The Graduate

Producer Mark Ronson talks about recording Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and his unusual take on a covers album, Version, which melds soul horns and strings with modern pop and rock songs.
Publish date:
Social count:
Producer Mark Ronson talks about recording Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and his unusual take on a covers album, Version, which melds soul horns and strings with modern pop and rock songs.

It's 10:30 in the morning, and Mark Ronson is waking up after a rare DJ gig the previous night at Club Love in New York. This British-born Manhattanite sounds tired but content. “It was the first time I'd DJ'd in New York in ages, so it was actually fun,” he says.

To be more exact, it's been about six months since Ronson has spun in Manhattan — the borough that made him famous for his selector skills. But one fulfilling evening doesn't override his feeling of burnout. “I don't enjoy [DJing] five nights a week — playing new hip-hop and stuff — because it doesn't really get me that excited anymore,” he laments.

Some 14 years in the booth can do that to you. Ronson still gets his fill by spinning recent hip-hop hits, electro, rock and remixes of his own records — primarily at the renowned YOYO parties in London and for his weekly Internet show “Authentic Shit” on East Village Radio. Those couple gigs aside, he's no longer keen on being the celebrity DJ that he became in the late-'90s by entertaining the rich and famous. As fun as it was rocking parties for Tommy Hilfiger and Diddy, it wasn't enough creatively.

By 2000, Ronson found a new outlet with a piece of equipment he was already familiar with as a hip-hop head: the MPC. His first notable production work was heard on vocalist Nikka Costa's album, Everybody Got Their Something (Virgin, 2001), and two years later on his solo debut, Here Comes the Fuzz (Elektra, 2003). This anything-goes party album featured everyone from Sean Paul to Saigon and saw Ronson translate his kinetic turntable magic onto wax.

“[Producing] totally made me stop DJing because it was influencing the kind of music I was making — listening to other people's music too loud until 4 in the morning and not having any desire to go in and make my own [stuff].”

Since cutting back on spinning in clubs in early 2006, Ronson has never been busier on the production front. Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse have all reached out to Ronson recently for his soulful backdrops. During a little downtime from his work for others, the producer recorded his surprising new sophomore album, Version (Allido/RCA, 2007) — a record that was never supposed to happen.


Like Ronson's DJ sets, his music represents the cutting edge but is also heavily rooted in the old-school. This is particularly true on Version — an album based upon heavy funk covers of mostly modern UK singles (excluding a revamp of Britney Spears' “Toxic” with the late ODB). It's what happens when Brit rock is reintroduced through classic Motown, the JBs and a dash of Parliament Funkadelic.

Ronson's sonic time warp all began with a cover of Radiohead's ubiquitous 1996 hit “Just.” But at the time he recorded the song for the compilation Exit Music: Songs With Radio Heads (Rapster, 2006), the producer had no plans for making an album of cover songs. It took time for Ronson to realize that replacing the lively seven-second guitar break on songs like “Just” with old-school soul was something he could achieve on a grander scale. Of course, the fans of the bands he wound up covering on Version weren't always equally enthusiastic about the process.

When Remix talks to him, Ronson still sounds a bit agitated by a particular 14-year-old fan of The Smiths, who sent him an irate letter via MySpace about making an R&B cover of the band's hit “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” with Aussie vocalist Daniel Merriweather. And pubescent Morrissey/Smiths fanatics aren't the only ones challenging Ronson's records. Just this spring, Alex Turner of indie-rock royalty Arctic Monkeys told British tabloid The Sun that he “can't stand” the new version of “Stop Me.”

“There's always going to be people that are gonna have problems with a cover album, just inherently,” says Ronson, who can rest easy knowing that amid the hate, his Smiths cover has already been played more than 300,000 times (as of this writing) on MySpace. Moreover, his new single with Lily Allen, “Oh My God” — a highly danceable remake of the Kaiser Chiefs hit — is also catching on remarkably well.

“Overall, [Version] is definitely one of the most successful things I've ever worked on, which is kinda strange because when I made the record, I didn't have a deal — I was just making stuff that I wanted to play as a DJ,” Ronson explains. “I was just bored with a lot of the music that was available to me, and I was just like, ‘Aw, fuck it!’”


