"Where are the clothes?" Mark Ronson says, more to himself than anyone else. It's February and the hit-making musician and producer has turned up at a house in East London to have his photo taken. He arrives dressed as Mark Ronson: slightly outré tailoring, jazz shoes, hair that's a bit of an event. Then he disappears upstairs so Esquire's fashion team can put him in more of the same. Last night, he went to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in the West End.
"That girl is so fucking incredible," he says of Katie Brayben, the lead. "You feel like you're watching Carole King, you know?"
It's not the sort of thing he'd normally bother with, but he'd recently met the woman herself at an LA bash before the Grammys.
"I was sitting next to her and Barry Gibb: so I met her briefly. I was, like, 'Who am I kidding? I love these songs! I'll just go anyway.'"
Tonight he'll be at The Brits. He's presenting the Best Female Solo Artist award to Paloma Faith, and though he doesn't know it yet, Ronson will win Best British Single for 'Uptown Funk', his smash hit with Bruno Mars. Talk turns to Madonna, who'll be performing (and though she doesn't know it yet, will have less reason to celebrate after being dragged off stage by her cape).
This reminds Ronson of Madonna's annual post-Oscars event. "It's the one that goes late after the Vanity Fair party," he explains. Ronson left at 5:30am. "I got drunk and they had to prise me off the decks."
It's been noted before that a feature of Ronson profiles is their subject insisting he doesn't lead a glamorous life, while giving the opposite impression. In fact, the two things might not be so contradictory. He has recorded with everyone from Paul McCartney to Ghostface Killah and is from a starry background: his dad managed Eighties pop stars Bucks Fizz and Roachford; his stepdad is the guitarist in soft-rock titans Foreigner, who wrote 'I Want to Know What Love Is' to woo his socialite mum, Ann Dexter-Jones.
She comes from a family of bohemian Jewish intellectuals and is related to Tory MPs Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Leon Brittan. Ronson's childhood was split between London and New York, where he and twin sisters Samantha (now a DJ) and Charlotte (now a fashion designer) lived in the same Central Park West art deco block that counts Steven Spielberg, Tiger Woods and Dustin Hoffman as homeowners – though not Madonna, whose mid-Eighties application to buy was rejected by the board. Guests chez Ronson included Al Pacino, Robin Williams and David Bowie, and there was once a sleepover involving Michael Jackson, concerning which Ronson has patiently explained that no, nothing weird happened. In fact, he and his best friend Sean Lennon, son of John and Yoko, once wrote a song for Jackson, with the 'Bad' singer humming the melody. They played it to their neighbour, Roberta Flack, who told them it sounded like James Brown.
His parents threw a lot of parties. So many that Tatler once claimed that if you were under 30 and lived in New York and didn't know the Ronsons, you should get out of town. Another family profile headlined 'House of the rising Ronsons' canvassed the opinion of Mark's self-proclaimed Auntie Mame, Countess Sharon Sondes, god-daughter of Lady Iris Mountbatten. "He's been a charmer since he was a child," she explained.
In other words, it's the only lifestyle he's ever known, which is why he never sounds impressed by it. When I first interviewed him in 2007, he was the hottest name around after co-producing Amy Winehouse's Back To Black and Lily Allen's Alright, Still, and releasing Version, his own album of covers of indie songs done in a style that melded Sixties soul-pop with modern hip-hop, a style that became ubiquitous, partly because those songs were never off TV and partly because it became so widely copied. 'Valerie', the Winehouse-sung cover of a track by The Zutons, was particularly inescapable. Winehouse insisted he produce it: she hammered it on the jukebox in her local.
Ronson's profile soon rivalled hers and Allen's. He proved irresistible to the media thanks to a combination of pin-up looks, his status as the go-to DJ for celebrity parties – Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' wedding, for example – and an impressive run of model girlfriends. He dated Daisy Lowe, Frankie Rayder and Camellia Clouse and was engaged to Rashida Jones, daughter of record-producing royalty, Quincy Jones. "It's not that hard to date a supermodel if you live in New York and go out," he'd sighed when I asked him about it, something that might have sounded faintly preposterous written down, but was nonetheless true of the circles he moves in. (In 2011, he married Joséphine de la Baume, the French model, actress and singer.) "People expect me to be a dick," he said, aware that all the above, plus the jazz shoes, were conspiring against him.
