Someone like Mark Ronson needs no introduction. He has produced records for the likes of Adele, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Duran Duran, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Wale and so many more. If you were in a coma over the past three years, you would still probably wake up with the “Uptown Funk” chorus stuck in your head – a song that has gone platinum everywhere, stayed at number one for 14 weeks in the United States and became a global smash.
His own career has also seen a steady trend upwards, releasing four albums, the most recent being the platinum Uptown Special, in 2015. Each delve into a different part of his own music tastes from electronic to jazz to hip-hop and have a laundry list of premium collaborators like Kevin Parker, Bruno Mars, Q-Tip and others.
Now he has linked up with Diplo on a new project Silk City, which has put out records like the still bubbling “Electricity” with Dua Lipa. The group was named after a diner in Philadelphia and builds on their love for 90s house music with hip-hop mixed in.
We had the chance to sit down with a somewhat tired, but relaxed Ronson last month at a Samsung event for the launch of their new line of AKG headphones (see the review here). Sitting in a fully stocked green room (they were mostly Diplo's stuff apparently) with a pair of turntables so he and Diplo could practice for a set later that evening, we learned more about Silk City, how he is able to coax the best out of singers, what is going on with his collabs with Kevin Parker and SZA, the progress on an upcoming album and more.
RM: Since we're here for this Samsung event… For you what makes a great headphone as someone who DJs and produces.
Mark Ronson: For DJing it is a little bit different because you're just kind of blasting headphones, you need something that you can hear over the monitors. For the studio and traveling, headphones are really as important as having good speakers because we all spend so much time on the road.
So you want to know, sitting in a hotel room, listening to mixes and monitoring stuff that you are getting the same thing as you would get in the studio listening to some fancy speakers. The time on planes and stuff, if I am tweaking mixes or whatever, I'm not as much probably in the laptop production-wise like some of the other guys, Diplo or whoever else, but I need to know that when I am on the road I have an amazing pair of headphones. I need to know what they sound like and the AKGs do that.
RM: Going into the studio when you're working with people that are idols of yours, how do you get them to do that fortieth take at four in the morning when everyone's tired?
MR: It's a little bit of a juggling acting. You just have to sort of be able to read people. There's some people that kind of nail it in four takes and that's it and to push anymore would just be maybe pointless. Then there's people like Adele, who is such an incredible singer and she knows sometimes it's take number 17 is where that amazing thing is going to come out of her voice. Obviously she sounds incredible on take one. She could only have the sing three if she wanted to but I'm always like "damn I can't believe she's still down to keep singing."
I have had the amazing luck of working with some of the best singers around. It never feels like work just getting to record. Even the process of comping the vocals after when you're listening to each track dissipate. When you are listening to a singer like a Gaga or Miley or someone like that, their voices are so special that you're just kind of like, "I could listen to this all day."
RM: It has been 20 years since auto-tune was invented. How much do you use it in your work?
MR: I don't really. The crazy thing is I don't even really know how to use the programs that well. If someone put a gun to my head I could tune somebody's vocals in auto-tune. But like I said, I'd been so fortunate to work with really great singers. And also I think even though we think that people think that we crave perfection, I think also those moments when you hear the voice breaking, cracking or the reaching, like Bruno's vocal performances -- you always feel it so much because he's just at the top of his register like it's like this urgency.
They also make this plug-in called Harmony engine where you can do interesting Vocoder stuff and that's like when you're doing like Bon Iver or Francis And The Lights type of stuff. But for the tuning and stuff, I'm not very good at it. I mean who knows they might be tuning my stuff once I they send it off to the mix engineer.
RM: In your TED talk, you talk about music being taking the things you love and building on them. How do you see Silk City being that for you and Diplo?
MR: I don't know. I think that it's obviously something that we have a big affinity for. I kind of came up on with early 2000s late 90s French house stuff. But I have to say Diplo is even more forward thinking with his production style and I am a bit like a classicist. I don't mind saying it.
