Mark Ronson, club king and pop prince, talks Late Night Feelings
In a Melbourne hotel, we talk to Mark Ronson about the collaborations that define his heartbreakingly upbeat new album.
Header photo and in-article photos by Tim Lambert.
It’s about 9.30pm on an unsuspecting Wednesday night when Mark Ronson, one of the biggest producers in the world right now, takes to the stage somewhere along Sydney’s Oxford Street. The club itself could easily be the backdrop for a drag show, an 80s prom throwback or anything gaudy and fabulous, as it proudly flaunts disco balls, pulsing red strobes and confetti canons. When Ronson steps out into a room already heaving (to Lorde’s Green Light, nonetheless), he takes prime position behind a mirrored deck, underneath a large mirrored heart. Broken, of course. Two sacks of silver balloons sit pretty against the ceiling, waiting for the push of a button to drop during the King Princess-finessed Pieces of Us, whereas the cascade of heart confetti that will stream out during the set’s finale (Angel Olsen’s dreamy collab True Blue) hides out of sight. As Lorde ends, the lights dim, and the crowd erupts. This is Club Heartbreak.
The premise is simple: a collection of the best “sad bangers” over time, curated by Mark Ronson himself, tying into the melancholic pop vibe of his fifth album Late Night Feelings. These nights give Ronson a “carte blanche” to play songs he wouldn’t usually (think Outkast’s Ms. Jackson and our very own Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know) but “the parameters of that club night give licence to break some of those songs out.” Naturally, the producer’s own cuts are littered throughout the hour-and-a-half, ranging from Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black to tracks pulled from his most recent album and a few unreleased treats for good measure: a remix of the GRAMMY Award-winning Shallow and a “he would kill me if he knew I was playing this” Kevin Parker demo of Lady Gaga’s Perfect Illusion. Club Heartbreak is a place where Post Malone, Fleetwood Mac and Britney Spears unflinchingly flow together, where it’s just as acceptable to twerk as it is to cry. There’s also a sophisticated subversion to what Ronson does in drifting away from typical club hits to anything emotional with a beat, really - something that exists largely from over 25 years’ experience of working crowds across the world.
Themed around a “school disco” of sorts, Club Heartbreak ventures into the territory of embracing music that’s a little more meaningful but still evokes that physicality and escapism so many find on a dancefloor. “At the show we’d play Somebody To Love Me and maybe 20 per cent of the crowd would know it, but the passion and the fervour you get from just that 20 per cent singing it - because it’s maybe more of a meaningful song - would always strike me,” Ronson said of previous experiences he’d had with sad bangers of his own, talking from a hotel room in Melbourne in the hours before he'd host Club Heartbreak in the city - one of only two Australian shows, the other held in Sydney the night before. “I’d be like wow, those boys, they’re singing at the top of their lungs for this one.”
The passion in Late Night Feelings stems from anything that tugs at your heartstrings and keeps you up at night. Unintentionally inspired by a recent divorce of Ronson’s own, the record consists of layers upon layers of introspective, heartfelt moments against nonchalant basslines and sultry pop melodies. The title track, penned by goth goddess Lykke Li, summarises its entirety by embodying an emptiness that so often goes hand-in-hand with heartache. It’s a shimmering moonlit disco song but with added slivers of a taboo post-breakup world, “looking for the wrong affection, night after night.” Bookended between two cinematic variations of this song, the rest of the album runs its course as a genre-bending narrative where some of pop’s most unique and daring ladies take the lead.
When we talk, Ronson stresses the importance of the “superpowers” each of his collaborators behold, and how creating a song with another artist is a balancing act of sound and concept. Late Night Feelings as a whole is a considered work, which darts between the usual groove and euphoria that we can expect from Ronson, and the signatures of each woman starring both notably on the toplines and under the production covers. In one instance, the feverish scatting of YEBBA on Knock Knock Knock sits adjacent to Diana Gordon’s soulful ballad Why Hide, whereas True Blue is sure to send you into an Angel Olsen-fuelled “druggy, disco” warp. The depths of this sonic palette aren’t confined to dark and brooding moments though, also pioneering a few classic dance floor fillers like the Find U Again feat. Camilla Cabello. It’s fifty shades of heartache, laid on a platter and presented under the guise of pop or, as Cabello said to Pitchfork, “emo bops.”
Whilst most songs gravitate towards break-ups and relationships shifting, there’s also a sense of discomfort with the world that runs through the veins of songs like Miley Cyrus’ standout Nothing Breaks Like A Heart, proclaiming “this world can hurt you, it cuts you deep and leaves a scar,” in a damn near prophetic way. Similarly, the neo-soul fusion of Truth sees Alicia Keys commenting on finding authenticity in your surroundings in “keep on educatin,’ meditatin,’ anything to keep me up.” There’s an undeniable push-and-pull of light and shade, where the record refuses to lie coldly, opting to explore the faces of strength and re-building beside loss. The tender late-night feelings explored across 13 songs aren’t limited to interpersonal connections, instead of extending to the worries and pain of everyday life. This is Mark Ronson’s most ambitious, raw, and deeply soul-bearing release to date. He, along with multiple fearless women, lay their stories bare and create a space to not only groove away the night to, but find solace and a sense of melancholic wonder in. Glitzy production lights the way, as the hundreds of lyrics penned for the tracklist create a cathartic diary that allows you to simply feel – about anyone, about anything. Late Night Feelings is for everyone.
