Ladies and Gentlemen, the Talented Mr. Ronson
Men's

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Talented Mr. Ronson

The sharpest man in music may be the "ultimate good-time guy," but to Mark Ronson, there's a softer side that's just about to break.
Reading time 10 minutes

Photography by Jens Ingvarsson

Fashion by Savannah White

If you are a casual music fan, you primarily know Mark Ronson as the guy who gets the party started. You’ve seen him as a handsome DJ and producer with a penchant for bright-tailored suits and slicked-back hair, the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, his biggest hit (its video is the sixth most-watched in YouTube’s history, ahead of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) and a song that will fill the dance floor at bar mitzvahs and weddings for the next billion years.

He’s worked with Gaga (in addition to collaborating with her on Joanne, he co-wrote a key track from her forthcoming film A Star is Born called “The Shallow”) and Ghostface Killah, he’s DJ’d millionaire’s birthday parties, he’s got a balls-to-the-wall disco-house project called Silk City with the eternal reveler Diplo. Ronson, it would seem from the outside looking in, is the ultimate good-time guy.

But it turns out he is a man with a softer side, even, as I find out on an afternoon call in June, a bit of gloom. If you look closely at his discography—both the songs he’s released under his own name with guest vocalists and his production work for other artists—a sense of despair has been an undercurrent all along, and a year or so since his divorce from model Joséphine de la Baume, he’s been writing work for a new album with moody singers Lykke Li and The XX’s Romy Madley Croft.

“It’s a breakup album,” he says from LA, where he has lived now for about a year. Ronson helped produce Back to Black, the tragic and final Amy Winehouse album, but he says working with a star like Amy means the focus is on her. “I'm there to make sure the arrangements are good and the vocals sound wonderful, but it's her suffering that’s gone into those songs,” he says. Now, on new solo work, he has nowhere to hide. “Every time I went to the studio, I’d throw out ideas, and some were lighthearted things, but the ones staying with me all had melancholy. You really have to go through something kind of fucked up to make good art sometimes, which obviously sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, but it's not necessarily always how I've operated.”

He remains mum about the album’s details but says it’s a lesser-known but much-beloved track of his that’s something of an inspiration. “Somebody to Love Me” is a 2010 song from his album Record Collection on which he enlisted Boy George, then in his 40s, to sing about lost youth and an enduring longing to fall in love, with a video in which Diane Kruger plays George as a young star in the 1980s partying until sunrise.

“Maybe a thousandth of the people who are familiar with ‘Uptown Funk’ know ‘Somebody to Love Me,’ but if someone’s ever going to come up to me on the street and stop me about a song, it’s that song. No one’s ever come up to me and been like, ‘Uptown Funk’ got me through a really difficult time,’” he says. “But ‘Somebody to Love Me’ really resonates.” It’s a song that’s almost a cautionary tale: Live your life on the carousel of wild nights, and you might end up thrown off the ride, disoriented and confused. “As a person who’s been DJing at clubs for like 20 years,” he says, “it is sometimes hard to turn off the spinning disco ball.”

It turns out he has had a pretty chaotic life all along. He was raised in London until his mother divorced his father and married Mick Jones, the guitarist of rock band Foreigner. With them and his two sisters—who are also notable figures, Samantha, a DJ, and Charlotte, a fashion designer—he moved to the Upper West Side of New York and had a youth that was something out of a Wes Anderson movie, including friendships with Sean Lennon and an early entrée to New York nightlife, DJing as a teenager. It wasn’t always pretty: When I mention how remarkable it is that both he and his sisters are creative and successful, he says it was a bit like turning coal into diamonds “Our childhood could be fucked up in the beginning. There was alcohol and drugs, and other stuff going on. As siblings, we've always taken care of each other, because we had to,” he says. “I’m not saying that you have to have enjoyed some childhood trauma to be able to make good art, but I feel like [my sisters and I] probably have the right balance of coming from a creative family with just the right amount of fucked-up-ness to be like, ‘All right, well, if I can’t rely on anyone, I’m going to do the one thing that I can do by myself in a room.’ Which is essentially what a producer is.”

He had been in bands in school, but then really got into hip-hop while listening to New York radio. By the mid-’90s, he got turntables and started DJing. He fell in with a cool crowd, which included R & B icon Aaliyah, who died in 2001 in a plane crash. “She was a couple of years younger than me. We were all so young then. Being around her was just quite joyful because she had such a good, strong energy. And a little cheeky—mischievous—but never in any kind of negative way. You just felt a little bit more excited and alive in her company.”

"There's times when I'm out there playing, just spinning [the Winehouse collaboration] 'Valerie' in the set and watching people dance and sing along, and I just feel guilty in a way like, 'Well, I'm still here and I get to play this song that's bringing joy to these people."

"I think the idea of being a little bit rocked out of your comfort zone each time and pushing yourself is a good thing. Otherwise you're just like the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water."

His first big break was in 2001 when he wrote the funk song “Like a Feather” with the artist Nikka Costa; the song sounded like Al Green and Betty Davis filtered through Janis Joplin and received enough buzz that he landed a record deal with Elektra. He made an album in 2003, Here Comes the Fuzz, that was not a commercial success but was enjoyed by critics and would become the template for future projects, with his production and songwriting as a bed for bright guest vocals from people like Rivers Cuomo, Jack White, and Q-Tip.

It was working with Amy Winehouse that made him a true star though: The retro sounds he loved were in vogue at the time and the girl group–inspired Back to Black was a massive smash in 2006. He’d turn up in paparazzi photos with her rocking a moptop and dressed like a fifth member of the Beatles. In retrospect, this should have been a moment of triumph in his career, but because of Winehouse’s subsequent decline from drug use and eventual death, their creative partnership can only be bittersweet in Ronson’s mind. “Sometimes I can hear Amy in, like, the post office, and it will roll off me almost as though I’m a bit immune to it. And then there’s other times when…I was actually in a store buying a pricey shirt, and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ came on, which I finished after she had passed away, and I had to leave the store,” he says. “There’s times when I’m out there and playing, just spinning [the Winehouse collaboration] ‘Valerie’ in the set and watching people dance and sing along, and I just feel guilty in a way, like, ‘Well, I'm still here and I get to play this song that’s bringing this joy to these people.’”

Ronson, it seems, is accustomed to good times mingling with bad ones, the peaks and valleys of a career that’s lasted almost two decades. In fact, the incredible success of 2014’s “Uptown Funk” proceeded a lull, when an album called Record Collection (which included his prized “Somebody to Love Me” with Boy George)in 2010 hadn’t sold as many copies as he had hoped. “While I was working on Uptown Special [the album with “Uptown Funk”], I was feeling very much like it was the last chance. Like, ‘This better be the best thing that I’ve ever done, or I can probably think about transitioning into doing music for TV commercials.’” The song went on to spend 14 consecutive weeks on top of the Billboard charts and won Ronson two Grammys. “Even the day after the Grammys, I was sitting reading the newspaper and I couldn't believe being on the front page of the art section. By the end of that day, I still felt like, ‘Fuck, I could be living in a trailer in Utica three days from now.’” Which is to say: Even when things in Ronson-land look bright and sunny on the outside, the reality within could always be a little bit cloudier. “I think the idea of being a little bit rocked out of your comfort zone each time and pushing yourself is a good thing,” he says. “Otherwise you’re just like the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water.”

Credits

Hair: Taichi Saito

Grooming: Courtney Perkins

Photo Assistant: Sawn Cuni

Hair Assistants: Toshifumi Kakiuchi and Takamasa Nakamoto

Location and Equipment: Pier59 Studios

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