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Madonna's 'Ray of Light' at 20: celebrating her psychedelic masterwork

Inspired by motherhood and yoga, the icon reinvented herself on her most passionate album to date.

Happy birthday to Ray of Light, the masterwork that introduced the world to Cosmic Psychedelic Madonna, 20 years ago this week. Ray of Light was the queen's first proper album in four years, dropping on March 3rd, 1998, a week after she unveiled her new sound with the single "Frozen." It was Madonna's motherhood album, after giving birth to daughter Lourdes. It was her avant-techno move, with U.K. producer William Orbit. It was her spiritual-awakening statement. But Ray of Light holds up as her most soulful and passionate music ever – a libido-crazed disco-hippie mom pushing 40 and proud of it, flaunting her artiest emotional extremes. As "Ray of Light" boomed out of radios all year, with Madonna chanting her mantra – "And I feeeel! And I feeeel!" – she seemed to be feeling twice as hard as everyone else.

By all rights, Ray of Light should have been a pretentious disaster. Yet it turned out to be a new peak, setting Ms. Ciccone off on a glorious four-year run: the 1999 single "Beautiful Stranger," the 2000 album Music, the 2001 Drowned World Tour. If you're the kind of fan who reveres her as a musician first, not a celebrity, this was the hot streak of her life. You could compare it to Elvis Presley's mature phase with the '68 Comeback Special and From Elvis in Memphis. Except at 42, Elvis was dead, while Madonna was just gearing up for her next phase, where she discovered Kabbalah, converted to Judaism and started asking people to call her "Esther." Never say she isn't ecumenical.

Ray of Light is easily the most intense pop album ever made by a 39-year-old – Madonna spends these songs celebrating her newborn daughter, mourning her long-lost mother and reckoning with her messed-up adult self. She also contemplates her newfound Lilith Fair–era consciousness, going off about karma and yoga. As she explained in Billboard, "I feel like I've been enlightened, and that it's my responsibility to share what I've learned so far with the world." Ominous words from any pop star, let alone this one. But she made it feel mighty real. (Like another album we all loved in 1998: Hello Nasty, a spiritual manifesto from the opening act on her first tour, the Beastie Boys.) Even those of us who'd devoted our lives to worshipping Madonna weren't prepared for an album this great.

Strange as it seems now, people back then were mildly obsessive about the idea of Madonna being "over." Predicting the end of her career was a weirdly popular Nineties fad, like swing dancing or psychic hotlines. The semi-monthly "is she finally done?" debate kicked up every time she did something ridiculous, which she did all the damn time, from her poetic musings in the Sex book ("My pussy is the temple of learning") to her erotic thriller Body of Evidence, where she played a serial killer who specialized in humping men to death. The U.K. music mag Melody Maker, for its 1992 year-in-review issue, polled experts on the year's big question: Has Madonna turned into a pathetic exhibitionist? The wisest answer came from (of all people) Right Said Fred's lead singer: "Being an exhibitionist is only pathetic when nobody's watching you."

The queen kept expanding her sound – the Babyface collabo "Take a Bow" spent seven weeks at Number One in 1995. She also did vocal training for the Evita soundtrack. (Count me among the fans who thinks Babyface taught her a hell of a lot more about singing than Andrew Lloyd Webber did.) But it was still considered exotic to take Madonna seriously for her music, rather than her image. It took Ray of Light to change that.

Her producer William Orbit had just worked wonders with U.K. ingenue Beth Orton, on her classic folkie-techno debut Trailer Park. Madonna playfully renamed herself "Veronica Electronica," throwing in lots of what she and Orbit called "teenage-angst guitars." They set the tone in the opening ballad, an emotional powerhouse called "Drowned World/Substitute for Love." There's too many gimmicks in the mix: moody electro bleeps, wind chimes, sitar, drum 'n' bass snare rattles, Sixties string samples, a very 1998-sounding vibraphone. Yet it never feels crowded or contrived – Madonna gives herself room to breathe deep, as she sings about letting go of the past and moving on. She keeps looping back to a mantra from John Lennon: "Now I find I've changed my mind." (The Beatles' "Help," where John confessed his adult despair, was the perfect song to echo here.) When the rock guitar kicks in, at the three-minute point, it hits like a moment of pure serenity.

The goth power ballad "Frozen" was the first hit, but "Ray of Light" was the one that really summed up the new Madonna in one big kundalini disco rush. It came from the same place as the Talking Heads' similarly titled Remain in Light, about how the world moves on a woman's hips. The album's premise was trip-hop, as we called it then – the moody electro-funk sound perfected by Massive Attack, whose mind-freak opus Mezzanine dropped around the same time. (She'd worked with them in 1995 – a bluer-than-blue cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You.") I interviewed Massive Attack in March 1998, right after Ray came out, and naively asked if they'd noticed how much it sounded like them. Yes, in fact, they noticed. As Daddy G cheerfully told me, "I put on that first track and said, 'Here we go again.'"