Ronson's saving grace is that he's never shied away from discussing the above, and also that he's polite and self-deprecating. "When you're sitting in the reception area of some TV station, next to Daft Punk, who you love, and you have to excuse yourself to go to the toilet because your video has just come on and you're so embarrassed – that's one of the moments," he said in 2010, when the backlash against "the Ronson sound" started. And consider the psychology when he told The Guardian that 'Uptown Funk' was "so good people don't think it's me".
Nevertheless, today he concedes that Madonna's Oscar party was something else.
"It was wild," he recalls, as he sits in a chair having his hair done. "I've never been invited to anything with that pure star [head count]… It's hard not to be impressed. And I try not to be impressed. But you're like…"
He shakes his head. On this occasion even Ronson failed the cool test.
"I was giving Eddie Redmayne drunk shout-outs," he says. "'Cos I just went to his movie two days before and it was fucking amazing. It's insane how good he is."
Soon Esquire's photographer, Simon Emmett, has Ronson lolling on a bed, surrounded by sheet music he's using as props.
Ronson studies one. It's from the musical Chu Chin Chow. "Here be lambs' tails baked in butter/And plovers' eggs from afar," he reads. "Here be hummingbirds in jelly."
"Very good, Mark," encourages Emmett. "All the improv."
"How the fuck would I ever be good enough to play any of this music?" he says.
"Quincy Jones, though, in the middle of his career, he just checked out again for five years and went and studied [music] theory. The way shit moves today, no one would ever dare step out of the game for three months."
Mark Ronson has never stepped out of the game and now finds himself the hottest name around again, with a Number One album in the UK and Number One single on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet 'Uptown Funk' would represent a career high for anyone: it is the most downloaded song of the century and has been streamed 150m times since its release last November. What's more, for a relentlessly cheerful pop stomper featuring one of the world's biggest stars, it's also proved impervious to criticism. New York magazine declared it "transcends pastiche", while Billboard dedicated much space to discussing its influences, from James Brown's 'Living in America' to the 1983 German club hit 'Trommeltanz (Din Daa Daa)'.
It's also earned perhaps the most significant of accolades: the viral tribute video.
"I saw the one of that Mormon singer Alex Boyé and his senior-citizen version ['Uptown Funk' recorded with a cast of dancing grandmas and grandpas, including one 92-year-old woman doing the splits]," says Ronson. "It's insane."
In 2010, Mark Ronson released the album Record Collection. A self-conscious attempt to distance himself from Version, he stipulated it would contain no horns and covers. "Once people talk about 'the Mark Ronson sound', like in quotes, that's my cue to switch it off," he said of the template now being adopted by Pixie Lott and Duffy. "Because they're saying my sound is predictable." It produced a Top-10 hit, the terrific 'Bang Bang Bang' sung by Amanda Warner of LA electropop band MNDR, but compared to past records was a relative failure.
For his new album, Uptown Special, by contrast, he dreamed bigger: in came Stevie Wonder, guitarist Carlos Alomar, who played with David Bowie on a dozen albums, drummer Steve Jordan, who's backed Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Neil Young, and guitarist Teenie Hodges who, before his death in June 2014, had written several of Al Green's hits. Most of the lyrics were by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, while Ronson's right-hand man was the songwriter and producer Jeff Bhasker, whose clients include Beyoncé and Kanye West, as well as the band Fun, whose song 'We Are Young' shifted seven million copies in America. Ronson doesn't say he set out to make a smash, but he doesn't exactly deny it, either.
"OK, I'm not an idiot, Bruno Mars is one of the biggest, most massive pop artists, but he's really the only what-you-would-call-massive pop star on the album. There's Andrew [Wyatt, of the cult Swedish electronic band Miike Snow] and [New Orleans rapper] Mystikal, and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala… I guess it was never in my nature to make a record where you get the biggest dudes who are around today and put them on. I always have to do whatever's right for the song.
