Today in Madonna History: June 30, 1997

On June 30 1997, Madonna began recording sessions for what would become her Ray Of Light album at Larrabee North Recording Studios, Universal City, Los Angeles.

Madonna had already spent several months writing songs and producing demos with Patrick Leonard, Rick Nowels and Babyface (although none of the Babyface material would make the final cut) by the time she entered the studio with co-producers William Orbit and Marius De Vries. Leonard would return to the project to assist with arrangements, earning him a co-producer’s credit on four of the album’s tracks. Madonna would add lyrics and melody to at least a half-dozen previously composed Orbit demos during these sessions as well, with six of their songs making the final cut.

One song that came very close to being included on the album, Has To Be, was dropped due to Madonna’s desire to limit the number of songs on the album to lucky number thirteen. In a final toss-up between Has To Be and To Have And Not To Hold, the former was nixed in favor of the latter. Has To Be would fortunately make it to the ears of fans, however, due to its inclusion as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of the Ray Of Light album, and as the international b-side to the Ray Of Light single.

Has To Be was born as a collaboration between Madonna and Patrick Leonard. Recently surfaced demos from their writing session include two early versions of the song – the first is a piano-based arrangement in a similar style to the previous Madonna/Leonard collaboration, Something To Remember, while the second demo is an experimental synth-based reworking.

After entering the studio with William Orbit, Madonna adapted Has To Be to one of Orbit’s previously composed electronic soundscapes. Although the original Orbit instrumental piece with celestial voices has never been commercially released, it had previously aired on Orbit’s weekly radio series, Stereo Odyssey, on California’s KCRW prior to his involvement with Madonna. A sound file of the original instrumental that has circulated among fans is a recording from one of these broadcasts.

Although the released version of Has To Be is substantially different from the early Leonard demos, enough elements from its original melody lines (which were based on Leonard’s piano phrases) were carried over to warrant a three-way publishing split between Madonna/Orbit/Leonard for its official release.

Despite its relative obscurity, in fan circles Has To Be often ranks among her most beloved ballads.

Today in Madonna History: February 13, 1999

On February 13 1999, Madonna’s Nothing Really Matters single was reviewed by Billboard magazine.

The North American two-track single for Nothing Really Matters included the album version of To Have And Not To Hold as its b-side.

Prior to the release of the Ray Of Light album, it was reported that Madonna had fourteen tracks mastered but wanted to cut one, as she felt that thirteen was a lucky number. According to the article, Madonna’s final selection was between two songs: To Have And Not To Hold or Has To Be.

As we all know, Has To Be ended up being cut from the final track list (except in Japan, where it was included as a bonus track).

If you had to choose between including To Have And Not To Hold or Has To Be on Ray Of Light, which song would you include? Keep in mind, your selection should not simply be which individual track you prefer – Madonna would also have had to consider how her choice would affect the overall flow and emotional arc of the album, both musically and lyrically.

Today in Madonna History: February 21, 1998

On February 21 1998, an article by Larry Flick focusing on the anticipation building around the release of Madonna’s album, Ray Of Light, was published in Billboard magazine. The feature included interviews with Madonna and William Orbit along with a teaser of the album cover.

NEW YORK – Is the world ready for a spiritually enlightened Madonna? The numerous pre-release radio and Internet leaks of “Frozen,” the lead single from the pop chameleon’s new Maverick/Warner Bros. album, “Ray Of Light,” certainly hint that she may be embarking on her most successful musical voyage to date.

With its worldwide release slated for March 3, the album is unarguably her most adventurous. She has teamed with techno pioneer William Orbit for a collection that sews intense, soul-searching words into edgy electronic/dance instrumentals. The result is a gave, visionary effort with the commercial potency needed to finally elevate electronica beyond its current status as a limited hipster movement into a true mass-appeal attraction.

