How To Style Out An Oscar With Mr Mark Ronson
The DJ, musician and producer on dressing for the red carpet, getting the best out of Ms Miley Cyrus and turning heartbreak into songs
A few days before the Grammys (where he performed with Lady Gaga and collected his sixth and seventh little golden gramophone trophies), Mr Mark Ronson is feeling uncertain about his future. “I don’t know,” he says. “I think I’ve got probably five more years left of relevance in the pop world and then maybe I’ll be a visiting professor at NYU music school or something.”
He’s not being disingenuous. He knows what he has accomplished with “Shallow”, the hit of the year that he co-wrote with Lady Gaga for the film A Star Is Born and for which they won an Oscar. He’s proud of his work on “Electricity” with Diplo (together as Silk City) and Ms Dua Lipa, which netted him the Best Dance Recording award. He knows that his new song, “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart”, featuring Ms Miley Cyrus, from his fifth album, Late Night Feelings, is currently the biggest song in the world.
And yet… As we’re driving across Los Angeles to his home in Los Feliz, he reminds me that he’s been here before. “Back in 2016, when we won record of the year, by 6.00pm, I remember thinking, ‘OK, in a year I’m going to be washed up, living in a trailer in Utica,’” he says. “In the pop world, you are always aware that you have a limited window.”
Limited or not, he’s made good use of his opening. His 2016 Song Of The Year win, for “Uptown Funk” with Mr Bruno Mars, came nine years after his first for “Rehab” with Ms Amy Winehouse. Ms Winehouse’s album Back To Black also won Best Pop Vocal Album in 2007 and Mr Ronson was named Producer Of The Year. He was 31 at the time. Old enough, he says, to know a thing or two about life and mature enough not to squander his success.
And then, well, life happens. In 2011, he was married, to the model, actress and singer Ms Joséphine de la Baume. By the time they moved to Los Angeles a few years later, he says, “my career was in a bit of a stalling point. It was a while after Amy. The phone wasn’t ringing off the hook.” His new manager, Mr Brandon Creed, finally convinced him to come out west. Mr Creed, who had worked with Mr Mars, had tried to get people into the studio with Mr Ronson, but he seemed impossibly far away from it all in London.
“I didn’t plan to move out here for ever,” he says. “I just thought, let me come to LA for a little while, put my head down, work super hard and then maybe, after four or five years, I’ll have done enough work that I can just take it easy.” Today, the absurdity of this makes him scoff. “I don’t know what I thought. I was gonna amass generational wealth on a Jay-Z level and be able to kick back for the rest of my life?”
What he did know was that his ambition was outpacing his opportunities in London and New York. So the move, he says, “kind of worked. Obviously, working with Bruno and [Uptown Special producer] Jeff Bhasker was a good move. And I guess maybe part of it is I don’t really have a social life in Los Angeles. I haven’t figured it out. I have a couple of really good friends. But really I just kind of work and then I go home. It’s probably good for focus.” The move also gave him access to Ms Cyrus, whom he says he’d been lightly stalking for several years. “And then – only because I happened to be in LA – she wrote back and was like, ‘Hey, should I come over on Tuesday?’”
The fruits of that session – along with the rest of the tracks on Late Night Feelings, which feature an all-star catalogue of female vocalists from Ms Lykke Li to King Princess, Ms Camila Cabello and Ms Alicia Keys – were inspired, at least in part, by Mr Ronson’s 2017 split from Ms de la Baume (their divorce was finalised last year). In many respects, this is a traditional break-up album, with rueful lyrics full of remorse (“I’ll never find you again / I won’t forget you this time”), but these songs, which Mr Ronson calls “sad bangers”, are painted in vivid colours over some club-sized bops. “That’s just me,” Mr Ronson told radio show host Mr Howard Stern recently. “I’m always going to look for the pop element. That’s the disco ball spinning in my head.”
Making love songs on this scale is in Mr Ronson’s DNA. His stepfather, Mr Mick Jones of Foreigner, wrote the arena rock ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is” for Mr Ronson’s mother. So the big sound of the new songs shouldn’t be altogether surprising. What is continually remarkable is his track record with the best vocalists, something he’s quick to shrug off as luck. For anyone who watched the great documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, about the making of Lady Gaga’s album Joanne, which Mr Ronson produced, that really doesn’t do justice to the emotional, sometimes exhausting, patently magic process of making music. There is a sweet moment in the film when Lady Gaga, a little tipsy after a session, confesses to camera that she, one of the biggest pop stars in the world, has never before worked with a producer who has asked her want she wants to do, what kind of record she wants to make. Which leads me to wonder how Mr Ronson handles it, how he can create and enforce personal and professional boundaries when working with titanically talented singers who are themselves often enormous personalities.
