“billy12” is the name that is typed out at the bottom of William Orbit’s Zoom square as he appears on screen from his home in London, England. It’s an unassuming way for Orbit, who is practically a mythical figure in music, to refer to himself.
The longstanding producer and artist has materialized over and over again since the late ‘70s. Along the way, he has collected three Grammys for his work on Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” for best pop vocal album, best dance recording and best song written for visual media. He has produced albums for Blur and Robbie Williams and songs for U2, Britney Spears and Pink.
The biography section on his site reads like a memoir collection from a few different lives, each more engaging and fascinating than the last. Another section of the site features over 100 thumbnails of luminous abstract paintings done by Orbit over a period of three years.
He has since abandoned his paintbrush and returned to the recording studio to put himself at the forefront of a four-track EP, the just-released “Starbeam,” mastered in Dolby Atmos and released on the well-respected independent dance label, Anjunadeep. The EP was preceded by the single, “Starbeam,” released Nov. 19. This is Orbit’s first artist output in seven years, and he is more than ready to speak about it, and many other aspects of music and the industry, with Variety.
Was the pandemic a time of rest and recharge for you as it has been for many creatives?
I do that anyway. I call it curated serendipity. There’s a huge amount of serendipity in what you do, but you have to curate it. You have to A&R your own lucky strikes. I have always gone down the rabbit hole. For years, I have completely disappeared, not done anything sociable, and come back the other side.
Did the pandemic have an impact on the creation of your “Starbeam” EP?
My mind state was not in a good space during the pandemic. It got bad. I’m quite old, 65, but it’s never too late to have a pivot in your life. Change stuff for the better and stick with the new thing. It’s all happened at the same time, but it turned out all right — I’m still here.
Is that change reflected on the EP?
It could be. I‘m not the person to ask. Musicians, generally speaking, find it very hard to elucidate what we’ve done musically. We all love that scream when the bass drops, but when it comes to talking about intrinsic music, we’re stumped.
As you are getting ready to release your EP, how are you finding the current terrain as a musical artist?
Three months ago, when I realized my projects were done, I thought, “Great, I just have to put it on internet and everybody will come.” But it’s so bloody complicated. It’s worse than before. The algorithms, gaming the system. It’s been so long since I‘ve been an artist with a record to put out, I have no idea. But I can do it. It’s part of the job of being a professional artist, rather than a producer in the background.
How have the changes in the musical landscape over the last 25 years had an effect on you as a producer?
On occasion, I’ve set out to try and sound like a particular sound of a particular period, but I can’t do it. It’s not like I’m willfully not doing it, I just failed on the first day. I start doing different things and veer off the plot. I bless that now because everything I’ve done doesn’t have a date stamp.
Have you had any experiences in sessions with groups of songwriters in a room working on pop songs?
No, thank you. I couldn’t bear all that. It would kill me. It would put me off music to the point where I couldn’t even look into my studio without feeling sick. I did it and I lost all my confidence. Some people are suited to it. I didn’t like it at all. That’s what I don’t do. Forget 18 writers; I’d rather go to a room with 18 speakers and Dolby Atmos.
But, at the same time, you are a very collaborative person.
Music is collaborative. In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, singer/songwriters became the thing: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell. Prior to that it had been Tin Pan Alley. Teams of people, grafting. You’d get 10 songs from a team and you would take your favorite three. Your third favorite would be the verse or the middle eight, the second favorite would be the verse and your favorite would be the chorus. Splice that into an uber-song, and there would be quite a few names on it. It was very collaborative. But musicians can make an album for less than £300. Any other art form, apart from writing, you need to get finances together. We are autonomous in that respect, but it is collaborative.
How does that contrast with your time with Madonna creating “Ray of Light,” which gave her so much credibility and brought her to a new level of respect, particularly at that point in her career, when her time as a pop star could have run out.
We were both 40 at that time. She had done “Evita,” which had toned up her voice. She had very rigorous training with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was it was extraordinary because “Ray of Light” was a very intimate album. There was nobody in the room. We were tucked away in a studio in Burbank, and that was it. No one from the label had heard it. I don’t know if you could get away with doing that now.
What are your thoughts on the pop charts being filled with women?
That’s consonant with how I feel. I prefer to work with female vocals. I can remember working with singers, and how they were frustrated because they had to do everything through guys. They felt totally locked down because it’s this sort of passive-aggressive thing of the guy doing all the enabling of the sounds: “I’m singing and this guy is the one that’s manifesting on tape.” Now you don’t need anybody to get your ideas down. Logic, Ableton, ProTools, it doesn’t matter. They’re able to get their stuff across as they want it without intermediaries.
What advice do you have for new artists?
Nobody realizes the very factor of youth is so alluring. I remember the first time around, everything was so easy. Part of it was youth. You have to be aware that second time around, third time around, it’s much harder to come back. Expect to work really hard. Find out what you’re really good at and work your bollocks off at it. Don’t try to do things that you’re not good at or don’t like. People can persuade artists to do things which make the artist later look back and think, “I should’ve never done that.” Artistic frustration is very corrosive. Be careful of your delicate sensibilities. Nurture yourself. Don’t get yourself into tons of debt or obligation.