In 2006, Amy Winehouse dropped by Mark Ronson’s New York studio and played him some 1960s “girl group stuff”. The kind of stuff, he says, “that you only hear in a Scorsese movie when they’re beating someone up and throwing them in a trunk”. Winehouse was still a rising star, but Ronson was amazed by her talent. To convince her to stay in the city for a few more days, he sat at the piano and came up with a few chords. She loved the sound, and wrote some lyrics in an hour, including the line, “I died a thousand deaths.”
Not quite right, Ronson thought: it didn’t fit in the chorus. But when he suggested she change it, Winehouse was shocked. Not because she was offended, but because she was “so pure”, Ronson recalls. It was like asking her to move a birthmark. “How can I do that? That’s how it came out.” She did change it, of course — “I died a hundred times” — and the result was “Back to Black”.
Talk to Ronson for 10 minutes and this is the kind of tale he will tell you, which is unsurprising given the breadth of his career. The New York-based British DJ has five albums under his belt, seven Grammy Awards and a seemingly endless roll call of artists he has collaborated with over the past two decades: Queens of the Stone Age, Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, Vampire Weekend, Ellie Goulding.
The smash hit “Shallow”, from “A Star Is Born”, that bagged an Oscar in 2019? “Honestly, we didn’t even know that it was going to make it into the film,” recalls Ronson, who co-wrote the track with Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando and Lady Gaga (whose album “Joanne” he also produced in 2016). “We had a great feeling in the room, especially when she sang that line, ‘Tell me something, boy,’ ” he says. “I got chills, and I still do when I think about it. But you just never know what the hell is going to happen with a song. You write it, you do your best, and then it’s up to everybody else to decide.”
As a child growing up on New York’s Upper West Side, Ronson would wake in the the night and walk downstairs into his parents’ cocktail parties, instinctually drawn to the stereo speakers, which he would stand in front of with his eyes closed. “It sounds a little overly symbolic,” he says, “but that was the calm in the middle of the storm.”
As a teenager, he played guitar with his friend Sean Ono Lennon (son of John and Yoko), the two teaching themselves riffs by INXS and Led Zeppelin. Lennon was better, though, and Ronson started to look around for his thing, his calling, which led him to discover hip-hop on an underground radio station. “I was like, ‘This is the only music I want to be a part of right now.’ But I was definitely not a rapper. I didn’t know anything about producing at the time.” So he tried his luck as a disc jockey, the only obvious path.
Ronson got his professional start in the downtown club scene in New York, playing the likes of Chaka Khan and AC/DC, mixing it all together like a potion. His alchemy got the attention of music producers (and Sean “Diddy” Combs, who was full of praise. “I don’t know if he was just buttering me up or whatever,” recalls Ronson) and small gigs graduated to bigger gigs.
His debut album, “Here Comes the Fuzz” (2003), was a critical success but commercial failure. He was dropped from his label, as Ronson puts it, “rather unceremoniously, like two weeks after the album came out”. Most would be devastated; instead, Ronson formed his own label, Allido, and started signing artists and releasing music independently. This led to another album — “Version”, in 2007, which was considerably more successful than “Fuzz” — and collaborations with the likes of Adele and Solange Knowles.
To date, his biggest hit is “Uptown Funk”, featuring Bruno Mars on vocals, which Ronson released in 2014, and which boosted him towards the kind of stardom reserved for vanishingly few DJs: Calvin Harris, say, or Diplo, who happens to be his creative partner in the supergroup project Silk City.
Ronson is also an avid watch collector, and for the past two years he has been an ambassador for the renowned Swiss manufacturer Audemars Piguet, for which he produced a track with Lucky Daye, “Too Much”, in 2022. When we talk, he often pauses to glance at his beloved Royal Oak — a “perfect, timeless design”, he says. The watch has rarely come off his wrist since he picked it up five or six years ago.
Audemars Piguet is a supporter of the Montreux Jazz Festival, of which Ronson is an enduring fan. “Of course, you have superstars playing there, but it really is about musicianship and performance and talent,” he says. This is why he agreed to curate the closing event, to be held on July 15. The opportunity to bring together his favourite musicians, including multiple members of the Dap-Kings, for one legendary jam session in Switzerland? Who could turn down that?
“Nobody ever gets to play on stage together anymore,” he says, his excitement obvious. “It is a bit of a one-night-only event.”