Grammy Preview 2020: Mark Ronson Talks Awkward ‘Rehab’ Win, Why He’s Gone EmoRolling Stone — Will Hermes
First-round Grammy voting is currently underway, and running through October 10th. For our 2020 Grammy preview, we asked a series of likely contenders to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and break down the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February.
At this year’s Grammy Awards, Mark Ronson took home statues for “Shallow,” which he co-wrote, and “Electricity,” the collaboration between his group Silk City (with Diplo) and rising star Dua Lipa. But Ronson’s history with the Grammys goes way back, before his monster hit with Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk” (2015 Record of the Year), and even before his multiple 2008 wins with Amy Winehouse, whose Back In Black was his coming-out party as an A-list producer.
Ronson spoke about the records he thinks will figure into the 2020 Grammys, his own fruitful past 12 months (including his soulful, all-star Late Night Feelings LP), his Grammy memories, and what he’s been working on lately.
So, measured from October to August, the 2020 Grammy eligibility period, how’s your year been?
Pretty amazing. A Star Is Born came out. There was what “Shallow” did. The Silk City song [“Electricity”] got hot around then. It’s funny: From the outside it looks like I’m on some prolific tear. Actually, I kind of hibernated for a couple of years and worked on a lot of music, and it all seemed to come out at the same time. It looked like some masterstroke. But it was just good timing.
There are certain things about pop music that, as you get older, you’re like, “Oh, shit, am I losing my touch?” But then there’s other things, about being a producer, where you can just get better as you get older. Because producing isn’t only sitting in front of a drum machine or Ableton and making a beat. It’s also understanding how to get a wonderful vocal performance, or just knowing, like, how you can sort of keep cooking something until it’s done, but not over-cooked? I don’t know what it is. I mean, obviously, Quincy made Off the Wall when he was around my age. Whenever I have a success, I’m like, “OK, that’s definitely the last one. You’re really pushing your luck already.” I know it’s not gonna go forever.
But at the same time, it’s been it’s nice to have some of my most … the word I’m looking for isn’t “biggest”; it’s more like, my most felt music. And maybe that’s the other thing about getting older, veering towards the emotional side of music as opposed to just trying to get sound banging in the club. Things like “Shallow” and “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” are some of the more emotionally resonant things that I’ve worked on. When people said they loved “Uptown Funk,” they’d be like, “Oh, man, it’s so much fun.” Or “my kids love it,” “We played it at our wedding.” Those kind of things. If they come and talk about [Late Night Feelings], they’re like, “This got me through the hardest breakup.” It’s a different kind of language, and neither one is better than the other.
Present company excepted, who are you rooting for Grammy-wise this year?
I guess you’d have to read me a list some of the favorites — it all sort of blurs together sometimes for me; I don’t know what year things are. I mean, there’s no way Billie Eilish isn’t going to get something. “Old Town Road” has gotta win like a shitload of stuff, obviously. Grammy voting is always hard to predict because obviously it favors a certain sort of craft over other things, and doesn’t always go for the biggest pop hit. But there’s a weird acknowledged credibility in “Old Town Road” because it’s musically just like a fucking great song. It has a great hook. It’s soulful, it’s melancholy. You can’t just treat it like some sort of flash-in-the-pan-thing, like maybe some of the other crazy, Number One–for-15-weeks type of songs.
I was thinking older and more conservative voters might be like, “Oh, this is just a novelty, a fluke — the song’s not even two minutes long.” Do you think that’s possible?
I think that the Billy Ray version will help with that. It’s just so good, and his vocal on it is fucking great. Like, I mean, I’m still weirdly not sick of that song, and I don’t know how.
You co-wrote “My Life” on Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, which I think deserves a nomination.
I think there’s no way it won’t. Even if I wasn’t on it; it’s obviously a beautiful record. They’re a little Grammy bait anyway, because they’ve won before. But craftsmanship is a little more rewarded in Grammy voting. It doesn’t necessarily come up in other things. There’s Billboard Awards, American Music Awards, tons of awards for sales, popularity, cultural relevance, great pop tunes.
There was a big controversy when Arcade Fire won Album of the Year, or when Beck did. But Grammy voters include a lot engineers and people who know about the painstaking hours in the studio, and it’s like, “We’re the last awards that acknowledge this.” The Vampire Weekend record, that shit took five years. It’s a double album. It’s beautiful. It has a wide musical breadth, and it feels modern, in its own way. I’m really proud of having contributed to it. Honestly, I just got sort of lucky that I came up with something nice while they were workshopping. But that song makes me happy.
And your Late Night Feelings is in the running too. That’s also an old-school album album.
Yeah. I’m not too putting my hopes up too high on that. I mean, it wasn’t, like, necessarily a huge commercial success. I know people really like the record … I love it. I think it’s amazing. But I’m a hardcore pragmatist. If it happens, great; it’ll be a lovely surprise. We’ll see.
I thought “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” should’ve made the country charts.
I know it doesn’t sound like anything like the country like I see at the top of the charts. It’s probably my weird bastardized interpretation of country from playing Todd Terje’s remix of “Jolene” and stuff. I wasn’t trying to make a country song. I heard Miley sing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on SNL’s 40th-anniversary show — it was the first time I heard her do that raspy thing. I just became obsessed with chasing her to work on something.
