Mark Ronson has become one of the most storied producers of the 21st century, working with the likes of Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and the late Amy Winehouse. But while his catalog is familiar, his rise to prominence isn’t so widely known. Thanks to YouTube, that’s changing this Saturday.
How To Be: Mark Ronson, premiering on YouTube on Oct. 12, dives into Ronson’s story from birth to his most recent album, Late Night Feelings, in a compelling 75-minute documentary that features interviews with the producer himself, his parents, and some of his biggest collaborators. Though he’s not one to self-indulge, Ronson had to admit the finished product was pretty cool: “When I first saw the trailer, I was like, ‘Damn, they got Bradley Cooper in this bitch?’”
As he alludes in the film, Ronson’s road to success has almost been easier than his road to publicly opening up the way he does in How To Be: Mark Ronson. The superproducer chatted with Billboard about what he’s gained from his newfound vulnerability, what it was like to watch the doc, and what he personally feels are his biggest achievements to date.
What made you want to do this documentary in the first place? Did it have something to do with the vulnerability you accessed through Late Night Feelings?
They’re completely linked. If Late Night Feelings hadn’t happened and I hadn’t had this, like, opening of this wild spring of emotion and honesty come out into the music, I definitely wouldn’t be talking about it in the doc. I love watching docs on the BBC, so I had a feeling it would be of a certain quality. I guess I didn’t realize the full scope when they started filming me. Because I’d been on stuff before on the BBC, like The Culture Show, but I didn’t really realize it was a 75-minute film.
Once I let down my guard for the record and the initial press that came after it, I don’t really have a filter anymore. It’s helped along the way to just talk openly and not second guessing. I feel like, when I’ve been guarded in the past, anytime I’m asked a question in an interview, I’m sort of playing chess in my brain trying to think a step ahead. Like, “If I had said that after that honest thing, would that lead to this thing?” It’s so much easier when you’re just honest, then you don’t really have to edit yourself at all and can just talk genuinely.
You talk about your struggles with opening up, but then all of these artists like Lady Gaga and YEBBA are saying in the documentary that you create such an inspirational space in the studio. How did you figure out your approach to working with artists and fostering their visions?
That’s a separate thing, creating a safe space for an artist to be vulnerable and let their guard down. That kind of thing is something that I feel like I’ve always, since early on, I’ve been good at. That’s one of my major reasons that really personal artists like working with me. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do, because the more of a safe, padded sensibility you give to something, the more honesty they’re going to give you. And for the most part, that usually makes the music more meaningful.
You tell a story of when Amy Winehouse was super-blunt with you that was a great lesson in learning how to make “better shit and be more honest.” Do you feel like your music changed after that?
It was baby steps. I enacted it the most in my own music with this record, strangely: Late Night Feelings kind of instilled that lesson of being honest and genuine that came from those sessions with Amy. I’ve definitely picked [things] up [from] people like Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, Adele — these people that are really kind of hard-lined about demanding genuineness and being real. It’s definitely not like it’s only been Amy, but that was one of my first lessons from somebody I had a very close bond with that was like, “All right, don’t try to tell me this shit is dope when it’s not.”
Have you watched the documentary in full?
Actually, I did just watch it for the first time recently. The edit was due the day after my birthday early last month, and I was having this existential crisis that everybody has on their birthday. I just really wasn’t prepared to watch something a little bit personal about my life. So I trusted my manager Brandon. I was like “You know me, you have good taste. You get to comment.”
But then I did watch it — through hands like you’d watch a horror movie, for the first 15 minutes. Then I finally watched it, and I was like, “This isn’t that bad.” I don’t mean that I ever doubted: I knew the doc would be good, but I did think it’d be cringey watching myself on this thing. Listen, I couldn’t even watch [the Amy Winehouse documentary] Amy and I’m barely in that. Anything that touches on your life, it’s very hard to watch any kind of doc like that. But all the stuff with my family, people that I’ve worked with… it’s really lovely to watch people you love and care about say nice things about you, for sure.
The film highlights some of your more obvious achievements, but what do you personally see as your biggest career successes?
Playing on SNL, even more than the Super Bowl, that was the childhood — not even the dream, because I didn’t actually think it was going to happen — but that was a thing from my childhood. I was such an obsessive comedy fan and pop culture fan, growing up in New York. When we first got to play on that, even just being there shooting the photos that were going to be used in the bumper with Mary Ellen [Matthews]. Or when Cameron Diaz says, “Ladies and gentleman, Mark Ronson” for the first time. Even when I ended up on the fucking, like, DirecTV [programming schedule] a week before when they [say] who is going to be on it, that was exciting — seeing your name in the brackets next to SNL. That’s probably the thing that hangs pretty big.
And the Grammys, winning producer of the year the first time — well, the only time. The Oscars, obviously, that was a monumental thing. That was just a lovely night, because it was just being with [co-writers] Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Gaga, people I genuinely love. We were just like, “Wow, this is really insane.”
Is there a song you’ve produced — whether its your own or another artist’s — that feels the most like what you envisioned a Mark Ronson production sounding like?
“Ooh Wee” with Ghostface and Nate Dogg, that was sort of like 10 years of club DJing experience thrown into one song. I still love playing that for some reason, partly because it still sounds as big as any of my other songs in the club.
Something off of the new record too, maybe “Late Night Feelings.” That song has that crazy disco thing and then the yearning; [co-writers] Lykke [Li] and Ilsey [Juber]’s great melodies on top. “Just” with Alex Greenwald is sort of like, halfway between indie James Brown and something else. But “Ooh Wee” is probably the best example.
What has it been like now having a project of your own that listeners are connecting to on a deeper level than the connection of the more fun vibes of Uptown Special?
I definitely can feel it when somebody comes up to me in the street telling me that they like the music or something — now, it seems like it’s coming from more of an emotional or soulful place. You touch people a little bit more when you’re more vulnerable, because people identify with those emotions. Instead of going like, “Oh that’s that song that I love to fucking dance to at the club when I go out,” it’s like, “Oh that’s that song that [I play when] I’m in my room and feeling this fucking shitty thing about this breakup that I [went] through.” Even if one hundredth of the people who would know a song like “Late Night Feelings” would know a song like “Uptown Funk” — it’s still lovely, just in a different way, to hear it reaching people.
How to Be: Mark Ronson is a Livewire Pictures/Eagle Rock Films production in association with BBC Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment.