MARK RONSON’S DOG Maude, is laying one intense guilt trip on him. The border collie is splayed on the bathroom floor of his apartment, staring despondently at the wall and issuing snorts of displeasure. Ronson crisscrosses the place, packing a suitcase and trying to ignore her. “She’s so pissed at me,” he says, and though his heavy-lidded eyes and nasal British-accented speech radiate blasé cool, there’s a note of real pain in his voice. Maude is upset because — for, like, only the 5,000th time this month — Ronson is ditching her at home while he boards a plane and flies somewhere exciting.
This time, somewhere exciting is London, where Ronson was born 34 years ago and where he’ll be playing a gig to air tracks from his new album, Record Collection. There, Amy Winehouse will join him onstage for a rare appearance. In 2007, Ronson produced Winehouse’s Back to Black, which showcased his gift for turning brassy retro-soul into shiny, propulsive pop.
Ronson’s apartment, which occupies the parlor floor of a townhouse in New York’s West Village, is in picturesque disarray. Grammy statuettes sprout from the living-room mantle, built-in bookshelves line the walls, piles of music gear and Criterion DVDs command any available table space, and a regatta’s worth of boat shoes that Ronson designed for Gucci spills across the floorboards.
In skinny black jeans and a shrunken oxford shirt, he navigates the clutter, grabbing this and that. Ronson’s plane takes off in two hours, a car is waiting to take him to JFK Airport, he has to sign those papers his assistant reminded him about, and he can’t forget the hard drive containing all the sessions for the yet-to-be-finalized Record Collection. This is the pace at which Ronson is used to living.
“I remember walking in the other day and not recognizing this place,” he says. “I don’t like it when I’m away for so long.” Ronson fantasizes about taking Maude for long walks, redecorating his living room, heading to the movies by himself. “I enjoy going to the pub with friends, but I’m just as happy being alone,” he says.
Many movers and shakers talk about yearning for the homebody existence, but in Ronson’s case, it feels earnest. In his teens — by which point his family had moved to New York — he’d crate-dig at record stores in Manhattan, lugging rare soul LPs to Lower East Side clubs and smooth-talking managers into letting him spin. By his early twenties, he was DJ’ing places like Cheetah — a now-defunct hot spot name-checked in Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” -and society functions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala. (His mother is the socialite Ann Dexter-Jones, his father is a music-industry-exec-turned-real-estate-developer, and his stepfather is Mick Jones, of Foreigner.) His string of model and actress ex-girlfriends winds around the globe (his current girlfriend is French actress Josephine de la Baume). And though DJ gigs have taken a back seat to producing over the years, he can tell you stories about spinning at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ wedding (“I DJ’d, threw up and went home”) or the time Charlize Theron heckled him when he didn’t play the “disco reggae” she’d requested at a party in Milan. Or maybe it was Florence.
While DJ’ing, Ronson began producing on the side, eager to move from a party fixture to a first-call producer. By the end of the 2000s, he’d helped discover Lily Allen, collaborated with Winehouse and released Version, a 2007 covers LP with cameos by Winehouse, Allen and Robbie Williams. He employs a live band, but he builds songs like a beatmaker hunched over a sampler. “My dad listened to a lot of funk and soul,” Ronson says, “and that’s what I played when I started DJ’ing, because that was the stuff sampled by my favorite hip-hop records.” His life charmed by any measure, Ron-son admits it’s ironic that he gravitated to soul music — a genre marked by heartbreak, hardship and misery. “I think pain is crucial for good music, but as a producer you’re in a lucky position of not having to go through it,” he says. “Amy has to go through that shit. I’m a conduit for it. Sometimes I feel guilty, because I got to reap the rewards, but it’s her pain that makes it good.” Some producers, having minted a hit sound, would stick with it. But in England, where Ronson is a full-on celebrity, he says, “I got typecast: ‘Oh, great, here comes Mark Ronson and his band of merry trumpeters again.'” So last year he set out to switch things up, hunkering down in Brooklyn and London with his friend Alex Greenwald (from Phantom Planet) and the core band from Back to Black. They played musical chairs — a drummer tried keyboards, a guitarist drummed, “just to get everybody out of their comfort zone,” Ronson explains. He went far out of his own comfort zone — and a step closer to the more familiar producer-as-frontman template of a Timbaland or a Kanye West — by singing on two tracks. (“I kind of didn’t mind the way my voice sounded,” he says.)
Horns were replaced wholesale with vintage synthesizers, which Ronson had become enamored of while producing Duran Duran’s upcoming record. “He literally went out and replicated my keyboard arsenal,” says Nick Rhodes, who was amazed by Ronson’s intimate knowledge of the band’s catalog. The resulting Record Collection is 11 songs of funk-tinged electro, featuring a cast of guest vocalists that includes Boy George, Q-Tip, Simon Le Bon and R&B hermit D’Angelo, thanks to a friendship that extends back to the early 2000s. “Mark’s an artist’s artist,” says D’Angelo. “It’s rare that you find someone who has an understanding of all these different genres of music and knows how to connect them.”
“Connect” is the operative word with Ronson — he’s a human Rolodex. The same way he says he once blended Biggie and AC/DC as a DJ, he knows how to make strange bedfellows jell in the studio. Ronson insists that enlisting talented friends is simply a matter of stoking unlikely collaborative energies — he loathes the contemporary pop trend of piling guests onto songs. “It’s like a corporate merger,” he says. “The label will ask me, ‘Have you thought about using Pink or Gwen Stefani on this song? You really need to break America,” he says. “But I’d feel like a sellout.”
The doorbell rings. The guy Ronson pays to walk Maude is here, and at the sight of him, she leaps from the bathroom floor, all panting and paws. Ronson flashes a wounded half-grin. “I feel like the other man,” he says.