The Big Read – Mark Ronson: “Amy Winehouse turned my song off after about five fucking seconds”

He’s the super-producer who’s reinvented and reshaped pop music at least three times, but Mark Ronson insists that he’s still plagued with self-doubt. He tells Jordan Bassett how heartbreak and divorce inspired his new album of sad bangers, ‘Late Night Feelings’, and why old pal Amy Winehouse, who had “no filter”, hated some of his solo material. PICTURES: DEAN CHALKLEY


Mark Ronson, in a white t-shirt depicting a mirror ball in the shape of a breaking heart, leans backwards, his arms outstretched, his expression that of a man ready to relinquish himself to the exquisite pain of romantic love. His martyrdom is as pristine as his glossy pompadour hairdo. A moment later, he drops the pose and, scratching his head, mussing the quiff, asks NME’s photographer, “Are you sure this doesn’t look a bit… Jesus-y?”

The photographer assures him not. Definitely not. “Ah… No, it’s too Jesus-y,” Ronson decides. So he tries another pose, this time with one arm raised in the direction of the camera. “Wait!” He looks vaguely alarmed. “That one’s too Hitler-y!”

It’s an exchange that says much about Mark Ronson, London-born DJ, uber-producer, friend to the stars, the last of the famous international playboys – and painfully self-conscious, endlessly self-deprecating dude. The 43-year-old’s upcoming fifth album, ‘Late Night Feelings’, is still under lock and key when NME meets him at the swanky Sony Music offices in South Kensington, where he poses gamely for his Big Read cover, before allowing himself to be needled about the record he has previously dubbed his “best yet”.

That’s not a very Mark Ronson thing to say (his sleepy mid-Atlantic drawl, which he cultivated from the age of eight when his mother married Mick Jones, guitarist with ‘70s rockers Foreigner, and moved the family New York, is better suited to apathetic self-effacement). So you suspect he really means it.

Unlike its predecessor, 2015’s ‘Uptown Special’, which boasted the world destroying, Bruno Mars-featuring ‘Uptown Funk’ (3.5 billion YouTube views and counting), this feels like a cohesive body of work, a mood piece, rather than a collection of hit singles. It’s 13 sad and glossy dance and disco songs – he likes the term ‘sad bangers’ – wrapped around the unbeatable lead single ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’, the countrified Miley Cyrus disco-pop smash that sounds like a lost ‘70s radio gem.

Elsewhere, Angel Olsen amps up the melodrama on the deliciously overwrought ‘True Blue’ (“I run to you… and you know why”), Camila Cabello acts the vamp on the shimmering ‘Find U Again’ and Lykke Li drowns her sorrows on ‘2AM’, a pop weepie with a killer melody. Ronson plays the record on his own laptop during the photoshoot, skipping backwards and forwards between his favourite tracks (he’s into album closer ‘Spinning’ at the moment) and seems genuinely thrilled when we say we’re enjoying it.

Why would he care? The man broke streaming records with ‘Uptown Funk’ (in December 2014 it became the most streamed song ever). He won a Grammy for that song (it was named Record Of The Year). He produced Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’, for fuck’s sake. Yet his seeming desire for approval perhaps lies in the record’s messy inception, and the emotion that he’s invested in its disco grooves. If you criticise ‘Late Night Feelings’ the record, you’re almost criticising Mark Ronson the man, which wasn’t necessarily the case with his previous albums.

“I have gone through therapy a lot in the past four or five years,” Ronson explains. “It’s probably the first time in my life I’ve felt like it’s okay to sort of say how I’m feeling. If you think about songs like ‘The Bike Song’ or ‘Bang Bang Bang’ [taken from 2010’s ‘Record Collection’], they’re really fun songs, but there’s not a shred of me in them. Like, I’m sure the groove and the beats have [me in them], but…”

Ronson and the Parisian actor Joséphine de La Baume divorced in 2018 after five-and-half years of marriage. “The entire period of a year – a year-and-a-half, maybe two years – was kinda like… it was just a bit covered with this grey cloud over it,” he says. “Some days it’s fine, some days it’s better – and there’s still good shit that happens. It’s the first time I ever put my own emotions, or what I’ve been going through, out there in a record. I almost didn’t have a choice not to make a personal album because it was so all-consuming going to the studio and trying to make something fun or groovy. As nice as it might have felt in the moment, the next day I’d listen to it and it would feel completely inauthentic.”

