Billboard Cover: Mark Ronson on His Surprise No. 1 Hit, Amy Winehouse and His Neurotic Ways
Four hours from now, Mark Ronson will learn, via text, that his song "Uptown Funk" has dislodged Taylor Swift from her perch atop the U.S. singles chart, giving him his first No. 1 hit as an artist. For now, he's in his recording studio in an industrial area of North London, not far from where he was born and lives. He's about 6-foot-4, if you include the crown of his hair, and thin, with long legs and bony shoulders. He opens his computer and clicks on "Brand New Car," a song from rapper Action Bronson's next album, due in March. Ronson built the track around an interpolation of "Zanzibar" by Billy Joel, an artist both he and Bronson love.
Before he learned and played the song's jazzy keyboard hook, Ronson cleared the sample by an old-fashioned method: "I sent a nice letter to Billy Joel," he says with a smile. "It's amazing what the power of a polite letter can do for you."
Throughout his unusual career, Ronson has mixed a gentlemanly British sensibility and style with a devotion to black American music. Raised amid wealth and privilege, he was tagged with the horrible title "celebrity DJ," then proved himself an ace producer, songwriter and musician while working with a broad array of acts, from Nas to Duran Duran, Paul McCartney to Ol' Dirty Bastard. But success under his own name had never come. On a trio of solo albums, starting in 2003, he didn't even break the Billboard Hot 100. His first hit has been a huge one, making him, at the late age of 39, a star. "No one was holding their breath for a Mark Ronson record in 2015," he notes. "I'm sure I wasn't on any Sony sales projection."
When you spend two afternoons with Ronson, he seems calm and even, with a low affect, less like a top producer than a droll diplomat who measures every reply. He casually mentions that he gets such anxiety before gigs that even his wife knows to leave him alone -- that's the Ronson his collaborators know about.
He co-wrote and co-produced "Uptown Funk" with Bruno Mars, who sings it, and keyboardist Jeff Bhasker, who has done great work with Beyoncé, Kanye West, Jay Z, Drake and The Rolling Stones. (The three had previously collaborated on Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven," the 11th biggest U.S. song of 2013.) On his previous albums, Ronson created giddy mash-ups of styles and artists -- from "Valerie," a romping Motown tribute sung by Amy Winehouse, to "Ooh Wee," a blaxploitation production featuring rapper Ghostface Killah -- and had solid success in the United Kingdom. His new record, Uptown Special, sprints through the fields of top 40 pop. Ronson has a British accent and an American passport. In effect, he muted the British side of his musical background and embraced the American side.
"I realized RCA wasn't going to put out another quirky, across-the-pond type of cult record," he says. In the course of making the album, which involved 10 different studios, from London to Memphis to Vancouver, Ronson's hair began to fall out. He had trouble sleeping, and didn't eat well. One afternoon, on a lunch break from recording his guitar part on "Uptown Funk," Ronson vomited, passed out and had to be carried from the restaurant.
"He comes across as a laid-back guy, but he gets pretty wound up and neurotic," says Bhasker, who found Ronson on the bathroom floor. "We literally reworked 'Uptown Funk' 100 times, if not more, to get it right. That's not a guy who's relaxed and reasonable -- that's out of your mind. Plus, it was 95 degrees in London and Mark was wearing a black suit."
Despite his anxiety, Ronson held it together and made wonderful, sprightly music. Stevie Wonder guested on two songs, illustrious session players from Teenie Hodges to Willie Weeks added parts, and in order to bolster the complexity of his songs, Ronson deployed lyrics written by novelist Michael Chabon, who's a music nerd, in addition to having won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. With all this firepower, it's reasonable to ask: How much Mark Ronson is there on the new Mark Ronson record?
"If you only knew Mark from photographs," says Chabon, "you might think he's very cool, in every sense of the word. He's not. He's a warm person, very attuned to other people's feelings, and that sensitivity enables him to bring out the best in performers."
