interview by SABINE HELLER
portrait by RICHARD KERN and personal photographs
Frances Tulk-Hart, style — Okima Kilgore, stylist’s assistant
MARK RONSON can evoke a fair amount of jealousy. He’s dark, charming, and sexy: a cross between Jude Law and Paul McCartney. Ronson grew up between London and New York, and hails from Rock nobility : his stepfather, Foreigner’s Mick Jones, wrote the iconic ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” for Mark’s mother, Ann Dexter-Jones, who found her own fame entertaining famous friends at her wild parties. Robin Williams and Michael Jackson both popped up in Mark’s childhood. Over the past few years Ronson has morphed from celebrity DJ into one of the most talented young producers in music today. He’s worked with Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Duran Duran, and won three Grammys and one Brit Award. The 34 year-old Ronson has just released his third album, Record Collection. But at heart he’s still a soft-spoken, deeply romantic, music fan.
SABINE HELLER — How does it feel to be the most influential man in music?
MARK RONSON — The British press has a tendency for hyperbole, and it treats music like an extreme sport. They say I’m the most influential man in music because I’ve worked with a wide range of artists, like Duran Duran, Wu-Tang, Amy Winehouse, Nas, Busta Rhymes, and the Kaiser Chiefs. Actually, the most influential men in music are Clive Davis, Rick Rubin, and Jay-Z.
SABINE HELLER — When you were a hip-hop DJ, did you ever get flack for being a rich Jewish kid trading in on your family connections?
MARK RONSON — My parent’s connections had nothing to do with me getting DJ gigs at seedy hip-hop bars on the Lower East Side, which is where I came up and earned my credibility. People like Funkmaster Flex and DJ Premier respected me. They didn’t know who my parents were — and wouldn’t have given two shits if they had. There’s an expression in hip-hop: “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” If you can rock a party and hold it down for three hours, then you’re good. I never acted like someone I wasn’t, nor did I ever pretend to be from the streets.
SABINE HELLER — How did you get your break as a DJ?
MARK RONSON — DJing at downtown hip-hop parties and opening for Stretch Armstrong, Jewels, and Funkmaster Flex. Puffy came into the club one night and liked what I was spinning. He took me on tour to do a couple of shows with him in Paris and London. He had a lot to do with my name becoming known.
SABINE HELLER — Didn’t he hand you a hundred-dollar bill with his phone number on it?
MARK RONSON — Yeah. I framed it in a little plastic frame and hung it above my turntables. It just seemed cool to have Puffy’s signature on some money. But one Sunday night I was starving and didn’t have enough money to get a slice of pizza, so I took that hundred-dollar bill down off the wall to get a slice of Joe’s.
SABINE HELLER — Tom Cruise asked you to spin at his wedding. What did you play?
MARK RONSON — It was for a Hollywood crowd, transported to an Italian castle, so I played Kanye West’s “Golddigger,” 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” and some Michael Jackson. I played the same shit I’ve played for the last 12 years, which sort of made me want to kill myself.
SABINE HELLER — Tell me about watching porn with Michael Jackson when you were a kid.
MARK RONSON — My best friend growing up was Sean Lennon. He was quite close to Michael as a kid. Sean was in the “Smooth Criminal” video, or “Moonwalk,” or whatever it was called. When Michael was in town on the Bad tour he was a guest at Sean’s house, where I was staying as well. We turned on the porn channel one day, assuming Michael would be into looking at tits. But he covered his eyes and was like, “No!”
SABINE HELLER — Did you think that was weird?
MARK RONSON — No, just sort of sad. Because he was such a big kid — you could tell that he’d been robbed of his childhood. He was running around shining this infrared laser thing on the street.
SABINE HELLER — Was that around the same time Robin Williams tucked you into bed?
MARK RONSON — No — that was when I still lived in London. I was around three and I worshipped “Mork and Mindy,” the show Robin was in during the early ’80s. I bumped into him years later and he told me about the wild parties my parents used to have.
SABINE HELLER — Didn’t you actually have a rather normal childhood? As I remember it, your parents grounded you a lot.
MARK RONSON — We were grounded a lot and we had the earliest curfew of all our friends. We used to call our mother Mommy Dearest as a joke, referencing the Joan Crawford film. But yeah, my childhood was pretty normal.
SABINE HELLER — Except for sneaking out with Sean Lennon to meet the drummer from Pearl Jam.
