"The song should come from a really pure emotion" - Mark Ronson in conversation
The superstar producer and musician on how to make a hit and why criticism is pretty good, actually...
"I rarely ever listen to anything that I’ve made for enjoyment. My brain would suddenly start thinking too much."
The words of Mark Ronson, as he reflects on his relationship with his own considerable body of work.
"Even to go emotionally to a place that you were that day, if I was listening to Joanne by Lady Gaga or Queens of the Stone Age, instantly my mind will go to where I was that day - ‘Oh yeah the drummer showed up a little late, and then we spent all that time mic’ing the snare drum…’
"Those are nice memories to have if that song comes on the radio and I get to go down that space, but at home I just want to get lost in the music and listen to something that is enriching to me and makes me feel good, sad, melancholic, happy, energised.
"Weirdly, there are certain records I can listen to when I’m working out or running, because those songs take me to another place. It’s like listening to a podcast, your brain just goes somewhere else when you’re on mile seven and you just want to keel over."
Far from such a bedraggled state, the acclaimed producer, DJ, and musician is enjoying a rather fruitful September.
Not content with ruthlessly destroying Alan Sugar with just a handful of words on Twitter, Ronson was recently met with fresh plaudits for one of his most iconic co-creations.
He was highly instrumental in the construction of Amy Winehouse's final studio record; 2006's revered Back to Black, freshly named the greatest album of the 21st century following a comprehensive 100-strong Guardian rundown to that effect.
Chilling out in London when JOE comes calling, Ronson offers an even-handed reaction to such an accolade in the days that follow its arrival.
"I’m not going to be like, ‘Yeah, totally deserved, we are the best record of the 21st century’," he begins.
"I’m a pragmatist and I like reading the press. I like good journalism. Of course I know in a list of stuff like that, all the points that they’re making or that Alexis [Petridis, chief Guardian music critic] wrote about make sense to me.
"Some things are missed as well and there are other things that go into it, but I know that it’s a record that affected a lot of people and I’m really excited and fuckin’ proud to be at the top of that list amongst a lot of other really great records."
For context, masterworks by the likes of The Strokes, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and LCD Soundsystem perch beneath Back to Black's summit.
"It’s a record that was influential, it touched a lot of people emotionally, it influenced a lot of people musically," Ronson continues.
"Sometimes I look at it and what it’s become and I can’t believe I’m part of something [like this] when at some point we really didn’t know what we were doing, you know what I mean?
"I met Amy and I wasn’t really established. Someone was like, ‘Do you want to work with Amy Winehouse?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I like that song she did - ‘In My Bed’ - send her to my studio, I got nothing else going on’. It was just the way that she challenged and inspired and spurred me on to the work that we did together."
Though he's not necessarily taking the Guardian proclamation as gospel, the 44-year-old has an audible passion for music journalism. It's refreshing to hear, and not always something that is voiced by those who tend to find themselves on the receiving end of profiles and reviews, which can go one way or another.
He enjoys good writing, which he can relate to because he's been on the other side of the table. In a previous life, Ronson underwent an internship at Rolling Stone and wrote for a host of zines including Ego Trip, the short-lived New York-based hip hop publication that proved a cult favourite in the mid-'90s.
Alas, he would inevitably run into the issue that plagues many a musician who also wields the pen as an instrument, finding himself in a club, spinning discs alongside people he'd been critical of in print. You can't really do both, you see.
"I was like, 'I don’t have the stomach for this', so I realised it wasn’t for me," he recalls. "But, definitely, there was a point where I didn’t know if I was going to make music or write about music. I like reading good writing about music, whether it’s the Guardian, the New York Times, anything. I can read it and have a bit of a removed thing.
"One of my favourite things that I ever read, one of the funniest, was actually something that Alexis wrote about the first album I produced; Nikka Costa [Everybody Got Their Something]. It was the first album I ever produced so I probably would agree that I was just throwing in every thing that I had ever learned up to that moment.
"The review was talking about one specific song and he said; ‘If you listen really closely you can hear the kitchen sink being dragged into the studio’ and I can’t not laugh, because it’s fucking brilliant.
