Mark Ronson: 'Any successI've ever had is by accident'
The man who made Amy Winehouse a star reveals the debt he owes to luck — and to following his musical instincts
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Mark Ronson is reminiscing. "My grandmother was so funny. She's not around any more but when we were kids we'd go over to her house and she'd only have two periodicals on the table: French Vogue and the Jewish Chronicle". He smiles. "Those were like her Bibles."
The memory is partly prompted by the fact Ronson is talking to the JC, partly by the fact he is back in London. Having sold his home in New York, the 36-year-old record producer, most famous for his work with Amy Winehouse, has returned to Notting Hill, where he was born and spent his early childhood before moving to the United States.
Amy Was my musical soulmate and like a sister to me
Recalling his grandmother's choice of reading leads him to clarify his own Jewish credentials. "Being Jewish is definitely integral to my life. I go to synagogue and keep fairly kosher," he says in a laid-back American drawl. "I had a rabbi at my wedding."
Ronson married the French actress, model and singer Josephine de la Baume last September. The guest list showed why he is known as the best-connected man in pop. Everyone from XL Recordings boss Richard Russell, who signed Adele, to Kate Moss and Lily Allen, was there. It was a happy end to a distressing summer in which Winehouse, a close friend as well as colleague, had died, at just 27 years of age.
Ronson famously produced Winehouse's hugely successful, Grammy-nominated 2006 album Back to Black. Following her death, he paid an emotional tribute to the singer. "She was my musical soulmate and like a sister to me," he said.
He recalls now the impetus Winehouse brought to his career: "Sometimes you need somebody to give you a little bit of a challenge. When I first met Amy, I asked her what she wanted her album to sound like and it was like 'let's go out on this quest and try and make this '60s-sounding soul record'."
His latest challenge has been to write the music for a new ballet. Carbon Life, which he created alongside choreographer Wayne McGregor, had its première at the Royal Opera House last night. "It's a lot of fun to get into the studio and make someone's record the conventional way, and that's what I do most of the time, but it's interesting to have a different kind of test."
"Different" also applies to the song he has produced with Mercury Prize-nominated dance star Katy B for London 2012, for which he travelled the world recording Olympic hopefuls in training, to fuse the sounds of athletes with pop. Ronson was perhaps not the most obvious choice for the job. At school, he ran the wrong way in a relay race, landing himself the nickname, "Wrong Way Ronson". He remembers: "I was such a space cadet around that time".
In some people's eyes, he may not have been the most obvious choice for Carbon Life either, and he recognises his good fortune in being selected by McGregor for the job. "I feel lucky that I was the person he called," he says, "but it's like winning a Grammy - there are plenty of people who are infinitely more accomplished and more talented than I am, but have never won a Grammy. My stepdad [Mick Jones, guitarist with the band, Foreigner] sold 50 million albums and wrote some of the biggest hits of his era and he doesn't have any Grammy to show for it. It's the luck of the draw."
Perhaps it has also something to do with Ronson's easy-going likeability, his ability to stamp that unmistakable retro-soul groove on his productions, and his impeccable taste in choosing projects.
"I think the main thing that I've done in my career up to now is do things because I like the material and that I believe in," he says. "After the initial success of Version [his 2007 hit solo album] and Amy's record, there were opportunities to work with these big superstars. But for whatever reason - I'm just not into the material, or I'm too scared, who knows - I didn't," he says.
"But you'd have to be naive to think that, as a producer, you're not judged against your last success and how big that was. So what I've learned now is that for every indie record that's going to sell 10,000 copies if you're lucky, it's OK to do something that's aims a little bigger.
"Besides, I think, a lot of the times, I'd be lying if I said that my not wanting to work with artists of a certain calibre wasn't because it's too intimidating and weird and scary."
It is unexpected to hear one of pop's most successful producers talk of being intimidated by working with the Rihannas of the music world, but it is the pressure of living up to their previous success that he fears. Up to now, he has preferred to be the one to give singers their big break.
"I like the idea of working with unknown artists who are on their way up because there's not that pressure - there's a freedom in the studio to make whatever you want. Things like Version or working with Lily Allen for the first time, we were making stuff we liked without a thought of what was going to be successful or not. I've never done anything to chase commercial success, and any success I've ever had is by accident. You just do things because you like them."