Mark Ronson - He'll get by with a little help from his friends
Mark Ronson has a gift for catchy collaborations. Ahead of a new album, which features stars young and old, Elisa Bray finds out what it's like to work with the industry's most in-demand producer
Friday 10 September 2010
Ever since he produced Amy Winehouse's album Back to Black in 2006, one of the most influential albums of the decade, Mark Ronson has been the producer in demand, for his hip retro-soul sound. Such is the success of Ronson's collaborations (which include Lily Allen singing his cover of Kaiser Chiefs' "Oh My God" on his 2007 album, Version), that for any rising act, securing his production on an album is a seal of approval. The Rumble Strips and Daniel Merriweather are two to have benefited from the Ronson treatment.
Ronson was already a popular DJ before Back to Black made him a global star. That the British-born, New York-based producer has established himself as the hippest producer in the industry is seen on his latest album, Record Collection, which brings together an array of starry guests including Boy George, Simon Le Bon, Wiley and members of the Kaiser Chiefs, The Zutons and Mystery Jets.
So what is the secret to being the world's best-connected producer and what is Ronson like to work with? Here we talk to some of the stars who worked with Ronson on the new album, out on 27 September.
After Frank, I didn't write for 18 months but when I met Mark I pretty much wrote the album in six months – he was so inspiring.
On "Valerie": "He likes getting a song and then doing his thing over it and I like writing a song myself. The melody, the words, the lyrics, the chords, I like bringing a song to someone and then them doing their own thing over that. We were both a bit spoiled."
I really enjoyed working with Mark, he is super cool and laid back in the studio, which suited me perfectly. It's obvious that he loves the whole vibe of the Eighties, but I also think he just loves anything that hints at style and integrity. You know, style with content, which is sorely missing from most of today's music. We played together at a few parties in New York a few years back, as DJs, but that was long before I knew of him as a producer or as an artist. He was a bit of a hot name as a DJ I recall. Even back then, you expected him to do something major and he certainly has. I think working with Amy Winehouse was the thing that sealed his legacy as "prince of cool" because Amy is a musician's musician. He called me up and said he had a song that was perfect for me. I really loved it, especially the lyrics, and I enjoyed working with Miike Snow who co-wrote the song and sings on it with me. It was a nice experience all round and there seems to be a positive buzz around the track, which is exciting.
Before Record Collection, I'd worked with Mark Ronson for "Cash in My Pocket" and other things. He's responsible for one of the best moments of my life as he bought me on a tour where I got to perform with Jay-Z.
My manager, John Woolf, first played me Record Collection whilst we were at Nellee Hooper's house recording some of my album. It's a mad track as Mark's singing on it with Simon Le Bon. It's great to hear him singing, not just in the background producing the music like people will expect him to be. It was good to be involved. Mark always gets the job done and he's definitely someone I want to continue to work with in the future.
Henry Clark of Rumble Strips
Mark always wore a suit. It may sound shallow, but looking across into the control room whilst we were doing a take and seeing this sharp-suited man nodding his head and meaningfully twiddling knobs, I remember thinking, "This is Proper. That there is a Producer and we're totally making a Record. Anyone who walked in here now couldn't fail to notice what's going on here." One of my favourite memories was election night. We were in the middle of a take when Mark's voice came over the headphones: "Guys, let's wrap it up, Obama just won." We all piled down to Times Square to witness the insane celebrations.
Jonny Pierce of The Drums
Living in this bubble that I call home, naturally, I knew next to nothing about Mark Ronson up until about a year ago when he contacted me and asked me to write with him. I did some investigating and realised that he produced all those perfect, timeless songs for Amy Winehouse. That was all I really needed to know to want to be a part of what he was doing next. Anyone who can put out an album as pure and true as Back to Black should be respected and admired.
Working with Mark was really special. Despite being the most sought-after producer in the world, he's down to earth, focused and constantly inspired by things. We met and decided to record in just under three days. It all worked out, as he's such a hard-working guy. He pulled a Bebel out of me that I didn't know existed. A few weeks later, Mark came to see me play at a party in the Hamptons. He arrived with his dog and his lovely girlfriend, Josephine. The place where I was playing was a hippie-style beach party, and there he was with his striped baby-blue suit and his dog, ever elegant but like a character from another world. I love his style.
Elizabeth 'Z' Berg of The Like
Working with Mark on our record was one of the most insane, quick, stressful, and incredibly creative times I've ever had. We had two days to arrange and about four days to record nine songs, and record them live to tape. And in that time Mark managed to instinctively know how to make each song the best version of itself, make us the best version of our band, and make me a completely different and better singer. He knows how to realise potential in every aspect of music and musicians, and he knows how to do it fast.
Mark Ronson can bring together many different artists and create an environment where everyone's ideas can naturally flow. He is a great conceptual artist and can get the best out of everyone, while maintaining his vision. He knows what he wants and commands in the studio, but still is humble and values everyone's input. For example, he once asked me: "MNDR, would you mind if Q-Tip rapped on this song?" When would you ever expect a question like that? That is why Mark is a great producer and musician.
Rose Elinor Dougall
Mark contacted me out of the blue last year though MySpace. It was at the beginning stages of the project so everything was wide open, and I was interested in the wide range of references and musicians that became involved over the recording process, as this gave me a chance to broaden my own creative horizons also. I think one of Mark's talents lies in his ability to draw the best out of his collaborators by allowing them to bring their own perspectives and ideas to the table freely. He creates an open forum. I loved the fact that most of the record was recorded at Dunham studios, which belongs to The Dap-Kings. It was totally unpretentious, but had a real heart and soul and beautiful equipment in it, which made me feel confident about the kind of record Mark was trying to make. You can hear that atmosphere in the recordings I think.
Kai Fish of Mystery Jets
It came about really organically. We've known each other a couple of years. We played one festival and he came up to us and said he really likes the music. I called him up one night and invited him for some awful cocktails I'd made. We listened to music together and I played him a track we were working on. At the time he was putting together his album and he said: "Do you have any stuff you're not using?" There was a track I wrote called "Hey Girl" and for whatever reason we didn't end up recording it. I sent it to Mark and he came back and said: "I really love that track. Can I use it?" He's a really exciting artist so it's a privilege. It's now called "Hey Boy" as Rose is singing it. That was a song I'd written when I first saw my girlfriend of six years. He sent me a couple of versions along the way – I think he really kept the soul of the song and brought in Afrobeat and added a really cool analogue synth line to it, in the chorus. He treated it in a careful way – it's not easy taking someone else's song and reinventing it. He's got so much drive and he's really great at getting people together. Look at all the guests on the album –he reminds me of a great film director.
Mark's got a very good ear. He's very relaxed in the studio and very thoughtful. There's not really any pressure working there, because he's got his own studio so he doesn't have time constraints. We're really good friends now. We see each other a lot and Mark came and toured with me in the US. It's more than just a straight working relationship. I'll see Mark at festivals, for instance, where there are big spaces when we can sit down and catch up. He's a nice guy. He can be very funny sometimes, but is also a kind person, and I get on very well with his girlfriend. He is very relaxing to be around. Maybe that's because he's grown up in a rock'n'roll environment, so isn't fazed by what's happened to me. I find that refreshing. Mark, though, is one of the few people who is always just a calming guy to be around.
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