But I think we're still always trying to make something that sounds kind of fresh and new. So I think you're right. It's like taking the things that you love and building on it. I think that's pretty much everything I've ever done.
RM: What is the goal for this project?
MR: I think the thing was we just got in and because we've been friends for such a long time and we had waited so long to do something. We're just like let's just do something and if it's fun, and we like it what comes out at the end of the week of working, we'll know. That’s kind of what happened. One of the first things we came out with really was a little bare bones basis of what became "Electricity" and there was a few other things were like, oh cool like this is exciting. This sounds like something neither of us has done alone.
RM: You have used the analogy of moving up to a trailer in Utica if your career doesn’t work out. Do you feel like you are somewhat settled and safe now after “Uptown Funk” and a platinum album?
MR: I don't know if I will ever feel like that way. I've been doing it for a while and I'm still okay. Maybe that wake up in the trailer in Utica is not so much the analogy anymore. I think I've probably relaxed a bit. Maybe that's just getting older. Maybe I just can't be in the studio until 3am, six nights a week anymore.
RM: I couldn't do that and I'm 27.
MR: Right. So yeah, I don't know. The reason I moved to LA was because there are so many really talented, great producers and writers and all the people I work with are all out there. So it's like do the work while the goings good. I think I don't stress out quite as much about right now. I just stress out about other shit.
RM: What's going on with Kevin Parker and your collab with SZA?
MR: Yeah, that was something that would have been really fun and we were really excited about what we're doing but obviously SZA's record came out and just blew up beyond what anyone ever thought it would, so it kind of got too busy to finish the song. So maybe we will at some point but you know, obviously Kevin's hard at work on a Tame record that I'm sure it's going to be amazing. Maybe one day we'll get to finish those songs.
RM: A version of it leaked?
MR: It leaked because the whole TDE hard drive leaked with a whole bunch of Schoolboy, Kendrick and other stuff. So that's what happened, which is always a bit of a drag. The song was half finished. If we ever get it finished properly, it'll still be worth putting out.
RM: In your interviews and your music, you seem to shy away from politics and social issues. Is this on purpose?
MR: I don't even write lyrics to be honest. Like that's not really my forte like music and chords and production. I do like working with people who have a point of view and something to say. I don't know how many of them are politically minded. I guess I don't know why I did never ended up working with me artists like that.
I mean I definitely have so much respect for anybody who puts their views and their money where their mouth is.
RM: Would that be something you do in the future?
MR: It really just depends. I sort of come up with the music and the tracks and stuff and then I work with singers and rappers that I love and respect. Whatever they want to put on its own is what they feel is appropriate. Maybe my music doesn't inspire that kind of thing, but there's actually a song on my new record called "The Truth," which is probably the closest thing I've done to anything like that. Most of my new record is just about heartbreak, so you aren't going to get too socially conscious there.
RM: The album is that coming? Is it done?
MR: It's not done, no. But something is coming soon.
RM: I read that when your mom met your stepdad you went on tour for a summer, How was that? What did you see? What did you experience?
MR: Yeah, I was probably seven. It was really was really crazy because my stepdad's in Foreigner and they're playing these big arena shows and I probably just thought that was what happened.
If your stepdad played music you just go to a show like, you know, these old-school crazy places like The Garden where if you're in the band you drive up to this ramp -- it's like all everything was like Almost Famous or something.
RM: My dad plays music and I've never experienced like that. It was all small jazz clubs.
MR: Yeah, it wasn't exactly the norm. It was super exciting and I would usually creep behind the drum riser and just like with my back against it where no one can see me and just play air drums through the whole show. I just really enjoyed being able to follow along the rhythm.
RM: What else going on right now?
Right. Now I'm sort of you know working on finishing my album, have the label Zelig with King Princess and I wrote this song “Shallow” from Star Is Born. It's out now. I am working on a whole bunch of stuff. It's all coming out really soon.
RM: Do you think Chelsea will win the league?
MR: The only thing I don't really know anything about his football. It makes my dad so sad because he's just such a huge football fan, but I left England when I was 8. I heard they're doing well away.