Mark Ronson isn't shallow: CNET interviews the Grammy-winning musician and producer
I told seven-time Grammy and Academy Award Winner Mark Ronson that Shallow drove me nuts -- and learned that he wished he'd never heard of the word sapiosexual.
David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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At a Sony event in New York this week for the launch of its new surround-sound music format, 360 Reality Audio, I caught up with seven-time Grammy winner Mark Ronson, who performed at the event and is one of the featured artists promoting the new format.
Ronson, 44, is not only a musician and DJ but a renowned music producer who's collaborated with Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Adele, Lilly Allen, Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus and many other top recording artists. Ronson cowrote the duet Shallow for the film A Star Is Born, for which he and Gaga won an Academy Award. He has a new album out called Late Night Feelings, a collection of "sad bangers" -- melancholy music you can dance to, which he says was inspired by his divorce from French actress Joséphine de La Baume in 2018.
360 Reality Audio is coming to iOS and Android mobile devices and the Amazon Echo Studio smart speaker in late November. You'll be able to listen to tracks mixed in the new format on any set of headphones. At launch around 1,000 songs will be available from major labels Sony, Universal and Warner, via the streaming services Amazon Music HD, Deezer, Tidal and Nugs.net.
Below are edited excerpts from my conversation with Ronson.
Q: You strike me as an audio purist. I know you like your vinyl. Yet you're embracing this new surround-sound format. Ronson: Yeah. So even if my thing is a little bit more conventional -- at home, you know, I put a record on and listen to whatever. I have a little bit of duality because I love these classic themes of making recordings and the way that we record to tape and all that stuff. But I exist in a very digital DJ world, DJing with Serato, a computer program that uses a time code and all these kind of things. But the main thing I care about -- what I want to know -- is how other people are listening to music. I want to know how kids are listening. Whether that's with a new headphone or whatever it is. So if some kid is going to listen to this 360 Reality Audio for the first time, let me get a sense of what that means.
I remember 10 or 12 years ago going into this really well-respected mastering studio in LA called Bernie Grundman. They've mastered everything since Steely Dan, Asia and Outkast. And I remember this guy complaining that M.I.A. came in here, this girl, came in and instead of wanting to listen on their $100,000 speakers she wanted to listen on her laptop speakers. And I actually think she was kind of genius. Because she knows that's how most of the kids are going to listen, she was early on that. Kanye was, too. You go into these mastering sessions and you're supposed to listen on these crazy speakers but I'm listening to it on my phone or new headphones or whatever. So I kind embrace both. I am a little bit of a purist in the way that like I personally enjoy stuff. But I still like knowing what's going on.
Watch this: Sony's WH-1000XM3 dethrones Bose QuietComfort 35 II as top noise-canceling headphone
What headphones do you use when you travel? I use... uh... fuck, I can't even remember.
Sony or not Sony? Yeah, Sony. They're the noise-canceling ones.
The WH-1000XM3. I assume Sony gave you a pair. Yes. And those are great.
And what's your setup like at home? Ever since I could treat myself to some nice stereo equipment I've been going to this place Stereo Exchange, which used to be on Broadway and Bleeker and is a good classic New York institution and run by the same couple who've had it since the '70s or '80s. Now they're in a smaller space on 17th and Broadway across from Patagonia and I always love going in there and auditioning amps. I mean some of the shit is ridiculous, like 30, 40 grand, or they have like a pair of headphones and a headphone amp that's 50 grand. I just like a nice amp with some tubes and a decent turntable. Actually, all I have at home is just records. I just have a decent DAC [digital-to-analog converter] when I'm listening from the laptop and that's it. So I'm USB into the DAC into the amp as opposed to a mini jack and that actually makes quite a difference.
Any other favorite tech items you find indispensable? Yeah, definitely. When it comes to making music, vintage synthesizers from the '70s. When I was onstage tonight I was playing a Roland Juno and just the standards like Moog. I started DJing in the mid '90s. The main thing that I started making music on was an Akai MPC 3000, which was like MIDI production center that was like a sampler drum machine. I used it because I knew that my heroes like Q-Tip and Pete Rock used one. And that's how I learned -- and then just by on-the-job training or staring at the back of people's heads in the studio, I learned how to get my way around Logic and then eventually when I met the Dap-Kings, I learned the beauty and artistry of analog recording as well. I'm kind of a bit of a sponge. You know, like any time you're around someone who's super talented, you're like, "Oh, I like that. What's that thing you do? How do you do that?"
