Just before playing the Glastonbury festival, producer and artist Mark Ronson was in Cannes Lions talking to the advertising and marketing industry about his creative process. Beyond his own music, Ronson has produced hit albums for Adele, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, among others, and is currently working on Lady Gaga's new album.
Interviewed on stage by Spotify creative director Richard Frankel, Ronson said his role, and that of any producer, goes far beyond the music.
"You're like part therapist, part schoolteacher, part cheerleader," said Ronson. "You're there to make that person feel like they have superhuman powers. And a lot of times they do, when you think of Amy or Adele's voice, there is something that makes them supernaturally talented. But you're there just to coax that out of them. You have to be careful of not pushing someone too far. It's about doing whatever it takes to make that person feel like they can do anything."
A significant part of that process is always listening for even a sliver of an idea or a sound. The right thing might pop out of nowhere.
"For me it's just going in, and you just have to constantly be an open conduit for ideas," said Ronson. "Even the most bullshit idea someone might throw out there while they're tinkering around on a guitar, you have to always be ready to hear like, Oh maybe there's something magic in that."
And that's exactly what happened when he was working with Amy Winehouse on her now classic album Back in Black. "We were walking down the street, we had just started working, we were three days in, and she was telling me a story about some stuff that had gone down in her life," said Ronson. "She said, Yeah my family came over and they tried to make me go to rehab and I was like, pffff! No, no, no.' And I thought, oh shit, that's quite hooky how you said that, if you're not opposed to it, we should go back to the studio and mess around with it."
In tech culture, the idea of failing fast is a common mantra, so Frankel asked Ronson if that principle ever applies to the studio. Ronson related it back to the origin story of "Uptown Funk," which has been streamed on Spotify more than 589 million times, and said it's not so much about failure, but always being open to where the process leads you.
"We were working on a song for my album, I had worked with Bruno on his album Unorthodox Jukebox, and we had this song 'Magic' that I was obsessed to finish, and each time we went into the studio we'd hit this wall with it. At one point, Bruno was like, 'Fuck this man' and jumped on the drums and just started playing a beat, so I go ton the bass, and Jeff Bhasker on the keys, and 'Uptown Funk' was born that evening. Incredible things come out of...I don't know if failure is a word I'd use, but it definitely helps the creative block open up another lane."