Perhaps wary of cliché, he insists that ‘Late Night Feelings’ didn’t offer him any kind of emotional purge: “When I try and think back on a specific day in the studio, is there a day where it was, like, excruciating? No… I don’t think I made the record as a form of catharsis; I just think that’s just all that was available to come out of me at that time. There were a lot of days where I was just fucking like, ‘Nothing good’s gonna come out today, but I have to be here.’ By the third hour, you’re just banging your head against the wall. And then something does turn into chords, and then something special happens.”

Still, he will confess: “Listening to ‘Late Night Feelings’ now is… I was going through a period a couple of months ago, or a month ago, as I was finishing up the record, and you’re doing all the fine touches, when it almost just felt like self-flagellation to keep listening to these messages as you’re trying to fight yourself out of it.”

He co-writes quickly and tinkers with the songs for months afterwards (‘Uptown Funk’ took seven months). It’s easy to imagine ‘Spinning’ – on which featured vocalist Ilsey Juber, who also co-penned ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’ and has written for the likes of Beyoncé, sings, “On and on and on… I feel it on and on” – being especially evocative during a long night in the studio, ghosts reflected in the glass.

“That’s song I’m the proudest of on the record,” he says, “because I was just in such a low place, and kinda conflicted, and I thought, ‘These chords are not the kind of chords that I usually write’. Every now and then a really good one, a ‘Bang Bang Bang’ or something, will come to me, where it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t get those often…’

Mark Ronson, of course, is a man who knows a thing or two about turning heartache into pure pop gold.

He was a relatively unknown producer with one flop solo album (2003’s hip-hop flavoured ‘Here Comes The Fuzz’) to his name when he walked into the studio with Amy Winehouse in 2005. The resulting ‘Back To Black’ crystallised her exceptional raw talent into a ‘60s-influenced soul masterpiece. It made Amy a legend, spawned five hit singles, transformed the pop landscape (the record’s legacy lives on in Adele’s continued success) and turned Ronson into the super-producer he is today. It also kickstarted his solo career, as his 2007 album ‘Version’, a collection of brassy covers – from Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ to Radiohead’s ‘Just’ – drew on the sound he honed with Amy.

He brings her up when he compares the making of ‘Late Night Feelings’ to the effect of the classic album that they made together: “It’s the like way I can sometimes hear ‘Back To Black’ in some restaurant in the background and it does nothing, and then I’ll hear it on another occasion in, like, the lobby of a hotel, and it has a really heavy effect on me.”

Do you think about her often? 

“I mean, she’s definitely there. I couldn’t tell you like, three days a week or whatever. She’s just there ‘cause I feel like… she kinda put me on the map, so all of my success and everything I’ve had since is somehow linked back to this thing, you know? I remember playing her ‘Record Collection’ [released less than a year before Amy died], and stuff that I was working on. She was in various states of [sobriety] so depending on how sober she was at the time, sometimes she’d listen, sometimes she’d tune out. She had like, no filter, so if I was playing her something… I remember playing her ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and after about five fucking seconds of the song she started to turn it down.”

He mimes Amy, grimacing, turning down the volume button.

“But then she really loved ‘Lose It In The End’ [from the same record], the song that I was singing with Ghostface [Killah from Wu Tang Clan], ‘cause it had this very English ‘60s, slightly psych thing to it. It was hard to tell. Her favourite song on ‘Version’ was the one with Santigold, ‘Pretty Green’, which was probably the coolest sounding song on there. She was just cool. Her tastes just leaned towards the cool. I don’t know what she would have thought of this record, to be honest. I think there’d be a couple things she liked and probably a couple things where she’d just turn the volume down.”

She’d love ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’, I’m sure

“I think so. I mean, that’s got a bit of lineage to ‘Back To Black’. That’s the first time that I went and worked again with Chris Elliott, the string arranger who did all the strings on ‘Back To Black’. ‘Cause it needed that yearning. I think it has a bit of the same drama, for sure.”

How do you feel when you hear her name?

