The Saturday Interview
Mark Ronson: ‘Self-deprecation can seem like a false character trait to make you endearing’
Ahead of the release of his new album ‘Late Night Feelings’, the producer and artist talks to Kate Hutchinson about heartbreak, Amy Winehouse, and coming to terms with success
Mark Ronson is looking for distraction. The super-producer is jetlagged during a run of interviews in his publicist’s office, where Kasabian gold discs glint from the walls. He is taken with my OutKast T-shirt – he hops on the nearest computer and plays me a clip from a Key & Peele sketch, where they masquerade as the hip-hop duo’s André 3000 and Big Boi. Comedy skits like this are one of the ways he unwinds after a day prodding buttons, or egos, in the recording studio. “It can be draining,” he explains, “when you’re dealing with outsized personalities and all their wonderful emotions. Sometimes you go home and need 30 minutes of something funny before you fall asleep.”
If anyone knows how to tackle outsized personalities, it’s Ronson. The 43-year-old has worked with Adele, Paul McCartney, Lily Allen, Nas and, on 2014’s unavoidable earworm “Uptown Funk”, Bruno Mars. He also of course helped shape Amy Winehouse’s soul-noir sound in the mid-Noughties. We meet the week after the Oscars, where Lady Gaga, Ronson and songwriters Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando took home the statuette for their supernova smash “Shallow”. He is now one of the most recognisable music producers in the world and yet he is self-deprecating to a fault. He describes the A Star Is Born track as “a really powerful song – but that it has everything to do with the movie”. He adds: “I’ve done songs for movies before and… some of the music was not very good.”
The Oscars now a haze of champagne ago, Ronson says he is much more focused on the fact he has his own album coming out – Late Night Feelings – than by winning “some seemingly unattainable award”. By his account it sounds like his fifth record was, at first at least, a painful birth. There was the pressure of trying to follow “Uptown Funk”, after all, a song that broke streaming records worldwide and whose fat and funky sound positioned Ronson as a sort of Quincy Jones 2.0. Then Ronson split from his wife Josephine de La Baume and, in the DJ version of a newly single, mid-life crisis, started a debonair duo with party boy producer Diplo. They called themselves Silk City and their single with Dua Lipa, “Electricity”, won Ronson another Grammy this year.
“I was running away from the responsibility of working on the album because I was worried about following ‘Uptown Funk’,” he says. “I was doing all these other things that were exciting, working with Diplo and Kevin [Parker, of Tame Impala, who has co-produced Ronson’s recent single “Find U Again”] but seemingly to stave off the pressure.” It’s no wonder he was sweating: “Uptown Funk” went through so many tweaks that “it took seven months to get it to the finish line”. Meanwhile, he was drinking and partying a lot. “I did spiral,” he says. “I was really wavering for about eight months, just feeling a little cloudy all the time. I was in this rebound relationship and I just realised I needed to pull my s**t together.”
He had moved out to LA and into a swanky studio but anything he did write for Late Night Feelings was “instantly forgettable”, he says, adding: “I didn’t know if it was going to be any good.’’ Until, that is, he realised that he had to move past the “idea I’ve always had that I do serious or deep music on other people’s albums”. For Late Night Feelings he started making music straight from his own heart(break). “The only things that were sticking were things that had this tinge of melancholy,” he says, “and I probably didn’t realise [until] I was doing it, ‘Oh, I’m making a breakup record’.”
When you’re making a breakup record, rounding up some of the best female vocalists of the moment and getting them into a studio in Malibu for 10 days isn’t the worst idea to have. Ronson enlisted artists such as Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, Angel Olsen, Camila Cabello, Lykke Li and his latest discovery, King Princess, to collaborate on his “sad bangers” – a phrase coined by the suave London selector Rory Phillips. It sums up his album of dancefloor tearjerkers and is a concept he’s taken rather seriously, throwing Club Heartbreak nights on this theme in London, New York and LA, with a forthcoming takeover at Glastonbury this year. The album logo, a disco ball in the shape of a heart, is inked on his bicep.
The commitment has paid off, and that’s not just some metaphorical ass-smoke. Ronson’s been called “a chameleonic cool kid” who has always shapeshifted between styles but for Late Night Feelings he honed in on a musical universe of country, disco, French Touch, Eighties synth and sounds that feel like LA, past and present. It’s nostalgic but knowingly contemporary, and each song is standalone. There’s the tropical steelpan of “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”, the undone funk of “Knock Knock Knock”, the twinkly R&B of “Pieces of Us” that’s firmly in the Blood Orange/Kindness ballpark. There’s also “True Blue”, like The Replacements fronted by Angel Olsen and Truth, with its Alicia Keys-does-Anderson Paak soul. The album feels familiar in its references but never forced; its tracks are high concept but cleverly so: Ronson describes “2am” – a tastefully minimal torch song – for example as “Abba on quaaludes”.