Deep within downtown Manhattan is where Mark Ronson not only does business — as co-owner of his Allido imprint with Rich Kleiman — but it's where he writes and records in the label's nicely equipped in-house studio. Ronson has only one request regarding working conditions when making music here: “It just has to be quiet in the studio,” he says humbly. That's not much to ask, and as you'll soon find out, Ronson is rather easy to work with.

But before he welcomes others into the studio, this soul purveyor sits at his Akai MPC3000 LE developing drum patterns. While the drums were the first instrument Ronson picked up as a kid, he admits to not being able to play them all that well. Thus he prefers recording the MPC pads to develop a track and then adds live percussion later. “The beats all come from the MPC, and then depending on what I think the song should start with — a keyboard, the guitar, a bass line — that determines what I should put on top,” he explains. “I just find a beat that I like on the MPC and then lay it into Pro Tools and then just add all the live instrumentation on top of that.”

Sticking to his old-school sensibilities, Ronson often draws from his collection of vintage keys: a Roland RS-101 Strings synth, a Wurlitzer electric piano, a Hohner Clavinet D6 and Yamaha grand piano, to name a few. “The only new thing that I use is a Nord Electro because I don't have a hammer board, and it has a pretty good sound.”

Even with vocals, Ronson likes to take it back as heard on “Valerie” with Amy Winehouse. Here, using an old RCA DX77 ribbon mic through a Neve mic pre, the soul singer's Motown-esque tone simply pops.

Soon after recording a handful of tracks with the aforementioned gear, Columbia UK picked up his new album (via Allido), and all of a sudden, there was a budget. With the dough came a world of possibilities. After working with funk/soul band The Dap-Kings on Winehouse's Back to Black [Republic, 2007] album, Ronson called upon the horn players from the Brooklyn group to help blow out the covers on Version. He also hired large string sections — a move he never thought he could pull off.

“After working on Amy Winehouse's record, that was sort of my first experience producing and arranging by myself in front of a band and going in front of a string section — something that maybe I would have been a little bit intimated to do before. So once I had the learning block of getting over that working on Amy's record, that's when I was able to have the confidence, and that's when we brought that into my own record.”


There's a funny story behind the creation of the cover of The Zutons “Valerie” with Winehouse. As heard on her latest album, Winehouse is a huge fan of horns. But when it came down to adding strings, she wasn't having it. Instinctively, Ronson knew the strings needed to appear on this breezy track, but he wasn't going to fight with Winehouse, who adamantly protested the addition. “Basically, I kinda had to go behind her back to put the strings on the record,” he admits.

Call him passive, but Ronson isn't the type to blow his top in the studio. When asked about his reputation for being easygoing, he says, “Yeah, I am kind of easy to work with. I mean, I don't have any screaming fits or anything. I like shit to sound good, but other than that, I'm pretty easygoing.”

Vocalist Daniel Merriweather first worked with Ronson on Here Comes the Fuzz in 2003 and gets along so well with the producer that he's asking him to arrange a bulk of his forthcoming debut, The Fifth Season (Allido/J). “Mark has an amazing ability to literally view making music as if he's hanging out with friends,” says Merriweather. “And I think that's why Amy's record sounds so good — that's why the stuff he's done with Lily [Allen] sounds so good because he surrounds himself with people who he actually enjoys being around and they just have fun and make music.”

When approached about working on Version, Merriweather had never even heard The Smiths song he helped cover, although none of that mattered. “He always has this understated, modest way of telling me what he's doing, and he explained it to me as if he was making a couple songs for fun and there was no expectation of a release or anything,” Merriweather recalls. “It was really organic, like, ‘Hey, I've recorded this song with my friends, and it's my favorite Smiths song…can you sing on it?’ As soon as I heard it, I understood where he was going with it.”


While a majority of the songs for Version were recorded in New York at Allido, Ronson did some last-minute revisions across the pond in London. After meeting British composer and arranger Chris Elliot while working on Winehouse's Back to Black, Ronson knew collaborating with him for the finishing touches of the album would be wise. “A week before we had to mix [Version], I just went to his house and played him the music, and we came up with some stuff together,” Ronson says. “That was my first experience with an arranger, and he had really good ideas.”

