Music

Mark Ronson Knows He'll Never Beat 'Uptown Funk'

We met the producer ahead of the release of his new album, to talk about songwriting, L.A., his break-up, Amy Winehouse, and the highs and lows of creating an international hit.

by Michael Segalov; photos by Chris Bethell
May 23 2019, 3:30pm

Mark Ronson, London, 2019. 

VICE U.K. originally published this article.

To the casual observer, Mark Ronson appeared to be thriving at the start of 2018.

Over the previous three years, the producer had broken America, going platinum with his solo album Uptown Special, while the contagious "Uptown Funk"—a collaboration with Bruno Mars—sat at the top of the U.S. charts for 14 weeks. He was producing for Queens of the Stone Age and Lady Gaga, and in the middle of writing "Shallow"—a track that would go on to win him his first Oscar. His personal life appeared perfect, too. A move to Los Angeles with his then-wife, actress and model Joséphine de La Baume, suggested domestic bliss. No longer was he regularly papped stumbling out of London's luxury nightclubs in the early hours.

Behind the scenes, however, he felt like he was drowning. At 41 years old his marriage was collapsing, and his label—which had been patient with him for three years while he worked on other projects—finally came knocking at the door. He didn't have anything to give them.

"The elephant in the room was that I was probably too shook to admit to myself that I had to start making a new record," Ronson tells me now—18 months later—at a swanky hotel in Marylebone, central London. He seems tired, really fucking tired. "I didn't know if I could do it," he says, "partly because I was in a bit of a messy state because of the separation, but also being aware of the pressures following on from something as big as 'Uptown Funk.'"

Instead of making that new record, Ronson was drinking too much and on the rebound. He couldn’t focus, using side projects with Diplo and Tame Impala's Kevin Parker as a way to avoid coming up with his own material. In short: He didn’t know what he was doing. Then came the evening that Ronson wrote the title track of his forthcoming album Late Night Feelings. It was past 8 p.m. in his L.A. studio, and a day of writing with singer-songwriter Ilsey Juber hadn't been producing any results.

"We were both looking at each other and thinking about how it had been a bit of a wash-out," he says. He suggested they call it a day, but Juber wanted to continue. "She wanted to try one more thing, and I said, 'Fine,' but in my head I was just thinking, I want to go home, and I want to walk my dogs and have a drink. I definitely don't want to work on any more music."

Despite that, Ronson started "fucking around" with some piano chords, Juber began to sing a verse, and the two worked the idea up into "Late Night Feelings," a catchy house-cum-disco track that reminds me a little of Robyn's "Honey." The song had a sadder sound than Ronson was used to making—almost melancholic.

"On my own records, I've always been like, 'No, I’m making a party.' We start the records by coming up with a beat or groove from a jam that we then put lyrics or a rap on top of," he says. "This was the opposite because it was like, 'Let's write a song that makes you feel something first, and then we'll try to figure out a cool bass line or drumbeat.'"

He half-sings a few lines to me from the track, which is performed by Lykke Li on the album. "Make me psychotic, you've pulled away / You take the sane in me and tear it like a page / Write you erotic, and I know your way / Before you answer just to make me go insane."

All this emotion was uncharted territory for Ronson. His roots are in DJing, and as he puts it: "Who wants to hear the fucking DJ get on the mic and tell how everyone how he's feeling?" At the same time, he started joining the dots with his own desires and love of complex, emotive music. Maybe, he thought, I could try some of that myself.

None of this was exactly conscious thought at the time, though. There was no eureka moment in which Ronson decided to write a breakup album of cry-on-the-dance-floor sad-bangers. After the birth of "Late Night Feelings," Juber and Ronson finished up for the night and he headed home. "There was this song, sure, but I spent the rest of the year still pretty messy and floundering and not really fucking confronting shit head on."

He pauses for a moment, and looks out of the window of the private dining room we're sitting in. "I think in all my relationships, all through life, I've never really been that emotionally open, available, or honest about how I'm feeling," he says. "And usually, if I do, I wait until the end of the relationship, [when] it's too late, and then it's like a fucking crash in my brain anyway."

Then he stops talking. It's not the only time Ronson appears to surprise himself with what he reveals to me.

mark ronson
Mark Ronson, London, 2019.

At first it's hard to tell if Ronson is feeling a bit low, or just shattered. It's a little after 2 p.m. when we meet, but he seems drained. He was in Berlin yesterday, has a few interviews today, and later he's got a show at the launch of a new cruise line—and then there's the jet lag to factor in.

After a quick photoshoot, Ronson and I are sitting alone at a long table. He's leaning back in his chair and squeezing the top of his nose, in a visible display of exhaustion—a position he stays in for the hour we're together. We talk more about how the album finally came together; about meeting 24-year-old Grammy winner YEBBA (who appears on three of the new album's tracks, including its latest single "Don't Leave Me Lonely"); about how he couldn’t believe nobody had written a song called "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart" before he and Miley Cyrus did. He recalls lying down on a studio floor after an argument with his then-girlfriend and feeling like the lyrics to one track—playing on a loop—were slowly seeping into his brain. He speaks uninterrupted for over 15 minutes.

"So," he says, bringing himself to a conclusion, "I think I'm glad that I was able to make this thing. I’m not glad about the events that led up to it—the separation was incredibly sad—but I was able to at least channel it into something that I'm proud of, instead of running away from these emotions. I'd rather at least get something out of it that's better than anything I've done before."

