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‘The Painter’: “I’m Still Finding Out What I Can Do” Says William Orbit
Photo: Rankin

‘The Painter’: “I’m Still Finding Out What I Can Do” Says William Orbit

William Orbit’s first new album in eight years, ‘The Painter’ finds him flush with inspiration. ‘I’m full of surprises,’ he tells Dig!


As the 21st century approached, William Orbit went stratospheric. His production work with Madonna (1998’s Ray Of Light album) and Blur (the following year’s 13) had resulted in critically acclaimed records for both artists at a time when Orbit’s own discography had grown to straddle electronic and classical music. As comfortable fashioning chart hits as he was reclining in a wash of ambient sound, his sonic fingerprints could be found on everything from Pink pop anthems (the Beck-penned Feel Good Time) to U2 soundtrack contributions (The Hands That Built America, written for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated drama Gangs Of New York) and the best All Saints songs (Pure Sures, Black Coffee). So when everything went quiet for Orbit in 2014, following the fifth instalment in his Strange Cargo series, one of the most distinctive production styles of the last quarter century seemed to disappear into a black hole. Now, following a near decade-long silence, Orbit is back with his first album in eight years, The Painter, and the assertion that he is once again “ready to be of service”.

“I’m flowering,” Orbit tells Dig! of his sudden creative resurgence. “Like something’s been underground for years and pops up and goes. ‘Right, OK. Let’s come back to a brave new world.’ That’s what it feels like.”

Listen to ‘The Painter’ here.

“I imploded under lifelong forces. It wasn’t pretty”

“Brave” is an apt word. Orbit’s declining productivity – and eventual disappearance – was precipitated by an unexpected turn to drug use in his early 60s, followed by a psychotic break that resulted in hospitalisation. But if The Painter is an album which, Orbit says, explores “safety and trust and family and fairness… it’s meant to provide comfort as well as joy”, Orbit himself is a portrait of survival.

“I imploded under lifelong forces,” he reveals today. “I finally believed what I’d been told as a child. And it wasn’t pretty.

“I wasn’t connecting with anything,” Orbit continues – including his music. “When I was manic, I was fascinated by my own mania – sort of like survival. But when I was in a dark pit, the only thing I could watch was videos about submarines.”

There lies a visual metaphor almost too obvious for comfort, but Orbit’s fascination with the Royal Navy actually dates back to his childhood. “I was an unruly and disruptive child because I was unhappy. And I wasn’t very good at discipline,” he says. “But I wonder if I’d ever gone into a world where discipline was the framework, how that would have changed me.”

Candidly stating that his breakdown was the result of a childhood in which he was brought up to believe he “was the cause of everybody’s problems in my immediate family… It was just mental abuse… It’s the power of family,” Orbit says that he has had to look for his family unit elsewhere in life.

“The one I was born with – there were a couple of nice pockets, but the nuclear family did me no favours,” he asserts. “I found my family in like-minded people.”

“They’ve given me something of absolute utter soulfulness”

Singers, artists and other creatives make up the adult Orbit’s nearest and dearest, and they were all on hand to help him record The Painter during lockdown, with long-term collaborators such as Beth Orton, and more recent associates Polly Scattergood and Katie Melua, recording vocals on laptops in their kitchens and sending them to Orbit. Songs such as The Diver, featuring an ethereal turn by Natalie Walker, may ostensibly seem to reflect Orbit’s fascination with the deep, but Walker’s lyrics also capture Orbit’s late-career bloom, as she sings, “Time passes by but I start noticing/I’m looking at my future in the deep green forest.”

“Technically, it’s not the greatest hi-fi,” Orbit shrugs of the remote recording conditions, “but they’ve given me something of absolute utter soulfulness… Every one of the artists has been a joy to do this with, so I spent as long as it took making sure the vocals are presented just right.”

The same technology that has allowed Orbit to collaborate from afar with his “great little club” of singers has also ensured he remains as cutting-edge on The Painter as he was during his career-defining years. “One is so dependent on technology, and it’s so directly tied in with creativity,” Orbit says of his own music-making. “I’ve never read manuals; I just do it as I go.” For The Painter, however, he took an online course in Pro Tools, in order to sharpen his creative instruments.

“Sounds are real, they’re manifest. It’s musical colour”

“Nothing’s fundamentally changed,” Orbit says of the technological advances that took place while he was out of action. “When I started to disappear, it was still very much a virtual world… Musicians are quite adaptable. We know how to get where we want to get to. We’re not in the business of necessarily learning everything there is to know about it… When you’re a musician, you can absolutely wing it. The fact that you don’t know how to do stuff is part of your stamp.

