Smooth, charming and absurdly well-connected, Mark Ronson was a natural as a celebrity DJ. But now it's his writing and producing that is bringing him plaudits, prizes - and death threats. Alexis Petridis meets him as he prepares to go on tour with his album of reworked classics
Saturday October 6, 2007
So far, 2007 has been Mark Ronson's year. For one thing, he is the producer and co-writer behind both Lily Allen's heartbroken ballad Littlest Things and much of Amy Winehouse's Back To Black, an album that has sold somewhere in the region of four and a half million copies and won Winehouse a string of awards, including a Brit, an Ivor Novello and something called the Greatest Britons Prize For Musical Achievement, which leads you to suspect that people may actually be making up awards in order to give them to her.
The album minted what has become Ronson's signature style: a smart, witty, commercial melding of hip-hop with classic 60s soul and reggae that manages simultaneously to sound utterly modern and comfortingly familiar. There's more of the same on his own platinum-selling album, Version, on which he reworks well-known indie tracks in dancefloor-friendly style, with the aid of a panoply of big-name vocalists: a canny way of demonstrating both the diversity of his taste in music and the flexibility of his sound. The album has spawned three hit singles with covers of Radiohead's Just, the Smiths' Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before and the Kaiser Chiefs' Oh My God, and caused endless controversy among his fellow musicians and fans of the bands Ronson has chosen to rework. There were death threats from outraged Morrissey devotees, the Arctic Monkeys "couldn't stand that fucking R&B cover of the Smiths" and Geoff Barrow of Portishead decried Ronson's "shit funky supermarket muzak". Even if you think you've never heard any of it, you probably have: these days on telly, almost no event passes without Ronson's chirpy, horn-parping take on Coldplay's God Put A Smile Upon Your Face playing in the background.
Ronson tends to be presented as rather a smooth operator. More than one journalist has called him the "best connected man in music", with a direct line to everyone from Jay-Z to Tommy Hilfiger to Tom Cruise. Indeed, he was well connected before he had even recorded a note. He is descended from New York socialite royalty: almost a decade ago, Tatler magazine suggested that anyone who didn't know the Ronsons should consider leaving Manhattan entirely. In recent months, his star has ascended because of what he does rather than who his family knows. His production services have been called upon by Robbie Williams, Christina Aguilera and others, all keen to avail themselves of the sense of ineffable transatlantic cool - equal parts East End and Lower East Side - that his productions seem to exude. Bob Dylan has never allowed anyone to remix his back catalogue before, but he made an exception for Ronson. When Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had their first dance, it was Ronson spinning the tunes.
The first time I meet him, he doesn't look much like a smooth operator. Six foot tall and so handsome you feel like bursting into tears whenever you see him, he is being mobbed on the set of the video for his forthcoming single Valerie. It's a remake of the Zutons' lovelorn indie hit from last year which in Ronson's hands has acquired both a stomping Motown beat and a peculiar Sapphic undercurrent. Amy Winehouse sings it, but declined to alter the lyrics to accommodate the change in vocalist's gender. She also declined to turn up to today's video shoot, which tomorrow the tabloids will report as yet another of the singer's drink-and-drug-induced no-shows. Everyone working on the video insists she was never meant to be here in the first place. Ronson's idea was to make "a sort of coming-of-age lesbian love story based on the film My Summer Of Love", but for some inexplicable reason, his record company wouldn't wear it.
The girls surrounding Mark Ronson don't care either way. They chatter excitedly, proffering CDs to be signed and snaking their arms around him for snaps. You might have thought the object of their affections would be in his element - after all, being mobbed by girls is precisely the kind of experience people become rock stars for. In fact, he looks a little pained and detached, as if he's wryly observing the scene from the sidelines, rather than playing the leading role.
Born in London but raised in New York, Ronson speaks in a curious, mid-Atlantic drawl in which the word "like" figures heavily. It proceeds at such a languid pace that, he admits, "People think I'm mentally slow or on painkillers all the time." He's never been mobbed before, he says. "It's, like, fucking weird."
