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Mark Ronson: On The Record

Mark Ronson

It's been over two years since Mark Ronson gifted us with his last LP, Record Collection. As he prepares to return to Australia, I talk to the prolific producer, musician, DJ and part-time male model about where he's been, and where he's going next.

You're a citizen of the world at this point, Mark – you're a fairly regular visitor to Australia, of course, but you were born in Britain and moved to New York when you were seven. Do you identify yourself as American or British?
You know, I became a citizen of the US in 2008, because I figured I live in this country so I might as well be able to vote instead of sitting around complaining about whoever's in power. But at the same time, my family's English. My parents are English. There are so many different things that make you who you are. To commit to one label, or whatever it is, is not something I could probably do that easily.

Yeah. As far as this Australian tour goes, it's going to be announced soon that you're bringing [Miike Snow frontman] Andrew Wyatt with you. How did that relationship develop?
Andrew and I have been friends for eight or nine years. We both always had that project that nearly got off the ground... Andrew's always been incredibly talented, but I just remember he would always have that song that nearly made it onto the Janet Jackson album, and I would have a similar thing. But Andrew finally blew up when Miike Snow blew up, and I guess I had Version and Back To Black around the same time.

It's just one of those things where you're just really excited to see one of your friends do well, and be recognised for his talents. It sort of happened at the same time for both of us, which made it even more serendipitous. He's just one of my closest friends, he's one of my favourite songwriters, one of my favourite singers, so the fact that I get to work with him... it's something I feel fortunate about.

Bringing Andrew with you to Australia just adds to this perception, of course, of Mark Ronson as 'the best connected man in music'. How does that sit with you?
I don't really know. I would think someone like Puff Daddy or Jay-Z would be much more connected than I am. I have a circle of artists, people that I'm close with and that I work with. But I don't really understand this perception that I'm 'the best connected man in music'. I mean, you look at the lineup on a Timbaland album, and it's a thousand times more glittery than mine. The people that are on my records are people that are up and coming, like MNDR. I mean, obviously there are also people like Q-Tip and Ghostface Killah, because I have a heritage and a history of DJing in New York hip hop clubs for 18 years, so obviously I have the respect of those people as well.

But for the most part, I mean, the people that were on Version – Santigold, Lily Allen, Daniel Merriweather, Amy Winehouse – none of them were really successful at the time. They could have just been anybody.

Are there still celebrities you freak out over, people who intimidate you?
I still get excited about... you know, if it's someone whose music truly means something to me. I have to spend around 18 hours of every day with music, so if there's someone whose music I like that much that on a Sunday, when I have my four free hours of the day, I want to put their music on, that's somebody who's somehow impacted my life.

It doesn't matter if it's Stevie Wonder or, I don't know, some fucking 20 year old kid in his bedroom making beats I happen to like. When I met those people, yeah, I still get awestruck or whatever it is. But it's not the celebrity that impresses, it's the talent.

Speaking of that talent, what do you look for in a collaborator? As you said, they're often not that successful before you work with them, so it's not like you're just throwing darts at a chart.
I just look for... well, I guess it completely depends. I just look for somebody whose talent is impressive, and who's kind of unique at the same time. And who's preferably not a dick.

For the most part, you have to work with vocalists because you don't sing. But Record Collection was the first record that featured your own vocals. What took so long?
I think when you just work with these amazing singers like Daniel Merriweather or whoever else, there's nothing that makes you go, in the back of your head, 'hey, I could do that'. Maybe if I was working with autotuned pop stars, I'd think, 'yeah, I could try that out', but it was never really something I found appealing. Even just having to go from being a bedroom producer to actually being on stage DJing or playing guitar was frightening enough for me, but in this case it was pretty simple.

Jonathan Pierce from The Drums had sung the track 'Lose It (In The End)' originally on the demo, and then at the last minute he was like, 'you know, my band's just coming out; I don't know if it's too distracting for me to be appearing as a solo artist on your album'. So that was it. I was like, 'fuck!', because I had a week to find someone to sing the song. So I sung it because I had no choice.

And then with the other track, 'Record Collection', it was kind of a similar thing, there was just no one else to sing it. The lyrics Nick [Hodgson, ex-Kaiser Chief] had come up with were very tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at this jetset DJ lifestyle. So I thought it would help the punchline if I volunteered my services.

To an outside observer, it feels like each of your albums is dramatically different. Record Collection doesn't sound a lot like Version, which doesn't sound a lot like Here Comes The Fuzz. Are you very deliberate about that or does it just feel like a gradual progression to you?
I think it's just the fact that my day job is as a producer, so I have three years in between making albums, during which I'm working with a lot of different people. Between Version and Record Collection, working with Duran Duran and learning about synths and sequencing from Nick Rhodes definitely informed Record Collection. I don't know, your tastes evolve. Maybe if you're in a regular band and you're making a record every year or so, your evolution is less marked.

The other thing is that, particularly going from Version to Record Collection, I was a little bit tired of the easy trumpet punchlines, especially in the UK media. As much as I like to pretend that I have a thick skin and I couldn't give a shit, I definitely wanted to prove that I could do something without the horns.

You obviously did that. What direction is your next album going in? Should we look at the Rufus Wainwright record or the Olympic track with Katy B for clues?
I'm just starting to work on it now, so it'd be foolish to comment, but I think working on this last Bruno Mars record... the way we made that record was that Bruno has this tiny studio in LA, so basically I had an MPC, two synths and a LinnDrum in a closet and I just started to make tracks again, the way I did when I started. So I have to say, if anything, it feels the most like working on my first record, because it's just me in a basement by myself. But that could completely change a week from now.

I do have to say that I do find myself getting most excited by hip hop at this time. I feel like there is a good, healthy resurgence of that music, and a lot of very interesting, progressive stuff, and some good commercial hip hop out there for the first time in a long time.

Which artists are exciting you?
On the MMG label, I like this new kid named Stalley. I like Wale, obviously; Meek Mill; the 'Fucking Problem' track with Drake, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky. A$AP is great. I like Joey Bada$$. I don't know, there's just a lot of stuff that reminds me of the excitement I felt when I was playing this music in clubs for the first time at the age of 20.

Was there a period where you consciously avoided hip hop?
No, it was just something I was listening to and playing in nightclubs five nights a week for such a long time, and at the same time the quality of the music seemed to suffer. It became very formulaic. You know, I was lucky enough to start DJing in New York in the mid '90s, when you had Wu Tang, Dre, Snoop, early Jay-Z stuff. It was a very interesting time, because the most commercially popular stuff was also, arguably, the best quality stuff. That doesn't really happen that often in certain genres of music, you know? When that happens, you have what people always call a 'Golden Era'. I came through that, so maybe I was a little bit jaded, but now... yeah, now I feel like it's kind of good again.

This next record will be your first as a married man. Do you think that's impacted your art in any way that you're aware of?
No, not really. I mean, my wife... we weren't married when I made Record Collection, but she certainly had a French influence on that record somehow. You're just always trying to impress the person you love. I guess that's the way it impacts your music.

Mark Ronson will play the following Australian dates with Andrew Wyatt and Spank Rock:

Mon Dec 31 - Summadayze @ Rymill Park (Adelaide)
Tue Jan 01 - Summadayze @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne)
Tue Jan 01 - Field Day @ The Domain (Sydney)
Sat Jan 05 - Summafieldayze @ Doug Jennings Park (Gold Coast)
Sun Jan 06 - Summadayze @ Patersons Stadium (Perth)

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