After Years Of Hit-Making For Others, Mark Ronson Puts His Feelings 1st

Jun 18, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 8:17 am

Dig into the liner notes of the biggest pop records of the last 15 years and Mark Ronson's name will come up up a lot.

As a producer, his work on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and Adele's 19 put him on the map. As an artist, his groove-infused 2015 album Uptown Special — led by the Grammy-winning, Bruno Mars-assisted single "Uptown Funk" — made him a star. Since then, he has worked with A$AP Rocky and Vampire Weekend, written music for the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, co-executive produced Lady Gaga's Joanne and earned a best original song Oscar for "Shallow," the musical centerpiece of Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born.

Born in London and raised in New York City, Ronson is often regarded as a musician who can morph his sound to fit the feel of any artist. Now, with his latest album, Late Night Feelings, the hit-maker is back to re-introduce fans to a sound his calls his own.

Ronson wrote the majority of Late Night Feelings while dealing with the fallout of a divorce. The musician says that exploration took him into uncharted territory, prioritizing the emotional content of the lyrics instead of putting the beat front and center. Across the album's 13 tracks, Ronson and his collaborators jump from disco to country to electro-pop, all with a lilt of almost-ironic sorrow. (He's succinctly referred to this body of work as his "sad bangers.")

Another thing that distinguishes Late Night Feelings: Every track is a collaboration with a different female vocalist. "It wasn't a conscious thing," Ronson says of that lineup of guests, which includes Alicia Keys, Camila Cabello, King Princess, Miley Cyrus, YEBBA and Lykke Li. "It's just, that became my crew, the heartbreak crew."

Ronson spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about the dynamics of the producer-singer relationship, moving past the horn-heavy sound of his early work and the relatable notion of heartbreak on the dance floor. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more that didn't make the broadcast.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Audie Cornish: You have this enormous resume of incredible songs, and I kind of didn't know where to start, so I'm going to start at the beginning. Your first turntable, I heard you got as a gift.

Mark Ronson: If we're gonna get technical, I got the My First Sony, or maybe a Fisher Price, when I was 3 or 4. I don't want to overdo the symbolism, but that was my first turntable: I remember being really transfixed by putting a 45 on and watching that thing where you lift the tone arm really carefully and put it down. My first real turntable was a Technics 1200, the DJ staple, which was a graduation present when I was 17.

That's a sophisticated gift. I know your family's kind of in the business, but had you told them, "Look, if you're going to do it, it needs to be this specific one?"

Oh yeah — it wasn't like, "What would Mark want? A bicycle or turntables?" For five months up to then, I'd been collecting records. I was listening to a lot of my favorite New York radio DJs, like Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito and Funkmaster Flex, and trying to, even without the turntables, imagine how they were doing these routines and scratching and stuff in my head. So I very much knew that that's what I wanted to do.

Did you have a sense of what a producer did?

I guess I came to production a little later. And I came into it through hip-hop and rap music, so my understanding of what a producer did was the beatmaker. My heroes at the time — Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier — that's what they did. It wasn't so much like George Martin or Rick Rubin; it was these guys who had made these amazing beats out of samples and programmed drums.

You're just constantly figuring it out. I came in thinking it was about this one toolkit, and then slowly learned from other people how to record drummers. I learned from The Dap-Kings how to get those great sounds. And then just learned from human experience how to deal with artists, and make the studio this really safe emotional place that people can feel free to deliver great, honest work.

Let's talk about Late Night Feelings. I heard you say in an interview that compared to when you're doing work for other people, your albums for yourself kind of originate from a concept or an idea. What was that for you on this particular record?

Usually on my records, it's about the beat first. I've always been a bit like, "Well, I'm a DJ — who wants to hear the DJ's feelings?" Do you go to a club and the guy's like, "I had a bad day today"? No, you just want to party. This is the first album where I kind of had no choice but to put the emotion first, because I was going through this breakup and it was the only thing coming out.

Believe me, I tried sometimes to go to the studio and just make something that was fun — but it didn't resonate, and didn't stick. This more melancholy stuff just had a hold on me. Now, there's a nice juxtaposition when you have this kind of melancholy, emotional thing with a driving dance [beat]: you know, "Don't Leave Me This Way," "I Will Survive," every Drake or Robyn song.

