Mark Ronson: Meet the Man Behind Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars' Most Infectious Hits (Q&A)
The 37-year-old London producer has become a go-to for artists looking to switch-up their sound.
Mark Ronson, the London-based producer behind Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide), is almost single-handedly responsible for the recent resurgence of female soul singers, including Adele and Duffy.
Last year, his polished work could be heard all over Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox, and its jaunty, indie-rock-lite single, “Locked Out of Heaven.” “Bruno was so adamant about keeping the music progressive,” says Ronson, a former DJ. “That got me back into programming beats again.”
You can expect to hear more of those beats on the fourth solo album he’s currently writing. He will not, however, say if Paul McCartney’s new album, which he helped produce, will take on a patina of hip-hop. “I’m hesitant to talk about it,” he says. “But I can say that it’s just a master class in production.”
How does Ronson land all these amazing gigs? “Maybe two times out of 100 someone came through management or the label. But really, all the people I’ve worked with, I’ve met by coincidence or through friends,” he says. “That’s pretty much how my entire career has gone up to this point.”
The Hollywood Reporter: As we speak, you’re in the studio. What are you working on?
Mark Ronson: I’m here by myself working on my next solo album. I just read in the past few years how I’m jumping from album to album for other people. I’m trying to get back to remembering how to fight to make music by myself.
THR: Who’s going to be on the album?
Ronson: I don’t really have any idea yet, to be honest. But there are certain people like Ghostface [Killah] and Q-Tip who are heroes to me that always sound great on any of my tracks.
THR: What was it like working on Paul McCartney’s next album?
Ronson: It’s a master class in production. Between The Beatles and George Martin and McCartney’s solo records, they invented all of the tools and tricks and techniques of modern production. You’re there just trying to pull your weight, bring ideas to the table.
THR: And what ideas did you bring to the table?
Ronson: Sometimes you get lucky and a verse or a chorus presents itself to you. I never come in with a preconceived notion of what it should sound like, because then you’re not really listening to the song. There are so many producers out there -- The Neptunes in their heyday, Timbaland -- they could take a really average singer and the track would be a hit. I’m not really great at that.
THR: Everyone we’ve spoken with says how amazing it was working with Bruno Mars. You worked with him, too. What makes him so exceptional?
Ronson: There’s the really obvious ones: He’s an incredible singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist. His instinct for phrasing -- he’s like no one I’ve ever worked with. You can work on a mediocre track, and the minute he starts singing over it, it sounds like a hit. There’s only a couple [of artists] in every generation that great. Sometimes in the studio, a singer will go, “Let’s try it like this.” My first instinct would be like, “Oh, f--- that.” Most of the time with Bruno -- he was right! There’s nothing better than being wrong, because it means there’s another element making it better than what you can do alone.
THR: How do find the artists you work with?
Ronson: All the people I’ve worked with, I’ve met by coincidence or through a mutual friend or from another musician. That’s how my entire career has gone up to this point. Maybe once or twice out of 100, someone came through management or the label. That’s why I never get hung up on, “OK, who’s the next one?” If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. It’s not really worth forcing.
THR: There’s constant speculation on the Internet over your next projects. Who else are you working with?
Ronson: I’m really not working on anything. I’ve just been in this studio in London. To be honest, I can’t really remember if I’ve worked with somebody. Do you have any idea, like, who people have said I’m working with?
THR: Jay-Z, for instance.
Ronson: No. But that would be nice. I haven’t gotten the call yet.
THR: Morgan Kibby from M83.
Ronson: Oh, yeah, yeah -- we worked together for a couple of days. She’s amazing. I’m familiar with her stuff from M83. That record was massive last year. She kind of blew me away.
THR: The Black Lips’ next album.
Ronson: I think so. I love their music -- I love them as a band. We had a good experience with their last record. I nearly died from raw liver poisoning. They treat their livers like they treat the rest of their bodies: They’re quite reckless. When I went out with them I got deathly ill and had to go to the hospital.
THR: Which fellow producers right now do you really admire?
Ronson: I really love -- and they’re going to think I’m stalking them, like buttering them up -- I’m really enjoying all the production coming out of this label called Numbers, from Glasgow. And I think what Diplo has done in the past two years is exciting because it’s really cutting edge, underground DJ stuff. Those are some that come to mind.
THR: Which record did you work on that you thought should have been bigger?
Ronson: The very first record I ever produced was Nikka Costa’s. There was this song called “Like a Feather,” and it was on MTV. Everyone was saying it was going to be the biggest hit ever. I was 22, and people were telling my mum, “Hey, he’s going to be able to retire after this one.” It came out, and it wasn’t big. That was a great introductory lesson into the music industry: Don’t believe the hype -- just make what you think is good. It really wasn’t until Amy [Winehouse]…when that stuff blew up. I was really shocked.
THR: At the time, the stuff you did with Amy was almost subversive.
Ronson: When Darcus [Beese], who signed Amy to Island in the U.K., came to the studio, he went crazy over this demo of “Rehab.” I was like, “Whoa, if you think so, great. I can’t imagine what this comes on the radio after.” The same kind of thing with Bruno and “Locked Out of Heaven.” He was convinced that had to be the first single. I was like, “Cheers! That’s a brave choice. I don’t know what it sounds like coming after a Katy Perry record.” Maybe that’s why I’m not an A&R guy. I’m just the guy producing the records."
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