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Up close and personal with the melody maker Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson, recently in town to promote Fendi’s new fragrance, talked to us about his soft spot for vinyl, dream collaborations and retiring somewhere quiet one day

Mark Ronson
Image Credit: Supplied picture
"I'm not one of those people who is ever easily satisfied or placated by any kind of goals"

When I’m taken to meet Mark Ronson for this interview, he is sitting languorously on a sofa in a spacious room in Dubai’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. There’s a several-minute wait – me standing there like a lemon, unacknowledged, not knowing whether to sit down, fiddle with my phone or stare out of the window – as he and two members of his entourage figure out some glitch in his manic schedule.

At least he’s had time to spruce himself up. British GQ’s Best-Dressed Man of 2009 is looking characteristically dapper in a slim-fitting peak-lapel suit, vintage art-deco Rolex watch and the obligatory indoor shades of the perma-fatigued rock star. His hair is coiffed to tonsorial perfection.

Finally, I’m acknowledged by one of his minions and offered a seat. Ronson makes no effort to stifle a yawn. Frankly, he couldn’t look less interested if I started droning on about what brand of washing detergent I use. I tell him he seems ridiculously busy and ask him where he’s headed after his Dubai gig, where he is promoting a new fragrance by Fendi.

He says he’s returning to London. He’s currently holed up in a Ladbroke Grove studio where he’s recording new material. Sensing some common ground, I tell him I used to stay in that part of London, and the topic of conversation switches to the area’s famous Notting Hill Carnival.

“I wasn’t there this year, but I live on one of the streets where the carnival goes by,” he says, suddenly animated. “The first time I went to London to DJ – when my first album came out in 2003 – I played at the Rampage Sound System, which is one of the rowdier systems at Carnival. I was climbing up the scaffolding of this tower with my records, getting ready to DJ, and this guy said to me, ‘if somebody shoots a gun, just play something mellow’.

“But it was cool because [rapper] Mos Def was with me. There were two towers and he climbed the other one and rapped from one tower while I DJ’d from the other. It was a monumental moment for me – my first time playing in London, my first Carnival, and playing this rowdy gig with Mos Def.”

Phew! For a moment I thought this interview was going to be one of those awkward, monosyllabic ones that celebs sometimes give when they’re bored to death, having already spent the day answering the identikit questions posed by a non-stop conveyor belt of journalists. Someone as famously restless and energetic as Ronson doubtless has an aversion to tedium, but show him that you’re as passionate about music as he is, and the words flow.

It isn’t that long since he was a $50-a-night (Dh185) DJ on the New York club scene, playing eclectic sets that eventually led to him spinning discs at the private parties of the rich and famous. Not that Ronson is likely to have felt out of place in such an environment. His father, Laurence Ronson, managed bands in the Seventies, and his stepfather was Foreigner guitarist, Mick Jones.

“Your record collection must be monumental,” I say. “I got most of my vinyl transferred digitally,” he says. “When I DJ, I use Serato [DJ software]. It’s a program that lets you use vinyl, but I’m manipulating a digital library. But for the first 12 years of my DJ career, I lugged huge boxes of records everywhere. Now I just have a laptop. I love vinyl – there’s something really tactile about it – but there are amazing things you can do with these new DJ programs.”

Since starting out as a producer around a decade ago, Ronson has worked with a stellar carousel of pop’s great and good, including Lily Allen, Kaiser Chiefs and, most famously, the late Amy Winehouse. His dream collaboration, however, will remain just that. “When I was a kid making tracks in my bedroom, the one person that I always wanted to collaborate with was Biggie [Smalls],” he explains. “But most of the people I’ve done my best work with were relatively unknown at the time, people like Amy Winehouse and Daniel Merriweather.

“I feel like the next thing I want to do is work with someone who’s an unknown too. I don’t spend that much energy thinking ‘oh, I’d like to work with this [famous] person or that’. Also, there are so many people whose music you love, and it doesn’t mean that if you got together with them it would be any good.”

