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What Makes Adele, Gaga and Amy Winehouse Such Incredible Singers? Producer Mark Ronson Explains in Career-Spanning Talk

The Grammy and Oscar-winning producer launched a six-hour BBC 'Maestro' master class on music production this week.

Mark Ronson
Pip Cowley

Seven-time Grammy-winning producer Mark Ronson has worked with some of the greatest singers of the modern era — Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars — and in a BBC “Maestro” series released this week, he gives an in-depth, six-hour master class on music production, which covers everything from microphone placement to how to get the best performances out of musicians.

The 18 online lessons are divided into sub-chapters on how to tackle songwriting, recording, production as well as advice on how to successfully collaborate with other musicians. Information on the paid-subscription series is here.

During a visit to Ronson’s New York studio late last month, the 46-year-old musician talked about the series but also about his own path to becoming one of the top producers in the business, from his early years as one of New York’s top DJs during the 1990s through his early work with R&B singer Nikka Costa to his breakthroughs with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen in the mid-2000s. The studio, which he rented in the 2000s before leaving and then returning 13-odd years later, is located in a narrow but long apartment in Tribeca with a big music room containing a drum kit, amplifiers, and dozens of gorgeous vintage guitars and keyboards that are also stacked or hanging in the hallways. As he says below, it holds a great number of memories for him — it’s where he first met Winehouse and Allen and, as he says below, played a big role in his career.

At the moment, Ronson is in the early stages of working on his next solo album, the follow-up to 2019’s excellent “Late Night Feelings” and helping King Princess, who is signed to his RCA-distributed label Zelig, “whenever she needs me,” but he says he’s mostly working on a memoir about his early years. An edited version of an hour-long conversation follows.

You said you’re working on a memoir?

Yeah, it’s a book about very finite period of time in New York, from 1993, when I started DJing in hip-hop clubs, to 2000. It’s a time I’m very inspired by musically, and this new [solo] record that I’m working on has some of those influences. Writing it has been challenging — I’ve been locking myself away in the basement of my house for six, seven hours a day — but it’s been also a lot of fun, conjuring some of those experiences and characters and things that were either buried or such hazy memories and remembering how important some of those people and those nights were.

What are you doing to recreate those memories?

I’m going through old papers, a lot of [party and club] flyers, talking to a lot of people from back in the day. You know, I was in the [DJ] booth, so I didn’t see all the shit going on at the front of the club, but it’s fun to have some memory jogs like, “Don’t you remember the time Biggie [Notorious B.I.G.] came to the club when we were shutting the gate because he just got out of central booking?” I was like, “No, but that’s amazing!”

What’s your new solo album like?

It’s really early, I just have some demos. I don’t quite know enough about the record to tell you what it is yet because I’ve put it to one side to work on this book. But there are some covers of some ‘90s tunes, some of my favorite songs from that era sort of reimagined. I don’t want to get into it too much because it’s early and I have a feeling it could change a lot.

Your choice of covers is always interesting, like Amy Winehouse doing a Zutons cover, “Valerie.”

That was really all Amy, because I didn’t know that song. We were in here, working on the “Back to Black” demos.

In this studio?

Yeah, I was here from 2004 to 2008, then moved back to England for 10 years, and then was in L.A. for three years. I came back here in June of 2020, just as the pandemic was easing a little. I was walking past here on September 14 — Amy’s birthday, coincidentally — and this is where I met her, this is where we did all the demos. She sat in that room [points to next room] with a nylon string guitar and played me songs she was writing.

Anyway, that day I buzzed up, the landlord answered, and I was like, “Hey, this is Mark, I used to rent the space and it’s Amy’s birthday” and I was saying something that was way too long and sentimental to be talking about over an intercom system [laughter]. But he was like “You wanna come up?” and when I did, I was like, “Holy shit, this was such a great space.” Obviously it’s linked to a great time in my life, a prolific, creative time, but a lot of great stuff came out of this space, and it had a good energy. So I about a year and a half ago, I started renting it again.

