Despite his current near-horizontal position in the Royal Opera House bar, Mark Ronson has more plates in the air than a Greek wedding. Rarely slowing down in a decade of zipping around popular culture with his white shoes and slick quiff, the 36-year-old now seems to be accelerating. There are new production jobs for Rufus Wainwright and Brit- and Grammy-winner Bruno Mars, an Olympics-themed single for Coca-Cola that will soon be as ubiquitous as the sticky drink itself, and a newly opened, Wayne McGregor-choreographed, ballet atCovent Garden.
With multi-million pound marketing muscle behind it, the Coke song is set to be his highest profile project for a while. When their giant advertising campaign for London 2012 launches, Katy B’s voice and Ronson’s fizzing production on the song Anywhere in the World will be inescapable. Ronson was approached two years ago, at a time when he was impressed by Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan’s World Cup song for Coke, Wavin’ Flag. He chose hot dance singer Katy B to join him, saying she “encapsulates youngLondonin a way I never could.”
It’s a great song with a neat gimmick – a rhythm track based around recordings of Olympic athletes at work including American hurdler David Oliver, British table tennis player Daruis Knight andSingapore’s archer Dayyan Jaffar. The pressure to come up with a commercially appealing global anthem wasn’t too huge, says Ronson, nor was he too worried about damaging his cool cred when the likes of The White Stripes have written for Coke in the past. “When Katy and I got in the studio we shut out the world and just wrote the song as we would normally write a song. I would never make a track for a brand that I wouldn’t be proud enough to put on one of my own records.” And if you don’t like it, a stunning “interactive beatbox building” on the Olympics site will enable you to remix it yourself.
Far more stress will come when he gets to carry the Olympic torch on part of its journey inLeedsthis summer. The last time he took part in a relay was at school, when he grabbed the baton and dashed off in the opposite direction to everyone else, an incident that meant his best friend still calls him “Wrong Way Ronson” to this day. “When I call him, he’s set the ringtone to be an old song by Sublime called Wrong Way – ‘Nobody ever told her it’s the wrong way’.”
But provided he doesn’t put out the torch and can find jogging kit sharp enough to maintain his status as one of the world’s most stylish men, Ronson is doing most things right at the moment. Coming next is a smooth, mature production job on Rufus Wainwright’s excellent seventh album, Out of the Game.
“That was like training for the Olympics,” says Ronson. “These amazing songs were so complicated I had to spend a week alone with the demos just trying to get my head around how to arrange them. The chords, the rhythms, the way he thinks tonally, require a shitload of brainpower.”
Even so, it’s one of Wainwright’s most accessible releases, a collection of beautiful melodies with a relaxed, Seventies singer-songwriter vibe. Wainwright has called it his most “pop” album, and while it won’t convert any One Direction fans it’s certainly very easy to get along with.
“As far as pop goes, he’s definitely a bit skewed to the left there,” says Ronson. “I can’t say it’s the best album I’ve ever worked on – that’s completely subjective – but I do say it’s my best work in terms of being challenged.”
This time the creative process had a little something extra, at least according to Wainwright, who has talked gushingly about the experience of having Ronson to gaze at through the studio glass while singing. “We kind of fell in love with each other,” he said, speaking of “an unrequited sexual, romantic energy in the studio.”
“I was less aware of those things,” blushes Ronson. “I was usually focusing on the EQ.” He also rules out a studio union much more likely to feature the occasional snuggle – producing Singtank, the duo set up by his new wife, French musician, actress and Agent Provocateur model Josephine de La Baume, and her brother Alexandre.
She and Ronson were married in Aix enProvencelast September in a ceremony attended by Lily Allen and Kate Moss, and now live mainly in Ladbroke Grove. “She was already making an album before we even met, with Nellee Hooper producing some of it,” he says. “Josephine is always the first person I play new songs to. She’s the most important voice of opinion that I have, and I like to think vice versa.”
Otherwise, there has long been plenty of clamour for the Ronson touch, a sound that some still mistakenly believe to be about retro horns and soul pastiche, but is really more centred on blueprint of a crisp hip hop beat and a mighty tune.
His chief skill is bringing together seemingly disparate musicians to create a sound that makes perfect sense. His own three albums have featured everyone from Ghostface Killah and D’Angelo to Robbie Williams and Lily Allen, while production jobs extend from his most famous co-creation, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, to albums with Duran Duran and Kaiser Chiefs. He’s currently flitting back and forth to New York to work on the follow-up to Bruno Mars’s triple-platinum Doo-Wops & Hooligans album along with Jeff Bhasker, who produced America’s current number one single – Fun.’s We are Young. “We’ve just started, just seeing how it works,” says Ronson. “I’ve been fired from projects further along than this before, so we’ll see.”
This charming man, with his bored transatlantic drawl and sharp sense of humour, would seem to get on famously with everyone in music, but perhaps not. He’s currently smarting from a dalliance with soul-rock trio Gossip and their singer Beth Ditto, whose new album Perfect World is released next month. “We were writing and I was producing, but after the honeymoon period was over we all agreed that the material wasn’t very exciting and it wasn’t gelling. Then three people who I considered my friends, and who were coming to my wedding, all of a sudden wouldn’t call me back, had their manager acting as this firewall of communication. I never heard anything from them again.” Girls Aloud’s producer Brian Higgins is now listed as Gossip’s collaborator, though much to Ronson’s frustration his name still crops up in connection with the album. One irritated recent tweet simply read: “I DID NOT PRODUCE GOSSIP ALBUM” over and over.
Those who stick with him, however, are likely to find themselves involved in something extremely cool sooner or later. At the Royal Opera House this month, for Wayne McGregor’s modern dance production Carbon Life, he’s joined on stage by Boy George, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, rappers Black Cobain and Wale, The Drums frontman Jonathan Pierce and co-writer Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow. Ballet or no ballet, it’s a great gig.
The band plays new material, with Ronson on bass. “Musically it’s one of my favourite things I’ve worked on, because it’s not like pop, where you’re always obsessing on how you get to the hook. This is cool because it’s not trying to be anything. It feels free.” They finish with his best song, Somebody to Love Me – an effortless groove with Boy George on the chorus that inexplicably missed out on a top 40 placing on release.
The ballet faced reviewers last week. Despite the obvious hunger of opera and ballet producers for younger audiences, there seems to remain a suspicion among the critics about pop stars getting ideas above their station. Rufus Wainwright received fairly short shrift for his opera, Prima Donna, in 2009, and reviews were mixed for Carbon Life. “It was a blast,” trilled the Telegraph, while this paper, ahem, called it “a lazy, complacent vanity project”.
“I think any time you have people being overambitious, people will want to take it down a bit.” says Ronson. This hip hop afficionado isn’t the obvious choice to gain access to this gilded world, admitting that his knowledge of modern dance is close to nil, although his aunt, Dame Gail Ronson, is on the board of trustees at the Royal Opera House.
And even if a long career in the high arts isn’t forthcoming, this is just this month’s thing. Then there’s the next, and the next. One of the busiest men in music just keeps moving on.
Polyphonia / Sweet Violets / Carbon Life, April 14/18/23, Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000, roh.org.uk)
Out of the Game by Rufus Wainwright is released on April 23 on Polydor
Anywhere in the World by Mark Ronson and Katy B is in download stores from May 13