His family might be rock royalty, but Mark Ronson has had to carve out his own path in the music business. His work has paid off thanks to huge hits with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, and he's about to unleash one of the most surprising covers albums ever made.
Apparently not content with being one of the name producers of 2007 — with credits including Amy Winehouse's Back To Black, Robbie Williams' Rudebox and Lily Allen's Alright, Still — DJ-turned-studio-man Mark Ronson has come up with his own era-defining album in the shape of Version. A 14-track trip through his favourite songs, past and present, it finds the UK-born, New York-raised musician retooling everything from the Smiths' 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before' to Britney Spears' 'Toxic' to the Zutons' 'Valerie' to the Jam's 'Pretty Green', with a cast of different vocalists and an emphasis on beats-heavy, horn-peppered grooves.
Keen for the record not to be lumped in with kitsch cover acts such as Nouvelle Vague, Ronson cites the arranger-producers of the '60s as the key influences on Version. "I love records from that time by people like Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle," he says. "They would take the hits of the day and do them in their own unique version. All I was doing was taking songs I really loved and recording them again. There wasn't any contrived scheme behind it, to make some coffee-table collection."
So even when he covers such mainstream pop hits as 'Toxic', there isn't any tongue-in-cheek intent? "Not at all," he insists. "I'm just trying to do something different with the song. Some people don't even get that it's a cover until it gets to the chorus. With 'Toxic', the idea is to do it in a very different arrangement to show that the song can exist in so many forms."
The starting point for Version was Ronson's cover of Radiohead's 'Just', reimagined as a '70s rare groove track and originally commissioned for band tribute album Exit Music: Songs For Radio Heads. "I didn't have any idea in my head how to cover a song like that," he explains. "I was thinking maybe I'd take a part of it that I loved, like the guitar part, and sample it or have a rap over it. Then I thought, well maybe I should try to just do the whole song. I had a lot of fun doing that and I started to fuck around with other songs in my spare time, learning their progressions and melodies and bending them to fit a more groove-heavy version. After a while, I had a bunch of them done. 'Just' came out and did well in the UK and I was in the unique position of sitting on, like, eight of these covers. So I ended up signing with Columbia to finish the record."
Ask him his favourite song on Version and he chooses his Smiths cover, with its soulful vocal provided by Australian R&B singer Daniel Merriweather. "It took the most time because there's so many things you have to get right. It's kind of obvious — whether you think my version is shit or not — that I love the song. Morrissey's vocal is so beautiful but so cutting and sneering at the same time, and then Johnny Marr has about five guitar things going on. Doing it without a conventional guitar-band arrangement was hard."
Ronson says that choosing the songs was the least difficult part of the process. Before he first started tinkering around with decks, in his teens he was a guitarist, so he was biased by his love of indie music in his selections. In some ways, he admits, Version is an exercise in taste improvement.
"When I played in bands I had really bad taste in music," he laughs. "When I was 14 I was into, like, hair metal. Probably Guns N' Roses was the best of the stuff I listened to then. I was coming back to England to visit my dad a lot and that's when I picked up on all the English stuff, from the Smiths to Blur. And then I saw a DJ and got into hip-hop. But I've always loved everything. I've never had any kind of genre boundaries. Even though the songs go from Britney to the Charlatans ['The Only One I Know', performed by Robbie Williams], the sonic itself has a common thread."
Growing up, Mark Ronson was exposed to music in a very direct way; though there's no truth in the rumour that his father was Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, it is certainly true that his stepfather is Mick Jones of '70s FM rockers Foreigner. Still, he's keen to stress — despite having been surrounded by family friends including Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen — that even if his upbringing was distinctly boho and artistic, there were limits to his freedom. "Music was really encouraged," he says. "But it wasn't like 'Yeah we understand if you want to drop out of school and be a stoner and just play music.' My mother was incredibly strict with us. But if you got your homework done, you could go into the studio and record a little thing on the eight-track."
Soon after he began DJ'ing in New York in the '90s, Ronson earned himself a reputation through stints in hardcore hip-hop clubs before becoming the spinner of choice for celebrities, at parties thrown by the likes of Puff Daddy and Tom Cruise. His experience of being behind the decks has clearly informed his production skills.