"I was aware the music had to be the best thing I'd done. I did that song for the Olympics [2012 single 'Anywhere in the World' with Katy B, for which Coca-Cola conspired to send Ronson round the world sampling sounds made by various athletes-in-training: it made Number 55] and it was a bit like, 'Eh?' And then it had been four years since our last record. I thought, 'If I want a shot of anyone listening to this record or caring about it, it's got to be better than everyone else's shit.'
"It's not like a basement recording I made with my mates," Ronson says. "And it was more expensive than a laptop record. But still, the last record not being a smash, it's not like the label is going to open the coffers."
Ronson has an interesting perspective on fame: "Now I've had it, then lost it, then got it back again," as he puts it. In his first run of success, he, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen were the hippest kids in town.
"It was cool to be down with the two most interesting things going on. They captivated the attention of the whole world," he says. "When Lily took me on tour during Alright, Still, I didn't have anything going on. Lily ignited everything because she was so cool, and I loved hanging out with her, too."
Of the Amy Winehouse legacy, he says: "It's the same thing as Cobain, Lennon, Tupac and those rock'n'roll legends: it will get bigger. It'd be great if she hadn't had to die. People would still love the music, 'cos people loved it when she was around. But her passing is going to have an effect."
And he's pragmatic on his return to the zeitgeist. "What's nice is you've just renewed your lease for another six or seven years of being able to work with exciting people. I heard people say sick shit about Pharrell just before 'Get Lucky' came on, or 'Blurred Lines'. 'He's not hot,' 'We don't need him.' It's disrespectful to somebody who's made so much fucking incredible music. But it's a shallow industry and that's how it works."
"Never underestimate Ronson," says his friend, the broadcaster Zane Lowe. "Even if he applies this laidback vibe, he is fully-engaged and in love with the process."
"He makes me raise my game and that's the key to being a successful producer," adds Duran Duran's John Taylor. Ronson is producing their new album, and also recruited Nile Rodgers to help. "Mark brought in Nile. Mark suggested I get Nile on the phone and ask him to commit to a few days writing together. To watch the two of them going at it in creative battle was pretty awesome."
All this reminds me of something Ben Affleck said about success being harder won than people realise: that often something's only good because you've been up half the night tinkering and worrying over it. Ronson says he also has an Affleck quote he likes. "He was, like, 'When I was an 11-year-old, I didn't go see Fellini films. I went to see Star Wars and Batman.' Maybe I'm the Ben Affleck of music. He had a spark, did some good work, then became an afterthought for a while. And then he came out with Argo.'"
One afternoon, Ronson is set to be interviewed on the BBC Two show Artsnight by Lynn Barber, the veteran journalist with a reputation for caustic celebrity profiles.
In the car on the way over, Ronson fiddles with his iPhone. Last night, he was at yet another Madonna party, this time in London, though he left at midnight before the hostess arrived. He's not long back from LA and jet-lagged. He's been up since 5am.
"I feel I should be a bit more on my game for Lynn Barber," he says.
When filming starts, Barber asks him about Michael Chabon's contribution to Uptown Special.
"You got a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist to write the lyrics, but a lot of them do seem to consist of somebody saying 'motherfucker'."
"Yes," says Ronson, laughing. "He didn't write those. There's two songs he didn't write, 'Uptown Funk' and 'Feel Right'."
"Oh," says Barber. "So I shouldn't blame him."
Next she asks about the 'Uptown Funk' video. "Often the musicians look like they're having a great time. And then you're in the background making phone calls, so it looks as though they're living in the moment but you're just fretting. Are you a big worrier?"
"Um," says Ronson. "I don't know. Because there's this tendency to romanticise neuroses, like in this Woody Allen, kind-of Larry David style. Like it's fun to be a nerd or neurotic. And I would never want to seem like I was trying to be that."
(Classic Ronson: he's worried about the implications of being perceived as a worrier.)
"I do worry about things not being good."
Barber asks about DJing. What's the most he's been paid for a gig?
"Um," he says, and considers his answer for a long 11 seconds. "Probably not nearly as much as Calvin Harris."
"I've no idea what that means," Barber says, laughing.
Finally, she asks about his voice.
"If I just heard you on the phone, I'd think: 'He's taking drugs.'"
"Right," Ronson says, nodding.
"Have you always talked like this?"
"Have you always taken drugs?" he chuckles. He talks about moving to America as a kid and says he's always had an easy voice to make fun of.
