The Oscar-winning producer shares five tips for crafting a song
- TextAlex Denney
Since breaking into the industry at the beginning of the millennium, producer and DJ Mark Ronson has garnered acclaim and gathered awards for his music, collaborating with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Lily Allen and Lady Gaga along the way. To coincide with the release of his fifth album, Late Night Feelings – a slow-burning set of “sad bangers” – Ronson takes over the Another Man website, with a series of articles spanning interviews and guides that offer a glimpse into his world and the new record.
According to Mark Ronson, songs are like soldiers that you send into battle. A subtle EDM rise here, a brief filter before the drop – each twist of the production control-desk knob is like a little piece of armour that boosts your song’s chances of survival, “so that when it goes off to fight Benny Blanco and Calvin Harris on Spotify, at least you’ve given it a shot at getting heard”.
Ronson’s production CV to date is as varied as it is studded with acclaim. He’s been sharp-suited wingman to Bruno Mars and the late, great Amy Winehouse; spun records with heavyweights of hip-hop; and served as bandleader with crack-funk ensemble The Dap-Kings. Most recently, he’s added an Oscar to his armfuls of Grammy and Brit award wins, for his contribution to Lady Gaga’s monster musical smash Shallow – but it’s not always been plain sailing for Ronson, who has learned to take the rough with the smooth since breaking into the industry around the turn of the millennium.
“There’ll always be songs that you love and you want each one to do good, but that’s not gonna happen,” says the producer, revealing his tips on how to make it as a producer. “(Amy Winehouse’s) Valerie came out in the States and it wasn’t a hit, I don’t think it even broke the Top 100, but now when I play it in New York people know every word. Every record happens like it’s supposed to.”
1. Find your voice
“The thing with being a producer is it’s actually a pretty vague job description. There are producers I love because they make great beats, and others I love because they get great sounds. Then there are more holistic producers who make great records and pull really vulnerable performances out of people. I started off idolising [seminal 90s hip-hop producer] DJ Premier and wanting to make beats, and then through The Dap-Kings learned a little bit about recording drums and mics. Then, just from being an emotional human who’s slightly sensitive, I learned about coaxing performances from these amazing people that I’ve worked with. Sometimes the more amazing they are the more emotionally complex or fragile they can be. It’s all these different things, but if you’re a producer and you wanna make beats and develop a sound, the most important thing is to find your own voice as opposed to trying to copy trends.”
2. Choose your collaborators
“I think you find someone you just vibe with, even before you get in the studio – sometimes I can tell from a ten-minute conversation if I have a link with this person. It’s like when I met King Princess or Bruno or Amy, you can just tell there’s some like-minded shit and you both just wanna make something good. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re gonna get in the studio and it’ll be great, but it’s gotta be someone you know will make you excited. A lot of it’s instinctual, but I think I’ve got better at figuring out the ones that aren’t gonna work. [It’s about] not just saying yes to someone because they’re big or I like what they do, or I’m worried that I might never get another shot to work with them. I’ve got a little bit smarter at that, I think.”
3. Take the time to listen
“Part of being a good producer is being a great listener and a shoulder to lean on, a big brother. You have to make the studio feel like a space that’s safe to be honest and vulnerable. [It’s about] creating an environment where people feel like they can surrender their most genuine lyrics, emotion, self, whatever it is. Sometimes it’s just knowing when to get the fuck out the way. I was working with Lady Gaga and Josh Homme on her record – the minute you put two people that powerful in the room together, you don’t need to hang around to put your little two cents in.”
4. Don’t worry about trends
“I’ve never been super contemporary to be honest, I always got the label of ‘retro guy’ which I hated, because it just seemed super-reductive. But now its like, ‘Yeah, I do like recording instruments; I do get drawn to certain sounds and elements’. This record is an odd contradiction, because on one hand it’s the most emo and sensitive record I’ve made, but on the other it’s the most consistently danceable record I’ve made. And it’s also the most modern, because I think working with Diplo on Silk City and meeting the Picard Brothers [who feature heavily on Late Night Feelings], I think I care a bit more about being modern. I’m not ready to phase myself out the game just yet! A song is like a little soldier that you’re gonna send off to war, and you give it a coat of armour – with a song like Nothing Breaks Like a Heart that’s a little bit throwback-y, it’s like, ‘OK, maybe we put a subtle EDM rise into the chorus, and make sure that kick drum is banging and do a little filter before the drop’. You make all these little pieces of armour for the song so when it goes off to fight Benny Blanco and Calvin Harris on Spotify, at least you’ve given it a shot at getting heard. I’m never gonna be as big as those guys, my music just isn’t modern in a zeitgeist-y way. But I feel pretty lucky that I get to do what I do, which does have this slightly classic shade to it, and still have kids wanting to sing it.”
5. Go back to the records you love
“I started out in my bedroom by myself, so the advice [I got] all came from the people that I listened to, like Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, DJ Premier, Tribe, all that stuff. My stepdad is a musician, he was in this massive band, Foreigner, and he was always encouraging, letting me use the studio. He had this big record collection which he let me take to New York. I lied to him actually, I said I was gonna sell them and split the money but I just wanted to DJ with them. So I’ve had a little help there, but I’ve never had the guru thing.”
Late Night Feelings by Mark Ronson is out June 21, 2019.