You seem like you were more influenced by the '70s than the '80s. I think so. I think the '80s is an amazing era and had so much great music whether it's Prince, Duran Duran, Grandmaster Flash or Run DMC. But it's so of an era. I think about the '80s, I think about it a lot though. Because Nile Rogers is one of the greatest record producers of all time. You never hear of him maybe in the same breath as a Quincy [Jones] but his run was just incredible from all the things he did from Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie.
You worked with him a little bit. I did work with him a little bit. He was friends with my parents. I've known him since I was a kid. But when I think about it, I think the '80s gets a lot of shtick because people have funny hair spray and, you know, it's looked as not as credible. It didn't age well visually.
You've said you created the bulk of the Amy Winehouse album Back to Black in seven days. It's considered one of the great albums of all time. Do you think the most brilliant stuff always happens quickly and spontaneously? I don't think so. With someone like Amy, who first of all, is that talented and then you really believe your first idea is the one -- and your first idea is good enough to be the one. That's one thing. I've seen that. But then I've worked with Bruno [Mars] and Jeff Bhasker [on Uptown Funk] when maybe the initial moment of inspiration is quick and that's what's the seed of the idea, but then you work for months and months to hone it, and an extra hook, and how do we really steel-plate this tune to give it a shot? So I think it's a little bit of both.
In your recent documentary How to Be: Mark Ronson, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age described you as a conduit. How do you feel about that, as opposed to being front and center with your own album and music? I think I make more sense as a conduit to be honest. I try to explain sometimes to people what I do because you know technically, what's the producer do? Sometimes I make the beat, sometimes I come in and play some chords, sometimes I just know how to put the right singer with the band and set the mics up well. My friend Andrew Wyatt, who I work with a lot, is like you just have ... an alchemy in a room and maybe have a sixth sense or just an openness to let certain things happen. Sometimes I come in and I can tell you exactly how I earned my money today, because I came in and brought these chords and she wrote a melody and then I added a drumbeat. And there are other times where it's just like, you know who'd be a good person to finish the song with you? Father John Misty. And you bring him down and they work together. Being a conduit is, I take it as a compliment because it means that you don't have as much ego and you're willing to see your job on a record as small or as big as it possibly could be but know when to get out of the way as well.
You play a number of instruments. Is there one you play best? The one that I enjoy writing on the most is piano because there's voicings and an emotiveness that I can get out of it that I don't know how to do with another instrument. But the instrument that I would rather pick up in a jam session is bass, because finding those groovy bass lines on Late Night Feelings, that's the thing. When I get one of those I'm like -- there's still only 12 notes in the scale and only like eight notes in the pentatonic blues scale. So to find a new baseline in 2019 that's like groovy and not a ripoff always feels like, if you get that, you're like, job done. Coming up with a groovy bass line is about space as much as it is about the note so that's why it's nice. You don't have to be a fucking technical wizard to be able to come up with something that feels good.
You named your record label Zelig Records. Was that after the Woody Allen movie? It's related to the movie a little bit, because the movie's about a chameleon -- a guy that sort of shifts in any environment that he's in. And I think moving here from England, when I was eight, and, you know, you're teased by kids so you shed the accent to kind of fit in. And then moving through different musical circles, whether it's like hip-hop or rock there's this idea that your job as a producer a lot of the time is to make everybody feel comfortable. You're always shifting a little bit.
You ever think about bringing back guys that have sort of faded, sort of like Tarantino did bringing back Travolta in Pulp Fiction? One of my favorite musicians [and] singer-songwriters, who bridges so many eras between his solo work and Traffic, is Steve Winwood. He still sounds so great, so he certainly doesn't need me to bring him back. He's doing fine. But it's somebody that I've always thought that maybe one day...
Have you talked to him? I asked him to come play my wedding. But he was busy because his daughter was getting married that same weekend or something. So maybe he can play my next one.
Who did play your wedding? The Pointer Sisters and The Meters. So it was pretty great.
So you've been part of several movie soundtracks. A kind of mixed bag. A mixed bag is fair. Very fair.
Crazy Rich Asians was a good one. Yep. Me and Miguel had a song [on that soundtrack] called Vote. Absolutely. I actually really loved that movie. I saw it opening weekend.
And then obviously the Academy Award for Shallow in A Star Is Born. Yes.