I guess [the] A Star is Born [soundtrack] will be eligible this year. That was a pretty big album. If the Grammys find something that has a little bit of critical shine, plus cultural relevance, and giant sales … I feel like they love that shit.
The Grammys have taken heat about representation in past years, for artists of color especially, and also for women. Do you think they’re addressing the issue adequately?
It depends what happens. Obviously Kacey took home all the big awards last year, but I think that was just because she had the best record. And this year, Billie Eilish, Miley, Gaga — it feels like, except for maybe the Lil Nas X record, all the standout shit from this year has been by female artists. I think it’d be hard to get that wrong.
Given your history as a producer, would it be accurate to say you tend to vibe more musically with women than men?
The stuff that I’ve made with Kevin Parker, Bruno, and Queens of the Stone Age has just as much resonance with me. But I do think that, certainly in the realm of pop, there’s just way more interesting female artists right now. I also feel, like with [Late Night Feelings], although it’s a pop record, it’s sort of like, a vulnerable pop. And when I look at the really big male pop artists, I don’t really see a lot of that vulnerability.
Of course in rap it’s different, because in the post-Kanye-Drake world, rap has become the most emo genre on the planet. But I think of what King Princess, Billie Eilish, Camila [Cabello], Miley are doing — it’s all so confessional, like you’re hearing their life in a song. It may just be like a period or cycle we’re going through, but what the male artists are doing right now doesn’t feel as exciting or raw to me.
You’ve won seven Grammys and been nominated for 11, at last check. I was just watching Amy Winehouse’s acceptance speech in 2008 for Record of the Year, where she thanked you. What are your standout Grammy memories?
I really have a lot of Grammy history, even before I played music. I was interested in everything about how it works, being such a fanatic about music. I covered the Grammys for my high school paper when I was in ninth grade, when it was at Radio City Music Hall.
Wow. What year was that?
I remember interviewing Alannah Myles, who had won for “Black Velvet,” so 1990? I remember going to this afterparty, and my voice hadn’t even broke, so I was like [makes squeaky noise]. And she was patient, just talking to me, but obviously a bit like, “How old is he?” And when she was leaving she said something like, “I think you’re gonna do something one day, kid.” That kind of thing, you know — like, “Hey, I don’t know what the fuck your thing is about, but you’re kind of funny.”
Then in 2005 I went with Rhymefest when he was nominated for writing [Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”]. I just was like his date. And then, obviously, in 2008. I though it would be cool to go with Amy, but she had the visa issues, so I was still happy to go with my mom.
And then I had a real Zoolander moment. Just before they announced Record of the Year, the camera guy is like, “Which one is Mark Ronson”? So I was like, “Oh, that’s me!” And I was like, do they want me walk up or something? Then it’s like “the winner is ‘Rehab’!” So I got up and started to walk towards the stage, and just as I’m on like the third step, going up onto the stage, the screen starts to come down. And I’m like, oh, shit, it’s gonna be Amy on satellite, and I’m such an idiot. What am I going to do — stand next to a screen? So I started to kind of walk back down, like discreetly reverse down the steps. And I tipped over and kind of fell down at Kanye’s feet. But I got up there for a minute!
That’s memorable! And your first win as a solo artist was “Uptown Funk,” yeah? Did that feel different, being the actual name on the record, instead of in the credits? Or does it not matter?
It doesn’t matter. The Grammys are cool because they kind of level the playing field. It’s the one night the songwriters, the producers, everybody who works on the record is kind of as important as the other. If it was the MTV Awards, I’d say yeah, it’s much cooler to be the name on the front of the thing. At the Grammys, it was like [“Uptown Funk” co-writers] Jeff Bhasker and Phil Lawrence, we’re all just celebrating together. It was a really special night, obviously. To walk past George Clinton on the way to the stage? It was insane.
This year, did you have a problem figuring out what afterparty to go to, since you had wins for both “Electricity” and “Shallow”?
We actually did our own — we’ve been doing this “Club Heartbreak” night, sort of themed like the Late Night Feelings album, me and a bunch DJs and performers playing our favorite sad bangers. We got this gay line-dancing bar in the Valley called Oil Can Harry’s, this totally amazing place, maybe not the same as your regular boutique Grammy afterparty. On the way there I stopped by the Sony party, and the DJ was playing this super-trappy remix of “Shallow” that I’d never heard before. And I was like, “Hey, can you, like, e-mail that to me right now? ‘Cause I’m going to DJ our party, maybe Lady Gaga is coming by?” It was Mr. Collipark, and dude was so sweet, in the middle of his set, he sent it to me. So I played it later at our party, nobody had ever heard it before, not even Gaga — she was in the booth, watching what we were playing. Charli [XCX] was there. Adele. It was pretty nuts.
Any projects in the works? Anything more with the women on Late Night Feelings?
What’s nice about this kind of record is that, once it’s done, you usually have this musical rapport with the people. So yeah, I’ve been working on Camila’s record, we did a song or two together; Alicia Keys, as well. But I’ve been spending most of my time working on Yebba’s debut album. She’s one of the top five voices I’ve ever recorded in my life. And we’ve had the original Voodoo crew, the Soulquarians, with James Poyser and Pino Palladino, playing on it. It’s really special music.