"At the same time, of course it’s a tiny bit of a diss but it’s also hilarious. I’ve been kind of lucky in that most of my stuff has fallen slightly on the side of… I wouldn’t say the James Murphy level of critical acclaim, but I’ve probably got an average of 75 on Metacritic for my career, so maybe it’s a little easier for me to talk about this stuff than someone who is in Imagine Dragons or whatever."
Ronson notes that there's a push-pull effect in play for any artist who chooses to engage with criticism, whether it comes from professionals or opinionated types popping up on your phone.
"That’s the thing, you can’t go on social media, all these things, all the time, and engage in them and then complain or get thin-skinned when people say mean shit about you," he nods.
"If you’re going to go into this thing, know what it is and be ready, or just don’t read it at all, don’t engage. I think the main thing is - and anyone will tell you this, in any life, any school of therapy, cognitive behavioural or self-help, whatever it is - you can’t take too much stock in the positive acclaim because a) you shouldn’t really be looking for your validation elsewhere and b) the negative thing is going to sting even more."
Clip via Mark Ronson
It's a fair appraisal, and arguably close to an exact science. Speaking of, is there a distinct formula for a smash hit? Ronson, you figure, should have solved the equation by now.
A couple of years ago, renowned Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin spoke of the specific alchemy that goes into crafting the perfect pop song. Martin, who has scored big with the most titanic names in music, has a series of rules in place, even if one of them, helpfully, is that there is no actual golden rule.
"I think different things work for everybody," Ronson muses.
"I have the utmost respect for Max Martin and I have heard people who have written with him talk about that kind of school of how they think about writing. Max Martin has written some of the biggest songs of all time. Obviously, at the same time, not every single song that comes out of that camp is a smash hit, so it’s not like the formula works every time. I think there are certain rules that probably help you out.
"When I worked on Bruno Mars’ second album, I worked with him and Jeff Bhasker. They’re both quote-unquote American hit-makers and I’d obviously had hits with Amy and others, but those were more like outliers and accidents.
"It was interesting, and it built up to working on songs like ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ and ‘Uptown Funk’ - those songs really came out of a jam, which, if you think about it in its essence, is a really joyous way to make music. You’re just sitting there with your friends, having fun, and everyone’s inner child is flying around the room."
Ronson describes taking songs to the finish line, peppering them with additional elements, as he learned from working with Mars and Bhasker.
"They really drove home the point of, ‘Okay, what’s the secondary hook? What’s the tertiary hook? What’s the other thing? What’s the cool thing? Is the chorus more exciting than the part before it?'," he explains.
As its core, however, he posits that a big song needs to be relatable and honest.
"I think the main thing, and I guess this is what I have taken from them into other work since, is that the song should come from a really pure emotion.
"That’s where it starts off. You can then add other elements to it to give it the best shot of being a hit. The songs are like your kids and it’s like choosing what they wear to go to school, putting them in the best coat of armour and preparation, everything that you can, so when they go off to battle they have the best shot."
Ronson is speaking with JOE ahead of his participation in Miller Music Amplified; an exclusive three-day event that takes place in Budapest this November. There's a Dublin leg in October, with notable Irish DJs pitching up - details and tickets available here.
As for Ronson and Budapest, the "ultimate music experience" is teased, positioning him at the heart of things in the form of a one-night-only performance as well as the chance to hang out with the man and perhaps pose a question or two.
"The idea of doing this event in a special venue and it being a one-night-only experience, that’s always exciting for me," he intones.
"I think one of the great things is that I haven’t gotten to play in Budapest before. I haven’t really had the opportunity to play live that much this year, either, so the idea of putting together a really unique show and rehearsing for a week for this thing that is only going to happen literally for one night, I actually can’t even tell you because I myself will be surprised.
"I know that it will definitely be something super special. It’ll be live and great and I’ll be bringing some special guests with me."
Miller Music Amplified takes place in Budapest from 8 - 11 November, with a local leg in Dublin across several venues. For more info, visit the official Facebook page.