Published: Real Groove, October, 2010.
For his third album Mark Ronson has called in favours from all corners of the music industry, the result pits Southern rapper Pill alongside The London Gay Mens’ Chorus, and Simon LeBon alongside Wiley. Real Groove spoke to the in-demand producer to get the lowdown on his latest album, Record Collection.
Even granted a healthy dose of cynicism it’s hard not to applaud Mark Ronson for at least one of the collaborative coups he’s presided over for his latest album Record Collection – successfully committing D’Angelo to tape. Considering the last ten years has seen the faltering career of the r ‘n’ b visionary tragically run the gamut of incarceration, rehabilitation and only intermittent vocal appearances, it speaks volumes of Ronson’s oft-referenced ‘connected’ status. But it also speaks volumes of his music, substantiating something he’s had to prove over and over throughout his decade long career in the industry – that he’s more than just privileged and connected, that he’s actually a talented musician who’s in demand.
According to Ronson, it was D’Angelo that approached him with the idea of a collaboration, relaying through a shared ex-manager that “he hadn’t liked that many records in the past year outside Back To Black”, and that he wanted to work with him. It was a proposition that took Ronson by surprise, and a creative endeavour that induced a significant amount of nerves on his behalf.
“He (his ex-manager) asked whether I wanted to hook up with D’Angelo, like just spend a day in the studio, and I nearly blew it off because the thought of being in the room with somebody that was that virtuosic, and that much of a true genius – I was thinking ‘What am I going to do? Is this going to be horrible?’”
Despite the initial misgivings the collaboration went ahead, the result of which, ‘Glass Mountain Trust’, Ronson describes as one of the highlights of the album. It’s just one of many high-profile guest spots on Record Collection, an album with a cast as diverse as Boy George, Ghostface Killah, The London Gay Men’s Chorus and Alex Greenwald. On paper there are some pretty strange parings (Simon Le Bon and Wiley anyone?) but Ronson is adamant that it wasn’t simply a major label ploy that’s seen seemingly disparate artists from multiple generations feature on the album.
“I’m not getting anyone on this album for the sake of getting them on it,” states Ronson, “these are all people that are genuinely in my record collection or on my iTunes library or whatever you want to call it these days. Everyone on here I’m a genuine fan of and collect their music and play their music, or listen to it.”
While Ronson credits the likes of Fela Kuti and Neu! as informing the rhythmic template for Record Collection, the predominant brass and strings sound of Version has been eschewed for synthesizers, something which can largely be accredited to his work producing Duran Duran’s latest album.
“Well one of the main catalysts for me was coming after working on the new Duran Duran album, which is ironically going to come out after my album. But that was a huge influence. Just being around Nick Rhodes and the synths and how they influenced the album.”
His work behind the boards for the British rock giants rekindled a love for ‘80s British synth-pop, the sound of which he’s harnessed to create an album that’s sonically removed from the ‘60s and ‘70s soul inspired sound of Version. It also resonates with a superior creative depth, something he was clearly conscious of when he sat down to record it with the revolving cast of players he refers to as ‘The Business Intl’.
“I’m certainly aware in England, where the record had the most attention, that I was becoming known as this guy that was synonymous with trumpets and cover versions,” says Ronson. “And you know, if Version hadn’t been as successful as it was I probably would have been happy to keep doing that sound for awhile – ‘cause I love that sound, ‘60s and early 70s Motown and James Brown, and those horn arrangements and the rhythm section the way it goes. But it did force my hand to switch it up a bit. But to be honest I was a little bored of it as well.”
Despite a conscious desire to change his sound, the album is still heavily indebted to the Daptone Records family, with the album being recorded at Dunham Studios – a subsidiary label of Daptone started by Dap-Kings Thomas Brenneck and Homer Steinweiss. It’s a strange move considering the Dap-Kings have all but cemented Ronson’s reputation as a key mover in the modern soul movement, adding the brass and rhythmic backbone to Version and Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, which Ronson produced. Still, it seems Ronson couldn’t overlook their musicianship when setting about to record Record Collection.
“They’re just the best musicians I’ve ever worked with. They’re brilliant and it doesn’t matter what style. You know one of the things going into Record Collection – they knew that one of the main goals was to switch up the sound, so it was cool you know? I got all these keyboards that I’d been working with on the Duran Duran album, and I was inspired by the keyboards that they were using, so I bought a few for myself and moved them into Tommy’s (Thomas Brenneck) studio.”
The nucleus of the album was fleshed out in Brooklyn at Dunham Studios, with a core cabal including Thomas Brenneck, Homer Steinweiss and Victor Axelrod of the Dap-Kings, Nick Hodgson of the Kaiser Chiefs, and Alex Greenwald of Phantom Planet. After those initial writing sessions vocalists from both sides of the North Atlantic were brought in to finish the album off. Although Ronson is still struggling with the true identity of the record, he’s adamant that those initial recording sessions form the backbone of the album.
“I think luckily enough most of the spirit of the album comes out with the four or five of us in a room, writing and recording and jamming, so whatever songs came out of there, that’s the underlying DNA of the record. I definitely had no idea what the sound was going to be like going into it, I just knew that we just wanted to switch it up and do something interesting.”