Can you talk about how you developed the ability to facilitate a sound for other people? I'm thinking of the lead single on this album, "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart," which is a fun, country-pop, bittersweet song that features Miley Cyrus.

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It's not like a sixth sense — it's just what I imagine them sounding good over. And it's so subjective, because somebody might hear Miley Cyrus' voice and want to do a collaboration like the stuff she did with Mike WiLL. I saw Miley sing on the SNL 40th anniversary, and she sang "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" in this very Nashville arrangement. I'd never heard her voice that naked — like, the grit and the rasp — and I just became kind of obsessed with trying to work with her.

I ask because when I sat down to think about it, I wasn't able to say to myself, "This is a Mark Ronson sound." I didn't know what that sound was, in the way that some producers are very aggressive with having a sonic signature. Do you consciously not do that, or am I missing something?

I think now, what I probably try and do is make something that feels honest, and a little bit timeless. But in the beginning, yeah, my first real success was with Amy Winehouse and The Dap-Kings, and that sound. And I probably let that wear out its welcome.

In what way?

Just put horns on everything, pretty much. So now — maybe it's just being 43 — I'm not so concerned with the sound. I just want people to feel some honesty and genuineness, and feel the singer when they hear the music. ... I'm just as happy with my name on the front of the record as I am with my name in the parentheses, just as the songwriter. It's just happened that, because of a certain turn of events, I get to occasionally make a record where I can do a bit of a mission statement.

Artists have spoken really highly of working with you as a collaborator. I want to point to something Lady Gaga said in the documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, about the producer-singer relationship:

"When producers, unlike Mark, start to act like, 'You'd be nothing without me' ... for women especially, those men have so much power. They can have whatever they want: the cocaine, the money, the champagne, the hottest girls you've ever seen. And then I walk in the room, and eight times out of 10, I'm put in that category. They expect from me what those girls have to offer, when that's just not at all what I have to offer in any way."

You've been in this business for a long time. Does that description ring true to you?

I'm sure it happens, because she's told me about it. But first of all, the fact is that none of us producers would be anything without these artists — it's kind of the other way around. I think if you're in the room with somebody as talented as Lady Gaga or Amy Winehouse, the best thing you can do is sit and listen first, see what they want to do, and just be an open receptor to the talent. I understand that ego comes in. I've never been around those producers; I try and keep the karma good [in my circle]. But, yeah, I'm sure it exists, and it's horrible. I just feel like, eventually, your time's gonna run out if you do that.

It seems like women sometimes feel trapped, right? The label says, "Look, you've gotta work with this awesome producer," and then you've gotta do it.

Maybe. I also think there are these massive artists like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez who are calling so many shots: They can be like, "I feel like making this piece of music right now, and I'm gonna put it out tomorrow." Miley as well — she just put out an EP because she feels like it, because she knows her audience, where they are, and she can have immediate access to them. You do still have these old white men in these positions saying, "OK, I need you to work with this person," but that seems to be phasing out a little bit, because the artists have such a direct link to their fans now.

The artists that I've worked with, especially on this record — Angel Olsen, Miley, Alicia Keys — are all amazing producers in their own right. They're really coming in with a pretty strong vision, or at least complementing the vision with what they want; I rarely end up with somebody who comes in and goes like, "OK, what do we do?" And that goes for the men too: Bruno, Josh Homme. It's definitely a back-and-forth in the studio.

So how does collaboration work with an album like this, where you have the added issue of you bringing your own experience? You've talked about the sadness of your breakup — that's a different kind of cloud hanging over things.

It is. And to use the example of the King Princess song — she's extremely prolific. She just turned 20 and she can turn out a great pop song in seven minutes: go onto her laptop, Ableton, make the whole beat. She's probably the only artist on the record that actually just wrote something. The rest, we all kind of wrote together in the room, and I was contributing lyrics; with her, she just kind of writes for herself.

She'd keep bringing me these songs, and I'd be like, "No, no, no, it's not quite ... I don't feel that melancholy, that twinge of pain." I know she can do that, because she does it in her own music. I was like, "I know you've had a fight with your girlfriend. Go give me something that makes me feel that." She'd look at me annoyed, [as if I'd said] "Go back to your room and do your homework." It's like Punky Brewster reenacted, our relationship. She came back and wrote this song on the piano — and, kind of cocky, with her arms folded, was like, "What about this one?" And I was like, "Yes, exactly." I just had to be the annoying dad for a minute.

