Culture Trips

Mark Ronson on hope, hits and Amy Winehouse: ‘I loved being in her company. She was so funny’ | Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson has been a DJ longer than he hasn’t: his entire adult life, sometimes working four or five nights a week, since he was 18. “What is that?” He casts his mind back and counts. “Twenty-five – no, 27 years. Jesus.”

In this time, he has been a staple of the New York scene, the studio partner of Amy Winehouse and a superproducer of artists from Ghostface Killah to Lady Gaga. He has his own instantly recognisable, vintage-leaning sound and is the invisible touch on songs that define not just years but decades.

But there was a moment last year when Ronson wondered if the pandemic might be his cue to bow out gracefully, by forcing him out of the club. “I really did think for a minute: OK, maybe I’m never going to go back to DJing again,” he says. “Like, what’s the elegant evolution here, without looking like an idiot who just tried to stay at the party too long?”

It is mid-morning in New York, where Ronson, 45, is speaking from his studio, coffee mug in hand. He is wearing a vintage band T-shirt (this one from a 1991 Steve Winwood tour), part of an extensive collection modelled in his new Apple TV+ music documentary series Watch the Sound.

He is unfailingly polite, engaging with all my questions bar one, about his mother-in-law-to-be, Meryl Streep (“if that’s OK”). Ronson recently became engaged to The Newsroom actor Grace Gummer, Streep’s third child, whom he started seeing last year.

Mark Ronson with his sisters Charlotte (left) and Samantha and their mother Ann Dexter-Jones
‘Our parents liked to party’ … with his sisters Charlotte (left) and Samantha and their mother, Ann Dexter-Jones. Photograph: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage

But, even on a video call, Ronson squirms in his seat to avoid making eye contact, his head in his hands, his hands on his head. At one point, he directly addresses his right biceps, tattooed with the heart-shaped mirrorball from the cover of his 2019 album, Late Night Feelings.

It betrays a baseline existential anxiety that has been present since childhood, worsened by fame, which peaked with his divorce in 2018 (from the actor Joséphine de La Baume). Since then it has mostly been kept in check by regular therapy. Promoting Late Night Feelings, his album of “sad bangers”, the following year, Ronson spoke of his efforts to connect with his emotions, define himself less by his work and become a “whole person”.

He groans when I mention it now: “I hate talking about therapy, because I hate reading about it.” But he says it has made him “a more stable, balanced, less anxious person”. In particular, he recommends David D Burns’ book The Feeling Good Handbook, which includes exercises to stop negative thought spirals. “You play out the realistic scenarios of what happens: if your song does not become a hit, your life is not over.”

As it turned out, Nothing Breaks Like a Heart – Ronson’s Dixie-disco single with Miley Cyrus – ended up charting at No 2. But the soul-searching primed him for the pandemic. Three weeks of lockdown was the longest Ronson had gone in his professional life without taking a flight: a small slice of normal life. “It was its own sort of high, weirdly, to wake up in the same bed,” he says.

But, after three months spent mostly alone in an Airbnb in London, with only a laptop for making music, his creative output “was just getting worse”, he says. “I wasn’t into the stuff I was making.”

Between hosting the TV show and a new interview podcast for the Fader magazine, it seemed to indicate to Ronson the start of a “new phase” in his career. “I had a really wonderful run and I enjoyed the shit out of it. But maybe now I am going to just be the guy who talks about music instead of making it – and that’s OK as well.”

Indeed, relative to many pop producers, Ronson has been a steady presence, long after his defining work with Winehouse on Back to Black and their cover of the Zutons’ Valerie. Ooh Wee, from his 2003 album Here Comes the Fuzz, is still ubiquitous 18 years after its release, thanks partly to its usage in an ad for Domino’s Pizza. (It is so reliant on samples that Ronson sees only a fraction of the royalties – “so the pizza’s on you”.) In 2018, he won an Oscar for Shallow, the towering song he co-wrote with Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born.

