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Mark Ronson Talks Divorce, Amy Winehouse, and Running out of Ideas

After his 2017 divorce, the mega-producer explains how he developed and then conquered a severe case of writer's block.

by James Di Fabrizio
13 August 2019, 11:28am

Photos by Ben Thomson

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

I first heard Mark Ronson in 2007 when I spent $15 buying his album Version from a shop that, for inexplicable reasons, sold both CDs and broadband modems.

The album felt like contraband. It was the most upbeat variety of pop I’d ever allowed myself to enjoy and I left the store wondering: should I really be doing this? But Version turned out to be an intoxicating album, and I listened to the song “Valerie” more times than I’ll admit.

But that was more than a decade ago. The modem/CD shop has closed, and Mark Ronson’s career has dramatically shifted gears. While Version included a Britney Spears hit rendered as a boom-bap, hip hop instrumental, Ronson’s new album, Late Night Feelings, is a byproduct of divorce. It deals in very different shades of melancholy, yet for me what’s truly interesting is how it arrived after a battle with writer’s block. This begs the question: What happens when one of pop music’s most successful producers—the person record labels employ to fix albums for other musicians—what happens when that person runs out of juice?

I’m allocated an atrociously lit hotel room for the interview. While we wait for Ronson, I go through a dozen test shots with our photographer Ben, who eventually settles on moody monochromes to solve the light problem.

I keep expecting the 2007 version of Mark Ronson to open the door. For myself and the crowds of former teens who first became fans, Ronson will be forever a fresh-faced Englishman with a slicked back pompadour and a slim-fitting suit; all done-up-top-buttons and thrift-store cardigans. He’ll forever be indie’s eternally stylish kingpin. But instead, Ronson enters the room wearing a comfortable grey sweatshirt and black tracksuit pants. His sudden presence commands silence from the publicists outside in the hallway, but Ronson smiles disarmingly. He tells me he’s exhausted from the flight and looking forward to a pre-show nap, but then turns out to be incredibly frank and forthright.

“When you’re going through a breakup, you have good days and bad days,” Ronson opens, cutting straight to the chase. “When my marriage was breaking up, I spent the first six months of being single drinking and going out. Doing whatever it took to avoid confronting the situation head-on.”

The fallout he’s referring to is his 2017 divorce with French actress Joséphine de La Baume, whom he married in 2011. As he tells me, the divorce created an almost insurmountable creative block.
“Anytime we tried to do something upbeat, I’d come back the next day and never want to hear it again,” he says. “There must be 20 unreleased songs sitting on my drive from those sessions. What I was going through affected the music in every way.”

Creative burnout is a debilitating equaliser. And as it turns out, megastar producers are just as prone to it as the average 20-something, in over their head during another endless workweek. Getting through it, like most strategies around good mental health, requires small consistent steps.

“The breakup was a catalyst for me. I’d be ignorant and dumb to think the reason I’d had all these breakups is because I’m unlucky in love, or picking the wrong person. The only fucking link between all these relationships is me. It was a catalyst to wake up and invite some more honesty into the way I live my life.

“In what you might call 'therapy-speak', I’m high functioning,” he continues. “I don’t really scream ‘crack head.’ You don’t fix it overnight, but most of the time the best thing is recognising it first and seeing patterns that you’re doing.”

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Mark does moody. All photos by Ben Thomson

Those patterns were leading Ronson down a time-worn, cliched path: a star that goes out relentlessly, drinks too much, and distracts himself with musically fruitless side projects. He knew it, too. Coming to terms with it was the key to making progress.

“You’re still going to repeat some of those patterns, and you’re still going to fuck up,” he says. “But the best thing you can do is become aware and want to be better.”

Born in London and raised in New York, Ronson has been surrounded with music since he could walk. So much so that Paul McCartney once saved him from drowning at a Long Island beach as a child, during the time he was living with his step-father, Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones. Decades later, Ronson would DJ McCartney’s wedding. In a lot of ways, he was destined for this life.