There are plenty of reasons why one might feel bemused on the set of the Valerie video shoot: Amy Winehouse's role has been taken by an array of black mascara-sporting Amy Winehouse-a-likes, including a black Amy Winehouse, a blond Amy Winehouse and what looks suspiciously like a transvestite Amy Winehouse. They're miming to Amy Winehouse's voice, while the errant singer herself - if the papers are to be believed - is holed up in a hotel elsewhere in London, living out her own little psychodrama.
It turns out that Mark Ronson always looks a little detached and bemused. Later in the week, I spend an evening with him in Ibiza, where he looks just that way while being interviewed by Pete Tong, DJing alongside Fatboy Slim and Radio 1's Zane Lowe, having a minor face-off with the guitarist from the Arctic Monkeys - "So are you the one who said he hated my record?" he drawls, as they are introduced - and fending off a journalist who demands to know if he has "any message for Amy or Lily". "If I had a message for them," he mutters, "I'd probably ring them, not say it into your tiny Dictaphone and have them read it in the papers."
A fortnight later, we're in a cafe in Manhattan, not far from where he lives. Ronson is telling me he felt a bit out of place at the MTV Music Video Awards - "Most of America must have been watching it going, 'Who's Mark Ronson?'" - when he's interrupted by an Australian fan who enthuses wildly about Version. More confusion. "Thanks for making me look cool in front of a journalist," he calls after the fan's departing form.
"It feels a bit weird, at 31, to become a kind of symbol of something for 14-year-old girls or boys," he says. In addition, the trial by tabloid of the women he has helped make famous has provided him with a crash course in the downside of success. "If somebody said that in order to sell another 200,000 records, you're going to have to up your fame quotient 10%, I'd probably be willing to take that deal," he says, "but I'd never want to go through what I see Lily and Amy going through. It's miserable. I went out with Amy the night after the Brit Awards and there were 30 photographers walking backwards at the same pace as her in order to take pictures. And one of them's going, 'Amy! Amy! Look over here, you fucking cunt! He's apparently some famous paparazzi guy and that's his gimmick: to get people to look at him, he calls them a fucking cunt. Amy's like, oh, don't worry, he says that all the time. But that's sick, having to deal with that shit."
His first brush with public recognition seems already to have left some scars. A few years ago, before he started making records, Mark Ronson was briefly known as America's leading "celebrity DJ", the man whom film stars and rich businessmen called when they wanted someone to add a touch of musical cool to their parties. Life as America's leading celebrity DJ sounded enormous fun - it certainly left him with a ready supply of improbable stories about politicians dancing to hip-hop at the White House correspondents' dinner, becoming embroiled in arguments of the "Why-don't-you-play-some-reggae?" variety with Charlize Theron and looking up from the turntables to see the dancefloor being stormed by the unlikely figure of Donald Trump. But the very mention of the words "celebrity DJ" causes Ronson to look more pained than ever. "I started thinking this is really obnoxious, " he says. "Celebrity for the past 15 years has been a word that implies celebrity tabloid culture bullshit."
Ronson protests that his first album in 2003, the amiable but commercially underperforming Here Comes The Fuzz, didn't get a fair hearing because he was too closely associated with performing for Hollywood starlets and sexagenarian entrepreneurs. Nothing, it seems, is quite as injurious to an artist's carefully honed credibility as being known as the guy who makes Donald Trump dance: "The music press decided I represented all that was vain and materialistic about music."
You get the feeling that Ronson somehow believes it could all happen again, that if he's seen to be enjoying the limelight too much, then the ineffable transatlantic cool might evaporate and the stars might stop calling. He tries to laugh off the criticism of his peers, but it clearly bothers him. He keeps bringing up the Arctic Monkeys' comments. He seems particularly incensed that he came up with a witty retort, subtly reappropriating a lyric from Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before - "I said 'I still love them, only slightly less than I used to'" - then rather squandered it by saying it to a journalist from lads' weekly Zoo, perhaps not the ideal publication in which to deploy a subtly reappropriated Smiths lyric. At one stage, he became so concerned about criticism that he rang Robbie Williams to ask how he dealt with negative press, a curious choice given the singer's notoriously thin skin. He got short shrift when he took his troubles to Lily Allen, who informed him that she had five mobile phones because of all the hate phone calls and that he should count his blessings. "Some people are smart enough not to Google themselves in the middle of the night," he sighs.
