“I get a slight twinge of guilt, that I got to ride the coattails of Amy Winehouse without having to endure any of her pain.”
Mark Ronson, the English musician, DJ and producer, is speaking from London. Ostensibly he’s on the phone to chat up the posthumous Winehouse album Lioness: Hidden Treasures, for which he produced two tracks (covers of the Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and the Zutons’ Valerie). But mostly the conversation has to do with producing in general – being on the other side of the glass while genius and its pain converge at the microphone.
It’s a sort of midwifery. But no matter what empathy and technical ability the facilitator possesses, it’s Winehouse and other tortured artists like her who do the pushing and produce the soul. “As a producer, you’re just there to ensure that the arrangement is the best it can be,” says Ronson, who, with Salaam Remi, famously co-produced Winehouse’s landmark Back to Black. “You don’t have to do any of the bad stuff.”
Winehouse’s bad stuff, tragically, was very bad indeed; she died of “misadventure” last July.
Ronson, who also produced Adele’s brilliantly sad 19 (from 2008) and is currently working on Montrealer Rufus Wainwright’s Out of the Game (due out next year), uses the adjective “lucky” when describing the experience of making soulful music. “When a song is so great and the lyrics are so honest and heartfelt, and you know what growing pains happened in order for the artist to get there, it’s special,” he says. “You realize it’s just such a tremendous fight that caused that song.”
Though others give him a lot of the credit for Winehouse’s career progress from 2003’s neo-soul and vocal-jazzed Frank to 2006’s earthier and R&B-influenced Back to Black, Ronson naturally gives the credit to the singer-songwriter with the winged eyelashes and beehive hair. “Her voice had gotten grittier, a little deeper and a little more dangerous between those two records,” explains Ronson. “And the songs were there. It was just a matter of arranging it to the kind of music that she loved, which was the sixties jukebox pop records that they played in her local pub.”
Asked if artists can separate their music from themselves, Ronson is clear: “It’s nice to be clever and write nice little couplets, but you don’t get to write ‘And I tread a troubled track / My odds are stacked / I'll go back to black’ if you haven’t been through the wringer emotionally.”
The artist-producer relationship comes in various levels of collaboration. Where George Martin or Daniel Lanois are quite involved, someone like Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies) concerns himself with engineering only, to the point where he doesn’t even want his name attached to the albums.
For Ronson, working on the posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures wasn’t a completely different experience than working with Winehouse when she was alive. For Back to Black, a demo vocal track was used for the band – Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings – to play along with. Once the music was finished, Winehouse would sing the final vocals in London.
“I once called her from Brooklyn,” Ronson recalls, “but the phone call woke her up, because it was midnight in London. I held the phone up to the speaker for about 30 seconds so she could hear what it sounded like, and then I put the phone back to my ear.” What did Winehouse say? Was she happy with the sounds? “I got a dial tone,” says Ronson. She had hung up. “So, that was her feedback during Back to Black.”
For the Lioness release, Valerie was an alternate cut recorded in 2006 by Winehouse and Ronson. A less-soulful version, thought to be more radio-friendly, was released in 2007 on Ronson’s Versions album. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was a bit more complicated: Ronson hadn’t recorded the original vocal (used for the Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason soundtrack), and wasn’t keen on re-working the track at first. “But then I heard the vocal,” he explains, “and I thought it was kind of brilliant. I’d be lucky, if Amy was still alive, to get a vocal like that.”
Speaking about his role as a producer, Ronson mentions Love is a Losing Game, from Back to Black. It was a battle for him because Winehouse’s original acoustic-guitar-and-vocals demo was affecting enough on its own. “The lyrics were enough in that song,” says Ronson. “You didn’t have to do much.”
But because it seemed lazy to him not to dress it up in the groovy style of the rest of the album, he added a sixties vibe to it. Ronson thinks the unplugged version will eventually see the light of day, perhaps on a Back to Black reissue. “It’s just so strong,” he says. “Amy with just the guitar and vocals would have smoked other singer-songwriters anyway.”