The BBC series is six hours long — that’s a lot of time to invest. What do you get out of it? A sense of giving back?

It started at a point where things were a little slow, and the pandemic gave everybody time to reflect. I was back in New York, back in this space where I sort of found myself as a producer, and where I met Lily and Amy. When people say BBC, there’s this wonderful, eternal quality to it, and the BBC is almost the reason I have a career in some ways, because of the early support of Radio One and [DJs] Zane Lowe and Giles Peterson. So when I hear “BBC” I go to a very happy place on my brain, and when they said they were going this new Maestro series and these classes, I thought it would be fun to impart some of what I’ve learned.

Also, I’m less precious about some things that I used to be very possessive of, like my drum-miking techniques and things that I’ve learned over a long period of time. When somebody hits me on Instagram with a message like, “Hey, I’m a fledgling producer, where do I put the mic around the kick drum when I’m trying to get this sound,” and if I have a second, I’m always happy to write back. So this is kind of a way of doing that on a bigger scale.

It was supposed to be just two or three days of filming but of course it wasn’t — it was at least two weeks. We did it in two sections, because then we realized we hadn’t gone quite deep enough and wanted to give more of the bag of tricks: I showed it to some old interns of mine who were like, “Yeah, it’s good, but you didn’t didn’t tell them about the Fuzz-wah or the Ampeg scrambler pedal,” so then [the film crew] actually came back — I don’t know how many [subscriptions] we have to sell to break even for the amount of Transatlantic trips that these people were doing, probably a lot!

Did the artists get intimidated being filmed while they were recording?

I was nervous for them to shoot a live session, because that’s pressure: It’s hard enough just having a new person you’ve never met come in to actually create something, let alone having people filming it. But we needed to show the process, and one of the most vibrant things that happened was when Jon Bellion came in and we made a song from scratch. That showed the arrangement, what you build first, how to make the singer feel comfortable when they’re behind the booth. We got to show all those things in real time.

Who are the most naturally gifted singers you’ve worked with?

Yebba, definitely. Adele, Amy, Bruno, Gaga — I’m not just listing them because they’re the famous ones. They all have this gift, whether it’s intentional or not, this precipice in their voice where it’s just breaking and they know how much it brings you in. Like, obviously I haven’t worked with Bruno on every song, but he knows how to write a song on this part of his voice where it’s gonna break, where there’s that urgency. When I worked with Adele, she was so happy to do 16, 17, 18 takes — not because she didn’t sing it perfectly the first time, but she knew there’s a part where her voice starts to get worn in a little bit, and then there’s that pain in it that makes us all just melt, you know? They’re all fantastic.

One of the things I really love doing is comping a vocal. I will sit and go through 15 takes of the same vocal, most of them near-perfect, and sometimes just steal an ad-lib from this one or a breath from that one — the idiosyncrasies and the nuances of those moments, where the voice breaks, or where instead of singing that word at the end of the phrase, they decided to speak it instead. And then that’s a whole other level of intimacy.

It’s this wonderful process of, yes, they sang it perfectly 40 times, but now I get to make this ransom note-type [collage] of bringing this beautiful performance that will sit as the definitive performance of this song. It’s not an ego thing on my part — I just love that people trust me to do it. I love laboring over these things, because for one person or maybe a thousand people, that one little take is gonna be their favorite moment of the song.

You’ll actually comp in a breath?

Yeah. Sometimes, there can be one just before the vocal starts that brings you to your edge of your chair, you know?

Did you have people showing you the ropes when you were coming up?

I kind of did it by ear, so my mentors were records. This was pre-internet, so you just heard folklore: “DJ Premier uses the MPC 60? Okay, cool,” and John Forte from the Fugees came around and kind of showed me how to work in MPC a little bit. I had some mentors like that from production, and I really learned Logic and Pro Tools by sitting behind Justin Stanley, the co-producer of the Nikka Costa record, and just staring at the screen, seeing what he was doing. A lot of stuff I sort of taught myself and figured out by trial and error, and then when we were doing [Winehouse’s 2007 album] “Back to Black” I learned miking live drums and guitars and amps and certain sounds through [drummer] Homer [Steinweiss] and [bassist/producer] Gabe Roth and [guitarist] Tommy Brenneck from the Dap Kings, I just wanted to absorb all that like a sponge.

