Making his Mark
Amid rumours of a rift with Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson talks to EdPower about covers, Lily Allen and why he gave up celeb DJing
The internet is on fire and Mark Ronson can feel the flames licking his toes. It's early afternoon and, for the past several hours, the web has been agog with rumours of a rift between the DJ/ remixer and (courtesy of a recent peroxide dye-job) Ted Danson lookalike and his protege/muse Amy Winehouse.
Actually, 'rumours' is somewhat of an understatement. A little after nine on the morning of this interview, Winehouse, writing on her Twitter page, declared Ronson a persona non grata. "You're dead to me," she typed. "One album i write an you take half the credit -- make a career out of it? don't think so."
With Winehouse, it's always hard to be certain, but the tirade was apparently prompted by an interview Ronson gave to the BBC's Jools Holland the previous Friday in which he suggested that, as producer, a great deal of the credit for Winehouse's Back to Black should go to him.
Speaking to Holland about his role in the making of the album, Ronson had said: "Working with someone like Amy Winehouse, she would come to me with just a song on an acoustic guitar and then you'd kind of dream up the rhythm arrangements and the track around it, all sorts of things. It's really different, artist to artist."
As the Twittersphere is (almost literally) burning up with the scandal, it seems only fair to canvass Ronson for an opinion. In the back of a record company limo crawling through London rush hour, he sighs and purses his lips.
"That's a conversation for me and Amy personally," he says, transatlantic accent drifting somewhere between Austin Powers, Gossip Girl and David Cameron (to whom he is sometimes compared on account of his privileged background). "I don't like to air my grievances with friends in public."
Can he comment generally on the state of his relationship with the troubled chanteuse? There was talk of a falling out after Winehouse's substance abuse difficulties nixed plans for them to record a James Bond theme together. And yet things appeared to have been patched up when Winehouse joined Ronson's band on stage in London in July. Another sigh and grimace.
"Um... I really don't feel like talking about Amy, if you don't mind. Just until I talk to her. Anything I tell you can just be open to interpretation. I'm sure you understand."
What he is happy to discuss is his latest album, Record Collection. The follow-up to his platinum-selling covers project Version, the new LP couldn't be more different. Where Version was a series of horn-soaked collaborations with artists as diverse and unlikely as Coldplay's Chris Martin, Maximo Park's Paul Smith and -- on a genius/sacrilegious re-imagining of Radiohead's Just -- SoCal indie rockers Phantom Planet, Record Collection finds the 35-year-old striving to demonstrate his chops as a songwriter.
Yes, there are star turns aplenty (Boy George and Simon Le Bon enjoy prominent walk-on parts). Nevertheless, the material is 100pc original and, on the title track, Ronson even takes lead vocals. However, the biggest surprise isn't what's on the record but what's missing: the cocktail-lounge brass and Stax Records flourishes that have come to be seen as signatures of Ronson's production technique.
"You know, originally I had never intended making a covers album," he says. "I was kind of bored and bummed out about the music that was out there. For my DJ sets, I started doing my own covers. So I'd at least have something to play that I liked."
Running a hand through his frankly terrifying glow-in-the-dark quiff, he sits forward and elaborates. "Everybody thought of me as the covers guy who likes trumpets. I didn't want to do the Mark Ronson 'sound', you know. It's lived its shelf-life. It means you become a a bit predictable, if you've got to the stage where people are talking about the 'the Mark Ronson sound'... I think it's good to give it a push and move on."
Although he won't talk about Winehouse, he is willing to natter about his equally fruitful partnership with Lily Allen. Ronson produced several tracks on her debut Alright, Still and is credited with encouraging Allen to exaggerate her Mockney singing voice, in the process helping elevate her from being just another singer-songwriter in a vintage dress into a lightning rod for swinging 21st-century Land-dahn.
"That was pretty much the spark for me," he says. "The little window of buzz around [Ronson's flop first album] Here Comes The Fuzz had ended. I was back in New York working on fledgling projects and doing a lot of music for TV commercials that wasn't especially satisfying. Then Lily came along. I was lucky to meet her as she was starting out. She suddenly became the coolest person in the world..."
Ronson's biography reads a bit like a Spinal Tap-tinged retelling of The Royal Tenenbaums. He was born in St John's Wood London, his father Laurence was a scion of the multi-million service station and property company Heron who turned his back on the family trade to manage Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz. When Mark was five, his parents divorced and he moved to New York with his younger twin sisters, Charlotte and Samantha, (who became famous in her own right as Lindsay Lohan's on/off girlfriend). And a long custody battle took its toll on the children.
"I remember Dad picking us up at weekends and it was awkward," Ronson said in an interview in July. In an effort to keep the children in Britain, the Ronson clan behaved quite aggressively towards his mother, he told a UK newspaper. "[They] cut off the electricity... kind of to show her who she was messing with. They really didn't want her to bring us to New York."
She wasn't for turning, though, and the family eventually settled into an opulent apartment on Manhattan's preppy Upper West Side. There, Ronson was raised in a sort of rock and roll fantasia. His mother married Mick Jones of the soft-rock band Foreigner and their home became a stopping-off point for the great and good for the American music industry. Mick Jagger and David Bowie were regular visitors; Ronson recalls being tucked into bed by Robin Williams and -- surreally -- Michael Jackson (who, he has always stated, couldn't have been nicer).
With a background like that, Ronson's showbusiness aspirations had a ring of inevitability. By his 20s, he was one of New York's preeminent 'celebrity DJs'. From fashion shows to after-parties to rock-star soirées, no glittering social gathering was complete without him. As he got older, however, it occurred that living 24/7 in the glare of paparazzi flash-bulbs was getting to be detrimental to his career. The low point was spinning the disks at the 2006 nuptials of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, at which he slapped on You've Lost That Loving Feeling, drank to excess to calm his nerves and threw up as soon as he got off stage.
"'Celebrity DJ' is a term that I hated," he said over the summer. "Doing Tom Cruise wedding-type things becomes the focal point of every interview and you realise that you have to cut it out if you don't want to be answering questions about that."
Still, renouncing the celeb DJ circuit wasn't enough to silence his detractors. When Version became a hit, the British music press gleefully spewed anti-Ronson snark, while Portishead's Geoff Barrow -- never the first on the dance floor at a party you suspect -- snootily dismissed his material as "shit funky supermarket Muzak". Ouch!
"It stings," nods Ronson. "You read these barbs and what not. I grew up as such a music obsessive, reading every magazine I could lay my hands on. I was such a nerd. I was reading album liner notes when I was seven. I wanted to know everything that was going on with music. So when you suddenly get to an age and put out your own record and you can't buy some of those magazines you used to read and love... because you're worried... 'oh god, what horrible things might they say about me today'. It sucks. I understand what the backlash is. I think I'm aware enough to know why and what it comes from. At the end of the day, I made this record because I wanted to make a good album. Not because I wanted to silence the critics."
Record Collection is released today, Ronson is in The Academy on Oct 28