Born in London in 1975, Ronson moved to New York City at the age of eight after his parents got divorced. His early years have been written about extensively—his Jewish upbringing and education at a private school in Manhattan; dropping out of NYU in the mid-90s to try his luck DJing full-time in the city's downtown hip-hop clubs. Since producing Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and Lily Allen's Alright, Still in 2006, his presence has been inescapable in contemporary pop music. It's almost impossible to keep track of everyone he's worked with, from Paul McCartney to Christina Aguilera, Boy George, Diplo and Gaga, which is why I'm surprised by the frankness of our conversation. Often, stars of his stature don't give too much away; they're a little more guarded. Ronson, though, is unexpectedly reflective—often offering up insights into where his head is at right now, entirely unprompted.

"I guess because [this is] the most honest record I’ve ever made, I just find myself saying something out loud and thinking, Oh shit, yeah, that makes sense," he says, when I ask if he's noticed himself doing it. As with the album, he says, these interviews have become self-revelatory. "I end up having, like, fucking verbal diarrhea and spouting out everything, and then clocking I hadn’t realized that specific behavior pattern or impact of that experience."

Conversation soon turns to his success and fame, and how he handles it. Not just the expectations that he'll produce hit after hit, but also about trying to stay sane amid it all. In the past, interviewers have picked up on his relentless self-deprecation. None of that is forthcoming today. I ask why.

"I really don't think about it all too much, like I used to," he replies. "I used to try to deflect it because it made me feel awkward and weird to even be talked about in that way, but you just end up having crazy low self-esteem because all you're doing is talking shit about yourself all day."

He also tries, as best as he can, to live life with a semblance of normality. Now, his day-to-day doesn't really change, no matter what. "I wake up at 8 a.m., I go to the studio at 11 a.m. and stay there until 8 p.m.," he says. Ten years ago, if Ronson had bagged an award, he'd stay out getting wasted for as long as that took, he tells me. When he came away with an Oscar for "Shallow" this year, however, he was back at the studio right on time the following morning.

In fairness, it's also hard to get caught up in the trappings of a Hollywood lifestyle when you don’t really want to be there. "L.A. is fucking lonely—there's nothing really to do there," says Ronson. "I bought this fucking family-size starter house and then my life took a different turn, so I just have a bunch of people staying in the house to keep that a little vibey."

The move to L.A. from London was really just one of convenience. After spending so much of his time on planes to and from the city, he made a "deal with the devil" and relocated in the interest of his career. He told himself he’d put his head down and work hard for three, four years, maximum. "I've kind of come to the end of that term now, and I'm looking around and I can't say I know what’s next," he says. "Maybe it means working 20 percent less, or it's figuring out something else to do. L.A. is just not for me."

mark ronson
Mark Ronson, London, 2019.

Forty minutes into our chat, I offer again to take the conversation in a different direction. I ask about politics, Judaism, and his most outrageous celebrity encounters. He offers up answers to most, but none with the same depth or conviction as the introspection. There's no doubt that, at the time of writing Late Night Feelings, Ronson was grappling with, well, a lot of feelings. I ask if he feels more grounded, more in control, in the build-up to its release.

"It's really nice not to have to worry about how the rent's going to be paid next month, or even maybe next year," he says, his eyes barely open. "I understand now that I've had consistent quality work and success for long enough that it's not going to disappear just like that."

"But," he goes on, "I think I'm trying to figure out how to enjoy it a little bit more and not just be so much on this hamster wheel because, if I’m being realistic, I feel like I'm never going to make a record as big as 'Uptown Funk.' I'm probably never going to make a solo record that’s better than the one I made just now. I've worked with most of my heroes, all this kind of shit. It’s like telling yourself you can't keep chasing all those things because it becomes a fool's errand."

There's a knock at the door. Ronson looks up; it's nearly time to finish.

"Now I’ve got to figure out all these neurotic anxious patterns that result in this perfectionism and workaholic tendencies," he continues. "I've clung to them because, on the one hand, they make the music good because it's that attention to detail and the focus and the staying at the studio until 5 a.m. that gets a song sounding perfect. But at the same time, it's like: How much of this is just to fucking bury some damage? Or just to ignore what's really going on in life? And I think now, maybe being 43 and wanting some other things out of life, I'm just like, 'Okay, I need to balance these priorities better.'"

That's when he brings up Amy. A close friend and collaborator, Ronson says he still feels Winehouse's presence. He plays "Valerie" in his DJ sets an "obnoxious" amount. Sometimes he hears "Back to Black" in a hotel lobby or department store and it breaks him. "She is why I'm here," he says. "My success working with her is what got me in the door—it's probably going to be the most important thing I ever did."

When he's making a record these days, Ronson says he's finally stopped asking himself, "Would Amy like this?" Both because of her unusual taste, and the fact that "she would be quite blunt if she didn't like something, and would just start turning the stereo down after 20 seconds while I was playing it. It's saying the most obvious thing ever, but she was the one who wore her heart on her sleeve the most, and was [the most] emotionally open in her music of anyone I’ve ever worked with."

When they used to write together, Ronson was in awe of the way she sang about her life, her feelings, her relationships. "It was so poetic, but also dark and dramatic," he says. "My own experience with making music was just so different. Now, having made something more honest, more exposing, I get why she did it. She wasn’t being dramatic for the sake of it, she was just telling the truth."

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