As a producer, Mark Ronson is a maestro in the classic (if not classical) music sense. He’s a conductor of song, of sound, of studio recording. In a career spanning two decades, Ronson has gone from New York hip hop party DJ to international hitmaker. He is the perfect multi-tasking artist and all-skills teacher to lead a BBC Maestro course in Music Production.
“I’m doing this so that any young kids curious about producing, or people who are starting out, or just music fans who are wondering if they want to get into it, can see how to produce music,” he explains, “It’s usable, accessible content”.
The London-born, New York-based artist has created masterpieces with a staggering array of stars. Let’s dive into just a few…
- Shallow with Lady Gaga, the standout song from A Star Is Born, won Ronson an Oscar, Golden Globe and a Grammy.
- Uptown Funk with Bruno Mars is a summer jam within dancing distance of 1.5 billion Spotify plays.
- Amy Winehouse’s iconic Back to Black earned Ronson two more Grammys, including Record of the Year for Rehab – a song that began life when he and Winehouse took a break from the studio to go for lunch: a conversation turned into a lyric turned into one of the defining songs of the 21st century.
Then there are the collaborations with Adele (Cold Shoulder), Dua Lipa (Electricity), Miley Cyrus (Nothing Breaks Like a Heart), Robbie Williams (Lovelight), Lily Allen (Littlest Things) and dozens more. His own albums sit on the shelves of all serious music fans, from the hip hop-heavy debut Here Comes the Fuzz (2003), the all-star indie-cover-filled Version (2007), up to the sad-banger symphony that is Late Night Feelings (2019) – all records he’s supported on tour as a live performer and band leader.
Creating this course is, in part, about giving back. If BBC Maestro had existed 25 years ago, Mark would have loved to see a similar course led by the names of some of his favourite producers: Quincy Jones, Glyn Johns and DJ Premier. But he had to learn by looking and reading.
“When I was coming up, I was literally watching the back of someone’s head while they were on Pro Tools. Or with the MPC, the sampler, I would actually have to learn from the manual, just by trial and error, because I didn’t know any other people that made hip hop beats. And when I was making my first record with Nikka Costa, I learned to use Logic by literally just sitting behind the other producer for three months. Same with learning how to mic a drum kit, just watching other great engineers. You had to do just do it all by life experience, unless you went to music school. There was no YouTube, no tutorials, no courses like this.”
Ronson is renowned in the industry for not only his creative connections with artists, but also his friendships. The strength and depth of those relationships, he says, are fundamental to the success of his recording sessions.
“The main thing I’m thinking about when I’m working with an artist is, the more relaxed and safe that they feel, the more you’re going to access and get deeper. I’ve always just felt that way.
“Also, there’s an empathy part of the brain. The same thing that makes you susceptible to other people’s feelings and emotions is also the same thing we have in the creative process. You always want to have this one open radar on your brain in case someone says one thing in the room where you’re suddenly like: ‘That’s a lyric!’”
It’s a connection he traces back to his own upbringing. “Around the time of Late Night Feelings, people asked why I always work with women, especially strong, powerful female artists. And I just think, the way I grew up with a big messy family, I was always the one that was trying to keep the peace. So, all those things go into it. Those are the things that are conducive to creating a really creative atmosphere.”
Across 16 online lessons, learners will have an intimate, producer’s-eye view of the building blocks of those professional relationships, and of the songs that resulted. His Maestro series is filmed in the same New York studio in which he first met and then worked with Winehouse, meaning he was able to call on both the memories and the sonic paper-trail of those classic songs.
“Generally, whenever I’m looking back at stuff, I’m never in a place where I have all my stuff in one place. But this is where we made all the Back to Black demos. There’s the same Yamaha where I wrote Back to Black, lyrics of Amy’s lying around, all the hard drives with all the demos – there’s some special stuff.
“And I started to bring up the old Back to Black demos and I was like: ‘Oh my God, this is literally the first time I played the piano on it… And Amy’s first vocal with slightly different lyrics, and different vocal performance.”
The course will also unpick some of the songs from Late Night Feelings, the emotions that fed into it and the long-running patience that proved that, even for platinum-selling producers, there’s no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to collaborators.
“Going into that album, I was definitely in an emotional low point and it was the first time I was writing a record not from the party ‘up up up’ vantage point. I started DJing at a night in LA called Club Heartbreak, and I played this really beautiful Todd Terje edit of Dolly Parton’s Jolene. It was so good. He proved that all you need is a kick drum and acoustic guitar and you can just take people away. That’s such a beautiful feeling.
“So I came in to the studio the next day and my friend Tommy Brenneck, who was in The Dap-Kings and is such an amazing guitarist, started playing this really beautiful figure on an acoustic guitar that sounded really classic. And Ilsey Juber, a songwriter I was working with, came in with a lyric idea. She said: ‘I was driving over and I was thinking about all these things that break – but nothing breaks like a heart.’ I was like: ‘That sounds amazing. We should Google it, to check there’s not another song called Nothing Breaks Like a Heart. I can’t believe it.’ But no, there wasn’t. And we started to build and we had little chorus.”
The foundations were laid. But there was a still a key production component missing.
“I’d been trying to get a hold of Miley Cyrus for at least three years, since I saw her sing 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover on Saturday Night Live. I just never knew her voice had all that gravel and that amazing, guttural country thing. But I’d given up texting her. But I knew she’d be incredible on this, so I tried one more time. And she texted right back: ‘Yeah, how’s Tuesday, I can come over then?’ Which is just so crazy – after four years of, chasing!”
Cyrus duly rocked up to the studio, jumped on the chorus, “and she loved it. Then she was like: ‘Shall I just sing it, to see how my voice sounds before we go any further? Then I write the verses?’ And I said: ‘Sure!’ And that sounded amazing, and that’s what happened.”
These and other stories from inside the producer’s studio are sprinkled like gold-dust across the course, framed within a coherent, step-by-step learning plan that provides a complete picture of how a producer produces magic. As with a man whose imagination roams across hip-hop, soul, funk, pop and rock, nothing was off-limits.
“I started to go through my creative process and went into overall the things I do. Because I work in different genres, some of it’s sampling, some of it’s learning how to mic a drum kit, some of it’s learning how to coax a great vocal out of a singer. And some of it’s just how to create a really positive, fruitful atmosphere in a studio – some of which just comes down to human nature, too.”
This course is a producer’s life in music, laid open. Mark Ronson has never previously opened up his studio like this, nor his creative process. Curious to know how songs are crafted and indelible musical moments are minted? Over to you, Mark…
“You’re going to get a bunch of tools, whether it’s chopping breaks or mic-ing drums, or a more holistic understanding of how to collaborate with artists. It’s a bunch of things that I’ve learned over 25 years, the insight and foresight I’ve amassed, packaged in a nice little lesson series.”