As he prepares for Edinburgh's Hogmanay, the record producer talks recent projects, massive collaborations and why composing is still where his heart is
Mark Ronson is, he says with an upbeat transatlantic tone, 'taking getting in shape for Hogmanay pretty seriously. I just finished training at the boxing gym and now I'm sitting in my apartment in New York sweating, I haven't had a shower yet. That paints a picture for the senses!' Those with longer memories will remember he's been on the bill at Edinburgh's Hogmanay before, of course, but back in 2011 the London-born producer's billing was positively niche compared to this year's headline slot.
Back then, he played a DJ set on the East End stage, some way down the bill from Primal Scream's headline show in Princes Street Gardens, and pre-publicity focused on his production work for Amy Winehouse, Adele and Robbie Williams as much as his reasonably successful UK albums and handful of hits at the time.
'Since then I've obviously had a few more party tunes to get everyone in the mood,' Ronson says now with an air of modest satisfaction. His 2015 Bruno Mars collaboration and global number one 'Uptown Funk' (and the accompanying album Uptown Special) rocketed him into position as one of the defining pop stars of the past decade. While this year's follow-up album Late Night Feelings hasn't been quite the same kind of monster, the Miley Cyrus-featuring 'Nothing Breaks Like a Heart' and the Lykke Li-abetted title track are further Ronson-controlled entries in the canon of great pop music the past decade has produced.
'This has been a good year,' says Ronson. 'It's been the result of a lot of hard work, I've been laying low the last couple of years working on this album, on Silk City (his collaboration with Diplo, whose work to date was released as an EP in 2019), on the Star is Born stuff … everything seemed to come out bang, bang, bang, like crazy, but it's been great. I've put out my favourite solo album, I played Glastonbury, obviously the Academy Awards (where he won an award for 'Shallow' from A Star is Born to go with the song's Golden Globe and Grammy) was a highlight.
'The difference with other years is, sometimes they were going too fast for me to enjoy them – or maybe I didn't know when to sit back and take things in, or spot when good things were happening. This year's been more about stopping to smell the roses and find some balance.' He describes Late Night Feelings as his first attempt to write a record 'from the point of view of an emotion, rather than making some fun party tunes I can play in my DJ set', and found that artists including Cyrus, Li, Angel Olsen and King Princess (who is signed to Ronson's own Zelig label) responded well to this new direction.
The record is filled with what his friend, the DJ Rory Phillips, christened 'sad bangers'. 'I think people like to show an emotional side to themselves,' says Ronson. 'They know that when the music has a little more weight, a little more heartbreak to it, then somehow it's just stronger. You can call up Miley Cyrus and say, "hey, I'm working on this album, do you want to come down and see what happens?"; or you can say, "I've got this record, it's about a breakup and it's fuckin' heavy", and she says, "I'm in". Everybody gave so much of their heart and soul to this record, and that's why I love it.'
Was it intentional that all of the guests on the record are women? 'I started working with Lykke and Yebba, and then King Princess got involved, and before I even looked up, 70 percent of the album was female,' says Ronson. 'It felt right. And to be honest, I was listening to a lot of emotional music – a lot of country and soul – and none of the singers were male, except for maybe Stevie Wonder. It was all Kacey Musgraves, Stevie Nicks, this great duo from Alabama called the Secret Sisters; it's just where my heart and ears were at the time.'
Sticking it out at the gym aside, Ronson's next-in-line concerns are the release of King Princess' album on his label, and then putting on a good Hogmanay show, which he intends to be 'just a lot of fuckin' killer tunes, killer lights, maybe some surprise guests … I'm still working it out, but of course I want it to be special, and for everybody to have an incredible time.' He's also producing his Late Night Feelings collaborator Yebba's debut album, and he says there will eventually be more Silk City, 'the yin to (the new album's) yang'.
'To be honest, for the first time I'm trying to finish everything that's on my plate before I sign up for more,' says Ronson. 'If you overcommit you're spreading yourself too thin; you go from project to project with no perspective or time to re-energise, so I'm trying to change that. And if there's one thing I hope will go on my tombstone, it will be "record producer" over "pop artist", because I guess the studio is where I feel happiest and most comfortable, collaborating and composing, coming up with my arrangements – it's still my day job.'
Mark Ronson plays the Concert in the Gardens at Edinburgh's Hogmanay, Princes Street Gardens, Tue 31 Dec.
Edinburgh's world-famous Hogmanay celebration ushers the new year in with a bang. A Torchlight Procession winds through the historic Old Town and into Holyrood Park on 30 Dec, a massive street party with live music that culminates with Midnight Fireworks from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle and 'Auld Lang Syne' on 31…