"I think it helps me bend the groove to what makes people want to move. I've DJ'd in a place and seen 'My Boy Lollipop' by Millie or 'Gangsters' by the Specials make people dance as much as any DJ Premier track. Sometimes it can be detrimental, 'cause you're just listening to other people's music all the time and it pollutes your brain. Actually, in the past year I've cut back on DJ'ing a lot. It was a conscious decision just to make music, whether I fail or not."
Failure may not be the first word that springs to mind when examining Ronson's CV. Nevertheless, he expresses dissatisfaction with his debut album, 2003's Here Comes The Fuzz, which featured a parade of rappers including Ghostface Killah and MOP. "My first record is a bit all over the place," he reckons. "I was trying to shove too much into a 40-minute CD."
For his contributions to Winehouse's Back To Black and parts of Version, Mark Ronson decamped to a New York studio owned by funk group the Dap-Kings to record drums and some of the brass, finding himself using tape for the first time. "They have an old Studer 16-track one-inch tape machine and a Trident desk. After I worked with them in their studio, I realised the difference when you're recording to tape. It got me inspired and I'm gonna try to get a desk and a tape machine for my studio now.
"I grew up in the hip-hop thing, just as everything was crossing over. My generation on down doesn't know anything about tape, and probably never will unless they have some sort of weird experience where someone shows it to them. It's kind of a shame because if you're going for any kind of warm '60s and '70s sound, whether it's Stevie Wonder or Bowie or Zeppelin or Motown or whatever, that tape sound is an integral part of those records."
It's also an integral part of the warm, rounded drum sound that marks out Ronson productions: part '70s funk, part hip-hop. Perhaps understandably, he's hesitant about giving away the secrets behind it.
"It's just the guy from the Dap-Kings, a very talented drummer named Homer [Steinweiss] who's miked very well, and it goes to tape and that's what makes it sound like that. I sampled a couple of their records before and they sound like old '60s long-lost funk pieces. I just went in their studio and we did it exactly how they had it set up for their records. I think they'd probably kill me if I gave their secrets away as to how they get their sounds! [Mix engineer] Tom Elmhirst really helped on the Amy Winehouse stuff. He did a really nice job of layering the kit with other kicks and snares — I guess he used Sound Replacer or Drumagog — just to make it a bit more modern, without ruining the subtlety of the live playing."
In 2005, Ronson launched his own label Allido (pronounced All-I-Do) and moved into his New York studio room at the facility that was formerly Sorcerer Sound, where the likes of Run DMC and Norah Jones had recorded in the past. "It was all built," he says. "I just put all my gear and instruments in there and that was it."
A product of the digital age, Ronson's first recording experiences were with Pro Tools. "In my main room I'm using a Mac G5 running Mac OS 10.3 with Pro Tools HD and a Pro Control desk. I have a bunch of old Neve and Manley and Avalon mic preamps. I do all the programmed beats on an Akai MPC3000, the hip-hop standard. Then I dump them into Pro Tools and just play everything live on top. I don't really use any MIDI because I prefer playing. I think it's enough to have the drums programmed, and after that I like to have everybody play live over shit."
As far as hardware instrumentation at Allido goes, Ronson has a collection of synths and vintage keyboards that are constantly in use, including a Moog Voyager, a Roland Juno 106, a Nord Electro and a Hohner Clavinet D6, alongside his trusty Wurlitzer, Rhodes and upright pianos. "It's cool when you have a keyboard that nobody has or isn't using much any more," he says. "One of them I put all over Robbie Williams' 'Lovelight' is the Roland String Ensemble. It comes in with the second chorus and phases through the whole thing doing the big string line. Then there's the gated sound at the beginning of the track, which is me just scratching a synth sound on a [Pioneer] CDJ1000."
In terms of DJ gear used in his recordings and less frequent club work, Ronson favours a mixture of analogue and digital. "I use Technics 1200s with a Rane TTM54 mixer. When I DJ live I use a lot of Rane's Serato Scratch Live program, a combination of that and vinyl. But then it's mostly AIFF files transferred in from vinyl, so even though I'm playing it digitally you're still hearing the pops and scratches. The program hasn't crashed on me or done anything bad, but I've heard some horror stories. I've been DJ'ing with Jazzy Jeff when it's crashed on him, but I haven't had that yet."