Ronson proceeded with Elliot to the West London confines of Metropolis Studios to redo the strings and brass sections. And it was at Metropolis where Ronson ran back into another associate from the Back to Black sessions: engineer Tom Elmhirst, who mixed a quarter of the tracks on Version. Like Daniel Merriweather, Elmhirst has nothing but good things to say about working with Ronson.

“He's extremely accommodating in that he'll let you get on with it, and I think his concern is more musical rather than what I call nitpicking,” Elmhirst says. “It's very much about, ‘How does the whole track feel? How does the song work?’ rather than some mundane detail, which is great.”

Having mixed Back to Black, Elmhirst was already familiar with Ronson's robust funk/soul sound that relied so much on horns and big-band arrangements. “[Version] was very much a continuation of what we'd done on Amy's record, which was that thing of having people play but make it sound contemporary as well,” Elmhirst explains. “On the mix side, I was really keen for it to kick. So a lot of times with The Dap-Kings, I'd be blowing up the sounds to make them heavier with samples to make it kick as well.”

As a veteran who's worked with Moby, Bush, Goldfrapp and dozens of others, Elmhirst takes a purist's approach to mixing. Working behind a Neve VR72, he likes the physical aspect of the console. “I enjoy the mixing side of it rather than just pushing a mouse up and down the whole time,” he says. “But it's pretty conventional — Pro Tools|HD, and I managed to get it all out of 48 outputs.”

With his love of reggae, Elmhirst used acquired techniques to slip in a little Caribbean flavor on Version. “On a lot of the horns I'll put a delay on them, but what you have to do with horns sometimes so they can come through clean and [with] that old, almost Motown sound — sometimes you need to distress them a bit so it's extremely broad frequency-wise,” Elmhirst explains. “So I'll put shelves on them, I'll put Lo-Fi on them — anything to sort of crunch 'em up and put 'em into place. And the way the [horns] were tracked, they weren't played individually — they were played as a group, so you've got a nice blend.”


From time to time, Ronson will curse himself for not thinking of potential cover songs sooner. “Limp” by Fiona Apple and Usher's “Caught Up” are two that he never got to see through to the end. Although, given the impressive lineup of talent and engineers who helped seal the deal, he can't complain about the finished product. Looking back to how far he's come since his debut, Ronson feels that there's almost no comparison with Version.

“On the first record, I was working more in the mindset of a DJ wanting to make a fun party album [with] hip-hop, rock, disco and soul in 40 minutes,” he says. “And it was a bit muddled at times and maybe a bit A-D-D-ish, but I was 25 when I made it, and that was the kind of shit that I was probably capable of at the time. I think growing as a producer and an arranger has definitely helped this album.

“There's nothing premeditated or calculated about [Version], and that's a good inspiration. All the music that I've worked on [over] the past year — it's with people in a room who made music because we wanted to listen to that kind of music.”


Computer, DAW, recording hardware

Apple Mac G5
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
Studer 16-track tape machine

Sampler, turntables, DJ mixer

Akai MPC3000 LE sampler
Rane TTM 57SL mixer
(2) Technics SL1200 turntables


Neve VR72

Synths, software, plug-ins, instruments, amps

Ampeg Jet guitar amp
Clavia Nord Electro organ/piano
Crumar Roady electric piano
Digidesign ChannelStrip, Lo-Fi plug-ins
DW drum kit
Fender Jazz Bass, Rhodes electric piano, Twin guitar amp
Gibson Les Paul guitar, acoustic guitar
Hohner Clavinet D6
Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in
Rhodes Mark I Stage Piano
Roland A-90 Controller, RS-101 Strings
Wurlitzer electric piano
Yamaha grand piano

Mic, mic preamps, EQs, compressor

(2) Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/ compressor/EQ
Brent Averill 1073 preamp
Manley Reference Gold mic, VoxBox compressor/de-esser/EQ
RCA DX77 mic
Universal Audio 1176 preamp


Genelec 1030As