The music is full of odd hooks – the Moroccan ghaita of "Swim," the bossa nova of "To Have and Not to Hold," the Britpop guitar in "Ray of Light." She makes the Sanskrit chant "Shanti/Ashtangi" sound like Devo's version of "Working in a Coal Mine." In "Sky Fits Heaven," she takes her sacred text from a Gap ad – the iconic TV spot starring bartender/poet Max Blagg and Twin Peaks siren Madchen Amick: "The sky fits heaven, so ride it!" (She even cut Blagg in on the credits.) And her spiritual pretensions were ripe for mockery – hence the brilliant parody in the Drew Barrymore flick Music and Lyrics, where the pop star shares her "Buddhism-in-a-thong philosophy."

Ray of Light sounds like an anthology of "only in the Nineties" ideas, from its coffeehouse-techno vibe to the whole notion of seeking mystic wisdom from a Gap ad. Yet the most Nineties thing about it is the way Madonna assumes you'll put in the time the music demands. It's pop designed to unfold over time, from an artist serenely confident her listeners will pay attention. If Ray of Light came out now, it would get dismissive Friday-morning quickie reviews listing the flaws of her latest rollout strategy. But because people still paid for their music in 1998, people really did put in the time to absorb it. Buying an album was an emotional commitment – walking into the store, plucking the CD off the rack, taking it into your home. You gave it a few chances before you gave up. So people stuck with Ray of Light, even if they initially laughed at it.

She picked the right moment to swerve hard into adulthood, just as a new crop of teen stars was rising. By the end of 1998, MTV's newest star was a young Madonna fan named Britney Spears. Madonna kept tarting up the psychedelia with her bizarre 1999 paisley-disco hit "Beautiful Stranger," from the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It's Madonna at her most breezily seductive, not to mention her funniest. (It's also a righteous salute to then-incarcerated black hippie pioneer Arthur Lee and his band Love, goosing their 1966 flower-child classic "She Comes in Colors.") Music was equally masterful, except now she was into line-dancing and cowgirl hats. Yet Ray of Light still stands apart in Madonna's career. After 20 years of heavy listening, it remains the album of a lifetime.

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8 reasons why Ray Of Light remains Madonna’s best album

It’s the album which ensured the reigning Queen of Pop would stay on her throne for at least another decade.

It introduced us to the signature whooshes and bleeps of a production genius and won four Grammy Awards, spawned five UK Top 10 singles and sold 16 million copies worldwide. 20 years ago to the day (March 2) since it first hit the shelves on this side of the Atlantic, here are eight reasons why Ray of Light remains Madonna’s greatest ever album.

The element of surprise

Although Madonna was far from a spent force in early 1998, it was largely assumed that her all-conquering heyday was well behind her. It had been four years since the underrated Bedtime Stories had underwhelmed in the charts, and the release of ballads compilation Something to Remember and her starring role in the big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita suggested that she was now settling into the inoffensive housewife-friendly phase of her career. It’s why the double whammy of Frozen’s song and video – the former a cinematic electro-ballad with a cutting-edge production, the latter a moody, gothic affair directed by Aphex Twin favourite Chris Cunningham – came as such a welcome surprise. Just like she’d done before, and like she’d do again, Madonna proved that you write her off at your peril.

The inspired choice of producer

While modern day Madonna has found herself chasing trends, old-school Madonna was renowned for setting them. Before Ray Of Light came along, William Orbit was a relatively unknown musician who had released several albums of ambient electronica to critical acclaim but few sales. After the album, Orbit became an in-demand super producer whose studio talents would be utilised by everyone from Blur and U2 to Pink and All Saints. It’s not hard to see why he became so popular, with his swirling mix of techno, trip-hop and electronica proving to be the perfect foil for Madonna’s exquisite pop melodies and mature musings on loss, love and motherhood. Ray Of Light sounded like nothing Madonna had recorded before and cemented her status as the master of reinvention.

The title track

Frozen undoubtedly helped Ray Of Light shift the kind of first-week numbers Madonna hadn’t seen in a decade. And its title track kept the momentum going, pushing the album to a worldwide sales total of over 16m. A pulsating dance anthem based on a forgotten 1971 song from English folk duo Curtiss Maldoon, Ray Of Light thrills from start to finish, whether it’s the pounding techno beat, the euphoric chorus (famous for its mistaken ‘Anna Friel’ lyrics) or the frenzied finale where Madonna’s celestial vocals spiral wildly out of control. And it also resulted in one of Madonna’s most joyous live outings to date, a feel-good and vocally on-point performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show which inspires the entire audience to sing and move along.

The opening track

Like a Virgin, Into The Groove, Express Yourself, Like A Prayer, Vogue, Hung Up… Madonna has such a wealth of bona fide hits that it’s almost impossible to single one out as the best. But you can make a strong case for one of her most subtle and slow-burning, and indeed smallest (it only peaked at No.10 in the UK), chart entries to be given such an accolade. One of those rare meditations on the pressures of fame which doesn’t resort to self-pity, Substitute For Love/Drowned World is an achingly honest affair in which Madonna admits she ‘traded fame for love’ and ‘got exactly what I asked for’, but one which also admits that she now wants to change her ways. Brilliantly setting the scene for what lies ahead, the opening track is also exquisite too, from the slightly disorienting ambient intro (complete with ghostly spoken words) to the breathtaking middle-eight (‘no one night stand, no far off land’) which showcases Orbit’s box of studio tricks at its best.