Ronson’s legacy was secured by Uptown Funk, an ironclad masterpiece of songwriting and production featuring Bruno Mars. From late 2014, it topped the charts in 19 countries and broke streaming records several times over. One critic declared it a “cultural event”.

Ronson’s lasting memory of Uptown Funk, however, is not the phenomenon it created, but the process of writing it. He was on bass, Mars was on drums and a third producer, Jeff Bhasker, was on synths. “We just had a jam that had a dumb grin plastered on our faces for six hours. It was just a good time. I don’t think of it being played at weddings and out of cars – it’s just too weird.”

But the smash did reaffirm Ronson’s standing in the industry at a moment when his classic sensibilities, retro styling and preference for analogue appeared increasingly anachronistic.

He had been urged to cut Uptown Funk’s four and a half minute runtime to ensure streaming success, while some thought the instrumental strings opening on Nothing Breaks Like a Heart would mean it was mistaken for classical music. It is a challenge, Ronson says, to balance his old-school instincts with modern tastes and technology.

Mark Ronson and Lady Gaga with their Oscars for Shallow, from A Star Is Born
Ronson and Lady Gaga with their Oscars for Shallow, from A Star Is Born. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

“I want to preserve all the things that I love about the way I make music and still make bangers for the iPhones,” he says. “Every time I think: ‘OK, some new technology has outdated me, when is it the time to respectfully hang it up?’ I feel like I always manage to squeak out one more thing.”

Maybe it is because Ronson has always seemed slightly out of time – even when the charts have marked the moment as his. In 2007, when singles from his album Version littered the Top 10, “I was public enemy No 1 in the NME”, he says. He grimaces as he recalls flipping through the magazine’s “cool list” that year, featuring his friend Jamie Reynolds of Klaxons, and coming face to face with a picture of himself, high up in the “uncool list”.

In the class-conscious UK, Ronson wrinkles noses for his privilege. He is the son of Laurence Ronson, a music manager from one of Britain’s wealthiest families, and the writer and socialite Ann Dexter-Jones. (His twin sisters Charlotte, a fashion designer, and Samantha, a DJ, are two years Ronson’s junior.)

Their parents “liked to party”, says Ronson, invariably with the rich and famous; one of his earliest memories is of Robin Williams, at the peak of his Mork & Mindy fame, tucking him into bed and peering out the curtains in “some kind of cocaine paranoia”.

Ronson asked Williams about it when he saw him at a restaurant 20 years later. “And he goes: ‘Wait, your parents lived in the house on Circus Road? Man, they threw some incredible parties.’” A few years later, Ronson came downstairs one morning, schoolbag in hand, to find his dad with Daryl Hall, “each with a snifter of something, playing a really intense game of chess”.

Ronson tells these stories with obvious appreciation for their ludicrousness – and his own cluelessness. It was only when he discovered drugs himself, in his early 20s, that he “put it all together”, he says: “That’s what the fuck they were doing, that’s why we weren’t allowed to wake up my mum till 3pm on Saturdays.”

Mark Ronson on stage with Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Brit awards
‘There was an instant familiarity’ … on stage with Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Brit awards. Photograph: JM Enternational/Redferns

Ronsons’ parents divorced when he was seven, after which Dexter-Jones moved the family to New York and married Foreigner’s Mick Jones. (I Want To Know What Love Is was written about their courtship.) Jones showed the young Ronson how to play instruments and record demos; at 13, he interned at Rolling Stone magazine, answering the phones with “this high-pitch squeak”.

But, for all his claims to rock royalty, Ronson insists he had “a pretty normal life”. At school, he was teased for his English accent and running the wrong way in a relay race. “I wasn’t uncool, but I definitely wasn’t in the cool clique.” His mother was strict about grades and Ronson was allowed to go to gigs only if he was reviewing them for the student newspaper.

He almost studied journalism, before learning that he couldn’t stomach being disliked. “I didn’t really have the nerve to write a negative review about a rap group that I might see in the club that Friday – because that happened. I had to pick a side.”