“My intention was to make a record that I’d enjoy listening to,” Madonna says of her first studio set since 1994’s “Bedtime Stories,” which has sold 2 million units in the U.S., according to SoundScan. “This album is reflective of where I am in my life right now – in terms of my musical interests and in terms of my personal beliefs. I feel like I’ve been enlightened, and that it’s my responsibility to share what I’ve learned so far with the world.”

It appears much of the world is clamoring to hear the results. The Singapore Madonna Link, an unofficial, fan-operated World Wide Web site, began offering an unauthorized snippet of “Frozen” Jan. 23. The site has received more than 140,000 hits.

There have also been approximately a dozen leaks of “Frozen” on top 40 radio around the U.S. since Jan. 26. WKTU New York is among those stations that played “Frozen” to rabid listener response.

“The phones blew up,” says assistant PD/GM Andy Shane, adding that the station has continued sneaking the single on the air in advance of its official airplay date of Thursday (19). “For the days we haven’t had it on, people have been calling nonstop begging to hear it.”

Erik Bradley, music director at WBBM (B-96) Chicago, witnessed similar listener response when his station leaked “Frozen” Feb. 7. “People are going crazy for it,” he says. “It’s a compelling record that you can’t shake from your mind after you hear it. That’s the mark of a smash. Clearly, American pop radio needs Madonna.”

So does the rest of the world, apparently. “Frozen” has had “fantastic” early support across Europe, according to Jon Uren, marketing director, U.S. labels, for Warner Music Europe. The single has been A-listed at BBC Radio 1 in the U.K. and hit the airplay charts in France, the Netherlands, and Germany in its first week after a Jan. 23 release.

The project’s retail forecast is equally bright, with Jonathan Rees, head of rock and pop for the HMV chain in the U.K., describing its prospects as `very positive.”

Tim Devin, GM of Tower Records in New York, wholeheartedly agrees. “Quite frankly, I can’t wait for it. The anticipation surrounding this album is amazing. The industry needs an exciting, mega-star release, and this will fill that important void.”

That’s precisely how Phil Quartararo, president of Warner Bros. (U.S.), views “Ray Of Light.” “What Madonna does that’s so admirable is that she always manages to land on the cusp of what we call contemporary music,” he says. “In 1998, every established artist faces the dilemma of maintaining their importance and relevance. Madonna never fails to be relevant.”

The creative seeds for “Ray Of Light” were planted last year, when Madonna phoned Orbit and asked if he was interested in co- writing a few songs. “I’ve been a fan of all kinds of electronic music for many years, and I wanted to incorporate that sound into my music,” she says, adding that her admiration for Orbit’s catalog of recordings put him at the top of her wish list of collaborators. “I love the haunting, trance-like quality of his records. I’ve also always found something melancholy about his music. Since I’m attracted to that sound, and since I tend to write a lot of sad songs, we seemed like a good match.”

Upon introduction, Orbit handed Madonna a tape of five instrumental tracks. “It basically was a sketchbook of fantastic ideas,” she says. “Every track was so inspiring. I took them and gave them structure.”

Among the first songs to evolve from that tape was “Swim,” a guitar-driven electro-funk odyssey on which Madonna meditates on the perils of bad karma and its ongoing effect on the world at large. “It gave me shivers the first time I heard it,” Orbit says. “We both knew we were onto something special.”

From there, the two decided to guide the overall production of “Ray Of Light” together. In addition to the five songs she wrote with Orbit, Madonna collaborated with veteran pop tunesmith Rick Nowels, Nellee Hooper protégé Marius De Vries, and Patrick Leonard, with whom she created such early hits as “Live To Tell” and “Open Your Heart.” Leonard co-wrote “Frozen.”

After locking themselves away in the studio for six months “like a pair of mad scientists,” as Orbit puts it, they emerged with a high- concept collection that combines cutting-edge underground club elements with pure pop melodies and a generous slathering of what they call “teenage-angst guitars.”

Fresh from the rigors of 1996’s “Evita” film and soundtrack, Madonna has also found comfortable new vocal ground between the theatrical demands of that project and the more casual vibe of her early recordings, showcasing a fluid, flexible range that’s executed to haunting effect. “Training my voice has opened me up immeasurably, and it’s allowed me to do things with my voice that I never thought were possible,” she says.