Its lyrics

Drowned World wasn’t the only time where Madonna got deeply personal on Ray Of Light. Closing track Mer Girl sees her reflect, in rather vivid style, on the death of her mother (‘And I smelled her burning flesh/Her rotting bones, her decay’), while the beautifully shimmering Little Star is one of those rare tributes to an offspring (in this case, Lourdes) which doesn’t drown in schmaltz. Whereas Madonna had previously cultivated a cold and aloof persona, Ray Of Light saw her embracing a warmer and more confessional direction which proved that pop superstars also have feelings too.

The imagery

Madonna has arguably never looked better than she did during the campaign for Ray Of Light. Shot by famed photographer Mario Testino, the cover – featuring Madonna and her windswept strawberry blonde hair posing in front of a calming turquoise backdrop – brilliantly complements the Earth Mother vibe that encapsulates the record. The album’s accompanying promo videos all pulled off a similarly sophisticated style too, from the geisha girl imagery of Nothing Really Matters to the time-lapse footage of Ray Of Light to the blue-tinged dramatics of The Power Of Goodbye.

Its spiritual vibes

Alarm bells usually ring when an artist declares they’re going all spiritual, but Madonna managed to interweave her new-found interest in Kabbalah into Ray Of Light without sounding all preachy. Indeed, from the daring adaptation of a Hindu Sanskrit prayer (Shanti/Ashtangi) to the spiritual leanings of Sky Fits Heaven and Swim, the album’s otherworldly vibes felt authentic and natural rather than someone simply jumping on the latest fashionable religion bandwagon.

It extended Madonna’s pop legacy

Like her fellow ‘80s pop superstars Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna had initially failed to reach the same commercial heights in the 1990s, and her stint as the undisputed Queen of Pop looked to be coming to an end. But Ray Of Light gave her a new lease of life and undoubtedly helped to prolong her reign until the double whammy of the disappointing Hard Candy and Lady Gaga’s arrival in the late ‘00s. Without Ray Of Light, we might not have had another ten years of glorious pop, from the playful electro of Music, to the unfairly-maligned Bond theme Die Another Day, to the inspired ABBA-sampling disco of Hung Up.

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Interview: Patrick Leonard Talks Madonna, Leonard Cohen, and Instagram Fame

One of the first adjectives people will often use when describing Patrick Leonard is “humble.” The veteran composer and producer has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Madonna, Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. And yet he’s incredibly modest about his résumé, always shifting the focus back to the music.

A year ago, Leonard’s public profile grew when—at the urging of his son, who’d read an interview in which Madonna questioned whether her longtime collaborator was on Instagram—he joined the social media app. Fans of the Queen of Pop flocked to his account, and soon Leonard was performing a sold-out show at Joe’s Pub in New York, playing instrumental versions of the songs he wrote with Madonna for fans of his that he didn’t know existed a year earlier.

“For the first time ever I’m investigating my old work and seeing if I can bring something to the fans who are obviously very loyal to it,” Leonard told me over the phone during a break from recording in his Los Angeles studio. In October, Leonard took a hiatus from his newfound Instagram fame to start work on a new album, his first in over 20 years. The album, which he says will likely be released in two volumes, is composed of newly recorded versions of those famous Madonna songs, performed with some of the original musicians, including guitarist Bruce Gaitsch and bassist Guy Pratt. A Kickstarter campaign for the album will launch in the coming weeks.

I chatted with Leonard about the album, electronic music, the late Leonard Cohen, and, of course, his work with Madonna, including Ray of Light, which was released 20 years ago this week.

Was it a surprise to learn that you’re, at the very least, a beloved figure among Madonna fans?

It was a bit of a surprise. I certainly expected that people knew my name associated with her, but I didn’t realize that I was held in such high esteem by so many. A very pleasant surprise.

Looking back at Ray of Light, 20 years later, how do you think it holds up?

I think it holds up really well. I looked at the songs [from the album] I was gonna do at Joe’s [Pub] and felt the innovation of it and just how good [co-producer] William Orbit was at that time. It’s still apparent. Very innovative, and sonically very interesting.

One of my favorite songs you co-wrote for Ray of Light is the B-side “Has to Be,” which was included on the original tracklist for the album, but it was swapped out for another song last minute. It’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking, almost ambient ballad about self-love.

You know, I haven’t listened to the original demo of that one yet. I wish I could remember how it went. You mind if I YouTube it?

[Laughs] Not at all.

Oh, yeah, I remember now. I think I hear a Juno [Roland synthesizer]!

Tori Amos has covered several Madonna songs in concert, and her recent rendition of “Frozen” is really haunting and beautiful. Have you heard it?