“I think my term ‘curated serendipity’ has got a bit of mileage nowadays,” he adds. “But having the skill set and the instinct and the decisiveness to know which door to take that’s suddenly in front of you – stuff just comes out of the air. You’ve got to recognise when a happy accident presents itself. And realise, after four decades, you’re good at your craft.”

As The Painter’s title suggests, music-making isn’t the only craft Orbit has mastered. In recent years he has embraced the visual arts, after attending an art class while on a retreat in the Nevada Desert. It seems a natural progression for a musician whose work can fairly be described as aural painting.

“To all intents and purposes, they’re absolutely separate,” Orbit says of his approaches to painting and recording. “But I know in the background there’s actually a complete link, because the way I’ve always seen sounds is exactly the same way I see colours, in terms of the way they work together.” But where some musicians experience synaesthesia, Orbit makes it clear that he does not: “I’ve got a photographic memory for sound,” he confirms, “but I’m glad I don’t have synaesthesia. I think it’s a burden to people.”

Orbit is, however, “obsessed with colour”, and admits that sounds are “utterly visual”. “They’re real, they’re manifest, they’re my friends,” he explains. “They all have personality and colours, but they’re not colours like colour colours. It’s almost like another dimension of colourality. It’s musical colour.”

This is perhaps nowhere more apparent on The Painter than on I Paint What I See, whose Air-like synth bass bubbles beneath layers of textured soundscapes and Berth Orton’s half-whispered vocals, or Colours Colliding, on whose lullaby-like melody Polly Scattergood’s voice seems to float, as if drifting towards safe harbour. In light of Orbit’s experience with mental health, lyrics such as “All of these colours they keep me from spiralling” take on an added poignancy.

“They’re both incredibly therapeutic,” Orbit says of his twin channels of creativity. “Especially in the visuals.”

“I’m finding out what I can do. I’m full of surprises”

Fittingly, for The Painter, Orbit has adapted some of his own paintings, both for the album cover and to provide images to suit each individual song, and has made limited-edition signed prints and an alternate sleeve available at the Dig! store. “I selected pictures that actually fit each track, but in most cases I modified them,” Orbit explains. But he also felt conflicted about the process. “I don’t know if I like presenting a manifest picture for people when they’re supposed to be forming a picture in their mind,” he admits. “But, let’s face it, there’s a long tradition of record sleeves… I just love the visual side of it.”

If The Painter were itself a style of painting, Orbit says it would be “allegorical, abstract, impressionist, figurative – I don’t know, I never went to art school”, before finding a definition he likes: “Phantasmagorical.” Of the meanings behind the music, he adds, “Usually the allegory is not clear to me until I’ve done it… It’s not an album with themes as such, but all the themes, if not overly stated, should be there in a tacit kind of way.”

Also implicit in The Painter is the sense that Orbit is not only rediscovering his creativity, but redrawing his boundaries at a time when he stands as an elder statesman of electronic music. The song Planet Sunrise pulls in his classical side and flecks it with elements of David Bowie’s Low, while No Other World makes a restful cocoon out of Orbit’s creative resurgence, with Beth Orton intoning, “It’s so warm here, I wanna stay here forever.”

“I’m a bit of a pop tart”

Not that Orbit is limiting his comeback to safe spaces in an electronic-music landscape he helped shape. “I’m a bit of a pop tart,” he confesses, adding that he’d like to work again with Britney Spears (the pair collaborated on the song Alien, which went Top 20 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Songs chart in 2013) and lamenting that Shakira is, so far, the one that got away: “She’s someone I would love to do more than just chat with… We’ve never done anything musical together.”

Of the current crop of stars who are reshaping pop music the way the likes of Spears and Madonna did for their generations, Billie Eilish is on Orbit’s wish list. “She’s fucking brilliant,” he enthuses. “And I feel like I know her from her upbringing. I’m not American, but I lived half my life in LA, and that sort of upbringing she had with her parents, and Finneas and her – I enjoy that part of their story. She’s a fiend.”

Now of retirement age – though cheerfully defying it – Orbit is aware that he is in “the senior generation”, and jokes, “I thought of getting a Gandalf staff. If I’m going to be a 65-year-old with grey floppy hair and lots of age on my face, why don’t I just be like Gandalf?” At this stage of his career, he has, he says, “transcended all doubt. It’s like, ‘Is he trying to be young?’ No. He’s old. In jazz, classical, country music, these things are de rigueur… There are classical and jazz musicians who just get better as they get older and hoarier… I’m still finding out what I can do. I’m full of surprises.”

Buy limited-edition signed prints and ‘The Painter’ vinyl at the Dig! store.

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