MARK RONSON — When we were 15 we idolized Seattle and that whole scene that Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden came out of. Sean told me the drummer from Pearl Jam was coming over, and they were like gods for us. I wanted to go over and meet him, but my mom wouldn’t let me out because the LA riots had just started and she was worried they would spread to New York. So I snuck out of the house. She locked the door and wouldn’t let me back in for a week.
SABINE HELLER — How did you survive?
MARK RONSON — By slumming at Sean’s, at the Dakota.
SABINE HELLER — You have a lot of good friends in New York, don’t you?
MARK RONSON — Yes, I have a really close-knit family of friends in New York. And in London, too, because I spend so much time there. Many of my friends are ones I’ve kept from my childhood.
SABINE HELLER — When you go back to London now, is it like going home?
MARK RONSON — I started to go back to England when my first album, Here Comes the Fuzz, came out in 2003. One of the singles did better over there. I suddenly realized that there was a big part of me that I had neglected. Being back in London felt really good — the grayness, the pubs, the way people talk, the way they address you. I think it goes through phases, but right now London’s definitely a bit more exciting than New York.
SABINE HELLER — Do you fetishize your British heritage? You seem to identify yourself as being British, rather than American.
MARK RONSON — I used to go back to England twice a year to visit my grandma and my dad, so I was never away long enough to really pine for it. I feel like England is definitely my home, although I also love New York and consider myself a New Yorker in many ways.
SABINE HELLER — What was your first conscious esthetic choice?
MARK RONSON — I remember when The Beastie Boys brought back suede Pumas with fat laces. I went to Union, the sneaker store on Spring Street and West Broadway, and lined up around the block to get a pair of them.
SABINE HELLER — I also recall the black leather jacket with The Cult image on it that you wore all the time.
MARK RONSON — I was a huge fan of The Cult! I bought that leather jacket in the village and took it to that place where they airbrush jackets and had The Cult’s “Sonic Temple” cover shot put on it.
SABINE HELLER — Was it hard to grow up in a family in which everyone had such strong personalities?
MARK RONSON — Not really. There were five loud kids at the dinner table, all competing to be heard. In all families children take on roles — there’s the good one, the bad one, the smart one, the flighty one.
SABINE HELLER — Which were you?
MARK RONSON — I was the flighty one. Actually, no — I was the good son. Being the first-born boy in a Jewish family always gives you a leg up.
SABINE HELLER — I think you were also the polite one.
MARK RONSON — Probably. Though most of us are quite polite. My mother instilled a strong value system in us, which must have seemed like a chore for us at the time, but now we’re glad she did it.
SABINE HELLER — Your family’s like a clan.
MARK RONSON — Yeah, we’re incredibly close. All that traveling and being broken up has brought us closer together. We’re all fiercely loyal, sometimes to a fault.
SABINE HELLER — You’ve gone from the backstage into the spotlight. Are you afraid of the trappings of fame?
MARK RONSON — I try not to fall into the clichés — like of dating a model, or something — which would make me disgusted with myself. I’m not like Thom York or Johnny Depp, living like a hermit so nobody knows anything about my life. I would like to live like that, but I love going out too much. I came up as a DJ in clubs. I was out every night.
SABINE HELLER — And yet you’ve always been rather shy.
MARK RONSON — I’m still reserved. On my last album tour I’d get so nervous I’d throw up before the shows. I’d be sitting in the corner, my hands would be shaking like a decrepit old Mr. Burns character, and people would ask me, “Mark, what’s wrong with you?”
SABINE HELLER — You’ve earned a lot of street cred. Does your being so visible now threaten that?
MARK RONSON — Yeah, especially for the British media. The music press likes to knock famous people. It doesn’t matter what you do — once you become known for it, you’re looked on as “the man” — no longer underground and all that crap. I try to balance my career by doing things for no money, like working on an album with Richard Swift, who I really love, or by working with Adele on her label.
SABINE HELLER — Are you still a music fan?
MARK RONSON — I was always a music geek and I still am. I love being at home on Sundays by myself. That’s when I listen to music, old and new. I have an East Village Radio show on Fridays, so I have to keep abreast of what’s going on. They’ll be some weeks when I’m not really into anything new, and other weeks when I think everything new is just brilliant. I’m probably a bigger fan of music than I am an actual creator of it. All the artists I work with are real fans and have pretty varied tastes. For my last album, Version, I took songs I’ve always loved and put them down with an esthetic I liked, one I thought was respectful to the music. I’ll never stop being a fan.