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Can I ask you about performing on Saturday Night Live? That show seems terrifying — like there's a lot of ways it could go wrong.

You know, when I came in with Bruno and we did "Uptown Funk," it was already his third time on the show, and he knew exactly how to do it. That performance is just ... he's just one of the most masterful performers ever, and for five minutes I was just this lanky dude playing rhythm guitar with the coolest band in the world. And then when I went back, it was with Miley. So, I've gotten a little bit spoiled. I get to be the sideman to these pretty epic performances.

I have to say, you're always talking about being lucky, or in the right place at the right time — but it's been 15, 20 years now. At a certain point, might you just be good at this?

I think it's both. I mean, I think I definitely work as hard as anybody. I still have that thing in the studio where I can't leave until 2 in the morning, until the hi-hat is tuned perfectly right. But I understand that there's a turn of events that led me to Amy Winehouse, which led me to Bruno Mars, which led me to talking to you today, that is not just my talent. I think luck gets you in the room, and maybe talent keeps you there.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Peek behind the scenes of some of the biggest pop songs of the last 15 years, and you'll find a familiar face - Mark Ronson, a music producer with an uncanny ability to create a hit. There was Amy Winehouse's album "Back To Black"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make me go to rehab. I said, no, no, no.

CORNISH: ..."Uptown Funk" with Bruno Mars...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN FUNK")

BRUNO MARS: (Singing) Don't believe me, just watch.

CORNISH: Just recently, he did Lady Gaga's hit "Shallow," which he co-wrote. Now Ronson is out with his own album, "Late Night Feelings." Every track is a collaboration with a female artist - legends like Alicia Keys and newcomers like King Princess. It's also a heartbreak album. Ronson got divorced last year, and he channeled his feelings into his music. And that, he says, was uncharted territory.

MARK RONSON: With my own records, I've always been a bit like - I'm a DJ. Like, who wants to hear the DJ's feelings?

CORNISH: (Laughter).

RONSON: Like, come on. Like, you go to a club, and the guy's like, I had a bad day today. Like, no, you just want to party. So this is the first album where I just kind of had no choice but to put the emotion first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATE NIGHT FEELINGS")

LYKKE LI: (Singing) When I get to want you and I want to call you with late night feelings.

CORNISH: So the direction I've read is sad bangers (laughter).

RONSON: Yeah. I mean, I was, basically, sitting with this friend of mine. And I was explaining the whole concept of my record as I was figuring it out. And I was giving him this long-winded, like - and it's, like, sad, but, like - and I could just see his eyes glazing over. And he's like, oh, you mean like sad bangers? And I was like, yeah, that's much better.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

RONSON: Believe me. Like, I tried sometimes to go to the studio and just make something that was a bit fun and, like, whatever. But it just - it didn't resonate and didn't stick. And then this kind of slightly more melancholy stuff was just, like - had a hold on me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATE NIGHT FEELINGS")

LI: (Singing) Pulling in the wrong direction, I'm about to cross that line. Looking for the wrong affection night after night.

CORNISH: While I can't tie together a big theme in all of your music in terms of sound, I can tie together the idea that you're able to facilitate people's sound. Can you talk about how you developed that ability?

RONSON: It's not even like a sixth sense. It's just what I imagine them sounding good over. Like, I saw Miley Cyrus sing on the "SNL" 40th anniversary, and she sung "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" in this very, like, Nashville arrangement. I'd never heard her voice that naked, like the grit and the rasp. And I just became kind of obsessed with trying to get to work with her. And we had this little seed of this idea - the little acoustic guitar part. And I just sent it to Miley on a kind of Hail Mary. And she wrote back and she dug it and then came in and finished writing it with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BREAKS LIKE A HEART")

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) This world can hurt you. It cuts you deep and leaves a scar. Things fall apart, but nothing breaks like a heart. And nothing breaks like a heart.

CORNISH: I ask because I - when I sat down to think about it, I wasn't able to say to myself, this is a Mark Ronson sound, right? I didn't know what that sound was the way that some producers are very aggressive with having a sonic signature. And do you consciously not do that? Am I missing something?