"But anyway," says Barber, "you don't take drugs?"
"No," says Ronson, firmly. "Not with any regularity."
When the show airs in March, Barber has filmed a separate introduction.
"Mark Ronson is one of the most remarkable pop stars of the modern age," she says. "But it's hard to define what he does. He can sing: a bit. He can play guitar: a bit. But his real skill is producing hits for other people."
Ronson watches it when it goes out and is happy with the results. "I was terrified but I don't think she was out to make me look like a dick," he says. "It was nice to come through unscathed."
A record producer's role varies. There are visionary megalomaniacs, like Phil Spector with his "Wall of Sound". Or hardline guitar nerds, like Steve Albini who produced Nirvana. Or kindly zen gurus, like Rick Rubin who has coaxed great work out of everyone from Adele to Slayer. Lynn Barber is right: it is hard to define what Ronson does. But he must be quite good at doing it.
"I make the process enjoyable because I'm excited about everybody's ideas," he explains. "You're part life coach, because you want to make the person feel like they can accomplish anything. When they go in the booth they need to feel so built-up that they can deliver the greatest vocal performance they've ever done. I think being from a big family and having to deal with different temperaments and egos definitely helped. All artists can be quite fragile and have egos and need to be told that they're great."
"The thing that's so subtle about Mark Ronson as a producer is his remarkable leadership style," says Michael Chabon. "He elicits great performances by virtue of expecting them. You want to please him. He's so warm and open, you want him to get the record he deserves. He's getting just what he wants out of all these people, without ever raising his voice, or ordering anyone to do anything."
What happens if he doesn't like a particular band's song: does he just grin and bear it?
"I used to sign on to records, not for the wrong reasons, thinking like a relentless optimist – 'even if they don't have that many great songs now, they'll write a few more before we get in the studio'. But you can't go in unless you're convinced you can make the best of everything."
A few years ago, he signed up to work with Gossip, the indie three-piece who were briefly the toast of the style press.
"I was a fan and I thought [singer] Beth [Ditto] was great, even though they didn't have the songs finished… But there was a culmination of this pressure to finish the songs while the studio clock was ticking, and it's partly my fault because I was late because I was trying to finish off that song for the Olympics, but I ended up getting fired off it. So, now I have to love the material and know that I can do something great with it."
It boils down to taste.
"You can have all the skills but if you're picking horrible songs you're going to be terrible. But taste is subjective – it's the right taste for the project, whatever that is."
You could say a DJ's skill of combining unlikely elements into something new has been one constant of his work. Stevie Wonder and Michael Chabon on the same record, or Coldplay and Kaiser Chiefs songs done in a parping Sixties style.
"I don't think, 'I'll blow everyone's mind with this crazy combo.' It's, 'I like Radiohead and I like The JB's'. So for Version, I reconstructed one as the other. It's like R&B/soul bands doing Beatles covers. If you saw a picture of a record, didn't know who it was, there were four black guys and the back said 'Fool On The Hill'. I wanna hear that."
Mark Ronson's own record collection is between 8,000–9,000 records strong and lines the shelves in his studio near London's King's Cross. It's not the most salubrious area. When I turn up, a lorry is unpacking pallets of McCain Beefeater Chips for storage in a neighbouring unit. The buzzer on the door says "Zelig". Ronson's studio is named for the Woody Allen film, where "the human chameleon" Leonard Zelig famously adapts to historical situations: becoming a black jazz musician in the Cotton Club of the Twenties, or growing long curls as he hangs out with rabbis in Crown Heights.
Inside, the atmosphere is calm and welcoming. There are scented candles burning on the desks and vintage rock posters on the walls: the First Annual TAMI Show, with Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder's 1981 Australasian Tour; Queens of the Stone Age at the New Orleans House of Blues, 2002 (signed by frontman Josh Homme: "Hey Mark, where are you? I miss you"). In the hallway hangs an enormous black and white Seventies photograph of Paul McCartney and a framed drum head emblazoned with the word "AMY". "I'd like to think in some special way she bought us together," reads a plaque. "Thanks for everything Mark. Your brother Bruno."