Ronson finds it hilarious that so many people view him as a smooth fashion plate, because he feels like a geek and a klutz. He describes his levels of neuroses as "somewhere between a normal person and Woody Allen." That's part of the reason he named his London studio Zelig, in tribute to Allen's film about a nebbish who's so eager to be liked that he can shape-shift and adapt to the personalities of the people near him.
"My Zelig connection has a lot to do with loving a lot of different kinds of music, which always puts you in slightly different social circumstances," he explains. "We'd all like to believe that we're the same people no matter what the situation, but that's bullshit. I never pretended to be hard, or from the hood, or something I'm not. As a result, I've always been a bit of a fish out of water, or an anomaly."
For the first eight years of his life, Ronson lived in St. John's Wood, an affluent London suburb mocked by The Rolling Stones in "Play With Fire." Then his parents divorced, which was "pretty traumatic," and caused him to suffer anxiety attacks for a few years.
His mother, Anne Dexter, came from a family of bohemian Jewish intellectuals: She is related to the founder of the Odeon cinema chain, two British Cabinet ministers and a 16th century rabbi who was one of the founders of Kabbalah. Ronson's dad, Laurence, managed the fleetingly popular British quartet Bucks Fizz, and was heir to a real estate fortune.
It was not a humdrum childhood. "I remember when I was 5 years old, I was doing a Happy Meal crossword. My dad was hung over for a lot of the '80s, and I was like, 'Daddy, what's a five-letter word for something they put in hamburgers?' He looked over from the bed and said, 'Vomit.' So I wrote that down."
Dexter won sole custody in the divorce, and moved Ronson and his younger twin sisters Samantha (now a DJ) and Charlotte (a fashion designer) to New York, where she married Mick Jones, the Foreigner guitarist and songwriter. Ronson recalls loud, late-night parties where he'd awake to find "50 people hanging out and getting wasted." He was now getting a musical education and encouragement from multiple parents; his dad loved funk music, and played Grandmaster Flash records while Ronson and his sisters jumped on the bed.
Before he was a teenager, Ronson met Sean Lennon, and they've been best friends ever since. Ronson "already had an amazing style," Lennon remembers. "He had gel in his hair and a cool jacket. I don't think I knew how to tie my shoes yet. He was the first guy to dye his hair. This pretty girl went up to Mark and asked him, 'Why do you have a streak in your hair?' And he said, 'Camouflage.' He was wittier than everybody else."
Ronson and Lennon lived two blocks away from one another on Central Park West -- Lennon in the Dakota, and Ronson in the San Remo, a landmark Art Deco building that counts Steven Spielberg, Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs and Bono among its homeowners. They learned to play guitar at the same time, but Ronson was more devout: "He was a very focused guy," says Lennon. "A lot of my generation, in that social group, were maybe too free -- the leash was a little loose." But Dexter was a demanding parent, "and I think she has a lot to do with Mark's work ethic and his ambition."
At 13, Ronson wanted to be a music critic. Luckily for him, that didn't happen. He played guitar in one of New York's many early-'90s jam bands -- "We got to open for Spin Doctors at Wetlands; that was probably our biggest thing" -- but then grew obsessed with hip-hop. "My heroes were DJ Premier and RZA. I was like, 'OK, I have to be involved with this music in some form.' But I can't rap. That's why I got a turntable -- I wanted to start DJ'ing. The minute I got turntables, that's all I really cared about."
Ronson often says his family background wasn't a factor in his success, but that's not true: Instruments were always nearby; he had money, access and connections; and newspapers instantly took notice of this white teenager from a prominent family spinning black music for models, moguls and regular people, too. The New York Times called him "flawlessly cute." Ronson modeled for Tommy Hilfiger and had a cameo in Zoolander. And he was quickly tagged with the odious title "celebrity DJ."