“I’m so proud of the way the album came out,” Madonna adds. “But for a moment after I first finished it, I cringed. I thought, `What have I done ?’ Emotionally and sonically, it went in such a different territory for me.”

Orbit is equally pleased with the set’s results, primarily because Madonna “wasn’t at all interested in compromising or watering down” the electronic textures of his productions. If anything, he says, she `insisted upon purity in the arrangements, which worked astonishingly well with her pop songs at the core.”

Of those songs, both are irreversibly stuck on the title cut – the likely single follow-up to “Frozen” – which is a euphoric, deliciously over-the-top anthem that builds from a percolating trance-disco groove into a collision course of futuristic keyboards and assaulting metal riffs. “It’s totally out of control,” she says, laughing. “The original version is well over 10 minutes long. It was completely indulgent, but I loved it. It was heartbreaking to cut it down to a manageable length.”

The sprawling, unedited version of “Ray Of Light” is already earmarked for inclusion on “Veronica Electronica,” a compilation of single remixes and album outtakes, due in the fall.

“Veronica Electronica” is also a potential stage persona that Madonna is toying with as she ponders hitting the road for her first concert trek since 1993’s Girlie tour. Unlike that eye-popping spectacle, she says she’d like to do something “totally scaled down” this time, with a set list culled exclusively from “Ray Of Light,” “Bedtime Stories,” and 1992’s “Erotica.” If she decides to tour, it won’t happen until late summer/early fall.

Until then, she’ll test live waters with several European TV performances, including a gig on the U.K.’s “National Lottery Live” show Saturday (21), as well as her first U.S. club date in more than 10 years. On Saturday (14), she’ll take the stage of New York’s Roxy nightclub for a performance of three tunes from the album.

Today in Madonna History: June 11, 2015

On June 11 2015, a Rick Nowels interview was featured at songwriteruniverse.com in which he spoke about how he came to collaborate with Madonna for the Ray Of Light sessions:

“I always wanted to work with Madonna. I loved her voice, her songwriting, and the great records she made with Pat Leonard, Stephen Bray and Nile Rodgers. In 1997 I was in New York for the Grammys. I was up for Album of the Year (as one of the producers) for Celine Dion’s Falling Into You. I was in Barney’s (store) getting a tie for the Grammys and I saw Madonna there. I introduced myself, and I told her that she didn’t get the credit she deserved as a songwriter. Which is true, but it’s also an awkward thing to tell a huge superstar! She was very cool and gracious. I ended up getting a meeting with her in L.A. a few weeks later. We wrote nine songs together — three made the Ray of Light album: The Power of Good-bye, Little Star and To Have and Not To Hold. The Power of Good-bye was a number one song in U.K. and Europe. It was a career-changing experience for me. Before that I had always done my co-writing with friends. But working with Madonna…it was the first time I had ever written one-on-one with a great artist/writer. After that I changed gears a little, and now I mostly collaborate directly with artists.”

Today In Madonna History: March 29, 1999

On March 29 1999, Nothing Really Matters peaked at #7 on the Canadian Top 100 Singles chart (RPM).

Warner Music Canada issued Nothing Really Matters as a CD maxi-single and as a two-track CD single featuring the b-side, To Have And Not Hold. While their U.S. counterparts were housed in “FLP” and “draw pack” sleeves, in Canada standard jewel cases with inserts were used for both configurations.

Today in Madonna History: March 3, 1998

1998 - Mario Testino - Ray of Light 03

On March 3 1998, Madonna’s seventh studio album, Ray Of Light, was released in North America.

Spawning five singles and winning four Grammy awards, it garnered near-universal acclaim upon its release and it is often cited as a high watermark in Madonna’s career as a recording artist.

Ray Of Light was produced by Madonna & William Orbit with additional production by Patrick Leonard & Marius De Vries.

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