Inspired by motherhood, Hinduism, yoga and a "dwindling" English dance producer, the world’s most successful female singer set about reinventing herself. Armed with a "gaffer-taped" Atari and with her baby daughter manning the mixing desk, Madonna made Ray Of Light.
The mid-’90s showered material girl Madonna with a string of life-changing experiences, from the birth of her daughter to an awakening of interest in Eastern mysticism. Then, in May 1997, following the Evita soundtrack, she started work on an album that would reflect those changes, sell in truckloads and help create a new Madonna.
Astold to Johnny Black
14 October 1996
Madonna gives birth to a baby girl, Lourdes, in Los Angeles.
Madonna: That was a big catalyst for me. It took me on a search for answers to questions I’d never asked myself before.
William Orbit: Long before we started working on the album, Madonna was going through changes. I think she was heading in the direction we eventually took anyway.
Madonna: I started studying the Kabbalah, which is a Jewish mystical interpretation of the Old Testament. I also found myself becoming very interested in Hinduism and yoga, and for the first time in a long time, I was able to step outside myself and see the world from a different perspective.
William Orbit: Madonna was itchy to make a change. and I came along at the right time. It bothers me when the press say, ‘William Orbit revived her dwindling career.’ It’s so not the case. If anything, she revived my dwindling career.
1 February 1997
The soundtrack to the film Evita reaches Number 1 In the UK.
William Orbit: Another important contributing factor to how Ray Of Light turned out was the Evita record which helped her grow as a singer, because she’d taken voice lessans.
Madonna: There was a whole piece of my voice I wasn’t using. And I was going to make the most of it.
Madonna begins the writing process with various collaborators.
Madonna: I wrote with everybody — William, Pat Leonard, Rick Howes. I even wrote some tracks with Babyface but they never made it onto the album.
Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds: We came up with a couple of songs we liked before she changed her idea about the album’s direction.
Madonna’s Maverick Records partner Guy Oseary rings William Orbit.
William Orbit: Guy rang and suggested I send some topes to her. I didn’t take it very seriously, so I didn’t send anything. Then he rang again, so I sent a DAT with 13 tracks on it.
Madonna: I was a huge fan of William’s earlier records, Strange Cargo 1 and 2 and all that. I also loved all the remixes he did for me and I was interested in fusing a kind of futuristic sound but also using lots of Indian and Moroccan influences and things like that, and I wanted it to sound old and new at the same time.
12 May 1997
William Orbit: Five days later, sitting in my garden, I got a call from Madonna. She said she was working on my tracks and would I like to come out and meet up with her. They sent me a plane ticket and off I went.
Early June 1997
Madonna and William Orbit meet in New York.
William Orbit: It was a day of sun and showers, and I remember I got drenched just as I arrived at her apartment block.
Madonna: William showed up with his plastic bag full of tapes… he arrived at my door looking like a drowned rat. He looked really fragile. He was very humble and unassuming and endearing, like a little boy. As soon as I met him, I liked him.
William Orbit: Her living-room hi-fi wasn’t working, so we adjourned to her gymnasium with another hi-fi. She played me the stuff she’d written with Babyface and Pat Leonard, and I’m sitting thinking, "These tracks sound very slick. What can I contribute?"
We spent the next week at the Hit Factory getting my backing tracks up in stereo, and she sang what she’d worked out, and it was clear that something was happening. At the end of that week, she said, "Would you work on my record?" and I said. I’d love to."
Work begins at Larrabee North Studio, Universal City, LA.
William Orbit: The first day, I was in paralysis because I was used to going off and being left to get on with it, but she said, "I’m not the kind of girl that leaves the guy to get on with it. Get used to it." It took me a while to get used to someone looking over my shoulder.
Larrabee was a real state-of-the-art studio. I’d never even worked on an automated desk before. It wasn’t so much a learning curve as a learning cliff. I realised right away that my equipment was really superannuated, like my old Atari 1040, held together with gaffer tape. It caught fire twice on the sessions.
One minor hazard was that Lola (Lourdes) would come in every day and, like any toddler, she’d make a beeline for the knobs and buttons. We’d look away and the whole sound had changed. We had to keep an eye on her.
There weren’t a lot cf musicians around. Mostly it was just me, Madonna, Pat McCarthy, who was a briliant engineer, and a tape-op called Matt. On Ray Of Light every guitar you hear is me. On a lot of tracks I did everything.
Most of the tracks pre-existed, so Madonna would work on vocals and lyrics at home, or driving around in her car. It’s Important to point out that I wasn’t the only producer working on the LP. Patrick Leonard did some great work…
Madonna: As a classically trained musician, Patrick brought a whole other element to the mix, particularly his string arrangements…
William Orbit: About a third of the way through, I thought I was going to get fired. Madonna was used to working with super-slick producers, whereas I’m very lateral which she saw as being disorganised.
I went to her house to playback Power Of Goodbye. We’d taken the wrong DAT with us and she was not amused. I ended up saying "Gimme a week and I’ll turn this one round".
I virtually lived in the studio for that week, and from then on, it was great. She became confident that I knew what I was doing.
15 July 1997
Gianni Versace is shot dead outside his home in Miami Beach, Florida.
William Orbit: We were recording Swim on the day Versace was murdered. Madonna was very friendly with him and his sister, Donatella, who was in the street, distraught, on her cellphone to Madonna. But she did the vocal, which is probably why it has such an emotional impact.
Madonna: Ray Of Light (the track) is a mystical look at the universe and how small we are…
Christine Leach: My uncle, Clive Muldoon, and his partner, Dave Curtiss wrote a song in the 70s called Sepheryn, which became Ray Of Light. I’d been working with William one fateful night in 1996, in London. and he played me a backing track that fitted so well with the lyric to Sepheran that I just started singing it.
William Orbit: It was excellent, and I said so. I thought she’d written it, and she didn’t say she hadn’t. So that was among the tracks on the original DAT I sent to Madonna.
Christine Leach: Later, I was sent a cassette in the post, of Madonna’s version of the track and I nearly fainted. She must have loved the track – even her ad libs are the same as mine.
William Orbit: The final track, Mer Girl was another crucial point for me. I was very proud of it, but there was outside pressure to change it, and she just said, "No, It’s a piece of art. Don’t touch it." I thought "I’m in good hards here." I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about the music being trampled on by A&R interventions.
Madonna: It’s a song about dealing with death. There’s the obvious thing about my mother’s death but also Princess Diana’s and Versace’s death. There seemed to be so much death actually around the time that I had written it.
3 March 1998
Ray Of Light is released.
Dave Curtiss: I didn’t even know Ray Of Light had been recorded. A friend heard about it on the radio and told me. I was a bit annoyed at first because Madonna wanted 30 per cent just for changing a couple of lines, but then I realised that 15 per cent of millions is a lot better than 100 per cent of nothing. I did very well out of it. It’s been a life-changing experience. I’d say I’m financially secure for at least the next five to 10 years as a result of 15 per cent of one track by Madonna.
© Q Magazine