SABINE HELLER — You have a nonchalant, somewhat disinterested attitude. Is that an affectation?
MARK RONSON — No, I’m not disinterested — ever. I have a slight drawl and a bit of a Sudafed demeanor, which people think is lush or blasé, but I’m not at all disinterested. I don’t have a Bob Dylan-like removed esthetic. I just come off that way because I’m laid-back.
SABINE HELLER — But are you really all that laid-back?
MARK RONSON — Well, no. My chilled demeanor doesn’t reflect everything that’s going on inside of me — there’s stress and neuroses and all that kind of stuff in there, too.
SABINE HELLER — Speaking of affectations, you get a lot of flack for your mid-Atlantic accent, which you still have after living in New York for 25 years.
MARK RONSON — It was like that even when I was a kid. I’d be on the phone with a friend, saying like, “Yeah, what’re you gonna do tonight?” and then my mom would be on the other line and instantly I’d say something like, “Oh, mummy, yes, I’m just taking a bath.” You can’t really help it.
SABINE HELLER— I Googled “Mark Ronson” and “cool” and I came up with 308,000 results, so obviously you’re consistently described as being cool. How important is it, to be cool?
MARK RONSON — I don’t try and appear cool. I think that most of the time people I hang out with think I’m actually kind of uncool. Maybe the perception is that if you work on cool music then you must be cool, too.
SABINE HELLER — The etymology of the word “cool” traces it back to musicians of the ’40s. How do you define cool?
MARK RONSON — For me, people like Alain Delon, Bob Dylan, and John-Paul Belmondo represent what cool is about. I cringe to talk about it myself, because I’m really not trying to portray an image. That said, obviously I’d rather be thought of as being cool than not cool.
SABINE HELLER — You have a very retro look going on.
MARK RONSON — The mid-’60s was a really beautiful time in terms of how men looked. But I don’t sit at home watching movies, hoping to find a look. But I might see something when I’m watching, like, Le Samourai, and think, “He sure does look good in that coat,” and end up looking for a coat like that.
SABINE HELLER — Are you a people pleaser?
MARK RONSON — I think some people who are really great can just do what they want and get away with it, because they’re that good. I don’t think Bob Dylan gives a shit about the crowd. But most people in the limelight do need attention and gratification, all the time. That’s why people turn into megalomaniacal assholes. I make music because I love it so much, not because I think I’m so great that my music needs to be heard. So, you have to balance pleasing people with pleasing yourself.
SABINE HELLER — Are you afraid that someone is going to expose you as a fraud?
MARK RONSON — Most artists I know have deep-rooted insecurity. When you have a hit you start worrying about how you’re going to follow it up, and that’s something that supremely exaggerates your fear of being exposed as a phony or talentless. I know I have talent and there’s a reason I’m making music. Music is what I’m the most passionate about. That said, I remember coming off of the enormous success of Amy and going into the studio with a band like The Kaiser Chiefs. I was nervous, thinking, “You’re gonna fuck up and do a shitty job and everyone is gonna know you’re a fraud.”
SABINE HELLER — You can be a little bit goofy.
MARK RONSON — I am kind of clutzy and I fall over a lot. I ran the wrong way on Field Day in the fourth grade, so for about a year after they called me “Wrong Way Ronson.”
SABINE HELLER — Well, in spite of your clumsiness, you’re really sexy. Do women throw themselves at you?
MARK RONSON — Nobody throws themselves at me. I mean, maybe it’s easier in England to be kind of a slut or a man-whore. I tried that for a week or two, but I’m not cut out for it, or interested in it. I’m much happier in a relationship.
SABINE HELLER — So, you’re a serial monogamist.
MARK RONSON — I’ve had three serious relationships in my life, with six months or a year between them.
SABINE HELLER — How did you meet your girlfriend, the French actress, Josephine De La Baume?
MARK RONSON — Through my friend Jamie Reynolds. He was dating a girl who was friends with Josephine. I went to meet them one night at this seedy little “members club” on Greek Street in London. As the night unfolded I realized I was completely and absolutely smitten with Josephine. And that was it.
SABINE HELLER — What’s the sexiest thing about her?
MARK RONSON — Every single thing about Josephine is sexy, from the way she walks naked from the bed to the bathroom in the middle of the night, to the way she does her lipstick in front of the mirror before we go out. She’s the sexiest woman I have ever seen, known, held, touched, or loved.
SABINE HELLER — That’s really beautiful — and now her name is tattooed on your arm.
