The Grammy- and Oscar-winning producer behind such hits as Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” and “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, gives fans an intimate look at his rise in the music industry in the new film. He opens up about his life and career, and throughout the doc ― created in association with BBC Music ― there are new interviews with Ronson’s collaborators, family and friends, including Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Boy George, Sean Lennon and Rashida Jones.
“It being put together by the BBC, I knew that it wasn’t going to be crazy and salacious, and I was like, ‘OK if I’m honest and they do their shit how they usually do, I have faith that this will be something,’” Ronson told HuffPost.
Ahead of the doc’s release, we caught up with Ronson about everything from the current state of music to the story behind “Shallow.”
You’ve had quite the year. How would you sum up this last year or so?
It’s sprawled across a couple of different things and emotionally there’s a lot of different things at play … I mean, if I thought about the time when we put out “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” ... and we played on “SNL.” We’d done it once before, but anytime playing on “SNL” is like that, that it’s even more so than the Super Bowl. Like that’s the cultural touchstone thing ― just the most significant from my life and like boyhood shit growing up in New York. And so that was the kind of insane way to kick it off and play with Miley [Cyrus].
The real “Shallow” ride and putting out the record, it’s been great ... I’ve been on other rides like this in the past that when you don’t have your own personal shit together it can just become a bit more of a blur or it can just get overwhelming. And I feel like this time, maybe just because of where I’m at and just being a little bit more centered and maybe a bunch of therapy, whatever it is, I do feel like I’m more present for it, which is nice.
What was it like to have your life and music told in this way? What were you thinking while watching it?
I guess the album really opened the floodgates as far as making something really emotionally honest and vulnerable. I had done a couple of interviews around the album [“Late Night Feelings”] and was a little bit surprised by my own candor. And there’s something very freeing in being honest. And when you can just actually talk and just be straight up and not have to edit and think about these things ahead of time, I guess it can get you in trouble every now and then. But for the most part, it’s just more honest and I feel like people kind of sense that and appreciate it.
In the documentary, Lady Gaga calls you one of the best producers of our time. Take me behind the making of her song “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born.”
When she first sang, “Tell me something boy, or tell me something girl,” I can’t remember which one came first, all the hairs stood up. I remember the combination of the chords that [musician] Andrew [Wyatt] was strumming and the melody that she sang, I knew that it was something special, because any time you have a moment in the song that makes your hair stand up, if you can get the whole song in this zone in whatever is happening in this moment, then we’re good. And that doesn’t necessarily happen all the time. You can’t have an entire song like that. You need some push and pull ― you can’t have an entire song making you feel like your hair stands up. You need release, you need tension.
We’d all written songs together a little bit before, but you know what it feels like when you’re writing something that feels good and hooky, and then you know what it feels like when you write something that gets in your bones a bit. It wasn’t until the movie really invested it with this crazy extra emotional weight that took it from what it was to what it became. It was the movie, it was the falling in love of the characters around that song. It was her [Gaga] and then it was that trailer. Like there was so much cultural input into this song from Bradley [Cooper] and his movie that was a really big part of it as well. But yeah, without the goosebump moments, like all of this stuff is probably not worth talking about. It’s like “Uptown Funk,” it’s hard to separate it from the video and then that cultural impact. It has to be these other elements all swimming around that make it just that extra level or whatever.
Right ― with “Uptown Funk,” it’s a song that really took on a life of its own.
It was the same thing. It was like a jam. “Shallow” came out of a genuine place but more troubled. And “Uptown Funk” came out of a genuine place that was like joy. Nobody was like, “Alright, let’s write the biggest hit.” There were a couple of goosebump moments that happened when we were jamming. Like if we could get the whole song, or at least most of it, at the level of what we’re feeling, then like fuck it. Let’s go for it.
So, how important is it to you for you to have had a hit?
I mean, it’s certainly nice to have, but it’s not something I think about when we go into the studio. The first thing I think about when I go into the studio, whether it’s with a songwriter or an artist, or both, you’re just looking for something that’s going to move the two or three of you in that room at that moment. And then when once you get that, then it’s like your treadmill starts to speed up … and then you’re rolling with this for a minute. Then you’re like, “We all love this. This feels special.” Then it’s maybe the drum beat or a little extra cool music from the keyboard line, things that can help you give it a chance of cutting through all the other shit on the radio. I’m never going in, “Let’s make a hit.” Because honestly, most other things that I’ve ever been involved with came from a moment of inspiration without thinking about any of that stuff. So, “Shallow,” [Amy Winehouse’s] “Back to Black” and “Uptown Funk,” ― all these songs they came from a very pure jumping-off point.
You’ve surrounded yourself with some amazing women in particular. What kind of moment do you think women are having in music right now?
I can’t think of any men that we’d be talking about, so I guess that answers your question.
Do you ever worry about running out of ideas or creativity? Or is it just that you feed off working with all the new people you create with?
The thing about being a producer that you know is pretty amazing as opposed to being an artist that you can continue to … you do get this fountain of youth, a little bit of these artists that constantly inject you with this new inspiration. And you get to go along with this ride. It’s great to work with people that are superstars. Anybody who’s talented I’ll happily get in a room with, but I’m working with somebody right now who’s just starting out. I’m working with Yebba right now on her album. That’s really exciting, too, because that contagion of how excited they are and how the possibilities are limitless of what you can do and seeing your whole path kind of laid out for you as an artist from the first record.
I mean, the other thing is, that I touched on I guess a little bit at the end of the doc, is whether it’s dangerous because it’s like a bit of a substitute for what family would give you. ’Cause you’re always around that sort of energy and building these lovely relationships with energetic, fun young people, which I guess could essentially be your children. I don’t have a theory on it. I have no idea if it’s one way or the other. But, you know, being still single and at this point in my life it’s something I’ve been like, “Oh, is this something that I need to like be a little bit more wary of?”
If you had to think about the next phase of music, what would you predict? Hip-hop is still big. We have Billie Eilish doing some newish things, but what’s the next big sound, if any?
There’s only 12 notes in the scale. Every kind of melody and chord progression structure has been kind of done at this point. The only way that it becomes new is by people doing an interpretation of it. So Billie Eilish has taken things ― that combination of things from electronic music, goth, emo, great pop music and hip-hop and just made her own thing and it, and it is really fresh. And I think what makes that music super fresh and original is her, it’s her viewpoint and I guess everyone’s life experience is the X factor. That’s the difference between how I would take a bunch of influences and things and make a sound for somebody else. It’s been a while, I don’t know, it’s really just since the birth of hip-hop or maybe techno that we’ve had a genuinely new genre of music.
But I guess what keeps happening now is this sort of splintering off with people combining them in different ways. And then what’s lovely is ... that people don’t really see the genre stuff anymore as much in our modern culture ... I ask kids every now and when I’m talking with a 13- or 14-year-old, like, “What are you listening to?” Nobody has an answer to that. They listen to everything.
I know you’re working with Yebba. What else is next for you?
I’m super excited with my [record] label. We have the King Princess album coming out at the end of October, and Yebba’s album. And then I have a bunch of music for this great animated film called “Spies in Disguise.” And I’m just trying to finish what’s on my plate for a change before I sign up for the next thing and get off this hamster wheel for a second. But everything is cool. Like today I get to go in the studio with Yebba to work on a song that I love, and I can’t think of anything more exciting.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
YouTube Originals’ “How to Be: Mark Ronson” is available now.