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Strangely Insecure for a Cool Guy

Mark Ronson always fretted that he was not as talented as his collaborators, couldn’t sing, and maybe just lacked the hit-maker gene. With his new album, has he proved himself wrong?


T hree years ago, Mark Ronson opened up the annual “Cool List” issue of the NME, the influential British music magazine, and saw that his friend Santi White had made the list. “And I’m like, ‘Awesome,’ ” he says. “And the No. 2 coolest guy in music is my friend Jamie Reynolds from Klaxons. And then the sidebar is ‘Least Cool,’ and here’s my face, No. 1. And I’m like, ‘How did I get so uncool so quickly?’ ”

Ronson has a mild demeanor, but when it comes to assessing his own work and others’ reactions to it, he describes himself as “on the cusp of insecure or paranoid.” Just a few months before the NME putdown, he was widely seen as one of the coolest record producers on the planet. He’d collaborated with stars like Robbie Williams and Lily Allen, and his second solo album, Version, a collection of mostly British-indie-rock covers—from the Smiths’ “Stop Me” to Radiohead’s “Just”—that Ronson had arranged to sound like “dirty James Brown by way of the RZA funk,” had reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts. He’d also produced six tracks on Amy Winehouse’s breakout album, Back to Black—including the song for which she is most famous, “Rehab.”

But all this success had come at a cost to Ronson’s reputation, and Ronson knew it. His decision to devote a solo album to other people’s songs had aroused the indignation of music nerds, like the reviewer at Pitchfork who wrote that “the Pygmalion treatment smacks of indie blasphemy.” Version is a sort of museum of pop, with a different singer or rapper (or sometimes both) performing on each track, and this approach left him vulnerable to the charge that he was a “wide boy,” as the Londoners say—a smooth, well-connected operator; his greatest talent, some claimed, was passing off his friends’ talents as his own. Ronson says he had to put “a six-month embargo on reading certain publications.” That wasn’t easy. An unregenerate record nerd himself, he’d been subscribing to the NME since he was 6.

Pop is a notoriously fickle business, and Ronson knew he couldn’t follow Version with another cover album and expect to retain any respect among those whose opinions mattered to him most. Still, he recognized that his strength was as a producer, not as a songwriter or performer. He doesn’t like to sing—he thinks his voice sounds “nasal and grating”—and although he plays several instruments well, he often points out that he’s “the least accomplished musician” onstage at his concerts. Even when he’s holding an electric guitar, he exudes all the rock-and-roll swagger of a bassoonist.

Despite these limitations—and his acute awareness of them—Ronson sees himself as a creator, not just a facilitator. So when he went into the studio last year to make his new album, Record Collection, he conscripted a group of talented musicians to jam with him, in the hopes that somehow a solution would present itself.

“A re you afraid of dogs?” Ronson asked me one evening when I showed up at his father’s flat in West London. I stepped inside and into the living room, where a small bear with the head of a German shepherd made for my lap. “That’s Snoop,” said Ronson. His father, Laurence, a real-estate developer with shoulder-length seventies hair, was leaning back in a recliner in front of the television, smoking a cigarette. “He’s named after the rapper,” Laurence said.

Ronson, who is 35, did some stints as a model in his late teens, and he continues to dress like one, in tailored suits inspired by sixties icons like Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg. He has a tattoo on the inside of his bicep that says JOSEPHINE, for his girlfriend, Josephine de la Baume, an immaculately cool French actress who, as more than one observer has pointed out, looks and sounds like she just stepped off the set of Breathless. At his father’s house, where he sometimes stays when he’s in London, he was wearing a seersucker suit, and his hair was swept back in a triumphant V, giving him what the funk bassist Stuart Zender once referred to as a Jewish Dracula look. Leaning over a small desk in a spare bedroom, he wrote a single word at the top of a large envelope: ME.

An hour later, both sides of the envelope were covered with a diagram of famous and not-famous and famous-only-because-Ronson-made-them-famous names. In one area, bunched together in the circle labeled HIP-HOP CLUBS, were Jay-Z and Puffy and Mos Def. In another, the British rapper Wiley was paired with Duran Duran. Earlier that week, I’d confessed to Ronson that I was having trouble keeping track of his multifarious musical connections, so he’d offered to draw me a chart. Now I could see that the Rumble Strips, an English indie-rock band whose second album Ronson had produced, had covered a song by Amy Winehouse, who had covered a song by the Zutons, whose lead singer, Dave McCabe, had contributed a song to Record Collection. All the names on the chart were connected by lines, and all of the lines led back to the top of the page.

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