The fame after the funk

The fame after the funk

In the back of a cab, Mark Ronson, 40, is settling in for a rant. It is a modern and entertaining Grumpy Old Men rant, about clubbing. Today’s nightclubs, Ronson is saying, just aren’t what they were. “There are three factors. There’s the advent of the camera phone — the people in the club could be out to see a DJ that they truly love; it could be Redlight or it could be Jamie xx, and for the first 30 seconds of a tune everybody is so pumped up, and then there’s this kind of gentle drift back down to the phone, or maybe they’re taking pictures or messaging a friend to tell them how great the set is and how much they’re enjoying it.”

Ronson goes on to talk about what he calls “bubble service”, and how it has changed the layout of clubs. “You now have bigger and bigger banquettes, a smaller dance floor and you’re supposed to judge a night by how many people were standing up on their tables holding their bottles. I understand they’re having a good time. But it just looks like an episode of Entourage.”

And the third reason?“The smoking ban. But it’s quite hard really to find fault with the smoking ban.”

Key notes
Ronson is 2015’s best-selling music artiste. Towards the end of 2014 this would have felt unlikely. Four years had passed since his third album, ‘Record Collection’, was a commercial flop, and suddenly the success of his second album felt a long time ago. In November 2014, however, he released Uptown Funk, a track that has broken most recent sales and streaming records.

The joyous pop-funk that you’ll be dancing to at weddings for the rest of time, was co-produced with Jeff Bhasker and the track’s vocalist, Bruno Mars. It was Ronson’s first UK and US number one single. It topped the charts in 15 other countries, has set several all-time streaming records, has sold more than 10 million copies and is currently the 10th-most-viewed YouTube video of all time.

We are meandering through mid-afternoon city-centre traffic, bound for Ronson’s studio in north London. 

Earlier, Ronson was posing his way through Soho on our photo shoot. He cut an auspicious figure, towering quiff adding a couple of inches to his six foot, and then there’s the familiar mid-Atlantic drawl. People stare, but Ronson doesn’t mind. “It’s nice now,” he says later. “I’m kind of psyched that my biggest success came when I was 39,” he says. “Any success is better when you’re older. Even in Britain, where I’ve had some, the biggest round of it was still seven or eight years ago. If you have hits that far apart, you can never be fully counted out. It’s nice, because I have felt counted out in the middle of the last seven years.”

 Mark Ronson was born in London to Ann Dexter, a jewellery designer, and Laurence Ronson, who managed the Eurovision-winning act Bucks Fizz after rejecting a career in the family business. He has two younger sisters, twins Charlotte (a fashion designer) and Samantha (a DJ). His parents divorced when Ronson was five and his mother was soon remarried, to Mick Jones, the guitarist of Foreigner.

Ronson moved with his mother, Jones and sisters to New York at the age of eight. He attended the private Collegiate School in Manhattan before dropping out from New York University.

Every element of Ronson’s life can come off like a showy anecdote. He is a shameless name-dropper, but is such warm company that you let it slide. And besides, it would be quite hard for him not to be. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son, Sean Lennon, was a close school friend; Al Pacino once ate Christmas lunch at the Dexter-Jones residence; he began DJ-ing at New York’s coolest clubs and music-industry parties as an undergraduate. In 2003, the year his debut album, ‘Here Comes the Fuzz’, was released, he proposed to the Hollywood actress Rashida Jones. He would be part of a tabloid-friendly relationship with the model Daisy Lowe before marrying the French actress, singer and model Joséphine de La Baume in 2011. The couple live in north London and spend time in Paris.

In 2006 he co-produced Amy Winehouse’s second album, ‘Back to Black’. It would win five Grammy Awards, sell 20 million copies and make her a superstar. Ronson features in Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary of Winehouse’s short life, which has provoked criticism from some of her family. “It’s so beautiful that I just want to watch it all of the time. Because I don’t have a lot of stuff from Amy.”

Like almost every recording studio aside from Abbey Road, Ronson HQ is unimpressive on the approach. It is on a mini industrial estate in the area just north of Kings Cross, which is being steadily spruced up with bars, exposed brickwork and flat whites. Ronson is a genial host, asking if I’d like water or coffee. There are stacks of CDs and hard drives, several scented candles and a couple of neat pen pots. There are posters: Stevie Wonder’s 1981 Australian tour and Queens of the Stone Age at the House of Blues, signed by Josh Homme. In the hallway is a framed drum skin with ‘amy’ across it. It was a gift from Bruno Mars. ‘i’d like to think in some special way she bought us together,’ it says. ‘thanks for everything mark. your brother bruno.’

Ronson has worked with Mars fairly solidly for a couple of years. I ask if Mars is the closest he’s come to finding a muse since Winehouse. “It’s different,” he says. “Amy was more hardcore about the things she liked. When I met her, I didn’t know about that 1960s girl-group stuff. But the minute she played it to me, we loved all the same shit. What she wasn’t into, she wouldn’t mince her words on. But we agreed on so much. Bruno’s way is very different, because he’s such a perfectionist. And so — in a good way — hard on everyone around him to ensure everyone’s delivering the best possible shit. And that’s why Uptown Funk sounds like it does.”

Ronson has 17 versions of Uptown Funk with “different basslines, different hooks, different programing, different drops, different everything”. Finishing the track left him covered in stress rashes, and at one point he collapsed in a studio loo.

Perfectionist partner
“I think people think I made Uptown Funk and sent it to Bruno to do the vocal. But that song is very much his creation. I remember spending three days in Memphis slaving over that song and thinking that we finally had it. I then got a call from him two days later saying, ‘No, it’s not it.’ And I knew deep down it wasn’t it either.”

Uptown Funk has restored his mojo. “It took me so long to figure out something really obvious,” he says. “That if I wanted to make another album and I want anyone to care then I’d better do the thing that I’m really good at. It’s the same thing with clothes,” he adds. “In the beginning, when I first started wearing nice suits, in about 2007, I was so psyched to finally have something nice to wear — after years of just wanting to look like the Beastie Boys wearing Pumas with fat laces and band T-shirts. But then that can involve going a bit too far. Like wearing a bright pink suit with pink shoes. Eventually, however, you gravitate towards what you’re good at. And what you can actually pull off.”

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