"It's a terrible claim, but I must have been one of the people for whom the term was dreamed up," Ronson says now. "It was a slap in the face. But then I produced some important records and I didn't have to deal with it too much anymore."
His most important record was Winehouse's Back to Black, in 2006, which has sold nearly 3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. Before that, he had worked in a purely modern style, producing records with a drum machine and a sampler. And his success was uneven: Elektra Records dropped him "like a week after my first album came out." He didn't want to make a modern-sounding record with Winehouse, so Ronson collaborated with The Dap-Kings, a Brooklyn crew of skilled R&B traditionalists who were initially skeptical about working with him.
"I managed to convince them. I was like, 'C'mon man, if we do this right, we'll all be sitting together laughing at the Grammys next year.' I remember cringing as I said it, because it sounded so vulgar, and it's the last thing they'd care about. What the f--- did I know about going to the Grammys?"
Working with Winehouse, he says, "was inspiring, because when you work with someone that great, you suddenly want to be better. In every way, it put me on the map. Take that album away, and you and I would definitely not be talking right now."
Ironically, Ronson doesn't remember much about the Grammys that he and Winehouse won in 2008, because he had been partying a bunch. "I was doing blow -- not a lot; mostly it was drinking and going out five, six nights a week, which felt normal." Once you've produced a blockbuster, he adds, "you can turn life into an endless series of parties, if you choose."
The next year, "at my peak of party-boy arrogance," Ronson was in a London basement club where he met Josephine de la Baume, a French singer, actress and model. "I was a little bit wasted. I was trying to show off, and -- I'm almost embarrassed to say this -- I kept trying to give her a GQ award I had in my hotel room." (Why did Ronson have an award at his hotel? "I have all my awards shipped to wherever I am," he replies dryly.)
A day earlier, he had turned down an upcoming DJ gig in Paris. "So I sheepishly called the guy, like, 'Hey, remember that DJ gig?' I went to Paris under the guise of doing a gig, but it was really just to find her." Ronson previously had dated several beautiful women, including models Frankie Rayder and Daisy Lowe; he married de la Baume in Provence in 2011. Lennon was his best man. One of Ronson's favorite funk bands, The Meters, played the afterparty. In the middle of his honeymoon, he realized he had forgotten to return a call from Paul McCartney.
"I was like, 'Whoa, what the hell is Paul McCartney calling me about? And how did he get my number?' " Ronson recalls. What followed was an invitation to DJ at McCartney's wedding to Nancy Shevell, in London. "It was an intimate, family event. I started at midnight and no one would leave until five in the morning. Ronnie Wood was on the dancefloor, so I played [The Faces'] 'Ooh La La.' And 'Band on the Run' got a good response."
Ronson still DJs, though less often than when he played clubs five nights a week. Later this year, he'll be working on Mars' third album, and along with Bhasker, he's producing an album for Keyone Starr, a 23-year-old preacher's daughter that the pair found in Jackson, Miss., when they scouted the South for unknown soul singers. (Starr sings "I Can't Lose" on Uptown Special.) He's not sure if he'll tour behind the new album. "I'd have to figure out a mind-blowing concept. Otherwise, I'd be OK to keep making records."
Because Ronson talks graciously about everyone he has worked with, it's easy to wonder if Uptown Special is a kind of LinkedIn byproduct, where he assembles his gifted friends, lowers the lights and lets them do the work. "Everyone knows Mark's got a big Rolodex," Bhasker says. "That's what's great about this album, and maybe sets it apart. But he's not just in the role of casting director. The core of the music is really generated by him. He wrote the script."
Ronson bids Billboard a gracious goodbye and thanks this writer for coming. A few hours later, he's walking down the street when he gets that text from his manager saying "Uptown Funk" is the new No. 1 single in the States.
"I called Bruno, we talked for a minute, and I said, 'I'm going to let out a primal scream right now, if that's OK,' " Ronson later says. "I cupped the phone to protect his golden ears, and that's what I did."