Nevertheless, it would be easy to take his laconic drawl as evidence not so much of shyness as jaded indifference. If anyone were likely to be blasÃ© about fame and its spoils, it would be Mark Ronson. He had what was by all accounts an extremely glamorous childhood. His father - erroneously reported to have been a property developer, a film distributor, heir to the Ronson lighter fortune and, most erroneously of all, Mick Ronson, the elaborately coiffed guitarist with David Bowie's Spiders From Mars - was in fact a band manager. He declined to go into what Ronson calls "the family business" - which turns out to be Heron, the multimillion service station and property company presided over by his uncle, Gerald Ronson, the tycoon jailed in the 1986 Guinness shares scandal - in favour of handling the affairs of Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz and dimly remembered 80s soul singer Roachford. Ronson's parents threw star-studded parties in their north London home.
When his parents divorced, Mark moved to New York with his mother, who married Mick Jones, frontman of arena rockers Foreigner (a union that inspired their deathless power ballad I Want To Know What Love Is) and threw more star-studded parties. A slightly snarky New York magazine profile depicted her forever sloshing Veuve Clicquot, addressing everyone as darling, and describing dinners where Michael Douglas might be at the table with Al Pacino, Michael Caine and "a friend of mine who's a wonderful healer".
Similar tales surround Ronson's childhood: Paul McCartney saved him from drowning, Andy Warhol passed judgment on his drawings, he got up in the night to find Bruce Springsteen raiding the fridge. His mother likes to tell journalists that the Who's Keith Moon taught the four-year-old Ronson to play the drums, which would have required good connections not just in the rock world but in the afterlife, given that Moon died when Ronson was three.
His mother, he's noted, "has a tendency to exaggerate". But then today he insists that everyone else has a tendency to exaggerate as well. He says none of the stories is true - "It's all blown-up distortion, a horrible self-perpetuating myth" - except for the one about Robin Williams tucking him into bed one night: "He was coked out of his mind, he kept looking out of my bedroom window because he thought someone was spying on him." And the one about having a sleepover with Michael Jackson, at which nothing untoward happened, unless you count Jackson's loudly expressed horror at the sight of a topless woman on TV. And the one about getting up one morning to find his father, still awake from the night before, enjoying a game of chess with David Bowie, except it wasn't David Bowie, but the substantially less iconic Daryl Hall, of bouffant-sporting 80s pop duo Hall And Oates.
Ronson is friendly and charming, but as you talk to him, you feel not that he's being disingenuous or embarrassed by his childhood - he has never tried to cover up his "privileged background" - but simply that his notion of normality may not be, well, particularly normal. He once told an incredulous journalist who inquired about his old flame, supermodel Frankie Rayder, that "it's not that hard to date a supermodel if you live in New York and go out". Today, when the conversation turns to Amy Winehouse's current woes, he tells a quick anecdote about her penchant for afternoon drinking during the sessions for Back To Black, then clams up. He says he's simply "learned to keep my mouth shut", but you also get the impression he doesn't think the singer's druggy travails are quite as out of the ordinary as others might: "Half my family, literally half, have been in and out of rehab and programmes and stuff like that."
By way of illustrating that his mother isn't the champagne-swilling cartoon New York magazine depicted, but a strict matriarchal figure, he tells a story about running away from home, after she forbade him to go out one night: "It was the night the LA riots started. I was like, Mum, we live in New York. She was like, they're going to spread." He raises his eyebrows. "In the 10 minutes it was going to take me to walk to my friend's house, the rioting was going to spread across America." Plenty of teenagers run away from home after rowing with their parents, but perhaps only Ronson runs away to New York's Dakota Building, to stay with his best friend Sean Lennon and his mother, Yoko Ono. "Yeah," he chuckles ruefully. "Not really slumming it, I guess. I ran away for six days. I tried to come home, but the locks were changed."