Was Nikka Costa’s 2001 album “Everybody Got Their Something,” which you coproduced with her and Justin Stanley, your first real production credit?

Yeah. Earlier I had produced little bits here and there, like a couple of indie hip-hop records where the highlight was, like, [KISS-FM DJ] Red Alert playing it once at 4:30 in the afternoon. But Nikka was by far the biggest thing, because she put a lot of trust in me. Dominique Trenier, who had managed her and D’Angelo, saw me DJ in clubs, where I would be playing all the hip-hop hits of that time but also some EPMD, some Rufus and Chaka Khan, some AC/DC “Back in Black,” if it was a moment, and a lot of disco. He was like, “I don’t know if you produce, but I have this incredible artist and I want her record to sound like all of those things together.”

So I didn’t really know what I was doing, but Nikka was patient, and there was enough of an inkling that something would come out of it. So after maybe six months of her playing her ideas and me filling them with beats, her husband, Justin, who was a lot more experienced in recording and a little older, came in and really filled it out. Then, two years into making it, I hit my groove, and that’s when I made the “Like a Feather” beat. But Nikka was very kind to kind of let that project be a learning curve for me.

What was it like working with McCartney?

I mean, it was wonderful. Obviously, there’s that initial giddy thing — “I can’t believe I’m working with Paul McCartney” — and I think he gives everybody a little leeway to get past those nerves and jitters. It’s very daunting being in the studio with him at first because not only is it Paul McCartney, one of the greatest songwriters ever and a great producer in his own right, but there’s also the shadow of George Martin, Nigel Godrich, Elvis Costello, Jeff Lynne and every other great producer that he’s worked with.

But it was great, and I think he genuinely loves chasing new sounds — I remember he came in with that song “Climax” by Usher, and it was kind of scary because that’s when I was probably in one of my least-progressive phases, really leaning on the live organic instrumentation, and I was like “If you want that I think you came to the wrong place.” But we kept at it, and Paul kept pushing to get a certain sound on an acoustic guitar. I was running around, trying to get the right mic or whatever I thought it needed, but he was like, “It sounds like an acoustic guitar, but I want it to sound like a record.” It’s true — anyone can record an acoustic guitar, but he said, “I want it to sound like you’ve just put on track one.” I love that three songs that we did and since that we’ve remained friends — I think he sort of looks at me like the cousin of a cousin or something.

How do you usually create songs? Is there a set process?

When we were coming out of the pandemic my first session with, like, a superstar was Lizzo in early 2021. At first I was like, what if I don’t have any good ideas? But I got there a couple hours early and made four or five quick instrumentals, just little pieces of ideas and vibes, so at least I could play them like, “No? Next one… Next one…” And I realized that I actually kind of love that pressure cooker, coming in blind. I don’t really have any specific creative process or way to start it — I was about to say it starts with a beat, but that’s not true either. Sometimes it can start with some chords, sometimes it could start with throwing on a drum break on the turntable. Whatever works!

Do you know if any of those songs are going on Lizzo’s album?

The one song, “Break Up Twice,” which I absolutely love, is definitely on the record. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I’m not sure about the others because I think she’s gonna do a big deluxe [edition of the album with bonus tracks].

Who else have you been working with lately?

I’ve really just been here working on my book, knocking around some ideas for my own record and helping King Princess [who is signed with Zelig, Ronson’s label through RCA] finish her album when she needs me.

Was the BBC “Maestro” series instructive for yourself, analyzing your own craft and where ideas come from?

The only thing that I really found was seeing common threads in a lot of the music that I’ve made, and to see that I’m still constantly excited about adding things to the repertoire, and that I’m still learning and picking up energy and tidbits from other producers or artists that I’m working with. I’m still continually moving, and I am grateful for that.