Forces of Spring: Mark Ronson, "The Maestro"

Forces of Spring: Mark Ronson, "The Maestro"

After conquering Hollywood, the power producer’s next act is his most triumphant to date.

After conquering Hollywood, the power producer’s next act is his most triumphant to date.

Photography: Chris Colls

Styling: Ilona Hamer

Text: Alex Frank

This cover story appears in the pages of VMAN41, our Spring 2019 issue, on newsstands March 1st!

It’s 10 degrees in New York—so bone-chilling outside that it’s even bone-chilling inside—and Mark Ronson is sitting in Studio C of the Electric Lady Studios in the West Village, putting the finishing touches on his fifth album, Late Night Feelings, his tall, lithe frame slumped in a chair and wrapped up in a heavy shearling. Frost be damned, he hunches over a mixing board and pulls up a song, staring off into the distance while listening for elements to change or get rid of. He is a producer and songwriter, not a singer or rapper, and so this part of the process—finding an album’s exact sound—is Ronson’s mastery.

“I’d say the record was done, then think, is this bad? Am I just conning people?,” says Ronson, who, at 43, is angularly handsome with a wall of pompadoured hair. “But [you have to] be painstaking.” Late Night Feelings, in its aura of introspection, is something of a departure for Ronson. Though he has long been capable of creating deeply emotional work on other people’s albums—like Amy Winehouse’s despondent 2006 masterpiece Back to Black, which he coproduced—he has generally stayed in party mode on his own projects, like 2015’s Uptown Special, which featured “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, a winking and excitable funk throwback that has racked up 3.5 billion views on YouTube. Before hitting it big as a producer in his own right, he was known as a DJ, and has an instinct for keeping the mood elevated.

MARK WEARS LOUIS VUITTON

Late Night Feelings has all the hallmarks of Ronson’s oeuvre, including an A-team of talent to perform the songs, in this case Miley Cyrus, Camila Cabello, Lykke Li, and Angel Olsen. Since going from the DJ booth to the recording studio in the early 2000s, Ronson has refined a glittering sweet spot that he says is “somewhere in between dance and R&B and pop.” The new track with Cabello, for instance, is a sugary slice of ’80s synth. But the album also has a truly tender touch. Since his divorce from ex-wife, the model Joséphine de la Baume, in 2017, everything he’s felt like creating has had a softer underbelly. “I was going through it. I was overwhelmingly melancholy,” he says. “Because of songs like ‘Uptown Funk,’ I’m always like, no, I’m a DJ, no one wants to hear [feelings] from me. Then the minute that I actually let my emotions into the music, it was the only thing that resonated.”

Still, in keeping with his DJ’s intuition, he was as interested in reading the room as he was in analyzing his own psyche, and he wanted the “late night feelings” behind the album’s title to be less specific to his own life than they are emblematic of the stresses that keep most people awake at all hours. It’s an album that’s more empathic than strictly personal—a mirror as much as a diary, sung by a cast of characters who all bring their own experience to the mic. “You know that feeling when you are trying to get to sleep and then two, three AM rolls up, you start to see dawn cracking, and you’re like, how the fuck am I going to get through tomorrow?” he says. “It’s about anything that leaves you unable to sleep. Heartbreak, anxiety, lust, bills, disdain for the world, the state of America.”

MARK WEARS COAT, SHIRT, TURTLENECK PRADA

“I think that continuing to care about the quality of the music is a good formula. I know I’m a 43-year-old dude making pop music. I’m aware my shelf life should maybe be over. You have to prove yourself.” 

Which isn’t to say Late Night Feelings is maudlin. Many of the songs are, as he has labeled them, “sad bangers,” the kind to sweat out your pain to. “It still has to dance and move and be a tiny bit shiny,” he says. ”I’m not completely abandoning my box in the DJ section of the record store.” Take “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” the album’s first single sung by Miley Cyrus, a beautiful ode to forlorn 1970s country done with a glitzy and contemporary disco twist. “The longing is there, the heart is in the voice, but there’s still killer basslines and drums,” he says. “I need to know that I’ve reinforced [a song] with everything that’ll give it a chance. What’s the point in getting Miley Cyrus to deliver this amazing vocal if you’re not going to ensure that it’s gonna fuckin’ bang?”

MARK WEARS JACKET LOUIS VUITTON

He is finishing Late Night Feelings all while gearing up for the Academy Awards. His work on “Shallow,” performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born is favored to win Best Original Song after snagging the Golden Globe (at press time, the final winner had not yet been announced). He first worked with Gaga on her album Joanne, and those sessions turned into him writing on “Shallow,” but he’s known her—and that she’s the real deal—for about a decade. “[When we met], she was just starting to blow up, and I was like, ‘Do you want to come out with me and my friends in London?’ We ended up at a loft apartment in East London,” he remembers. “She instantly went to a piano. There’s 30 people [there], nobody knows who she is, she’s wearing this skin-colored latex outfit, she’s playing some chords, and [we have] a jam session. I think five o’clock came around, and she was still there.”

He is characteristically pragmatic about his Oscar nod. “I was in Terminal 5 about to take a JetBlue flight at 8 in the morning when I found out I was nominated,” he says. “It’s an incredible accolade, but you still have to board a plane. Just get on with life, just keep doing the things that got you there to begin with.” Which is exactly what he’s up to here in this studio on a freezing cold Monday in January. “I think that continuing to care about the quality of the music, and working with incredibly talented people, is a good formula. I know I’m a 43-year-old dude making pop music. I’m aware my shelf life should may be over,” he says. “You have to prove yourself.” And with that, he queues up another track.

Credits: HAIR TOMO JIDAI (STREETERS), MAKEUP ARTIST MARIKO ARAI (THE WALL GROUP), PRODUCER CARLY LOUISON (SERLIN ASSOCIATES), PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT DANIIL ZAIKIN, DIGITAL TECH JEANINE ROBINSON, STYLIST ASSISTANT MACKENZIE THIRY

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