NEW YORK (Billboard) - At the age of 35, Mark Ronson already knows what his epitaph will read. It's not that he's a morbid guy; he's just wryly aware of his musical legacy.
"At the end of the day, it will say 'producer' before it says 'artist,'" says Ronson, who has released two solo albums but is best known for his turntable and production skills. "I was once known as a DJ, and that will stick forever. I will always play in the dance tent at a festival -- it doesn't matter if I start making polka or classical music."
Ronson's flashiest achievements -- his production work with singers Lily Allen and Adele, his 2009 "Britain's best dressed man" trophy courtesy of GQ and the throwback vibe of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," which helped him earn the 2008 Grammy Award for producer of the year -- have pigeonholed him as a stylish DJ who makes stylish, U.K.-friendly beats. The Brooklyn-based artist doesn't care if that perception never changes, but third album "Record Collection," hitting the United States Tuesday (September 28) on RCA Records, is a conscious decision by Ronson to leave his comfort zone.
Gone are the jazzy horn sections and all-Brit collaborators, replaced by futuristic synths, Ghostface Killah verses and Ronson's first foray into singing. The disc is being billed as a work by Mark Ronson and the Business Intl., which refers to a revolving cast of five to seven musicians on the record and tour.
The shifts could ultimately lead to a bigger presence in the United States, where Ronson has yet to make an impact as a solo artist. It wouldn't be the first time he engineers a surprising takeover of the U.S. pop charts.
"I was shocked when (Winehouse's single) 'Rehab' became a hit here," Ronson says, "because I had basically resigned myself to believe that I was never going to make anything that was going to be more than a niche record here. And if something on this record changes that again, great. And if it doesn't, I'll still be thrilled to sell out (New York's) Webster Hall and the El Rey (a small club in Los Angeles)."
Ronson's 2003 debut, "Here Comes the Fuzz," peaked at No. 84 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and has sold 18,000 U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Elektra Records dropped him two weeks after the album was released -- a move so sudden that Ronson says he had to pay for his own appearance on "The Craig Kilborn Show" during the album's promotional run.
After signing to Columbia U.K. in 2006, Ronson completed "Version," a 2007 album of cover songs that features chic riffs on cuts by the Smiths, Coldplay and the Kaiser Chiefs. Ronson says he got lucky with the timing of the album, which was released just when his production work with Winehouse and Allen was drawing attention on both sides of the Atlantic. "Version" peaked at No. 2 on the Official Charts Co. albums tally in the U.K., and Ronson toured behind the record for a year and a half, stopping to pick up a 2008 BRIT Award for best male solo artist and three Grammys for his "Back to Black" work.
Needing time to figure out his next move, Ronson opted to produce discs by Wale, the Rumble Strips and the Like before starting on album No. 3. "I put off going back into the studio for at least a year," he says. "I didn't really know what I was going to do, and I knew that I had to switch up the sound somewhat, because the soul arrangements were becoming played out."
No matter what type of music he released, Columbia U.K. (which will handle the U.K. release of "Record Collection") believed that Ronson could become a singular solo artist. "It was always important to establish him as more than just a producer or DJ," Columbia U.K. managing director Mike Smith says. "We felt strongly that this had to be an entirely original album. The key step was trying to find a new, authentic voice for Mark."
Ronson recruited a handful of his favorite musicians, including Phantom Planet's Alex Greenwald and the Dap-Kings' Tommy Brenneck, and headed to Brooklyn's Dunham Studios to "just play and write and leave the tape running" for nearly a month last summer. His production work on the next Duran Duran album, which he began in the spring of 2009, inspired Ronson to bring in some vintage keyboards he had purchased on eBay.
"Mark is the first to say that, when he saw all my analog synthesizers, he virtually went out and replicated my rig," Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes says. "Working with us influenced the direction Mark went in, but at (the same time) he knew what he was doing."
NEW CREATIVE PARTNERS
The Brooklyn writing sessions led to Ronson reaching out to an eclectic mix of veteran and fresh-faced collaborators. Boy George lends vocals to the disco-baiting "Somebody to Love Me," while New York electro-pop group MNDR signed on for lead single "Bang Bang Bang" after meeting Ronson at one of his East Village Radio shows. Reclusive R&B singer D'Angelo, who shared the same manager as Ronson, delivers a powerhouse performance on the synth-heavy "Glass Mountain Trust."
MNDR's Amanda Warner, who admits that she had never heard of Ronson before she met him, believes his production style is so effective because of his affable personality and precise musical vision. "He would send me an e-mail politely asking if Q-Tip could rap on our song," Warner says. "But he's also challenging in the studio, where there were many parts that he wanted me to re-sing. Mark knows exactly what he wants."
One thing Ronson never thought he wanted was to add his own vocals to one of his songs, but he did just that on two album tracks: "Lose It (In the End)," alongside Ghostface Killah, and the title track with Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon. Ronson says that he didn't approach the album with the intent to sing, but that failing to find a vocalist for "Lose It" made him consider lending a "soft, '60s, Zombies-esque" hook for the song.
As for the title track, the Kaiser Chiefs' Nick Hodgson penned a set of sarcastic lyrics that gently mocked Ronson's jet-setting lifestyle: "I just got in from somewhere really cool ... I'm not as clever as I thought I was." Ronson felt it was only right to handle the song himself.
"It wasn't like, 'Yeah, I'm going to sing two on this record, then five on the next, then you can file me under Ray LaMontagne,'" Ronson says. "It was more of a happy accident."
CROSSING THE POND
A peek at Ronson's chart history reveals the divide between his pop-star profile in the United Kingdom and in the United States. "Stop Me," a Smiths cover on "Version" that features Daniel Merriweather, peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. chart but climbed only as high as No. 44 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songs chart. "Bang Bang Bang," from "Record Collection," sold 50,000 copies in its first week and hit No. 6 in the United Kingdom, but has yet to make a dent on U.S. radio.
Ronson, who splits his time between London and New York, says he isn't sure why his appeal has been limited to England but thinks his material might be "too weird or idiosyncratic for a massive American market." However, Smith says that "RCA is very serious about breaking Mark in the U.S. this time around," with TV and radio spots lined up for the fall and appearances at independent retail stores expected to coincide with the record release.
The Business Intl. will bring a new twist to Ronson's live show, replacing the brass mainstays with a heavy dose of synthesizer. MNDR, Greenwald, ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall and Spank Rock will all be part of the first few shows on Ronson's tour, which kicks off Monday (September 27) at Bristol's O2 Academy.
Aside from supporting his own material, Ronson will mix Duran Duran's album in September for a possible holiday release, and hints that he might help out with D'Angelo's long-awaited third album. Allido Records, Ronson's record imprint/production company under Interscope Records, is also keeping busy with artists including Wale and Rhymefest.
Even if "Record Collection" doesn't help him rule the Billboard Hot 100, Ronson is fine with being pegged for now as a producer first, artist second in the United States. Just don't expect him to stay in the background forever.
"I felt like I made it when I was playing to 300 kids in hole-in-the-wall clubs, so I don't have any grand or outlandish dreams," Ronson says. "But the other thing is, I didn't have any real success until I was 31 or 32. Each little (achievement) might just be a baby step."
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)