
Ricky Martin, “Be Careful of My Heart (Cuidada con Mi Corazon),” Columbia, 1999.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Saturday Times (London), December 4, 1999.
The Face, November/December 1999.
William Orbit Official Website, http://www.williamorbit.com (September 10, 2000).
“William Orbit interview,” March 1, 2000, CDNOW, http://www.cdnow.com (September 2000).