I haven’t. I think Tori’s wonderful, but I don’t go looking for those things. It has to literally be put in front of me. This isn’t a comment on Tori, because again I haven’t heard it, but oftentimes when people do covers, they don’t know the center of it. Maybe they have their own sense of the center, but my sense of where the plumb line is—a single line and everything’s built around it—that knowledge and sense of where that line actually exists is different for [the songwriters] than anyone else. And so, usually when I hear other people’s versions, I’m flattered that they think it’s a good enough piece of music that they want to represent themselves with it. I’m honored at that level.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Madonna songs she’s chosen to cover—“Live to Tell,” “Like a Prayer,” and “Frozen”—are ones you co-wrote.

Yeah. This is an assumption, but Tori probably chose those songs because she’s a pianist and they were written on piano.

Oh, good point.

They’re all pianistic.

Another seminal Madonna album you worked on, Like a Prayer, turns 30 next year. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Spanish Eyes.” It’s so different tonally from the two previous Latin-influenced songs you wrote with Madonna, “La Isla Bonita” and “Who’s That Girl.” It’s darker and more mysterious.

The way we worked on Like a Prayer, and other records as well but particularly Like a Prayer—we wrote a song a day. I wrote this thing, at the piano again, and at the top of it, it says “tango.” She came in the morning [and] listened to it, [wrote] the lyric, put a guide vocal down, and went home. [laughs] What I always believed was good about our collaborations is that the spirit of the composition was always very closely reflected in the sentiment of the lyric, and the spirit of it as well. So if there was a darkness about [the music], that gave her an opportunity for the lyric to go there. And even something like “Till Death Do Us Part”—which had an uncomfortableness about it and yet it felt all bubbly and perky, but it wasn’t. And I always thought that was a great lyrical position, to have it be this really dark…not really dark, but you know—

It’s pretty dark!

Yeah, a tremendous amount of conflict. But you feel like you can skip rope to it.

Like a Prayer is easily her most organic album in terms of the live instrumentation, but “Till Death Do Us Part” is an exception. It’s a very synth-based track. What’s your relationship to electronic music? I know you’ve posted videos on Instagram where you’re experimenting with patching different modular synths and things like that.

I started playing piano really, really young. But I took jazz lessons, and I took classical lessons. And I started playing in rock bands when I was about 10 years old. So I have a really strange potpourri of a background. But I also, from the very beginning of my career as a keyboardist, had synthesizers. They’ve always been very present for me. I’m making this record now of Madonna songs and a lot of the gear I’m using is the same gear I used on [Madonna’s 1986 album] True Blue, and interfacing with new modular stuff. And what I like to do is—I like to then bring in players to play on top of it. Playing along with “machines” presents another challenge.

Madonna’s work with producer Nellee Hooper on her 1994 album Bedtime Stories is sometimes credited as a precursor to Ray Of Light, but “I’ll Remember” [co-written and produced by Leonard] is also quite electronic. The drum programming is so complex and expressive—almost pointillistic.

It’s also [drummer] Jonathan Moffett. [laughs]

Really? How do you create that sound?

Necessity’s the mother of invention, right? Like, this morning I’m working on a modular program version of [Madonna’s 1990 single] “Hanky Panky,” which is absolutely sick. There’s many layers to [creating that sound]. One is that the precision necessary to do it—when you force a human to that sort of precision, you get something vital. When you just do it and you chop it up on a computer, it sounds cool, but you don’t get that person sweating—

That’s the expressiveness I’m talking about.

Yeah. It forces somebody to the edge of their abilities, and in doing so, you get a human energy that I really enjoy. It’s not as accurate as it sounds; it’s not as pristine as the impression that it gives you. But part of that is that the sequence is running; your body’s taking in something that feels metronomic, it feels like a clock, while there’s things breathing inside of it.

These days Leonard Cohen is probably the artist you’re most closely associated with, since you worked on his three final albums. What was that songwriting process like?

Unlike with Madonna, he didn’t dabble in the music and I wasn’t gonna try to dabble in the lyrics. He would send me a lyric and I would work on the music. Some of them we worked on many, many, many versions, which also differs from Madonna. What Leonard was looking for was the perfect setting for the poem that didn’t interrupt the verse that he had written—because obviously that was king, and deserved to be. So those records were a bit of an exercise in staying out of the way.

I understand that your performance at Joe’s Pub last fall was a bit serendipitous for you.

It was just sweet that [Cohen] performed there and his poster was on the wall just above the stage. It hadn’t been that long since he had passed, so it was nice to see him hanging on the wall.

Watching over you.


What did you learn from him?

Oh, that’s a big question. A lot—as a person, and a tremendous amount as an artist. Methodology, process. How does a mere mortal get to a place where the lyrics are what his lyrics were, are, will always be. How do you get there? And his process is different than anyone else I’d seen, and anyone else I’d ever worked with. And I found it beautiful, and I incorporate it theoretically, in principle, all the time now. Once you see something like that you’re a fool not to see what you can do to learn from it. I’ll miss Leonard forever.

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Ray of Light: Madonna’s lesson in maturity or gateway for Goop?

Still 20 years on, Madge’s earth mother opus that influenced Adele and Britney, is still the template for modern pop

Twenty years ago this week, Madonna regenerated as a yoga-loving, Kabbalah-following, mysticism-spewing Earth Mother. After 1994’s R&B-flavoured Bedtime Stories album had helped sanitise the brand post Erotica’s S&M, 1998’s Ray of Light represented a mature – but not boring – move into blissful reawakening. The platinum blonde hair of old was sandier, while the look was less Marlene Dietrich and more Phoebe from Friends.