It's a great song, but I need to make an admission. It kind of drove me crazy. My kids loved it and they wouldn't let me change the station whenever it came on in the car. Yeah, yeah. I get that all the time between Uptown Funk and Shallow. I have a lot of friends with kids who are just like, "God, sometimes I want to kill you." Yeah, I understand that. What's so cool about it, when people tell me that, is not that I'm sorry that it's annoying. But I love the fact that they're not essentially kiddie songs, you know, they're not like All About That Bass. It's not like something that has these hooks that would seem essentially like a children's song. Uptown Funk is really close to Rick James. Things that are not considered [for] children. Now obviously Bruno's delivery is so amazing and snappy, he's like the Pied Piper. And then same thing with Shallow. This kind of lovelorn melancholic tragic but uplifting ballad that kids... It's so fucking cool when you see these videos of kids singing that song.
You've had to deal with some lawsuits over Uptown Funk. I know Ed Sheeran got sued by one of the writers of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On over the song Thinking Out Loud. Have you ever talked to him about it? No. I've only talked to Ed Sheeran once but I'm sure it's, you know... I don't know his story and how influenced he was by the song. It's just a different time for music. It's sort of tough, but you have to be so overly careful about what you do because it's become incredibly litigious. I mean, the Dark Horse Katy Perry case is one that just seems completely unfair as well. But you know, the reason that we just settled that [Uptown Funk] case is it just seemed there was so much good work and good feeling around that song we didn't want to destroy any of that by having some kind of drawn-out thing that becomes synonymous with the song. We were like, listen, we've all been lucky, let's just make this go away because, you know, we didn't take anything from that song, but I don't want to go around bad-mouthing The Gap Band, so you know we just did what we thought was taking the high road.
You've worked with a lot of established artists but you're also good at discovering new talents. Are you always on the lookout? Always, always. You know, we have the label and King Princess' first album Cheap Queen, which is fantastic, is coming out Oct. 25. Yeah, always looking. Those are the people that keep me young and keep pushing me and keep me excited. Yebba, I worked on her album and executive-produced it. I get to kind of partake in this musical fountain of youth because the energy and contagious vibe of working with somebody who's on their first record and just so excited to be in the room with Questlove and Pino Palladino and, like, that's contagious. And I love being a conduit to that. I love working with my heroes, but the new artist thing is even maybe more exciting to me.
You've worked on some pretty epic albums. Did you know they'd be as massive as they turned out to be? Not really, because you don't know. You're just going for something that feels honest and genuine at that moment and that's it. You can't really tell if people are gonna like it or not, you can just tell if it gives me the feeling of my hair standing up. That's the litmus test. So I go with that and then everything that happens after it is the people sort of deciding your fate and if they like it it's great and it can be a hit. There are things that I've made that I thought were going to be successful that weren't. And then there were things that I made that were maybe just like taking a wild shot and they were massive. So you just don't know. But the only thing you can control is like, is it legit? Is it genuine? Did it come from a place of, like, fucking raw honesty?
What's an example of something you didn't think would be massive that was? There was no massive expectation for Amy Winehouse's second album. It had been five years since she put out Frank and we were just in the studio making music that we loved. And the first time Darcus Beese, the A&R guy [and president of Island Records], came to hear the demos and I played Rehab. And I literally hit start on the first four measures of the song: They tried to make me go to rehab. I was playing all the instruments, doing all the clapping, she's singing. He stops it like 10 seconds in. [pounds on the table to make a knocking noise] He goes, rewind. He's part Jamaican, but it was like we were Jamaican carnival, and he's like Bobo, rewind, rewind. I was like, Oh, cool, I'm psyched. He's excited. I wouldn't have thought like instantly the A&R guy from the labels is going to come in and see dollar signs. I was like, we're just making this amalgam of turning Amy's brilliant songs into a little bit of an influence of all the things that we love.
Shallow's another one. That's just a song that we wrote one night in the studio when it felt a little moody and everybody was a bit in a zone. But I did know that when we wrote it, like when I heard her sing, "Tell me something girl like," the way her voice sounded with those chords my hair stood up in the back of my neck. That's what you hope for. If you get that, then there's a chance that the other things can fall into line. I've never made something by accident I thought was a piece of shit and it went on to be a success. It's more like something that just felt really honest and maybe a bit too left-field to be successful.
You've been in the news lately for the term sapiosexual. Now when you search it on Google your name comes up. Until a few weeks ago, no one really knew about it. Myself included. Never, never heard it until that morning. And still wish I'd never heard it.