Guitar-wise, he shuns pedals for a selection of great-sounding amps. "I mostly play a '79 Fender Strat and I have a Tele reissue that I use with any of the old Fender Reverb amps. Then there's a cool new amp called a Savage that's got a nice sound and the old Ampeg Jet that Mick Ronson used to use for his solo sound."
Inside Pro Tools, Ronson uses a limited amount of plug-ins, though he does, of course, have his favourites. "I use [Metric Halo's] Channel Strip quite a bit because it's just EQ and compression. You can pretty much put it across every channel and you won't get maxed out. I use [Line 6's] Amp Farm every now and then, but I try to get the sounds for the guitars live. It's just good and quick if you just want to throw an idea down and you don't want it to sound like some bullshit stinky guitar line where you've just plugged straight into Pro Tools. I like the Echo Farm for the old-school delays and I use [Digidesign's] Lo-Fi to take the bit rate down and just get things a bit crusty."
For the '60s-sounding horns on Back To Black and Version, Ronson recorded three players — baritone and tenor sax and trumpet — into one mic. "They're just shoved really tight around a Royer ribbon mic. There was some orchestra recording that we did at Metropolis in London, for the song 'Back To Black', where we had seven tenor saxes playing at the same time, miked individually. Most of the horns on Version we did back at my studio, in this little booth that gets so sweaty and hot."
Given the number of different singers that Ronson works with, it's no surprise that he's developed some techniques to cope with their idiosyncrasies. Does he find that he has to have a lot of patience to work with vocalists? "Well, not when you're recording someone like Amy who just sings it three times down and it's amazing. I have worked with singers in the past who you need patience for, but the level of talent that I've been working with recently, they're really pure singers. Lily and Amy have two totally different voices, but Lily is a real singer, her pitch is spot-on. She doesn't approach her thing like a craftsman, but she's amazing at what she does. Amy's more like a jazz singer in that classic way and she'll change it each time a little bit. You end up with all these great nuances to choose from and to comp together."
In terms of vocal mics, the producer almost always reaches for the studio standards. "I love the classic Neumanns, the 47 and the 87, they just work. Also the Manley Gold Reference mic works quite well. It can sometimes be a bit clean, but it works well if you're looking for a clean, more sort of precise vocal and you're not looking for a lot of dirt on it."
One aspect of working with Amy Winehouse that Ronson had to learn to cope with is her bluntness. If an idea wasn't working within 20 minutes, it would be dumped. Was that quite tough to get used to? "At first, yeah," he admits. "Because you're used to everybody walking this diplomatic line in the studio. Nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings. She knows right away if something's not great and I definitely learnt a lot from working with her in that sense. It's like, what's the point in being diplomatic if you know you don't like it? Why spend time trying to make it less like something you don't like? She's obviously a real songwriter, so she knows what she wants."
Their working method involved Winehouse presenting a song to Ronson, before they both laid down a rough version. Then the singer usually left the producer to flesh out the track overnight before she'd return to OK it the next day. Or not, as the case may be. "Most of the time, five out of six songs, she came in the next day and she was definitely into the arrangements. One or two times she was like 'No, that's shit.' Lily's the same. She knows what she wants. But I think because it was her first record, she was probably a little less like Amy. She might give you the benefit of the doubt a bit more."
Comparatively, Ronson says that working with Robbie Williams was an entirely painless process. "I went to his house in LA," he recalls, "and he played me a bunch of songs for his record and then he played me [Lewis Taylor's] 'Lovelight' and [Manu Chao's] 'King Of The Bongo' and said he wanted to cover them. He came over to New York for a few days and we just laid them down really quick. Because I was coming off another project I hadn't had a chance to really do my homework and prepare the tracks beforehand. I'd get into the studio two hours before him each day and lay down the most basic skeleton so he would be able to sing over them. Then he would leave and I would fill them in."
