Mark Ronson: 'I didn't make Amy Winehouse's career. She made mine'
He's the world's most fashionable producer and the brains behind the retro-soul that spawned a million imitators. So why, wonders Fiona Sturges, is Mark Ronson so insecure?
Saturday 25 September 2010
Who exactly is Mark Ronson? His job description is producer, DJ and musician, but in the eyes of gossip columnists and fashion types, he is a style icon, a playboy, a suited and booted man about town. Fêted for his work on Lily Allen's debut album, Alright, Still, and on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black LP, which sold gazillions and won five Grammys, Ronson is the go-to guy if you want to make a cool, credible record while keeping an eye firmly on the mainstream. He is also a DJ to the stars, having played at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes's wedding, and was once the hired entertainment at the White House correspondents' dinner. He is routinely called "the best-connected man in music" for his coterie of chums, who include Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z. He was the first and only artist to be granted permission to remix Bob Dylan, of which he is immensely proud.
Still, the "playboy" thing bugs him. "It makes me sound like an arsehole," he remarks in a slightly high-pitched mid-Atlantic drawl, and I can't help but agree with him. The label is probably a result of those looks – handsome with a hint of goofiness – that reduce otherwise sensible women to mawkish puddles. Then there's the fact that he's not short of a bob or two, and he's nearly always got a gorgeous lady on his arm. For a while he was dating Daisy Lowe, 14 years his junior, but for the past 18 months he has been with the absurdly beautiful French model and actress Josephine de la Baume, who, he beamingly tells me, is "super-talented and amazing" and who pops up in the video for his new single "The Bike Song" riding a bicycle in buttock-skimming skirt and knee-socks.
Our first meeting is at his publicist's office in St John's Wood, London. As I loiter at the reception, a man with a luminous white quiff strides in mumbling into his mobile phone. The hair throws me and it takes me a minute to realise it's Ronson. He is taller than I imagined – around 6ft 2in – and, with his black-and-white spotty jacket, red T-shirt, skinny black jeans and white shoes, looks like a cartoon character brought to life, all primary colours and exaggerated limbs.
Clearly, on any other 35-year-old, the Wham!-era get-up would be ridiculous. Instead, this being Mark Ronson, you just think "Wow, nice jacket" and feel horribly out of touch. He does, it has to be said, have a distinct rock-star radiance about him, although maybe that's down to the new hair.
Ronson is just off the plane from his native New York and is beginning an intensive schedule of rehearsals and appearances ahead of a tour and the release of his new album, Record Collection. It's his first since 2007's Version, an LP of covers that sold a million copies, spent 45 weeks in the album charts and earnt him a Brit award for Best Male Solo Artist.
Where Version was a horn-drenched pastiche of the Sixties soul revue sound, Record Collection utilises vintage synthesisers to create a series of Eighties-inspired numbers taking in propulsive funk, electro-disco and, Ronson's greatest love, hip-hop.
He spent weeks scouring eBay to find the right synthesisers for the job, after which he went in search of guest singers to bring it the requisite Ronson pizzazz. Among the star turns are the rappers Q-Tip and Wu-Tang Klan's Ghostface Killah, Boy George and Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon, whose forthcoming album Ronson has also produced. The record is full of wit, invention and infinitely danceable pop tunes. In short, it confirms his reputation as a master of the musical zeitgeist.
It doesn't take long to realise that Ronson is a bit of a nerd in some respects. He was beside himself with excitement at meeting Le Bon, since Duran Duran are one of his favourite bands from childhood. When he was nine, he put a band together especially so he could play "Wild Boys" at the school talent show. He's also cock-a-hoop at persuading Boy George to emerge from the shadows and sing on "Somebody to Love Me". When they got together, Ronson says he had to concentrate on "putting my crazy, fan-boy self to one side and try to appear professional. I think I just about pulled it off".
Born into a wealthy north London family, Mark Ronson can't pinpoint the first time he was moved by music, though he remembers going downstairs in the middle of the night as a child, having been woken by his parents' stereo.
"They would be playing music really loud and there would be 50 people hanging out and getting wasted. I would go down in my pyjamas and sit in front of the speakers. I would concentrate on the sound and pretend to play drums on top of it."
Ronson's parents split when he was six. There was a messy divorce in which Ronson was required to testify in court – "I have this cute view that I was like Drew Barrymore in Irreconcilable Differences, though in truth I can't remember much about it. I certainly don't remember it being especially traumatic." Even so, for a while Ronson suffered panic attacks at night. His mother sent him to a therapist, but Ronson wasn't keen on confiding in a stranger and the sessions soon ground to a halt.