MARK RONSON — I got this tattoo in red because it’s the only color that can’t be removed.
SABINE HELLER — When did you realize that you loved Josephine?
MARK RONSON — It’s impossible to say — I must have loved her even before I met her.
SABINE HELLER — Did you abandon hip-hop after your first album, Here Comes The Fuzz? It seemed like you made a definite transition to retro-funk pop after that.
MARK RONSON — No, what I became known for after Here Comes The Fuzz was producing Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, and those records are actually hip-hop influenced. When we were making Back to Black I wanted it to sound like Wu-Tan, rhythmically. I wanted it to be this peppy soul music with her amazing vocals, but also to be really in the spirit of hip-hop. I think that’s why so many rappers, like Snoop and Jay-Z, responded to Amy’s stuff. You can really hear the influence of hip-hop in it. I was still producing tracks for Ryan Fest, Wale, J-Live, Busta Rhymes, and Nas around then, too.
SABINE HELLER — You pissed a few people off with the cover songs on Version. A Smiths fan threatened to stab you. Portishead and The Arctic Monkeys publicly slammed you. Was it hard to deal with the flack you got from other musicians?
MARK RONSON — The English music press is run like a three-ring circus. My music is not for everyone and not everyone’s going to like it. There are going to be diehard Smiths fans who aren’t going to like my take on a Smiths song. It’s easy to get upset and embroiled in the fight. Then it turns into a schoolyard thing. It’s disgusting when rock stars air their petty grievances in public. I got over it quickly.
SABINE HELLER — Morrissey actually liked your version of “Stop Me if You Can.”
MARK RONSON — Yeah, that was important to me, because it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and I really respect Morrissey as an artist. I wouldn’t have sent a cover of that song into the universe if I hadn’t have had his approval. I sent letters to all of the artists we covered.
SABINE HELLER — And what sort of responses did you get?
MARK RONSON — Everyone really dug the covers. Dave McCabe from The Zutons has been able to buy his mom a house from the money he made from my cover of Valerie. Chris Martin probably doesn’t need the money, but the in-flight theme music on Virgin Atlantic is my version of a song of his. I’m sure they’re all having fun driving their gold Rolls Royces down the street. I didn’t make much money off Version, because it was all covers. I didn’t write any of the songs.
SABINE HELLER — I think Version changed people’s perception of you because it was such a successful album.
MARK RONSON — Yeah, I had this discussion with Danger Mouse, the producer of Gnarls Barkley and other people. He says it doesn’t matter — he’s black and has produced hip-hop records, so he’ll forever have the terms “DJ” or “hip-hop producer” or “re-mixer” put in front of his name. If you come up as a DJ, everybody assumes you’re like Fatboy Slim, that it’s all you do. The only thing you can do is keep putting out music that’s really good, and not scream, “I’m not a re-mixer!” and “I’m not just a cover artist!” and “I make my own music!” You have to put out your own music and have a hit, and then everyone will know. People considered me a DJ when I was producing records that weren’t really hits. Then Amy’s record broke wide open and suddenly I was called a producer.
SABINE HELLER — You’ve been credited with making Lily Allen’s career.
MARK RONSON — That was an interesting slant on the story the press took up at the time, but, if anything, Lily probably made my career. She had “Smile” and “LDN” and all those hits before I met her. She’d made them, but just hadn’t put them out yet. At that point I was thought of as a DJ who’d been knocking around New York for ten years. Then Lily came out on the internet and the whole thing about how cool her music was caught fire — and deservedly so. All of a sudden I’m down with her: she’s on my record, I produce a song on her record, and I’m touring as her DJ. It suddenly made me all relevant and cool. And I went on to working with Amy. Then my record came out. So the success of those girls did a lot for me.
SABINE HELLER — How did you meet Lily?
MARK RONSON — I met her in a nightclub in West London called the Notting Hill Arts Club, on a hip-hop night they do there every Thursday. She was loud and mouthy. By the end of the night we were all drunk and she was talking about her music and I asked her to give me a demo, which I listened to three months later on a plane. I remember calling her when I landed and saying, “It’s just amazing.” Then I asked her to come to New York to work on some music.
SABINE HELLER — Did Amy bring you into more of a retro sound or did you develop that together?
MARK RONSON — I’ve always loved ’60s funk and soul. In fact, my DJ sets are comprised of hip-hop, reggae, and ’60s funk and soul. Amy told me that she listened to ’60s jukebox pop stuff, so I started listening to it and figuring out how to bridge all of our influences to make the right sound. I had already worked with The Dap-Kings’ horn section, so it seemed like a logical progression to get the whole band to play on Amy’s record.