Ronson got involved in the Fan Di Fendi fragrance campaign when he was approached by legendary French art director Fabien Baron, the creative brains behind the project. Not that he needed much convincing. “I thought I was going for an interview or something,” he says. “So I said ‘cool, how many other people are you meeting for this?’ And Fabien said, ‘no one, it’s just you. You’ve got it.’ So I agreed to it right away. It was flattering. It’s such a timeless classic brand, and whether it’s music, literature or art, I have a soft spot for the classics, although, for sure, you’re always trying to innovate and make things progressive.

“Fendi picking me is a little bit outside of the box. I don’t consider myself in, for example, Jude Law’s league in terms of celebrity. And I think the fact they picked me indicates they were trying to do something interesting.” I point out that he and Jude Law are both invariably featured on various magazines’ best-dressed lists. “Yes, but I think it’s more the illusion of it,” he says. “I remember I was number one on that list. Since then it’s nice just to be in the top 50. But unless you’re number one, who cares really?

“I think my second album had all these Sixties jazz and R’n’B influences, and that was an era when people wore these matching suits and there was this cool look and I kind of followed that. And my first record was a hip-hop album and I dressed somewhere between the Beastie Boys and a skateboard Wu-Tang. It kind of varies, you know? It’s not super-important and it’s also a bit dangerous to get caught up in those things as well.”

Ronson has always been something of a sartorial chameleon. He remembers raiding his mother’s closet when he was in his teens “to find the weirdest, most eccentric long coat” to match the colour of whatever guitar he was playing. “I guess when I started to get into the performance side, I’d think ‘OK, I have this music, I’m on stage, so what’s the visual component to this?’,” he says. “But for the most part, when I’m walking from my studio to the house every day, I just wear a Nike baseball jacket and T-shirt.”

I ask him where he would like to retire when he’s an old man, not that it’s easy to imagine the 37-year-old ever giving up making music and the constant jet-setting. “No, I would love to retire soon!” he protests. “Really?” I reply. “OK, maybe not that soon. I’m too much of a workaholic. But I’d probably like to live in the country somewhere. I’d probably be done with the city at that point. In Long Island in New York I have a little place in a town called Amagansett. That’s where I go to relax.”

This isn’t Ronson’s first time in Dubai, but he says he never gets the chance to see the city except from out of an aeroplane or car window. “I’m always here in the middle of a tour – for one day or whatever – but just from talking to people here, it seems that there are some amazing things going on. What’s it like?” he asks. He seems interested when I tell him about the diverse line-ups at Dubai’s Sandance gigs and their beachside location, and tells me he’s looking forward to his upcoming Antipodean mini-tour.

“I’m playing in Australia for New Year’s Eve. I’m doing a festival in New Zealand first on the 29th, and then travelling around with The Chemical Brothers, MIA, Hudson Mohawke and loads of others in the first week of January, so that’s exciting.” Last year, Ronson married French actress and singer Josephine De La Baume. Asked if they spend their lives calling each other from airports and living out of a suitcase, he admits that with both of them in the music industry, it can be difficult for them to find time for each other. “But you find ways to make it work.”

Do they squabble over musical differences? “No. Our tastes are quite similar, even though the music we make is quite different,” he says. “She’s always the first person I’ll play new demos to and vice versa. It’s kind of great to have someone like that.” However, there are no collaborations planned yet, which isn’t surprising given the Great Wall of China-sized queue of artists clamouring to be the next ones to experience his Midas touch. What, then, has been his career highlight so far?

“Maybe playing Glastonbury in 2008, or winning Grammys. I’m not one of those people who’s ever easily satisfied or placated by any kind of goals. Maybe I’ll never play to more people than I did at Glastonbury, but that’s not an excuse for me not to go on, make better music and progress.”

A loud and persistent fire alarm in the form of a siren and a comically robotic voice brings the interview to a premature end. Ronson makes a joke about it sounding like something from a bad Sixties TV series. And with that, he’s whisked away by his people. Gigs to play, music to make, hair to coif immaculately.