Following the divorce, his mother moved Mark and his two sisters to New York; the children would visit their father in the school holidays. How, I ask, did he adapt to this split existence?
"There was a sense of outsiderness," he reflects. "You learn to adjust to new surroundings quickly. You're in New York and everyone's making fun of you because you've got a funny accent so you quickly try and sound as American as possible. Then you come back to England and get teased because you sound American, so you adjust your accent accordingly. I mean, kids can make fun of you for having the wrong shoelaces, that's just kids. But I don't think I had any trouble making friends."
Clearly, a certain easy sociability is in his genes. Ronson's mother, Anne Dexter-Jones, was a New York socialite who later married Mick Jones, the guitarist with Foreigner. The pair were famed for their dinner parties where the guests were said to have included David Bowie, Mick Jagger and the McCartneys. His father, Laurence Ronson, turned down a career in the family property business to become manager of Eurovision Song Contest winners Bucks Fizz. Meanwhile, his uncle is Gerald Ronson, one of the so-called "Guinness four" who was jailed in 1990 for his part in the share-trading scandal. His sister is DJ Samantha Ronson, former girlfriend of the actress Lindsay Lohan. What with his parents' various marriages, Ronson now has 10 siblings, which makes life complicated at Christmas, though otherwise "it's all very harmonious," he says. "I don't think any of us would change the way it all worked out."
Ronson reckons that a lot of the stories concerning his mother's parties have been made up – "mostly by my mother," he adds. "One day I need to hook her up to a polygraph. There were always a lot of people around but I have to be honest, I just don't remember David Bowie being in my house."
He does, however, remember being tucked into bed by Robin Williams, who was a little the worse for wear at the time. And, yes, there was a sleepover with Michael Jackson, about which Ronson won't say much other than that he met him through his friend Sean Lennon and that "nothing funny happened". What he will tell me, however, is that the next day at school he didn't tell a soul. "If I bragged about it I knew that one of two things would happen: a) the kids would think that I was full of shit or b) they would think I was obnoxious and I'd get a slap for it. All in all, it was better to say nothing."
Even back then, Ronson, it seems, was a keen protector of his public image, an instinct that is still evident today. Along with despairing of the "playboy" tag, Ronson's reputation as a scion of rock royalty is another irritation. "I was playing music for 12 years in New York dives with nobody taking notice," he protests. "I didn't start making music in order to be famous. And it's not like at 20 I decided to make music and someone handed me a golden Rolodex of contacts. I guess there were some things that happened as a kid that didn't happen to everyone, like meeting Michael Jackson, but the rest of my life was pretty normal."
Hmm, this sounds like wishful thinking to me. This is, after all, a man who ran away from home as a teenager and, rather than roughing it, went to live with Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono. What is clear is that Ronson's background has, perhaps for fear of appearing privileged, spurred him into carving an identity and career of his own. Certainly, you could never accuse him of being lazy.
At 13, he got an internship at Rolling Stone magazine and later wrote the odd review for a fanzine called Heavy Metal Madness. At 17, he fell head-over-heels in love with hip-hop, but thankfully recognised he would never make it as a rapper. At a loss for what else do to, he started DJ-ing, playing the records that he had amassed throughout his teens, and did so with great success. He started a course at NYU but dropped out in order to concentrate on the DJ career. All the while he was making demos and producing records by friends.
Before he met Lily and Amy, Ronson says that people saw him as "that DJ guy, a new York scenester who just hangs out and goes to parties all the time. But then Lily's thing broke and she took me on the road with her. So then I seemed to go from being this party guy to being seen as a serious producer. Then Amy's album came out and it all went a bit crazy."
He's not wrong. After 2006, Ronson was suddenly the world's hottest producer and the brains behind the retro-soul sound that swept the charts and spawned a million imitators. Such was the acclaim for Ronson's studio wizardry that he became portrayed as the talent behind the artist, the puppet master pulling dolly-bird strings. "Which was so insulting to Lily and Amy and all the people I was working with," he says now. "It was just awkward reading all these headlines, because Lily made all these records before I even worked with her. It was on hearing these records that I asked her to come out and work with me. She came out to New York with my Airmiles and stayed at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown in the middle of the avian flu scare and she totally freaked out. I'm not just saying this to be deferential, but her and Amy made my career rather than vice versa."
It wasn't all awards ceremonies and sunshine, however. Ronson had his detractors, among them music critics who accused him of peddling karaoke soul and, through his work with Winehouse, sparking a tidal wave of retro copycats such as Adele and Duffy. Fellow pop stars also weighed in, among them Noel Gallagher, who suggested that Ronson "learn how to write a tune instead of ruining everyone else's".