SABINE HELLER — How did you and Amy get together?
MARK RONSON — Through a mutual friend at EMI music publishing. When Amy came to the studio in New York we just sat and talked for a long time. She told me later that she thought I’d look like Rick Rubin. She heard the name Mark Ronson and assumed I was going to be a big Jewish man with a thick beard. We just sort of instantly connected. We wrote “Back to Black” on our first day in the studio.
SABINE HELLER — Did the idea for “Rehab” come to you quickly, too?
MARK RONSON — Amy was telling this story about how her dad and all these other people were trying to make her go to rehab and her saying, “No, no, no.” I said it was funny and catchy and that maybe we could make it into a little song. It was ironic because she was totally clean at the time. She was talking about a past experience.
SABINE HELLER — I feel like you’ve had to defend your friendship with Amy — and to deny the rumors that you had an affair with her.
MARK RONSON — She stayed at the same hotel as me once, but we weren’t together. Everyone knows that she’s madly in love with Blake and that nothing’s ever happened between us. She once called me “the big sister I never wanted.” We have a really good relationship. She’s one of the smartest and most talented people I know.
SABINE HELLER — What kind of alchemy does it take for a producer and a singer to create a hit record?
MARK RONSON — There’s no way to explain it. It’s like, you either have it or you don’t — like with The Beatles and George Martin. There are plenty of talented musicians who have sat in a room with a brilliant producer and nothing came of it. There’s a bit of luck and magic to it. I’m not a huge religious freak, but Quincy Jones used to say something like, “You gotta leave a little room to let God in the room.” When you’re creating something, it’s not only down to you.
SABINE HELLER — When you worked with Lily and Amy, it probably helped matters that neither of them was huge yet. That must have taken some of the pressure off.
MARK RONSON — Yeah, absolutely. The only person I’ve ever worked with who was a big star at the time was Christina Aguilera, and that wasn’t a lot of fun for me. I didn’t like the pressure. I really enjoyed working with Amy and Lily, because we just made the kind of music we wanted to listen to, in my little studio on Mercer.
SABINE HELLER — Does everybody want to work with you now?
MARK RONSON — Not really. There are people who do, but there are also people who think I’m still a bit out in left field, especially here in the States. But I’m lucky to be able to work with people I really love. On my new album, Record Collection, I have Boy George, Spank Rock, Q-Tip, D’Angelo, and Ghostface Killah. I get to work with people who aren’t just my heroes, they’re awesome talents, and it’s so cool that they’ll work with me.
SABINE HELLER — Is Record Collection the album you’re the most proud of?
MARK RONSON — Yeah, it’s definitely the best thing I’ve ever done. A lot of people who were snooty about Version are blown away by this record. Version was fun — it sounds like a guy playing tribute to his favorite songs. It was like a giddy experiment. At the time I didn’t have a record deal. I was just making covers because I wanted to play them in the clubs at night.
SABINE HELLER — I love it that you sing on Record Collection. It’s the first time that you’ve sung on a record and you’re really good.
MARK RONSON — Thanks. I sing OK on it. It’s a bit daunting, thinking about how I’m going to do it live, but I’ll do it. Lady Gaga suggested that I take singing lessons.
SABINE HELLER — Are you a natural performer?
MARK RONSON — No, I’m not. I still feel quite separated from my stage persona. I’ve seen some footage from the last tour on YouTube. It’s really weird — it doesn’t feel like it’s me I’m looking at. I have to force myself into that role.
SABINE HELLER — What’s the biggest audience you’ve ever performed for?
MARK RONSON — Something like 45,000 people. It was scary as fuck — really terrifying. It’s kind of an out-of-body thing and it goes by so quickly — there are things you know you’ll want to remember, but then you can’t because it’s all such a blur. You’re such a bundle of nerves — it’s like a minor intoxication. You wish you had a video of the whole thing, to savor it all.
SABINE HELLER — You’re a guitarist, a singer, a producer, and a DJ. Does any one of these things feel like your true calling, or is it really a mix of them all?
MARK RONSON — I think it is a mix of them all. And I think we live in an era in which artists are allowed to do all that. But although it’s fun to go on stage and perform, at the end of the day it’s the production stuff that’s my strong suit. And to really be considered among the great producers, I need to make some truly astonishing albums.
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