You kicked off the first of your two Australian Club Heartbreak shows last night in Sydney. How do you think it went?
It was actually one of the more fun times I’ve had doing Club Heartbreak. Obviously, the Australian crowds have always been really, really great for us, but it just felt good in that space. There’s always this pressure because people are coming to see you, and Australia isn’t a place that I get to very frequently, so I have to play quite a lot of my own music because that’s why people are coming.
I came up DJing because I love music - not playing my own music - so I’m happy playing other people’s stuff. I felt like last night was a good balance of sad bangers and my favourite shit, not necessarily stuff that I’ve made. It’s exciting to play stuff from this record because, you know, obviously people love Nothing Breaks Like A Heart – that’s kind of the standout because it’s been the biggest hit - but then there’s Late Night Feelings and the Angel Olsen tune [True Blue]. I was meeting journalists yesterday and a bunch of them said the Alicia Keys song [Truth] was their favourite, so it made me think to play that last night. It’s just nice to see with this record, how different people have their cuts on it.
I completely agree, actually, I was talking with a few friends about the album and mentioned my personal favourite was Why Hide with Diana Gordon, but it was interesting to hear others saying they relate to your boppier tracks more. Was it important to you to have that range and show different aspects of what late night feelings can be?
Well, that’s just what came out, and they were the best songs. Usually, I’d be like ‘well it’s a DJ record, it’s my record, I can’t have a bunch of ballads’ and I was just like "how am I not going to put 2AM or Why Hide on the album?" When I listen to a record, I don’t want everything upbeat the whole time. With my own records, I’ve always confined myself with this ‘you’re a DJ, everything has to move’, and in the past, we would do the beat first, then put lyrics on top, or a rap, or singing. We’d always come up with a track first and be like cool, does this feel interesting? Does this move well? Everything from Bang Bang Bang to Uptown Funk to Somebody To Love Me started with a bassline or a groove, whereas this time the songs really started with a sentiment. It made sense to just do what was right.
Why Hide was the very last song that we finished. Diana Gordon has been such a big part on things I’ve worked on in the past two years musically; she co-wrote Electricity, she co-wrote Truth, and I just realised at the end of the day that it’s weird that Diana’s voice isn’t on this album. It was like a last-minute thing like 'fuck, I’ve got to get this finished!' Diana came in, sang it four times and left; it all happened so fast. I do love that song too, that’s actually randomly King Princess’ favourite song on the record too.
I was also thinking about last night’s Club Heartbreak show in Sydney and the diversity of people in the crowd. Do you think there’s something about your music and what you do that can relate to anyone and everyone?
I noticed that this record certainly picked up a way more diverse crowd… I’m sure I’ve inherited quite a good number of fans from working with Miley and Gaga because they’re so loyal but it’s great to look around and see that mix of straight, gay, young. There’s something about the Club Heartbreak theme where it’s kind of fun, even though it’s obviously about the sad tunes and everything, it’s a bit more like a school disco.
What do you think it is about Late Night Feelings and that overall sense of heartache that you think is so universal and makes the sad banger so popular today?
I think it always has been because that’s where music came from. Most contemporary music like hip-hop and soul came from the blues, and the blues was made to like… it was a way to express your dissatisfaction for the slaves who came over, to express fucking how horrible their living situation was. [Music] isn’t suddenly sad or emotional, but perhaps it’s a little more resonant right now, and I guess in the pop world too with Khalid and Billie Eilish [fostering] this, because it is a tough time to live in and it feels very unstable, just with governments and the way people are always, it seems, at each other. There’s not a lot of reasoning; if you believe this thing and you’re on the opposite side, it feels like people are kind of just shouting at each other and not listening very much. That’s why I like the term ‘late night feelings’ as opposed to something that refers more specifically to heartbreak, because late night feelings are anything that keeps you up at night. That can be everything.
Did you give the artists you worked with on this album late night feelings as a theme, or any kind of conceptual direction, or did it just happen as a result of what was going on in your lives at this time?
Late Night Feelings and Don’t Leave Me Lonely were the two songs that [made me think] okay I get it; I’m making this record. You’re looking for signposts when you start a record, just to show you what direction to go. I think that the melancholy or whatever that was going on in my own life was, however suddenly or not, influencing the music because when you feel down or melancholy, that goes into the chords.
Every track on Late Night Feelings is a collaboration; what were you looking for in artists to work with this time around?