“Warmly, like about a friend. Before I think about the music and the legacy, I just think of somebody that I enjoyed spending time with.”

‘Back To Black’ is an album of absolute sad bangers, as is ‘Late Night Feelings’, even though they approach their emotional textures from different angles. What appeals to Ronson about the sub-genre?

“I think it’s the combination of being able to move to something that’s melancholy,” he explains. “Obviously having a dance beat and a really relentlessly upbeat song is kind of fun, but then you’ve got everything firing in the same direction. I like the rub between the upbeat rhythm section and the longing in the vocal. All American music, really – all soul, American R&B, everything – comes from the blues. And the blues was invented to express dissatisfaction, heartache and lament, so it makes sense that it would work in, like, a disco. There’s a sadness and melancholy in a lot of my favourite dance records.”

He began DJ-ing as student at New York University in the early ‘90s, and always has one ear to the dancefloor.

“I’m still a DJ first,” he says, “and I’m always thinking that way. You have to keep the glimmer of hope in there. This is a different album for me in that emotion came first and then we figured out the beats – usually I come up with the beat first and then we write a song on top of it – but I still wanna make people move. I still wanna go out and DJ and play these songs, so there’s always a groove and upbeat-ness. Sometimes the drum beat’s the Trojan Horse, which you’re sending a message through.”

Mark Ronson is clearly a music buff, and as such thrives on collaborating with other musicians he admires. There were 11 co-writers credited on ‘Uptown Funk’. In general, his most successful work has been recorded with women – from ‘Back To Black’ to Amy Winehouse’s cover of ‘Valerie’ to ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’ – and there isn’t a single male vocalist on ‘Late Night Feelings’. You wouldn’t ask a male producer why their album only features men, but, when a mere 22.2% of the world’s most commercially successful performers between 2012 and 2017 were female, it feels notable.

He lists the musicians he worked with on the album, from New York multi-instrumentalist King Princess to the Arkansas gospel singer Yebba, and explains that he simply collaborated with the people he had an affinity with: “Once I really found the core group of people, it felt like we had the strongest bond and connection. When we were getting in the room, there was a sense that we were doing something that just felt kind of special. Everyone fit this record; we were all feeling the same thing.”

It was Lykke Li who coined the phrase ‘Late Night Feelings’, which epitomised the tone of the record and provided the songs with a thematic framework, and she and Ronson have hosted ‘Club Heartbreak’, a London club night at which they’ve spun their favourite sad bangers. “This is a melancholic break-up album,” he says, “but I like the fact that the phrase ‘Late Night Feelings’ isn’t necessarily just about heartbreak – it’s, like, those weird, delirious thoughts that run through your mind just before you fall asleep. Sometimes it’s heartbreak, sometimes it’s anxiety, sometimes it’s fucking Brexit.”

Where ‘Back To Black’ birthed the mid-noughties neo-soul trend, ‘Uptown Funk’ arguably set the template for globally cross-pollinated pop that’s dominated the charts in the past couple of years. It’s perhaps not too fanciful to trace a lineage between Ronson and Mars’ hit – which combines Minneapolis funk with New York disco, borrowing Atlanta rapper Trinidad James’s ‘All Gold Everything’ – to the success of Cardi B, who mixes motormouthed Bronx swagger with trap and a touch of salsa. In other words: Ronson is adept, in his low-key way, at influencing the landscape of popular music.

When he and Lady Gaga co-executive produced her country flavoured album ‘Joanne’, released in 2016, the cover of which depicts Gaga in a pink Stetson hat, pop music was yet to re-embrace Americana. Since then, the cowboy has become a pop culture staple again – Solange Knowles cast them in the arty visuals that accompany her fourth record ‘When I Get Home’ and Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ became a worldwide smash. And that’s not even to mention ‘Shallow’, Lady Gaga’s rustic country song with Bradley Cooper, taken from their Oscar-winning Hollywood remake A Star Is Born.

‘Joanne’ received something of a lukewarm reception at the time. Was he ahead of the curve there, too?