RONSON: I think now what I probably try and do is make something that feels honest and a little bit timeless. But in the beginning, yeah, my first success was with Amy Winehouse and the Dap-Kings and that sound. And I probably, like, let that wear out its welcome a little bit and maybe...

CORNISH: In what way?

RONSON: Just put horns on everything pretty much.

CORNISH: Oh (laughter).

RONSON: So, like, now I think maybe it's like just being 43 or whatever. It's like I just want people to, like, feel something and feel some honesty and genuineness and feel the singer when they hear the music. And I guess that's what the kind of probably underlying thing of this record is a little bit more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK RONSON SONG, "NOTHING BREAKS LIKE A HEART")

CORNISH: Artists have spoken really highly of working with you as a collaborator. And I want to play something that Lady Gaga said about the producer-singer relationship. This is from the documentary "Five Foot Two." And it's - in the scene, she's talking about working on a song with you in the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FIVE FOOT TWO")

LADY GAGA: When producers unlike Mark start to act like they're the one - you know, you'd be nothing without me, for women especially, since those men have so much power - whenever they want, whatever they want - the cocaine, the money, the champagne, the girls - the hottest girls you've ever seen. And then I walk in the room, and it's, like, eight times out of 10, I'm put in that category. And they expect from me what those girls have to offer when that's just not at all what I have to offer in any way.

CORNISH: You've been in this business for a long time. Does that description ring true to you?

RONSON: First of all, the fact is that none of us producers would be anything without these artists. It's kind of like the other way around. If you're in the room with somebody as talented as Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, like, the best thing you can do is just sit and listen first and see what they want to do and just be, like, an open receptor to the talent. So I understand that ego comes in, and I've heard, like, stories of this. I've never been around those producers. I try and, like, keep, like, my circle kind of, like - the karma good.

CORNISH: Because it sounds like - and sometimes women feel somewhat trapped, right? I mean, the label says, look; you got to work with this awesome producer, and then you got to do it.

RONSON: Maybe. I also think that in this, like, slightly new social media era where, like, these massive artists like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez and stuff are calling so many shots because they could just be like, I feel like making this piece of music right now. I'm going to put it out tomorrow. So I do feel like it's probably changed because the artists just have such a direct thing to their fans now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPINNING")

ILSEY JUBER: (Singing) Steady my breath in the wake of love, heavy on down and it weighs too much. I don't want to drown but the waves keep on rolling (ph).

CORNISH: So how does collaboration work when you have kind of the added issue of you bringing your own experience - right? - into to this album? On this one, you talked about the sadness of your breakup. You were divorced last year. So that's like a different kind of cloud hanging over things.

RONSON: I think you kind of just find the people that were slightly willing to go into that zone. I wasn't asking anyone to channel my personal experience but just to feel the thing that was a bit of, like, a shared thing.

CORNISH: Can we talk about a song that was a real collaboration?

RONSON: "Spinning," the last one on the record, I wrote it with this amazing songwriter Ilsey Juber. And I was in another relationship after my marriage broke up, and I was kind of just like in that state where you, like, don't know what's going on, what's up or down. And I just called Ilsey, and I thought the record was done. And I was like, you got time for one more, like, heartbreak piece or something? She was like, yeah, I'll be there at 6. She came over, and we kind of wrote this song together. And it just was about - the chorus lyric is when I'm spinning, you bring me back to Earth and you fix it. When nothing's making sense and I'm dizzy, you're the only one that I want. And it was just how I felt at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPINNING")

JUBER: (Singing) You're the only one that I want.

RONSON: There's a little bit of a ray of light at the end of this song. Like, the songs are a bit heartbreaking on the record, and this goes out on a little bit of, like, a slightly optimistic...

CORNISH: A little bit of hope.

RONSON: A little bit of hope, which actually didn't pan out anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPINNING")

JUBER: (Singing) Feeling on and on (ph).

CORNISH: (Laughter) Well, Mark Ronson, thank you so much for sharing a bit of your process and talking about the music. It was really lovely.

RONSON: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Mark Ronson - his new album, "Late Night Feelings," is out Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPINNING")

JUBER: (Singing) On and on, on and on and on, feeling on and on, on and on (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.