Each song is a different process, but it’s [basically] whoever came to the studio, sat down and hit a vibe. I’d never worked with YEBBA before, and she came in and I was blown away by her voice. I thought we were going to do a totally different song but then she started singing that melody for Don’t Leave Me Lonely; King Princess is obviously the only artist signed to the label and I knew she would be on the record; Miley was somebody who I’ve wanted to work with for years since I first caught her singing in that more country twang.
I was just looking for people where it felt right, it was just an instinct really - invite someone down to the studio and it either works or it doesn’t. I think these are all people who I’m a fan of as well, like Angel Olsen’s record I listened to so much while I was going through my own break-up. At the end of the day, I’m a fan of all these people.
Were there any unexpected challenges with these artists?
The challenge is finding that sweet spot where you both complement each other. It’s like a Venn diagram where you have Angel Olsen’s circle and Mark Ronson’s circle, and who knows quite what the fuck the by-product of that is going to be. It took a bit of convincing to get Angel in, she certainly doesn’t usually work or associate in the pop world too much. I mean, I don’t think I’m super pop, but to her, I may as well be fucking Max Martin.
She came for the weekend, and by the Sunday we were all good, but on the Friday, I remember she told me, using this expression, ‘yeah I was looking down my nose at you, like who’s this guy, what’s he about?’ Saturday, we hit this vibe and wrote a lot of the song on that day, then Sunday I woke up to all these texts and I was like 'oh no, I thought we had something good!' She was like ‘I think we should slow it down, I think we should take the vocals on tape and if you want to go for this more druggy, disco thing…’ and of course, as a producer and as somebody who’s a little bit uptight, my first reaction was this knee-jerk. 'Oh fuck, why’s she telling me what to do?' But then you execute these ideas, and you’re like ,oh yeah, she was right, this is fucking so much better now., I think that’s the producer in me and I think that’s just like, growing up in a fairly turbulent household as a kid, you know, anytime something’s slightly off or anytime things are changed from the way you need them to be, it can kind of cause a bit of a freak-out. That’s why me and King Princess also sometimes come to heads in the studio, we’re quite similar in that way.
Yeah, I’ve seen interviews where you and King Princess both seem so passionate and such perfectionists when it comes to your work.
I think not even huge perfectionists; I think just hugely stubborn in our own ways. I understand she has her thing and it works really well. I try not to interfere just cause she’s on the label. I’m like hey, if you need me for anything, I’m around, if you want an ear to listen to or if you need someone to help record drums or, like, I’m around. I think maybe perfectionist maybe isn’t the right word, [instead] everyone has a really high level of quality control and everybody’s very instinctual. That’s what’s cool about it. Everybody came to work on the record and was only interested in doing what feels right and what felt right for them too, so I understand and respect that.
You’ve chosen these women in pop (Miley Cyrus, Camilla Cabello, Lykke Li etc.) who all have their own distinct aesthetic and vision for what they want their sound and career to be. Did you have to balance your vision for the record with that?
Yeah definitely, and that’s why I love those people and what they do. I’m fully aware of what their superpowers are, so I want that. I think everybody’s a little willing to go out of their song because it’s for somebody else’s record, so it can be a little bit freeing. The best example is Pieces of Us - once the song kicks in it’s got the R&B slap-bassline and some of the things I guess you would say are more signature in the way I am, but I wanted to start it off in the sonic, dreamy weird landscape that [King Princess’] music exists in because I like that and I’m not trying to drag her kicking and screaming into Mark Ronson world. In Late Night Feelings, it was a bit of a last-minute idea to slow it down in the middle, because I was like oh there can be a kind of dreamy, goth-y 808 kick drum moment because that’s something that reminds me of Lykke’s world. It’s just trying to find the place where you can do something that hopefully neither of you have done before on your own but has elements of what makes both of your signatures.
Speaking of Lykke Li, was she the one who came up with the idea of late night feelings?
She came up with the lyric [“Late Night Feelings”]. We were working on that song and she had the melody, and we were thinking what are some words we can fit in there – “I’m still dreaming?” What is it? Then she was like ‘what about late night feelings?’ It just sounds so cool. It sounds like a rap lyric, which I really like, and Lykke definitely thinks like a rapper anyway. It was probably only the first or second song we’d written but I do remember feeling in the back of my head pretty soon like that’s a good name for an album; it just felt right. I just think of, I love night time. Night time always feels a bit more creative, it’s a little sexier of course, and the idea of those things that keep you up when you’re missing someone or you’re worried about Trump America, or you have insomnia, or whatever it is.
What do you think Late Night Feelings brings to the table that we haven’t seen before from Mark Ronson, as an artist?
I can just tell people who have never fucked with my music, and I don’t really care, but they’re really all about this record. It might sell a fraction of what Uptown Special did but I can just tell the way that people love it or identify with it or are passionate about it, is definitely in a way that I’ve never really felt people speak about maybe my own records like that.
If people haven’t heard Late Night Feelings, hopefully they discover it. As soon as a record comes out, it’s not really yours anymore, it belongs to everyone else.
Mark Ronson's new album, Late Night Feelings, is out now via Sony Music Australia.
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