Lisa Ronson on her first solo record, David Bowie and balancing working as an accountant and going on tour

Ronson didn’t immediately think that she would have a career in music, or even in some related discipline in entertainment

Emily Jupp
Friday 01 January 2016 12:59
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Lisa Ronson is the daughter of Mick Ronson, the guitarist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who performed with David Bowie as part of the Spiders from Mars, and Suzi Fussey, Bowie’s former hairdresser – and she uses language straight out of Bowie’s 1970s period to describe her debut solo album. It is, she says, “a post-synthetic dystopian fantasy”.

I’m not sure what that means. “I’m not sure what that means, either,” Ronson says, smiling shyly over her coffee cup in the café where we meet in Whitechapel, London. “I suppose a lot of the electronic stuff has been going on for such a long time that it is no longer thought of as computer-based, it’s kind of part of what we are. We have sort of turned into half machines by now, anyway.”

Her experimental record, Emperors of Medieval Japan, pushes boundaries with its murky, violent synthetic soundscapes. The song names include “Oblivion” and “Shopping and F******”, which is the single; as these titles suggest, they explore some dark themes.

The “post-synthetic” name is what her fans have called this new genre, pioneered by Ronson, but there is something reminiscent of Eighties synth-pop, Depeche Mode and Bowie’s post-apocalyptic landscapes in her work, which really comes as no surprise when so many of Bowie’s contemporaries worked on the album.

The Cure’s guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who Ronson has also supported on tour, and the saxophone player Terry Edwards, who has worked with the Blockheads, the Jesus and Mary Chain and PJ Harvey, can both be heard on the album. So, too, can the guitarist Earl Slick, who has played with Bowie and John Lennon.

Much of the inspiration for the album came from Ronson’s teenage years. After her father died from liver cancer in April 1993 at the age of 46, when Lisa was 15 years old, she went through a difficult time. “I moved around a lot growing up, too,” she says. “You kind of adapt to that but you don’t have that solid home base or solid people in your life.

”Unlike the Secret History, the indie-rock band that Ronson was part of in New York, this record is the first to be made under her own name as a solo artist. As a result, more of her own feelings went into the music than when she was working as part of a band.

David Bowie performing with guitarist Mick Ronson (1946 - 1993) at a live recording for a Midnight Special TV

“I think [Emperors of Medieval Japan] is an exorcism of some past demons that just kind of lurk around. Just sort of feelings of isolation and loneliness and anger. Those kind of feelings that maybe cropped up in my late teenage years, they kind of follow you around after that... There are songs where you think it is going to turn out all right, but then it’s just not all right.”

Tony Visconti, a long-time Bowie collaborator who worked on his 2013 comeback record, The Next Day, and on his new release, Blackstar, recently played with Lisa and her father’s fellow Spiders from Mars bandmate Woody Woodmansey on tour under the band name Holy Holy. The tour gave her a chance to find out more about her father. “Woody reminds me of [my dad] quite a bit. I don’t know if it’s the accent or the age but I just had a really familial feeling,” she says in a deep New York accent, with just a hint of English in her clipped Ts.

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“He’s really down to earth, really cool, very lovely, very engaging and a brilliant drummer. I was really surprised because I didn’t know if maybe he had put down the sticks and not come back to it for 20 years or something but he is one of the most powerful drummers I’ve ever seen play... We talked about my dad, so that was nice to hear about their stories.

I heard a little bit about how in the beginning they lived in Haddon Hall [in Beckenham, south-east London], where he and my dad had slept on the landing for a couple of months and then, every night, Bowie would finish whatever he was working on in his room and then come get them and they’d start working... They were young and they were like, ‘OK, we’re here, we’ll just stay here on the floor’.”

Unusually for someone with access to so many talented musicians, and with rock royalty in her blood, Ronson didn’t immediately think that she would have a career in music, or even in some related discipline in entertainment. What Ronson decided she most wanted to do was to become an accountant. After she finished school in New York she did study music, but, in her own words, she wasn’t really studying. “I just smoked a lot of pot and I didn’t really care about anything,” she says.

“Then I became a waitress and I was like, oh, God, well, I can’t do this forever – you know, great money, a lot of fun but this is not a life plan. So I went to university to study accounting. I think what happened is, a lot of people rebel against their parents and normally it’s the other way round, normally the parents want their children to get a serious job and do something sensible. But my parents were out of their minds so I said, ‘You guys have it all backwards, I’m going to do accounting.’

It was a way of getting away from them. So I got away from them and then I was like, ‘What have I done?’ I do enjoy it, though, it’s like a puzzle you have to balance out and when it does balance that’s quite satisfying.”

Ronson moved to London three years ago and has settled in a new home, living with friends. “People often ask me if I miss New York but not once have I missed it at all. It’s bizarre, you’d think you’d get a little bit homesick at some point but no. In New York I was always really reluctant to invest in anything, like a chest of drawers, something nice that I might have for a long period of time because I always thought I would move. Whereas here I don’t feel that.”

She seems to have a sensible head on her shoulders. She still works as an accountant, fitting it around gigs and touring, which, she says, she sometimes finds nerve-wracking, especially as her most recent tour to promote Emperors of Medieval Japan involved her on stage alone with just a laptop for musical accompaniment.

“It’s just the way that you’re wired. My dad was always a really nervous person, too. Smoking pot never helped, that just made it really” – she shudders at the thought – “urgh. Drinking really helps, that really works. When the numbers balance, that helps. Exercise helps and singing or performing helps, because there’s a good reason to be nervous then.”

‘Emperors of Medieval Japan’ is out now. Lisa Ronson is playing with and supporting Earl Slick and Bernard Fowler, who will perform Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ album in full on a three-date UK tour in April

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