Late Night Feelings already signalled that Ronson had something new to bring to pop’s top table with lead single “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”, featuring Miley Cyrus. It was Ronson’s take on the Nordic disco don Todd Terje’s edit of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” – a “really beautiful and subtle” remix that he “used to always play” – and he’s updated it with the country queen’s goddaughter on vocals. In doing so, he’s also managed to pull off what very few people have been able to do: make country music for the club without it sounding cringe-worthy.
Cyrus, says Ronson, is “part Dolly, part Joan Jett”. He saw her sing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on the 40th SNL anniversary episode with “this Nashville style arrangement in her voice, and I never knew she could sing like that. I couldn’t move from the TV”. Did he get the same feeling from hearing Miley’s voice for the first time as he did with Amy’s? “I don’t know if it’s always the first time,” he says. “I didn’t realise how incredible Amy’s voice was until she was sitting in front of me with a nylon string guitar playing ‘Some Unholy War’ in my studio.” It was then that he knew, “even in my early production career, nobody sounds like that, writes lyrics like that, at 23”. Similarly, he says he “didn’t get” Gaga’s voice when “Just Dance” came out but when he started to work with her on the Joanne album he heard something had “broken”.
“The voices I’m drawn to,” he continues, “there’s a rasp and a bit of a burnt tone in there and it makes everything that that person’s saying seem more vulnerable, real, desperate. And not just the women I’ve worked with but Bruno, too.”
Ronson speaks carefully, partly due to tiredness, partly due to being very good at avoiding potential headlines. He is casually witty and has the flustery self-effacement of somebody who, perhaps, has always had to apologise for their privilege (his uncle is the British business tycoon Gerald Ronson; he was born in west London and when his mother married Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones and moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, celebrities would drop by the family home all the time).
Unlike other producers of his celebrity, however, he knew failure early on: he was signed in the early Noughties off the back of a buzzy hip-hop DJ career in New York but was swiftly dropped after selling “about 12 copies” of his debut, Here Comes the Fuzz. He had sweeping success with his follow-up album of covers, 2007’s Version, which included the immortal “Valerie”, but 2010’s Record Collection, his third album – on which he managed to get Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and grime king Wiley on the same song – was a commercial failure.
He still shrugs off any accomplishments now, but his apparent lack of arrogance could be a reason why stars, particularly women, love working with him. In Lady Gaga’s Netflix documentary, she clearly adored how Ronson respected her artistry. Cyrus also said in a recent interview how “all kinds of women who work with Mark would praise him on the equality that you feel when you’re in the studio”. Why does that still appear to be so rare?
“I don’t know,” says Ronson. “I don’t think I deserve any credit for that – that is, to me, what you do as a producer.” He “maybe” puts it down to growing up with his mother and two sisters and having “good female role models”.
Referring to the continuing difficulties between popstars and producers, he continues: “Occasionally, Gaga would tell me some horror story about somebody and it’s just amazing to me. You’d be an idiot to be in the room with someone as talented as Lady Gaga and not keep asking them, ‘What do you think we should do here?’ Because lyrically, melodically, this person is a heavyweight. Who wouldn’t you defer to one of the world’s greatest vocalists?”
He is just as perplexed by the necessary evils of certain studio wizardry in the streaming age. Ronson used to have “this thing about being called ‘the retro guy’” but “now I care more about making s**t sound modern, and I work harder to make sure that’s the case. I listen to f***ing Spotify, I use Apple Music, I’ve not got my head in the sand. I realise that I make these tunes that sound a bit like classic songwriting, so then I have to do all those other things” – such as trimming tracks down to a stream-friendly three minutes – “to tie it up in this pretty little bow and make sure that it still has a shot.”
He made an interesting point in an interview earlier this year on this topic. He said that he wasn’t sure whether Amy Winehouse’s definitive album he produced, Back to Black, would have made the same dint in the streaming era, because of all the restrictions of modern pop production. As somebody that wants to be authentic and also wants to shift downloads, how does he strike that balance?
“You just have to be smart. And when I read that [interview] back, I felt like I’d spoken wrong because I think Amy would have completely made the mark that she would have. None of her singles went to number one anyway because they were still outliers, even for Radio 1. ‘Rehab’ went to number seven – it’s crazy to think a song like that, [which] will probably stand the test of whatever, didn’t make the number one spot. ‘Valerie’ went to number two. She didn’t really even have number ones. But she was an artist that sold millions of records because it was [about] the whole package.”
Late Night Feelings is about the whole package, too: it’s perfectly coiffed pop that may just help him get past his “mild imposter syndrome” about his production success. In most interviews I’ve read with him, it seems like he’s certain his career could end any day now. He says this is “annoying, because that can seem like a false character trait you do to be endearing, like humble bragging and you’re trying to disguise it”. Still, he knows that he’s proved himself, and says “with each little milestone, I can come to terms with it”.
“I really do feel like that,” he says, “but I think I’m getting better.”
Late Night Feelings is out on 21 June