“Not to compare or anything,” he says, “but I remember when Kanye West released ‘808s & Heartbreak’ [in 2008], it was a little bit maligned. It didn’t sound like Kanye’s thing. There was no sample; it was all synths. People kind of hated it. But then a couple years later, you look at the entire landscape of hip-hop and it’s like… everyone’s doing this thing. With ‘Joanne’, we weren’t really trying to prove a point or change the whole direction of where pop music was going. It just felt like a very natural thing to do with her. Gaga was in this laidback place. She showed up to the studio in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and cut-off jean shorts. That was the logical thing she wanted to express, so we took that ride.

“We didn’t realise it at the time, but now you see the progression and the way that fed into A Star Is Born. I think Bradley always had in his head that there should be a country tinge to the movie, but even if it was a coincidence, ‘Joanne’ and A Star Is Born played into each other really nicely.”

Ronson chooses his words carefully here, but it’s surely no coincidence that pop music continues moving in directions he’s motioned towards. He co-wrote ‘Shallow’, which won the Oscar for Best Original song in February. Every interview you read with Ronson will mention that he’s self-deprecating, unassuming. But hasn’t his head been turned by the Oscar, the record-breaking streaming numbers?

What comes across, going through interviews you’ve done, is that you’re very self-deprecating…

“It’s all an act. No, I’m kidding. I don’t know what it is. Listen, I know it works in my favour to be humble. I mean, unless you’re like Liam Gallagher or Noel Gallagher and you’ve got an amazing quip for everything, it’s nicer to look like you have some humility in your success. I mean, there’s also a point at which I could just enjoy it a little more. But I’m 43, you know? I don’t know how much I’m gonna really change at this point. So I realise the way that I am is what’s got me here, and I don’t wanna change it too much.”

Would you like to change it a little?

“You know, if I am a little bit hard on myself or a bit self-deprecating, or I don’t really quite know how to fully enjoy the successes sometimes, it’s like… so what? It’s got me where I am. It would be nice to enjoy it a little bit more, but maybe that will come with age, or when I have a family or something… But, you know, the survival mechanisms and coping mechanisms that get you where you are, you become pretty reliant and grateful for them. As long as you’re not, like, an axe murderer or something.”

You can’t seriously have any doubts about yourself now

“I don’t know what people will think of this record. Like, it’s nice that the Miley song’s doing well and stuff. I know that now, maybe, I don’t have to worry anyone’s gonna think I was, like, a fraud, or chancing it. Or got that I lucky once. But I put so much into everything I do and care so much about each single thing, that it doesn’t matter if people liked the last thing if they don’t like this. So that’s kind of all it is.”

He also won a Grammy for ‘Shallow’ (and a Golden Globe, but nobody cares about that). They post the Grammy out to you a couple of months after the ceremony, but you receive your Oscar on the night. “So you’re walking around with the fucking whole thing all night,” he says. “It was such a crazy thing, walking around this party, and everyone’s saying hi – people like J-Lo – and they’re like, ‘Hey – congrats!’, ‘cause you just got this thing. You’re high-fiving Emma Stone and thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m in the club now’.”

Those are some pretty heavy name-drops for a man without an ego, but then these are the social circles that he moves in these days. But Ronson insists he doesn’t take any of it for granted, that it hasn’t clouded his ambitions.

“I have seven Grammies,” he says. “I won three for ‘Back To Black’. That was first time I was nominated. That was so far beyond anything I ever thought I’d achieve in my lifetime. But you can enjoy it for that split second and have a good time – and then you’re like, ‘Yeah, cool. What are we doing tomorrow?’ Not because we wanna have more hits and more Grammies, but because that’s what’s the most fun thing for me: being in the studio, making music and trying to make shit that’s good.

“I mean, obviously with each significant success you have, you become a little more confident and worry a little less. But I’m constantly excited about being in the studio, making new shit. So you’re always worried about how that new shit’s gonna be received. There’s not much time to dwell on former glories.”

Most people would be content to have produced Amy Winehouse, or to have given the world ‘Uptown Funk’, but there’s a real restlessness to Mark Ronson, perhaps one that’s wilfully obscured by that sleepy demeanour of his. He wasn’t into that ‘Jesus-y’ pose, but, sacrificing himself to endless shifts in the studio, he is a martyr to his music. And, as his new collection of sad bangers shows, he’s at his best when he’s back to black.

– Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings’ is released by Sony on June 21