From Amy Winehouse to Bob Dylan, Mark Ronson has established himself as a producer who’s just as eager to work with legends in the making as living legends.
Co-producer of the recently-deceased troubled torch singer Amy Winehouse’s smash Back to Black album, two tracks on pop diva Christina Aguilera’s 2006 No. 1 Back to Basics (he also co-wrote her hit “Hurt”), as well as his own solo album Versions, Ronson has earned three Grammys and is one of the most in-demand faces in the music business.
Like many of today’s young producers, the 35-year-old Ronson rose through the ranks as a club DJ, though his background is decidedly more musical than technical. Born in the U.K., Ronson moved to New York with his mother when he was 8 and quickly began absorbing the sound and culture of hip-hop. He realized that many of the samples in those records came from the same 1960s soul and R&B tracks he was hearing at home (Ronson’s stepfather is Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones). It’s that marriage of hip-hop and Motown/Stax, along with a healthy dose of Britpop, that brands Ronson with his unique musical identity, making him the perfect complement for Winehouse and Aguilera—artists that blend classic sensibilities with current sounds.
A multi-instrumentalist who’s proficient on guitar and drums, Ronson has worked with an eclectic range of artists, including Robbie Williams, Lily Allen and Mary J. Blige. He was even recently given the opportunity to remix Bob Dylan’s classic “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” (the results of which reportedly elicited an enigmatic “Cool” from the equally enigmatic icon).
During this 2008 interview, the soft-spoken Ronson takes his success in stride with a maturity that belies his relative youth. “It was only when I got to the point where I was just making music for the sake of music and got outside of that bubble of overthinking or second-guessing what I was doing that the records I was making started having any real impact,” he observes. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.
Do you feel as though success has come suddenly?
I’ve been playing music since I was a kid and decided I was going to try to be a producer when I got my first drum machine, when I was 19. So I’ve been working on records for about 10 years. But it is kind of funny how everything has condensed into the last year and a half. About two years ago I started seeing a lot of my contemporaries—people I’d come up with in the early days, like Chad [Hugo] from the Neptunes, or Kanye [West], or Brian [Burton, aka Danger Mouse]—really shoot by, and I began thinking, “Maybe I’m just not that good at this.” I had just turned 30 and was starting to think that maybe it was time to try to do something else for a living.
Even though you’d always like to say you’re making art for art’s sake, if you work in this industry, it can be hard to keep your vision. But after working with Lily [Allen] two years ago, and then with Amy [Winehouse] a year ago, I stopped thinking about the charts. We weren’t making music for anything or anybody—we were just sitting in a little room in my studio making the music we wanted.
It seems when a producer stops thinking about making a hit record and focuses instead on making a great record that success often follows.
I needed a bit of that abandon, just being able to think, “F— it, I’m going to make the records I want to make.” That’s the mindset I had when I met Amy. Most of the time, when you meet an artist, you’ll play them some beats or chords over a drumbeat. I used to do that but not anymore, because I find it doesn’t really work. The first time I sat with Amy, instead of playing her anything, I asked her, “What do you want your record to sound like?” I was aware of her first album, but that had been released three years prior, so I thought maybe she was ready to go in a different direction. She just said, “I don’t know, but I’ve been listening to all this ’60s stuff”—and she played stuff from the Shangri-Las and by Earl and the Cadillacs. There were a bunch of things I knew, things that we had in common. I’d be playing her songs and she’d say, “Oh, yeah—I love that.” That’s what inspired us to go in that direction with her album. “What do you like to listen to?” is the simplest question to ask any musician.
Then it was a matter of seeing how I could take her purest conception of the songs to where she wanted to go with them. When she played them to me on a nylon-string acoustic guitar, many sounded like classic jazz standards. My job was to take them into this era that we were both infatuated with.
It seems to be a symbiotic relationship, given that you both have the same tastes and aesthetic sensibilities.
Yeah, Amy loves classic, great songs and ’60s soul music, as well as the same modern music I like—hip-hop and contemporary soul. I could probably describe her taste as a mix of the Shangri-Las and Gnarls [Barkley], and that’s very much an aesthetic I come from—maybe not so much as a songwriter, but as a producer. For example, I discovered a lot of the old soul stuff because that’s what my favorite hip-hop producers were sampling; I would go back and listen to an old rare Stax record because I’d heard that rhythm on a Wu-Tang record. That’s the reason why Amy’s record resonates with hip-hop heads. It’s actually gone beyond that now, to people who like all kinds of music. But in the beginning the hip-hop heads were the ones who got it because of that kind of sensibility, the drum breaks and sounding like a record that could have been made 40 years ago and sampled today, but mixed with these beautiful songs and her vocals and the performances of the musicians. I guess that’s where it had its initial impact: people going, “Wow, what the f— is this?!”
Unlike many producers who aim to be invisible, you’ve created a very distinctive identity.