But lately, Ronson’s life has got a bit complicated. As his marriage ran aground, the record-breaking single “Uptown Funk” delivered him two Grammys and went on to become one of the highest-selling singles of all time. A self-diagnosed workaholic and perfectionist, he followed that up with an Oscar for the Lady Gaga-helmed hit “Shallow”, which he co-wrote. Ironically, the very workaholic tendencies that offered him success are the same ones that prohibit him from enjoying it. “It is amazing, but it just doesn’t feel right to me to celebrate something that happened in the past,” says Ronson, recalling his triumphant win at the Academy Awards. “You can celebrate it in the moment, but as far as the next day is concerned—sitting around staring at an Oscar?—it’s not going to keep you there.”

As we continue talking, Ronson rattles off a list of A-list collaborators with the flippancy of someone reading a grocery list: Queens of the Stone Age, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Kevin Parker, Diplo. But there’s one name synonymous with Ronson that’s notably absent: Amy Winehouse. In the late 2000s, she was one of world’s biggest artists. Now, she’s the indie generation’s entry to the “27 Club”; the millennial answer to Kurt Cobain, or Janis Joplin for the Boomers. When prompted, Ronson lights up for a moment and considers what she would think of his music and career now.

“Out of anyone I worked with, she was the one who wore her heart on her sleeve the most. Me and Amy were friends from the day we met and up until she died,” he says. Ronson produced Winehouse’s album Back to Black, one of the biggest albums of the early 2000s. Now, the two are forever linked; instrumental in each other’s breakout moment.

“I've had four or five really important people to me that I’ve lost at this point, some younger than me too. For someone who’s never done heroin, that’s an unusual amount to lose. All of my friends who can’t be here anymore, well, I think about them all the time.”

It’s an unorthodox position for Ronson to be in. But here he is: a DJ pedaling an album of air-tight pop hits, channeling a sense of genuine sadness onto the dance floor. He’s aware of how contradictory it all seems.

“Nobody wants to hear the DJ’s feelings,” he says. His eyes lock with mine for a moment. “You don’t go to the club to hear the DJ get on the mic and say I had kind of a shit day, but I hope you guys are having a fun time. It’s not that I ever ran away from these feelings before, I just don’t think I accessed them. Leaning into it feels good.”

Several hours later, I’m at Ronson’s show. He’s in full DJ mode. And as DJs do, he gets on the mic, hyping up an already explosive party. As expected, he doesn’t talk about his feelings. Not the death of his friends, the crumble of his marriage, or the physical toll of his touring schedule. No one wants to hear that. Instead, he says something to the effect of: Melbourne, you’re my people! Standard DJ banter. But as the crowd swirls around me, lost in a communion of dance and bass, I take a moment to look at him. He’s behind the decks, still and focused—the exact opposite of everyone else crammed into the club. I think to myself, is Mark Ronson alright?

It’s impossible to know. On one hand, Ronson has endured the death of indie to enjoy money, fame, awards, and critical acclaim. On the other hand, there’s a melancholy energy around him that feels flat; caught in a paradox between the emotionally vulnerable Ronson I meet in the afternoon and the club magician I see the same night.

But has he changed, or have I? We’ve all grown up since 2007. We’re wiser; cynical, even. We demand more from our heroes. It’s tempting to think this has simply become a job for him. That the intersection of commerce and music has left him trapped: unable to escape the expectations of his own success and persona—that Mark Ronson is here to help you party.

Instead, I think back to something he said during our conversation earlier.

“If anything, music is even more redemptive for me now. As I’m getting older, I’m accessing deeper parts of it. I look to music for an authentic connection—instead of just nodding my head because the beat is dope or something. Music has always been the most important part of my life. It’s probably saved my life.”

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Mark Ronson's "Late Night Feelings" is out now.