Mark Ronson on how Amy Winehouse made him better: ‘I still hear her voice in the studio'

The star DJ and producer appeared at Abu Dhabi’s Semi Permanent Middle East festival

A decade after her death, soul singer Amy Winehouse remains Mark Ronson’s muse.

Speaking on the opening day of the Semi Permanent Middle East festival in Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat, the American-born British producer and DJ admits the late artist still has the ability to get the best out of him.

“If I am in the studio and I am working on something that sounds a little cheesy I can still hear Amy’s voice. I can imagine her standing in the corner of the room, saying ‘really Mark?'” Ronson said.

“She had absolutely no filter when it comes to expressing her displeasure to things that are not genuine.”

In an expansive conversation with British DJ Dan Greenpeace, Ronson, 46, reflected on his near three-decade career in which he rose from underground DJ in New York to a Grammy Award-winning producer.

Two artists who played instrumental roles in that career shift are British pop-stars Lily Allen and Winehouse.

Ronson, who produced both singers' breakthrough albums – Allen’s debut All Right, Still and Winehouse’s blockbuster Back to Black in 2006 – recalled some rivalry between the pair.

“It was actually Allen who said ‘I heard you are working on Amy’s album, you better not give her better songs',” Ronson recalled, chuckling.

“But Lily is like a force of nature. She was this mouthy personality. I first met her in a club in London and when I realised she was also working on music I was interested because, I thought, whatever comes out from her would be interesting.”

Keep it organic

The success of both albums, particularly Back to Black, which earned Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, came at the right moment for Ronson.

He recalled his career taking a nose dive after the success of 2003’s debut single Oh Wee and first album Here Comes the Fuzz.

Uncertain about his path, he credits the lessons learnt from working with Winehouse and Allen for pointing the way forward.

“It does sound a bit cliched but there is something to say about just surrendering and just doing things because it feels right,” he says.

“I am just focusing on creating music that comes from an organic place and if that happens to also become popular then that is great.”

A more recent lesson, Ronson said, is that you are never too good not to practise.

With his sold-out performance in Abu Dhabi tonight being his second show in 18 months, he admitted the pandemic made him a little bit rusty.

“I have been working on it but that said, sorry in advance if I make any mistakes tonight,” he said.

“I have been playing five nights a week since I was 18 and for all that to suddenly stop was difficult. I mean, I am not going to lie, I did think the first few months of the pandemic that yes, I can finally get a chance to rest and that it was good to wake up in my own bed, but it didn’t take that long for me to miss performing."

Keeping the conversation going

Also appearing on Thursday was Brian Rottinger, the US creative director responsible for the artwork for albums by Jay Z (2013's Magna Carta Holy Grail and 2017's 4:44) and Ronson's Record Collection, out in 2010.

The solo presentation touched upon his process, which includes immersing himself in the context surrounding the musical work – the deletion of the statue’s eyes in the Magna Carta Holy Grail cover, for instance, was inspired by redacted government files released by Wiki Leaks – and underground cultural trends.

“This is why I am excited when I see certain bootlegs of the works our team has done,” he said. “It is a way for that conversation to continue and I enjoy seeing where people are taking them.”

The festival continues over the weekend

Semi Permanent Middle East continues tomorrow and Saturday with more sessions and a film screening. Friday will feature acclaimed US photographer Ryan McGinley, whose show-reel includes shoots with celebrities Beyonce, Billie Eilish and Brad Pitt.

Closing the day is US artist Daniel Arsham, who will reflect on his various artforms, including sculpture and architecture.

Saturday is dedicated to the screening of Mau, a documentary on the career of renowned Canadian designer and visual artist Bruce Mau. The sessions begin at 11.30am.

Entry to Semi Permanent Middle East requires attendees over the age of 12 to be fully vaccinated, and provide a negative PCR test result taken within 48 hours of the event.

Semi Permanent Middle East runs until Saturday, October 16, at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Doors open at 9am. Tickets are from Dh200 available at semipermanent.com

Updated: October 15th 2021, 12:15 PM