Like most top-tier Madonna albums, Ray of Light has had a huge cultural impact. Not only did the album’s skewed electronic pop sound come to define radio’s immediate future – mainly thanks to its previously little-known UK producer William Orbit going on to work with All Saints, Pink and Blur – it also became the template for pop stars looking to say Something Important via the prism of their own experience. “I feel a sense of responsibility because my consciousness has been raised and I would like to impart the wisdom I have to others,” Madonna told Spin.

Pulling back the curtain, Ray of Light touches on the fickleness of fame (Drowned World/Substitute for Love), mortality (Mer Girl) and, on the joyous Little Star, motherhood (daughter Lourdes was born at the end of 1996). It is no coincidence that in 2013 Britney Spears – who released her debut single the same year Ray of Light came out – worked with Orbit on Britney Jean, an album trailed as her “most personal yet”.

For Adele, Ray of Light became a saving grace. Detailing how lost she felt making 25 following the birth of her son, she told Rolling Stone: “I couldn’t find that many examples for myself where I was like: ‘Fuck, they truly came back to themselves,’ until someone was like, ‘Well, obviously, Ray of Light.’” It is testament to the persuasiveness of the self-discovery narrative that runs through Ray of Light that Adele would see it as the return of the real Madonna. As Madonna explained at the time, her last few albums had come “from a place of anger and frustration”. Ray of Light is the ultimate zen-like cleanse, a life-appraising album that became a necessity for all long-term megastars.

As Pitchfork pointed out last year, however, Ray of Light’s earthy navel-gazing and garbled sloganeering (Shanti/Ashtangi is a yoga chant set to music) can also be seen as partly to blame for Gwyneth Paltrow’s “lifestyle brand” Goop, and the litany of celebrities who preawellness via Instagram posts and beauty treatments involving steaming your undercarriage. “My spiritual journey is to be open to everything,” Madonna mused in 1998. “Pay attention to what makes sense, be absorbed.” If that’s not a slogan waiting to be sewn on to an overpriced scatter cushion, I’ll down my $27 bottle of Psychic Vampire Repellent.

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Madonna's 'Ray of Light': 6 things you didn't know

Collaborators look back at the pop icon's pivotal 1998 LP

Twenty years ago, Madonna was at a crossroads. After launching her Maverick entertainment company in 1992 with her widely but not wisely panned Erotica album and Sex book, the star entered a period of relative caution. The exuberant queerness of those works gave way to muted ballads, followed by Evita, which made her feminism palatable to Middle America. After the birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996, she sought spiritual enlightenment in Kabbalah and Ashtanga yoga, and immersed herself in the work of songwriters who shared their secrets via meditative electronic textures – particularly Björk, Everything But the Girl and Tricky.

All these factors shaped Ray of Light, an album akin to those artists' work, but also uniquely Madonna-esque. Rooted in the underground yet heard and loved by millions, it's the multi-platinum antecedent to today's popular EDM, but considerably more personal. Twenty years later, singers and producers alike are still chasing its finely finessed fusion of anguished rumination and beat-driven bliss. Rolling Stone spoke with key collaborators on this watershed LP. Here are six things we learned.

1. Although the project's synth-centric final results earned her the passing nickname Veronica Electronica, Madonna didn't initially plan to work with songwriter Rick Nowels or producer William Orbit.
After Evita, Madonna reunited with Babyface, co-producer and co-writer of Bedtime Stories' "Take a Bow," which had topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1995. But according to the smooth-soul magnate, "Madonna didn't want or need to repeat herself." Spotting her at Barney's department store when he'd come to Manhattan for the Grammys, producer and songwriter Rick Nowels – now Lana Del Rey's primary collaborator – impulsively introduced himself. "I told her I was nominated for a Grammy for Celine Dion's 'Falling Into You,'" he recalls. Much to his surprise, she replied, "Oh, I love that song." This led to a meeting at her home, where, according to Nowels, "She said she had no idea what the new album was going to be." At Nowels' Mulholland Drive home studio, the pair wrote nine songs in 10 days.

"Until then, I had only written with friends – Ellen Shipley, Billy Steinberg, and Stevie Nicks," Nowels remembers. "It was quite unnerving to write one-on-one with the biggest star on the planet. But I loved her songs and felt an emotional kinship with her music. I got a lot of DJ records and old film score records and prepared loops to write to. Once the song was written, we'd drop the loop and program our own beat. 'Little Star' and 'The Power of Good-Bye' were written over a drum 'n' bass rhythm, which was happening at the time. 'To Have and Not to Hold' was written to a bossa nova beat."

Guy Oseary – chairman of Maverick Records – phoned synth-pop veteran William Orbit, who'd previously remixed Madonna's "Justify My Love" and "Erotica." Orbit's involvement expanded as the project evolved, although core Madonna associate Patrick Leonard and British producer Marius De Vries were both called in to assist as the album's creation stretched out over four-and-a-half months – an eternity for the fast-working Madonna.