Is Robbie quite hyperactive? Is it hard to capture the vocals before he gets bored? "Well, yeah. He's gonna go in and sing it five times and that's it. He will get bored, but that's fair enough. It was fun because those songs were great and he's funny as shit. He's one of the best people you'd ever want to have around if you're hanging out in the studio."
Before he began recording singers, Ronson was of course mostly dealing with rappers. Has that been tough at times? "Working with rappers is always difficult," he states, diplomatically. "As a white guy with a slightly privileged background working with someone who grew up at the other end of the spectrum, saying 'Well can you change this here because it doesn't sound as convincing?', there can definitely be a culture gap.
"But I would never tell anyone how to rap or censor them, because that's their art form and expression. Especially when I was working with MOP, who were some of my heroes. But then there's someone like Rhymefest, who's closer to my age. I've come up at the same as him and we have a level of trust and a creative bond where we can shoot ideas back and forth. It's like sitting down and writing a song with them. I have the same shared experiences as them so it's easier to collaborate."
So from the producer's point of view, what do you need to bring out in a rap? "Well, there's the rhythm and the clarity, but there's also a melody in rap. With the really good rappers, even if it's not a 'song', the melody takes you on a bit of a trip and I always try to find the little bits in the vocal that have that melody. Something that's almost sing-songy, but not."
When it comes to mixing, Ronson admits he prefers to let others do the final tweak and balance. His favoured mix engineers include Tom Elmhirst (whose credits include Goldfrapp, Paolo Nutini and Joss Stone) in the UK and Serban Ghenea (Kelis, the Neptunes) in the US. "I just love the sound those guys get," he says. "I never listen to anything that I've worked on when it's done, 'cause I've listened to it so much in the process of writing and arranging and producing and editing. I trust Serban and Tom."
In addition, of course, there's plenty for Mark Ronson to be getting on with besides, including the running of the Allido label, whose roster includes Rhymefest and Daniel Merriweather. "I think starting your own label is one of the dumbest things you can do," he jokes, "unless you have like 75 hours in the day. But I have talented people around me and I wanted to help them get their music out there."
He's clearly a hard worker. In fact, sometimes too much of a hard worker, he admits. There was a recent quote from Amy Winehouse expressing mild concern over the producer's current load, claiming she found him asleep in the studio one day. True?
"I saw that quote too. She said she started stroking my hair. I was like 'What?' I guess it's just how it works. You get offered the cool shit after you've had a few successes. I was lucky that Amy and Lily and a few of those people let me get my foot in the door this year. But it was also frustrating before, because you have to get the good gigs to be offered the good gigs. It's Catch 22. You don't realise until you start getting the good demos from the record companies and you think, I guess this is what you guys were sitting on the whole time."
Currently in production are tracks for London-based soul/rockabilly singer Jack Penate, a recent signing to XL Recordings, and Liverpool's Candie Payne, a '60s-influenced vocalist already drawing comparisons to Dusty Springfield. One other future project has got Ronson particularly excited.
"I just got an email from Elton John's manager, because he's got everybody reworking his catalogue," he enthuses. "I saw an interview with him about three months ago and he was talking about how he wanted to get Kanye and Pharrell and Eminem to remix his greatest hits. I was thinking 'That's bullshit, man, those guys get offered everything... I would do something so good with that, but of course no-one would never ask.' Then three months later, I get asked to do it. It's nice to be considered for those things. I'm looking forward to hopefully getting into those old Elton reels because there's some amazing music on there."
Mark Ronson is clearly thrilled by his rapid rise, especially when it brings him into contact with his former heroes. Ahead of the release of Version, he had to clear some of the tracks with their original writers, making for some anxious moments. "Obviously, with these covers," he says, "I've changed them so much that I had to have them approved. I remember being on the phone, biting my nails, on hold with my manager while he was on hold with Morrissey's manager who was on hold with Morrissey while he was getting the track on Instant Messenger to listen to it. Then it was like...'Yep, Morrissey loves it.' "Then Mike Pickering, my A&R guy at Columbia, used to be one of the original DJs at the Hacienda and he was like 'Yeah, man, I was hanging out with Paul Weller last night and he loves your cover of 'Pretty Green'.'
"It's cool," Ronson decides. "Because if they didn't like them, I'd rather burn them and put them in a heap."