“I probably have slightly looser boundaries than some when making a record,” he says. “If I’m working with somebody, it’s not odd for them to call me at 2.00am or whatever. The producer/artist relationship is like a relationship. There’s no way to define it because there are so many variables. But – and I could be wrong, because I’m too eager to try and keep everybody happy – it feels like you get the best art and honesty out of someone when there’s a sense of trust, emotional connection and they feel safe. Usually, that means kind of overextending yourself during the course of making the record.” Here he’s quick to add, “But Amy [Winehouse]’s thing was a bit different because all the stuff in the relationship that she was singing about happened way before I met her. Here was this person delivering these really, really heavy emotional lyrics, but in a sunny disposition, all day to me. Because she had dealt with this all in the past.”
This time around, it is Mr Ronson who is dealing with his relationship in a song. Much of it was written and recorded by his dream team over 10 days at Mr Rick Rubin’s famous Shangri-La studios in Malibu. As ever, Mr Ronson isn’t the frontman on these songs, but that doesn’t make him a shrinking violet. On the contrary. He’s ready for primetime. When he and Ms Cyrus performed “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” on Saturday Night Live, he may have wiggled in the wings with his guitar while Ms Cyrus took centre stage, but he was wearing a double-breasted blazer woven with spangles, the disco ball in his brain coming through on the outside.
It is his job to make instinctive decisions about what is good and what is not. Does he apply that to his clothes? As far back as his DJ days, when he wore rare T-shirts and hype sneakers, through his swingy Dap-King-style suit phase into his more recent and enduring slim suiting era, Mr Ronson has been a bona fide fashion icon. But when we meet, he hasn’t even thought about what he’s going to wear for the Grammys in two days’ time, let alone to the Academy Awards. This, he says, is as much a sign of maturity as anything else. “I was getting ready for the Golden Globes the other day,” he says, “which arguably would be one of the most high-profile things I’d ever gone to, and it was just funny to go into the closet and be like, ‘What am I going to wear tonight?’ Because a couple of years ago, I would have seen a stylist who would have shown me, like, four options of something to wear. It was really great and now it’s just like… I’m not fucking David Bowie. I’m not A$AP Rocky. I can’t wear something ridiculous and get away with it. I’m not a beautiful, tiny boy like Troye Sivan. It’s like, at this point, I have my shit that I know works. I’m better off kind of wearing my own clothes.”
The hair, too, that luxurious bouffant, is probably here for good. “I think that’s just gonna stay for a little while,” he says. “I’m 43. I’m lucky to have this much hair. I’ll just ride it out.”
Musically, he’s still ready to keep mixing it up, keep exploring, pushing, refining, growing. “I guess the dream is to get to, like, the Quincy level,” he says. Mr Quincy Jones, whose daughter, Ms Rashida Jones, Mr Ronson was engaged to briefly in 2002, has 21 more grammys than Mr Ronson and 80 nominations. So you could argue that Mr Jones is the most successful producer of all time. “That is the ultimate goal right there,” says Mr Ronson. “It’s not something that I think is going to happen, but you look to that. But nobody is fucking Quincy, so I was silly to say that.”
If not Mr Jones, then, who is he keeping up with? How famous is he? Mobbed-in-airports famous? “No, no, no. I don’t think so,” he says. “I have what I think is pretty much the ideal level of fame. You can ride the subway and no one really accosts you, but you can still probably get a last-minute reservation and get Camila Cabello to come down to the studio at the last minute. Nobody is mobbing me, but it’s nice that people want to tell me ‘Uptown Funk’ is their kid’s favourite song. Taxi drivers will want to talk about music. And I have to tell myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’m kind of famous.’ It is cool to get to be the name on Saturday Night Live. But there’s also a little guilt, of feeling, ‘Am I shallow because I’m enjoying it?’”
It is the end of a long, meandering talk that has taken us across the Eastside and covered topics from nightlife to romance (he considered using a dating app, but opted against it and is now seeing someone). We’re sprawled out in the living room of Mr Ronson’s Spanish-style home, surrounded by brightly coloured pop art, a McIntosh hi-fi, a grand piano and an ample bar cart, and we’re beginning to flag. He, at least, has an excuse. In the past three days, he’s DJed at club LIV in Miami and at a party in Las Vegas, been to a Lady Gaga show and one by Sir Elton John, and been rehearsing for the Grammys. There are piles of books and pictures on the coffee table between us, for which he apologises. “My ex-wife just came to pick up her side tables,” he says. Which makes his album seem suddenly urgent, present. I ask if it has proved cathartic for him.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily cathartic, but it’s helped me get over it,” he says. “I can look back and say these are better songs than usual because I had to go through something. Duh, of course! All your favourite records are made from heartache. Even records I’ve worked on for other people – Joanne, Back To Black, [Queens Of The Stone Age’s] Villains – are really good because visceral emotions are going into it. It’s just not usually mine. But if you’re going to feel like shit, you might as well get something good out of it.”
Late Night Feelings is out 17 May