2. Ray of Light is largely about spiritual transformation, but one song deals with the perils of hard drugs.
"Candy Perfume Girl" came out of a two-week writing and recording stint between Orbit and Susannah Melvoin, daughter of top L.A. session musician Mike Melvoin, brother to late Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, twin sister to Prince and the Revolution's Wendy Melvoin, and former fiancée to Prince. She's no slouch herself: As member of the Family, a splinter group of the Time, she co-sang the original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and co-wrote one of Prince's sweetest songs, Sign o' the Times' "Starfish and Coffee." According to Melvoin, William Orbit offered her some tracks to write melodies and lyrics to and sing over for what she thought would either become her solo debut or an album by Orbit's Strange Cargo project, which she – and, it turns out, Madonna – both loved.

"I was on the floor [of Orbit's studio], just putting words together, and came up with 'Candy Perfume Girl,'" she recalls. "It was a personal track for me. At the time, I was mourning my brother [Jonathan died of a heroin overdose in 1996], and it was the allure of drug addiction. I was pretty jacked up about that record happening, and there were a couple of other songs that I had done with him there."

But Melvoin's publisher got a call notifying her that Orbit had offered Madonna the tracks they'd worked on: "Candy Perfume Girl" was going on the record, and Madonna wanted a third of the publishing. Melvoin maintains she also wrote the original lyrics to Ray of Light's "Swim," which, she says were "changed, but not significantly," as well as the original melodies, which she concedes were "manipulated." Yet in this case Melvoin didn't get credit or compensation. The songwriter emphasizes she has no beef with Madonna; she feels the superstar understood exactly what "Candy Perfume Girl" was about, and that she made a brilliant record. "But had I gotten proper publishing on Ray of Light," Melvoin asserts, "I wouldn't be worried about my financial life."

3. The album's defining techno-rock title track was based on an obscure folk oldie.
Just as Orbit offered Madonna his Melvoin material, he similarly sent her a tape featuring unreleased work with Christine Leach, an English singer who'd co-written and sang with Strange Cargo. Leach's uncle is David Atkins, who, as Dave Curtiss, had been half of Curtiss Maldoon, an overlooked folk duo that released a pair of unsuccessful albums on Deep Purple's label in the early Seventies. The first one yielded "Sepheryn," which Leach altered and sang parts of over the instrumental track given to her by Orbit, who had assumed Leach solely wrote what she sang. Madonna made additional changes, and the track became what we know as "Ray of Light," which is credited to Madonna, William Orbit, Clive Maldoon, Dave Curtis [sic] and Christine Leach.

Some elements "Ray of Light" are strikingly similar to parts of "Sepheryn": The opening vocal melody remains basically the same while the lyrics deviate only slightly. But "Ray of Light" omits the multiple tempo changes of "Sepheryn" while maintaining a steady rhythm. These changes appear in the Leach rendition leaked online. Madonna's interpretation – which adds a crucial second, goddess-centric verse – is certainly closer to it than to the Curtis Maldoon original, but Madge's way with the melody commands and sustains attention in ways that Leach's does not. Madonna and Orbit managed to turn a compelling experiment in transformation into the cornerstone of a whole album about radical personal and spiritual growth.

4. Despite the borrowing, Madonna's Ray of Light collaborators consider the icon to be a top-level musical mind.
Having co-written and co-produced significant chunks of many Madonna albums, including Ray of Light, as well as serving as her keyboardist and musical director on two major tours, Patrick Leonard has worked with Madonna longer and more extensively than any other musician. He also co-wrote and produced Leonard Cohen's final three studio albums, so when he calls her "a helluva songwriter," it means something.

"Her sensibility about melodic line – from the beginning of the verse to the end of the verse and how the verse and the chorus influence each other – is very deep," he contends. "That's not common. Say 'Live to Tell,' for example, our first big single. The melodies I wrote are still there and she sings them for the most part, but it's where she departs from them that turned it into a song. Many times she's singing notes that no one would've thought of but her. Some of it can be perceived as naiveté because she's picking a note you wouldn't choose. But who needs the 'correct' note? You need the right note that tells the story, and she's great at that. She certainly made me look better. All I have to do is look at all the other people I wrote with over the years and how that went."

Los Angeles-based cellist Suzie Katayama has worked with many big names in rock and pop including Roy Orbison, Neil Young, Prince, Eric Clapton, Björk and Beck. Her association with Madonna goes way back to 1986, and for Ray of Light, she conducted its strings and woodwinds – 20 violins, six violas, six cellos, four basses, two flutes and an oboe.

"It was a long day," she recalls. "For that album, we did the orchestra in one day, both 'Frozen' and 'The Power of Good-bye.' That's why I don't remember much except for working really hard and fast. Everything that Madonna does, she is there. I have never been to anything that's hers that she didn't have the final say on it. She's hands-on. People can say whatever they want, but I remember when she did Dick Tracy, I had never seen anyone work so hard. I was impressed, and I think everyone was because she had to hold her own with a lot of people in that movie.

"This was the record where I had more people calling me, saying, 'Whoa, this is a great record,'" she continues. "It was real musical. Ray of Light showed a side of her that I don't think most people saw."