It reflects a conscientiousness and eagerness to please that is anathema to cool. If he “milked a certain sound”, Ronson says – such as the neo-soul and funk with which he first found success – it was because it got a response. “Like: ‘Oh shit, this is what people like – I better keep doing this.’”

He can laugh now about his reputation as “king of the horns”. (A running joke of his Fader podcast, in which Ronson interviews friends and heroes about their profiles in the taste-making magazine, is that he has never been featured.) But did he want to be thought of as cool?

Ronson responds immediately. “Oh, yeah … Whether it’s MIA or Bowie or Travis Scott, of course everybody wants that cachet. But I don’t think I have enough of the ‘fuck you’, rebel part – I care too much. I think that probably comes across.”

His therapist would have a lot to say about his people-pleasing, Ronson adds. But lately he has come to accept it as part of what makes him good at his job, as “a conduit to bringing something magical out” in a crowd or an artist.

What made Ronson uncool to NME in 2007 has also made him classic. Indeed, he identifies his eagerness to impress Winehouse, to make music that she would want to return to, as central to their success – forged in the studio where Ronson is sitting and where they met 15 years ago.

They spent only a week together making Back to Black. “That connection happened like that,” says Ronson, snapping his fingers, the warmth in his voice unmistakable. “It was an instant familiarity. I just loved being in her company, her presence. She was just so funny.”

They remained close as Winehouse’s profile rose. “Obviously, we had our ups and downs and it was troubling. I don’t know if I fully loved the way that I behaved around her. When she was going through addiction, I wish I’d been a little bit more upfront or confrontational about it. But I just was like: ‘Ah, she’ll sort it out – she did it already once.’” Ronson shakes something off before it takes hold. “So. Whatever.”

In late 2010, less than a year before she died, Winehouse publicly accused Ronson of taking credit for her success. They were in a “testy” patch at the time, he says: “We definitely squashed that … Of course, that record is all her – the soul of it.”

‘I don’t think of it being played at weddings and out of cars – it’s just too weird’ … the video for Uptown Funk.

Winehouse’s legacy is being revisited this month in two documentaries marking the 10th anniversary of her death, amid a reckoning of the intense, intrusive celebrity culture of the early 00s. Watching the Framing Britney Spears documentary “just made me feel sick”, Ronson says.

He recalls visiting Winehouse to find paparazzi camped outside her house. “She would wave to them, occasionally bring them out food,” he says. “At first I was like: ‘This is just like a pantomime; you both understand what this is.’ Then I was like: ‘No: this is fucking horrible and disgusting.’ I know people have to make a living – but I hated a lot of those people.”

Ronson suggests scrutiny of stars has worsened since, becoming more accepted and ingrained, thanks to gossip sites and round-the-clock coverage: “I hope there’s a reckoning, but I don’t see it.”

Watch the Sound – a six-part series in which Ronson goes full wonk about time-honoured aspects of production – presents a purist’s approach to making music. One takeaway is that so much innovation, so many transcendent moments, were “happy accidents” that would probably not slide in a modern studio.

The show’s vision of the future suggests even less room for serendipitous human error. Ronson meets an AI pop star who has been loaded with all of Ronson’s songs. She summarises: “Being in love; tired but hopeful.” (“That sounds about right,” he says.)

After his isolation-inspired crisis of confidence about his future, Ronson had a realisation: “I just missed being in a room with people and creating.” As soon as he could, he returned to the studio; he has since been working with Lizzo, Travis Scott and King Princess, as well as on his next album.

“The things that I used to hold as the barometers of how happy I was in life – how well I’m doing, do I have songs in the charts, am I still considered as important as this guy, whatever – I don’t care so much about that,” Ronson says. “I’m just doing the thing that I’ve always done, which is come to a studio every morning at 11am and – it sounds so corny – turn the machines on and see what happens.”

Two weeks ago, Ronson had a DJ gig, his first since lockdown. “I counted: 510 days,” he says. He practised all week beforehand, certain that it would be weird, afraid that it would suck. “And then,” he says, “it was wonderful.”

Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson premieres on 30 July on Apple TV+

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