Today, Ronson is to be interviewed by Ellin Stein for a Radio 4 documentary about famed US session bassist Carol Kaye. During the interview, Stein asks him if he ever makes records like Kaye did, "the old-fashioned way", with all the musicians in the room.
"I absolutely record with everybody in the room," Ronson says. "The way the drums bleed into the piano and the bass bleeds back into the drums… when you listen, it sounds like a room, you know? As music goes more and more 'single-track recording' and people do their parts separately, it's starting to get antiseptic and clinical. It's the molecules in the room… you can tell the difference. That's the way I want my music to sound."
"Very important question," Stein says, as she's packing up to go. "How do you want to be introduced? As 'producer, composer and something player'? Or… how?"
"Maybe just say 'record producer'".
"Or 'Mark Ronson: who needs no introduction.'"
"No, no! That's OK."
Before she goes, Stein gets a photo taken with him and asks about Michael Chabon.
"Now 'Uptown Funk' is a big hit, I wonder if that means as much as his Pulitzer Prize?"
"He didn't write that one," says Ronson.
Mark Ronson's first band came about while he was at school in New York, aged nine. Ronson played bass. They covered 'The Wild Boys' by Duran Duran. "A saxophone came on in the middle," he recalls. "It was the only thing you could hear."
Next came the Whole Earth Mamas – "Our lead singer's mother was a New York hippie" – who got booked to play pro-women's rights and anti-fur rallies because people assumed they were women.
"Nobody's going to say no to a bunch of schoolkids," says Ronson of the inevitable disappointment that followed, even though they almost had a record deal with Polygram. ("Publishing rights," his mum once explained. "We didn't like the contract.")
They split up when two of the band went off to university. Anyway, Ronson's attention had already been diverted by hip hop. "My parents bought me turntables and it became about me practising in my room all day."
Pretty soon he was bothering every bar owner and club promoter who might get him a gig. He was immediately popular. RuPaul told him early on, "Boy, you been making my bottom hurt all night." From dancing.
Before that, Ronson's school life sounds mildly traumatic – New Yorkers teasing his English accent, calling him "Commie".
"England is not a communist country, but I was a foreigner and it was the height of the Eighties: so therefore I was a commie."
Then came the incident at the fourth-grade school race. The one that earned him the nickname "Wrong Way Ronson".
"It sounded so good it stuck," he says. "It reminds me of a Fat Albert cartoon. I hadn't even started to run yet. It was just four runners on the line and everyone's waiting for this baton and I'm in my own world, facing the other direction. People were like, 'Mark! Turn around!' I'm just, like, 'Huh?'"
He also had his nose in magazines such as Smash Hits or Billboard, and studied album liner notes to see who played what. When his parents' musician friends came over, he'd quiz them about it. "'Who was the sound recording engineer on that song you did, 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'?' You know, to the bass player from
Yes. And he'd say, 'Does this kid get out?'"
At 12, he interned at Rolling Stone. "One woman there published some heavy metal 'zines on the side, and she let me write for them. And then I would write for my school paper. My mum didn't allow me to go to shows [gigs]. But if I was reviewing them for the paper, then it was OK."
Despite all the celeb hobnobbing, mum was strict: do your homework, manners at the table, right and wrong, in bed by 10.
"It seemed harsh," Ronson says. "Because they [mum and stepdad] liked to party, so there were some wild mood swings as well."
When they first moved to New York, Ronson's mum sent the kids off to therapy. What, all together, I say?
"If she could get a discount rate at anything, then she definitely would," he says.
You might wonder what problems an eight-year-old could possibly have.
"I guess that's what they're there to find out," he says.
He didn't stick at it long. But then, aged 18, he started having panic attacks.
"Intense anxiety attacks," he recalls. "I'd turn on the radio and if you were listening to the weather forecast or the traffic, it sounded like – it's hard to explain – but it would sound like [the presenter] was yelling at me. He could be talking in the most even-tempered tone but it would sound like it was getting more intense and angry and violent. And it wouldn't go away until I could speak to somebody. I couldn't call someone to make it go away. I would have to go and wake up my mum and be, like, 'Hey'. The second she started speaking, it would go."
This situation resolved itself for 10 years, then at 28 – during his first flush of fame – it came back. So he went back to therapy.