I was always a big fan of the classic producer/arranger and always doing things backwards, anyway. Most beat-diggers go into vinyl stores looking for a song no one had ever heard of so they could create samples that no one had used before. But I was always trying to find a cover of a song that I loved, but a version I’d never heard before, like Ike and Tina Turner doing “Whole Lotta Love.” Those versions aren’t necessarily better than the originals, but I always got something out of hearing a different approach, particularly when it was a soulful or a classic R&B arrangement of a modern pop song. I never thought I’d be making a record like that myself; it’s just that those are the kinds of records I’ve been buying for the past 10 years. It was only after Versions was completed that I had a eureka moment, where I realized, “Yeah, well, this was obviously the kind of record I’d make because this is the kind of music I’ve always loved.”
You seem to have a near-obsession with horns in your records—they’re an integral part of your sound, not just icing on the cake.
Part of that came from my dad being such a huge fan of the ’60s era of soul, where horns were everywhere. Another part of it came from my love of big-band arrangements, like Quincy’ [Jones’] instrumental things. And a big part of it came from the Dap-Kings, who played all over Amy’s record and on a number of tracks on Versions. It was just me playing all the backing tracks, but the one thing I couldn’t do was the horns. I had them come in, and Dave Guy, their trumpet player, and I worked out some arrangements. I fell in love with the way their horns sounded. Other than a few retro artists, nobody was using them in pop music except for little hooks here and there.
Back to Black has the feel of an album that was recorded late at night, with the bleakness of Amy’s lyrics underscored by extremely laid-back drumming. Was that a conscious production decision?
“Love Is a Losing Game” is the true heart-breaking ballad of the record. We had done a recording of it with her singing, accompanied by acoustic guitar, and I’d become so attached to it that I felt there was no way we could top that emotionally. But there was a part of me that still wanted to hear the sonic of reverbed drums in the background, so I sat with Gabe [Roth] and Homer [Steinweiss, bandleader/bassist and drummer with the Dap-Kings, respectively] and asked them, “How can we put a beat behind a ballad like that and not remove any of the sentiment?” That was a real challenge: coming up with a beat that wouldn’t detract from the song and still become an integral part of it. With a song like “Rehab” or “You Know I’m No Good” it’s a lot easier because you can put something hard behind it that’s going to drive the track. Coming from DJ’ing, you’re always thinking about the beat but sometimes I have to shut down that side of my brain and remind myself it’s not about that.
Are you very hands-on in the studio? Do you do your own engineering?
It depends on the project. Amy’s album was the first where I had a whole band playing everything. On the rest of my albums, I pretty much played everything except for the horns. I’ve found, though, that inexperience is what gives you the happy accidents that make for different sounds, something unique. I know how to run Pro Tools, but I don’t know if that means I’m an engineer. With Amy, we had been using every plug-in and trick in the modern world to make her stuff sound old, and then I had this idea, why not just get the Dap-Kings to play it? They know how to make it sound like the real deal. So I left a lot of the technical side of things to Gabe, because he really understands getting those sounds.
It’s interesting that you mention Pro Tools and plug-ins, yet most of the sounds that you admire so much were achieved using analog tape.
Absolutely, which is why all of Amy’s tracks were recorded to tape. We dumped some of them back to Pro Tools, just for the luxury of maybe beefing up a kick drum or snare drum to make it a bit more hip-hop in the sonic.
Versions, on the other hand, was pretty much all Pro Tools because I didn’t have the option to go to tape. I didn’t have a record deal when I made that record; I was just messing around with demos, playing around with arrangements. It was one of those projects where whoever was around to sing a vocal or play a bass part would come to the studio at 1 in the morning.
How did you come to remix Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” for the recent Dylan hits compilation?
Dylan has always been a remote figure to me—his catalog was so exhaustive and people were so fervent about him that I never knew where to start. I’ve learned that you have to find something for yourself to really love it—you can’t just say, “This project will lead to great things.” But about a year ago I saw the two documentaries on Dylan—No Direction Home and Don’t Look Back—and that had made me fall completely in love with his music. When I was asked by Columbia UK—the label I signed with—to try a remix, I was totally into it. But I knew it couldn’t be an obvious song—I couldn’t do “Like a Rolling Stone” or something that iconic. So I listened to his stuff for hours on end, and when I heard “Most Likely You Go Your Way,” I thought, “I could really do something with this, get the Dap-Kings in and come up with a cool arrangement, put some irreverent hip-hop sonics on it, trumpets, sirens, flash things around in the background, and it would make sense.” So that’s what I did. I got the original four-track and played the a capella [vocal] over and over again, just jamming over it until we found the groove that complemented the song.
Has Dylan heard it?
I’ve never spoken to him, though I know his management played it for him and he said, “Cool.” That’s about all you’re going to get out of him on the subject.
Hopefully that one word represents the stamp of approval.
As long as he doesn’t snap the CD over his knee and say, “Get this the hell out of my face” [laughs]. A lot of people were up in arms about remixing Dylan, about taking something classic and changing it. I see the logic in that, and you’re always going to upset people when you change something so sacrosanct. But Dylan never would have played it the same way twice anyway. It’s definitely in the spirit of Dylan to view a song as something that’s constantly evolving.
—By Howard Massey
Photo in Studio by Gaetano Salvadore
From Performing Songwriter Issue 108