5. One of the songs written but not recorded for Ray of Light was released years later by an Italian superstar.
If you're not European or don't listen to Spanish-language radio, you probably don't recognize the name Laura Pausini. But the Faenza-born singer is pretty much a household name overseas, having sold more than 70 million records internationally. Her attempt to crack the U.S. market, 2002's From the Inside, flopped spectacularly. So for 2004's Resta in Ascolto and its European equivalent Escucha, Pausini returned to Italian and Spanish respectively, and together those albums sold more than 5 million copies, while the latter snagged both Grammy and Latin Grammy trophies. According to Nowels, their closing song, "Mi Abbandono a Te" ("Me Abandono a Ti" on Escucha) was originally titled "Like a Flower," and was composed by both him and Madonna during their Ray of Light songwriting sessions. Having re-written most of the Nowels-produced ballad's lyrics in Italian and Spanish, Pausini makes it her own. Nevertheless, the melody's melancholy Ray of Light–ness remains: The bilingual chorus couldn't be more Madonna if it poked you in the eye with a pointy bustier.

6. None of Madonna's records won a Grammy until Ray of Light.
The Recording Academy often rewards entertainers who release hit after hit, but this hasn't been the case with Madonna for much of her long career. In her first 15 years of releasing albums, she got a few scattered Grammy nominations – including nods for "Crazy for You," "Papa Don't Preach," and "Who's That Girl" – but her only win was for Blond Ambition World Tour Live, a long-out-of-print 1990 laser disc that's never been officially reissued on DVD or any other format.

But Ray of Light significantly interrupted her losing streak: It won for Best Dance Recording and Best Pop Album, and the title track's promo clip won Best Short Form Music Video. Since then, she's won three more times out of 15 subsequent nominations – including Best Electronic/Dance Album for her 2005 LP Confessions on a Dance Floor, which features a kindred mix of rhythmic extroversion and poetic reflection.

Rather than throwing the Academy some deserved shade, Madonna, taking the stage in a flaming red Jean-Paul Gaultier kimono, merely thanked her collaborators before she yanked William Orbit – who towered shyly above her – down and toward the mic, chiding him for mumbling his gratitude: "He does speak English; you'd never know it."

  • Gepubliceerd in Nieuws

Twee Indie Only Madonna reissues: 'Like A Virgin' en 'Ray Of Light'

2018 begint goed, want vanaf 12 januari kan je weer bij de onafhankelijke platenzaken terecht voor twee exclusieve Indie Only releases. Dit keer zullen twee albums van ‘queen of pop’ Madonna opnieuw worden uitgebracht.

Madonna’s tweede studioalbum ‘Like a Virgin‘ (1984), geproduceerd door Nile Rodgers, zal worden uitgebracht op transparant vinyl. Het album bevat onder andere Madonna’s eerste #1-hit in de VS ‘Like a Virgin’ en haar eerste #1-hit in de UK ‘Into The Groove’. Nu, 33 jaar later, zal dit album worden uitgebracht als prachtige clear vinyl-reissue.

Een wat recenter album van Madonna, ‘Ray of Light‘ (1998), zal opnieuw worden uitgebracht op blauw vinyl. Bij dit album was Madonna geïnspireerd door kabbala, een joodse geloofsstroming. Het album heeft dan ook dertien liedjes, het heilige getal in kabbala. De eerste single van het album was Frozen en haalde internationaal nummer 1 in de hitlijsten. Ook haar tweede single, de title track Ray of light, was een internationale nummer 1 hit.

  • Gepubliceerd in Buitenlands nieuws

Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ still shines quite bright

“Ray of Light” was an album that seemed to change things, from music to fashion to pursuits of enlightenment and religious understanding. And it didn’t sacrifice the joys of life in the process.

In 1998, there was a lot of music out that I just didn’t care about. Britney Spears, Sugar Ray and boy bands — it just didn’t resonate with me.

Out of the blue came something I didn’t expect: An important, career-defining work from Madonna.

As a teen male, my Madonna fandom was more rooted in her looks and her antics than in her music. I liked a handful of songs a lot, but I dismissed her as a dancer who got lucky with the right songs at the right time.

I’m pleased to say that I outgrew that outlook long ago.

But in 1998, I generally saw Madonna as a person who made headlines for who she was dating or what she was (or wasn’t) wearing.

So I was totally unprepared for the brilliance that was “Ray of Light.”

I was working at a store that sold books and music at the time of the album’s release. I remember that I was working at the front register area, rewinding some VHS tapes (wow, THAT takes me back ... there were a lot of unkind folks who didn’t rewind, so our multiple rewinding decks were busy a lot of the time) when this new, different, fresh, vibrant music started playing on the store PA system.

It started with strange sounds. Is that the wind? Or am I in space? A voice comes in, and then there’s this processed club-friendly sound, but with guitars and a kind of orchestral build in sound. It had a dance beat, but wasn’t exactly light or poppy. It sounded upbeat and yet introspective. You could dance to it or meditate to it. What was it? I had no idea. But I liked it. Electronica was no longer a dirty word.

