DJ and producer Mark Ronson has created an album of cover songs that could become the soundtrack to the summer. He tells Jim Carroll how he got Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Robbie Williams to tackle the Zutons, Kaiser Chiefs and The Charlatans
FOR Mark Ronson, it all began with a Radiohead song. The DJ and producer had been asked to get involved in an album of Radiohead cover versions. With the help of Phantom Planet singer Alex Greenwalk, Ronson turned Just from the Oxford laughing boys into a jazzy powerhouse.
Aside from the fact that Just was by far the best thing on the Exit Music album, the experience set Ronson thinking. “I had such a good time doing it because it was so much fun to strip an amazing song down to its basics and do something different to it. So I started working on other covers because it was just fun.”
All that fun has led to an album that, for many, will be the soundtrack of the summer. Version takes a slew of indie tunes and turns them on their head. Coldplay’s God Put a Smile Upon Your Face is reinvented with a great big wallop of brash brass, The Smiths are recast as Motown stompers, and Kenna takes Amy from Ryan Adams to another planet. Add in Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Robbie Williams tackling the Zutons, Kaiser Chiefs and The Charlatans, and the result is an album that really shouldn’t work, but does.
Such successful cross-pollination is down to the affable London-born, New York-based Ronson. As the stepson of Foreigner’s Mick Jones, young Mark was used to hanging out with rock acts. But a relocation to New York in the 1990s and a DJ apprenticeship in various hole-in-the-wall downtown hip-hop clubs proved far more useful.
These led to high-profile DJ gigs (corporate fashion shows, a cameo in Zoolander, the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes wedding), his own productions (debut album Here Comes the Fuzz was released in 2003) and a label deal (Allido has released work by Rhymefest and will be working with Daniel Merriweather and Domino).
Ronson’s list of production credits has also grown as he has progressed from co-producing Nikki Costa to working with Allen, Winehouse, Williams, Christina Aguilera and Candie Payne. He’s also managed to hold down a weekly show on New York internet station East Village Radio.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction to how Ronson has fused modern anthems and a hip-hop attitude with timeless soulful tones on Version confirms his belief about recordings from the 1960s and 1970s.
“You can’t beat the sounds of Sixties and Seventies records. I’m not a staunch retro-ist, and there has been plenty of great music since then, and I’m still enthusiastic about hip-hop. But the fact is that there is so much from that era which I love. You had real musicians playing in a room together. You can’t fake that. There is no Pro-Tools plug-in that replicates that warmth you get when you recorded to tape.”
His fascination with the period also extends to the vocalists he has worked with to date. “I suppose there is a pattern. I do like great soulful female voices, and there’s something in all those singers which I really love.
“Lily has a voice which could have came out of any era. She’s very hip-hop in that she writes to a beat, she’s not a songwriter who sits down with a guitar, at least not on her first record. Amy’s voice really inspires me to come up with brilliant arrangements and structures which bring out that voice.”
To get the sound he wanted for Version, Ronson hooked up with New York funkateers The Dap Kings. “The first time I worked with them was for Amy’s record. . . I love them. They are very serious about what they do and have very little time for contemporary music. What they make is their version of that great classic sound. The sound is a little bit dirty and it’s a little bit off, but I really love the records they make.”
Once he had the band and vocalists in place, Ronson began thinking about the songs. The criteria for selection? “If the melodies were strong and had stuck in my head, I wanted to do a version. I suppose God Put a Smile Upon Your Face is the one song which is totally different to how it was originally intended. I’ve made it very brash and in your face, whereas the original is more low-key. But it’s a great melody and I just wanted to play it up in a different way.”
Much of his approach to flipping the songs was informed by his DJ-ing attitude. “When you are DJ-ing you’re bending tunes for your audience, so there’s less reverence for a track or a band. At the same time, though, because I love the songs so much, I don’t want to do anything which messes with the original emotional integrity of the song. ” Ronson did avoid some tunes, but not out of any reverence for their creators. “See, what I’m doing is quite simple. I’m taking these great classic indie songs and giving them a heavy backbeat and a hip-hop arrangement. It would have been pointless for me to do that with Fool’s Gold, for instance, because it already has a great backbeat. I covered some of the most sacrosanct bands ever and I’m still standing. If you’re going to cover some songs, why not do the best ones ever?”
See/Hear You can hear tracks from Version and download numerous Ronson East Village Radio shows at www.myspace.com/markronson
is out now on Columbia Records
Mark Ronson – giving Amy Winehouse (centre) and Lily Allen (far right) a new spin