Ronson remembers going on a night out with a journalist friend in London when he was at the height of his post-Version success. "We had a fun night hanging out, and then the next day I picked up a copy of a magazine he writes for and it was him saying I should be sent to the guillotine for crimes against music."
Now Ronson is bracing himself for the critical assessment of his new album, though he's desperately trying not to care. He says he's at his happiest pottering about in his apartment in New York that he shares with Josephine and a rescue dog named Maud. "Just last week I was in New York at home with Josephine and I was incredibly contented. She's so busy and travels a lot for work, too, so it can be quite hard to find a point where we can be in the same place at the same time."
He also has a small house in Montauk, Long Island, where he takes the dog to have a proper run around "to compensate for my bad-dad guilt". He likes his own company and happily goes to the cinema and restaurants by himself. He recently got rid of his BlackBerry as he didn't like being in permanent e-mail contact.
"Empires were governed where it would take five days to send a letter to the generals at war," he says. "The world does not end if you don't answer an e-mail in three minutes about whether you're going to wear a plaid shirt on a TV show." Ronson says that he loves flights between London and New York "because it's seven hours where no one can touch you and no one can reach you. It's such decompression for me. I love watching those crappy Sandra Bullock movies. There was a study recently that said the altitude when you're flying makes you more sensitive, emotionally. It must be true because I always cry during those movies when I'm on the plane."
I meet Ronson again a fortnight later in a subterranean dressing room at the BBC. He and his band are getting ready for a performance on Later... with Jools Holland. Since it's the 250th episode, the show is set to be a right old knees-up – rumour has it that Dawn French is going to jump out of a birthday cake – though I'm not allowed into the recording studio lest, being the ferocious newshound that I am, the surprise is somehow spoilt.
The dressing room is awash with musicians, several of whom are in their underpants and proffering clothes to a heroically patient lady whose job it is to do their ironing. In the midst of the chaos, Ronson sits at a dressing table signing CDs. A box filled with pairs of sunglasses sits on the coffee table courtesy of Ray-Ban and there's a consignment of clothes on its way over from Topshop. The bass player, Stuart, comes over and asks Ronson's advice on his trousers. Ronson gently tells him where the crease should be and that different shoes might work better.
I ask Ronson about his love of clothes. He says he's always admired people such as Bryan Ferry and Jarvis Cocker, whom he thinks are seriously elegant. "I don't think I've got an innate sense of style, but I guess I'm influenced by those I love and admire. You hope that you combine those influences in a way that becomes your own." Early on in his career he was on a photo-shoot in Paris. The stylist said he could keep the suits that he'd been wearing and, with no time to shop for himself, he wore them pretty much for the next year, "so the suit thing just kind of stuck".
Not any longer. He recently got a friend to go through his wardrobe and clear out some clothes for a celebrity charity sale. "I was in London so I had him on iChat holding up the suits to the camera. I would say, 'Yeah, that one, that one and that one'. Then when I got home I opened the wardrobe and I was, like, 'Fuck, there's nothing left'."
He sighs and rubs his eyes. In the past fortnight, Ronson has made two trips to New York and one to Ibiza and in between has been rehearsing with his band. He's exhausted and has been dreaming of going off to Montauk with his dog. "That's the ideal," he reflects. "To do well enough that you just don't worry about dipping out of the game for a year and having everyone forget you. I mean [the Beatles producer] George Martin wasn't going around peddling his latest brand of polo shirt. He stayed in the studio and that's why he has a brilliant legacy of music. I do try to focus on the music and not get caught up in all the other shit but... well, I'm 35. I'm probably in the last five years of performing on stage."
Perhaps he should stop worrying so much. Yes, he should, he says. He rates his neurosis levels at "somewhere between a normal person and Woody Allen. I never expect anything I do to be a success and I feel that slight humiliation at the thought of failing. I get nervous before I go on stage because I'm not a born performer. I only started playing guitar three years ago and I only started singing, like, yesterday. I do think I throw obstacles in my own path, and ratchet up the neurosis that way. But there are worse problems to have, I think."
Our time is up, Ronson's due in make-up – from which he emerges looking exactly as he went in – and then a woman with a clipboard arrives to talk the musicians through the show. No wandering off the set, water will be provided and, since they want to do the whole show in one take, could they please try not to cock anything up? Everyone looks relaxed except for Ronson who is fidgeting and chewing furiously on his gum. When it's time to go, he shakes my hand, thanks me for my time and disappears upstairs, though not before looking in the mirror and checking his hair one last time.
The single 'The Bike Song' by Mark Ronson and the Business International is out now. 'Record Collection' (Columbia) is released on Monday. See markronson.co.uk for tour details
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