Apart from stopping over in one of the Upper West Side's most exclusive addresses, his solitary act of youthful rebellion was to use a fake ID to sneak into raves, where he found himself transfixed by the DJ playing hip-hop records in the chill-out room: "I would stand there for an hour, then I would go and make out with a girl for a bit, then I would go and stare at the turntables for another hour."
When he began to suffer panic attacks in his teens, his mother sent him to hospital and "had them secretly test me for drugs. She was completely convinced it was from taking drugs at raves," he huffs, the faintest hint of outrage working its way into the drawl, "which I hadn't done for about a year."
His family raised no objection when he left university to become a DJ at some of Manhattan's racier hip-hop nights, where fights were a regular occurrence ("There weren't actual shootings, but it was pretty full-on"). The solitary voice of dissent came from his uncle Gerald, "who's always telling me, 'You're wasting your time in the music industry.'" At the clubs, Ronson found himself attracting attention from hip-hoppers who liked what he calls his "ability to rock a room", an ability bolstered by the catholic tastes much in evidence on Version. He would play hip-hop alongside the Clash and AC/DC and old funk records pilfered from his father's extensive selection. Puff Daddy, as he was then still known, progressed from leaving him $100 tips to booking him to play at his own private parties. Jay-Z popped up in New York magazine, calling Ronson "a nice nigga", which at least counterbalanced his aunt, the Countess Sharon Sondes, informing the world that Ronson had been "a charmer, ever since he was a child, in his little blazer and short grey pants and knee socks".
He began playing at clubs frequented by fashionistas: he was so closely associated with the fashion world that he had a cameo role in Zoolander. "I was known for taking fashion crowds and turning them into the kind of party where every thought they were in a club. I just wanted people to have a good time and I'd play whatever it took to do that... I mean, from my selection of records. I wouldn't play, like, the Macarena."
It was all going so well until his first album came out and he suffered a minor breakdown . "Every time my phone vibrated I would tense up. I was walking down 37th Street and it rang, just at the peak of everything, and I literally just slumped down against a building in the street for 20 minutes."
By the time he met Lily Allen in a London club 18 months ago, he had abandoned DJing at celebrity parties, despairing at the effect they were having on his image - he made an exception for the Cruise/Holmes nuptials - and had resolved to give up making records and concentrate on writing advertising jingles. "I thought, maybe I'm just not very good at this. Maybe I'll just do music for TV commercials to pay the bills." Then Allen handed him a CD of her songs, he flew her to New York and they wrote Littlest Things, the song that really marked out Ronson's abilities (it was apparently Ronson who suggested she play up her London accent when she sings). In a brilliantly witty flourish, he set Allen's lyric to a sample that sounded like Radiohead's gloomy Karma Police, but in fact came from 70s soft-core porn movie Emmanuelle - the perfect complement to a song that dealt with misery and sex in equal measure. Then a music industry acquaintance suggested he meet up with Amy Winehouse, and what he refers to as "a charmed year" began. Even Uncle Gerald has come round to his nephew's choice of career. "I got an email from my dad today, saying he'd asked for tickets the next time I play in London. I think he's proud of me."
We repair to the East Village, where Ronson presents his Friday night radio show Authentic Shit from a tiny, glass-fronted studio that opens out on to the street. His choice of music is impeccable - Public Enemy, the Stone Roses, his own forthcoming productions - the studio is packed with friends, the atmosphere becomes increasingly smoky and boozy and shambolic. Ronson's presentational style endearingly falls somewhere between Tim Westwood and Boris Johnson. Suddenly his computer crashes, plunging the studio into silence. "This is the Authentic Shit, experiencing, um, some technical hitches," he drawls. Then the music kicks back into life and Mark Ronson's charmed year rolls on.
· Ronson's tour starts in Liverpool on October 12
I'm sorry, but he is so fine. Although I don't know how cool he'd actually be to meet in real life.
Because I'm dumb and forgot it the first time: SOURCE