"I never got to the bottom of it, but it hasn't come back in that way."
If nothing else, Ronson's family instilled in him the value of good manners. He seems to have got at least some of his high-profile collaborators onboard simply because he asked nicely. Stevie Wonder on the new record, for example.
"That's one good thing instilled in me by my English upbringing," he agrees. "I'm analogue in the era of 140 characters. I believe in giving somebody the respect their work is due. That's why I don't mind if someone asks me to listen to their music. Even if it's the worst demo I've heard, you have to ask. It's what I've been doing my whole career."
It doesn't always pay off, but Ronson is an excellent letter writer.
"Drake wasn't actually on this record, but there was this song I wanted him on so I sent him this handwritten letter. I'm, like, 'Drake seems like the kind of person who would appreciate a handwritten letter.'"
One morning, he set off to the shops to find the appropriate tools.
"I found some cool black paper and a gold pen. I was, like, 'Drake seems like he would like black paper with a gold pen.'"
He laughs. "Even though he didn't like the track."
Another afternoon at Zelig, Ronson starts work on a remix. It's 'The Giver', a 2012 track by Duke Dumont, the British house artist best known for his hit 'Need U (100%)'. It's part of a swap: in return Dumont will remix a track from Uptown
Special, 'I Can't Lose'.
"It made me like house music again," Ronson explains of 'The Giver'.
He calls for his engineer, Ricky Damian, and they start work remixing it.
"Play me the a cappella," Ronson tells him. "Actually, let's find a section to loop."
Damian mans a computer while Ronson goes into the recording studio next door and shouts instructions between the two rooms. Soon he's on a synthesizer and then a piano, trying out some chords to play over the top. After an hour or so, he moves on to playing bass. Slowly, the bones of a new track begin to emerge, with a tempo that now feels more suited to a chill-out room than a dancefloor.
"I'm trying to change the harmonic structure," Ronson explains. "Otherwise, all I'll end up doing is making a groovier version with his original chords. I'm thinking: who are those group of DJs who wouldn't play the original? Trevor Nelson, Benji B, those soul boys. But, really, the first thing is throwing shit at the wall until you find something that feels good."
After a while, he reappears to check his emails.
"Wow," he says. "Ten weeks."
'Uptown Funk' has just racked up two-and-a-half months at the top of America's Billboard Hot 100 chart.
There's an email from Bruno Mars, with a video file attached. He pulls it up. In it, a chubby schoolkid can be seen exuberantly dancing next to a wall.
"Wow," says Ronson. "This is for the Mystikal video [for 'Feel Right']."
The clip, to be directed by Bruno Mars, is to be a spoof of a high-school talent show. Mars has been holding auditions.
"The kids come on and start singing the song and basically there's uproar," Ronson grins. "All the kids go crazy."
The last time I speak to Mark Ronson, he's on the phone in Vancouver. He's at TED, as a guest this year rather than a speaker, "just going around, watching the talks". At the weekend he was DJing at the SXSW festival in Texas, then he was in New York making the 'Feel Right' video with Bruno Mars. In 48 hours, he's off to Tokyo, to do promotion for Uptown Special. Then it's back to LA and then the UK to finish his Duke Dumont remix and see if he can get a live show off the ground.
"If I can't do something that hasn't been done before in some regard, then there's no point," he says. "You don't have to be U2, it could be as simple as what FKA Twigs does with lights [minimal, atmospheric]. At this point, with all the competition out there, unless you can take out something that is really great, why embarrass yourself?"
For a while now he's adhered to the idea of not discussing who he's working with, lest he jinxes things. But rumours suggest the upcoming Lana Del Rey album with Jeff Bhasker. Then there's the Duran Duran record, and presumably a bunch of others.
"The music business is pretty much the same now as when Version came out," he says. "Just because there's less money, it doesn't change anything about what I do. It's still the only thing I want to do or that I'm interested in. There's always this attitude now: the minute you get a little bit of success in music you use that to leverage a clothing brand or a management company or something."
We won't be seeing a line of 'Uptown Funk' headphones anytime soon.
"Yeah, all I want to do is make good music, because that's what all my heroes did and that's what makes me happiest," he says. "My goals are kind of antiquated."
Mark Ronson's Uptown Special is out now