I asked the other people I was working with, “Do you know what this is? Who this is?” They shrugged, no idea.

Then the manager came up to check on something and I asked him, “What is this music?” I think he thought I was going to complain, because he responded rather defensively, “It’s the new Madonna, and I’m not gonna shut it off.”

That was fine with me.

When my shift was over, I walked over to the new release racks and saw the CD. Light blue background. Felt kind of summery. And Madonna looked different. She wasn’t trying to seduce or look rebellious. She looked ... mysterious. Different. That look suited the music. She’d redefined her sound and her image yet again, and boy was it engaging.

I bought a copy, on the spot. And I probably listened to it at least three or four times that night.

Here’s the thing: My feelings on it changed, listen to listen. I’d go from thinking, “Wow, this is spiritual” to then thinking, “Wow, she just doesn’t seem to have anything to say, so she’s just throwing something together.” Then I’d be back to, “This is such a creative, rewarding experience” and then I’d think, “It feels so plastic, it feels too electronic, it feels forced.”

When each listen can provoke a different — sometimes competitive — interpretation, I find that means the album is worthwhile. Why? Because it is provoking thought and feeling. It’s making you assess not only the music and your feelings about it, but also how you think an artist should perform or sound or write. “Frozen” didn’t have to be another “Secret” or “Take a Bow.” “Nothing Really Matters” didn’t have to be a “Like a Prayer,” and “The Power of Good-Bye” didn’t have to be “This Used to Be My Playground.” (Insert your own favorites, the point still stands.)

Once I made peace with the fact that Madonna is an artist, that she has the same rights as every other artist, that she follows her muse, that she redefines herself project to project, that she is free to adopt and discard styles as she saw fit, I was able to put aside my sexist and one-dimensional judgments and embrace the music.

It’s kind of sad that I had to do that. I didn’t have to do that for other (male) artists. I never got hung up on the changes between the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” for example. I recognized then, at that early age, that male musicians were able to get away with things that female musicians couldn’t. But I digress.

“Ray of Light” was one of those albums that seemed to change things. I started seeing people wearing hand and arm jewelry that I hadn’t seen before. I started seeing more clothing that was gauzier, more flowing. It reminded me in ways of Flower Power outfits from 1967, 1968. There was more mysticism. There was talk of Kabbalah. Music and fashion and art seemed — at least for a short while — to involve more spirituality and understanding and consideration. Art seemed more worldly, somehow.

But what of the music, Shields? What about the songs?

The songs showed off Madonna’s abilities as a songwriter, from the music to the lyrics. The album has this atmosphere to it, whether the songs are dance pieces or ballads or hymns (yes, I use the word hymns ... the spiritual side of the music is very real, the pursuit of enlightenment and the divine is at the forefront), it’s mature and intimate, while also very fleshed out and ornate.

It’s an album of discovery. At a time when Madonna had been lauded or criticized for her sexuality, her fashion, her behavior, she redefined herself. She was a first-time mother at this point (daughter Lourdes born in 1996), and one gets a sense that Madonna was at a crossroads and trying to determine what she wanted to be, what she needed to be, what kind of world she wanted to interact with and raise her children in. Facing those questions surely led to the more spiritual, introspective material of the “Ray of Light” album.

“Ray of Light” showed that Madonna chose art AND entertainment, comedy AND tragedy, sex AND spirituality. She chose the fullness of life, and wove together an audio tapestry that excels at conjuring emotions and images that can be unsettling and comforting, sometimes right after another.

It’s a brilliant album. It’s still fresh, and that says something. Even if you don’t like Madonna, I implore you to check out the album. If you like serious music, you’ll find it here. If you just want to be able to dance, you can do that with this music. If you like putting on headphones and zoning out, this music can be your soundtrack.

The album offers a little something for everyone. That is its strength. It’s a mature album that recognizes all of life’s paths and celebrates them all.

That, in turn, deserves to be celebrated.

This is the opinion of music enthusiast and Madonna convert Chris Shields. Contact him at Dit e-mailadres wordt beveiligd tegen spambots. JavaScript dient ingeschakeld te zijn om het te bekijken. and follow him on Twitter @clshields1980. Read more of his columns at

  • Gepubliceerd in Nieuws

Ex-manager Madonna pleegt zelfmoord

caresse-henryCaresse Henry, die van 1997 tot 2005 de manager was van Madonna, heeft zelfmoord gepleegd. Caresse, die onder meer creatief betrokken was bij 'Ray Of Light' en 'Music', was lange tijd haar manager na eerst haar persoonlijke assistente te zijn geweest. Caresse zou op 1 april zelfmoord hebben gepleegd, meer details zijn nog niet bekend.
  • Gepubliceerd in Nieuws

Snow Patrol covert Madonna's 'Ray Of Light'

Snow Patrol heeft voor het 75-jarig bestaan van een studio die gebruikt wordt door de BBC een cover opgenomen van Madonna's nummer 'Ray Of Light'.


  • Gepubliceerd in In de kluis

To Have And Not To Hold

Demo met een ander arrangement als de albumversie.
Status: illegaal te downloaden als MP3 op internet.
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