Mark Ronson’s Watch the Sound Is a Delightfully Geeky Window Into the Pop Machine

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Before diving into Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson, his new documentary series for Apple TV+, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on Mark Ronson’s versatile, and impressively enduring, two-decade career as a chart-topping producer. There’s his breakout hit, 2003’s “Ooh Wee” featuring Ghostface Killah and Nate Dogg, and its joyously fizzy mash-up of disco and hip-hop; the rattling snares, handclaps, and trombones of his first single with Amy Winehouse, “Rehab”; and even the bluesy, ’60s-girl-group stylings of Back to Black as a whole. There’s the Nile Rodgers-inspired slap bass and jangling guitars that made “Uptown Funk” one of the most inescapable hits of the 2010s, and the folksy rock and irresistible melodies of Lady Gaga’s Oscar-winning “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. What unites them all, perhaps, is an analog, retro-feeling warmth that also always somehow manages to feel of the moment.

But with Watch the Sound, it seems that Ronson is ready to show another side of himself: namely, his fascination with the technical wizardry that underpins his work as a producer. It immediately becomes clear that Ronson has always been informed by the various technological innovations that have helped shape the musical landscape over the decades—just take those exhilarating chopped-up Boney M. and Dennis Coffey samples on “Ooh Wee”—and, appropriately, the show is divided into six episodes that spotlight one particular technique, such as autotune, sampling, or distortion. But instead of being about Ronson’s work, the show largely focuses on how those inventions have fed into the work of fellow musicians, including a handful of his regular collaborators—Kevin Parker, Dave Grohl, Ezra Koenig, King Princess—and an illustrious lineup of Ronson’s heroes, such as Paul McCartney, Kathleen Hanna, Questlove, and the Beastie Boys. “It might come through at times, but really I’m not there in this show to talk about what I do,” says Ronson. I’m there as a conduit to talk to these people about what they do.”

Ronson made a similar pivot in his recent podcast, The FADER Uncovered, which saw the musician turn his hand to a more conversational style of presenting. And while both projects speaks to the innate sense of curiosity that has always been part of Ronson’s genre-hopping musical identity, it’s also the product of what he believes is one of the strongest skills in any producer’s playbook: the ability to listen. “It always starts with that conversation, and being there as a conduit to get these brilliant people’s ideas out of their heads in the best and most appropriate way,” Ronson says. What seems to set Ronson apart from producers of the past—who tend to exist in the public consciousness as either sinister svengalis with a tight leash on their artists’ careers, or anonymous, geeky figures happy twiddling knobs in a dark room all day—is that Ronson is patient, self-effacing, and, well, clearly just a nice guy. There’s a reason that some of the fiercest talents of the past two decades have returned to him again and again, and the show’s pulling back of the curtain on music production seems designed to inspire a new generation of talents to come.

Here, Vogue speaks to Ronson about the origins of Watch the Sound, the importance of collaboration, and why it felt like the right time to add hosting to his repertoire.

Vogue: How did the concept for the show first come about?

Mark Ronson: When Apple TV+ first launched, they came to me and said they wanted to do a show about music, and specifically mentioned this TED Talk I’d done on sampling. They wanted to make a show that was educational, but also fun. It would be for people who were nerdy and love the technology, but also people who just love music and wouldn’t expect to care about these kinds of things, but [it would help] them see it’s all a big jigsaw puzzle. You suddenly realize, “Oh, that’s why my favorite song sounds like that.”

The sheer number and variety of artists you got to participate is pretty crazy. What was your process when it came to assembling that lineup?

I first saw the lineup of all the names when they first made the promotional poster recently, and I was like, wow. That’s an incredible festival I would definitely go to. [Laughs.] But really, I first went to a lot of people I’d already worked with and had relationships with and knew a bit of their process. Still, Kevin from Tame Impala has never really sat in front of a camera and gone, “Okay, this button is how I get that iconic Tame Impala keyboard sound.” Even somebody like Paul McCartney, it feels unimaginable that there could still be an anecdote about The Beatles and how he made a certain song that hasn’t been told, but here he is telling us some new thing about how he came up with the sounds behind “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Then there are people like Dave Grohl, Kathleen Hanna, the Beastie Boys, who I hadn’t worked with, but were just really cool about it and willing to come in. The whole point of it was to show, not tell, instead of getting in front of a camera and saying, “This is how we made this sound.”

Paul McCartney and Mark Ronson in episode two of Watch the Sound.
Paul McCartney and Mark Ronson in episode two of Watch the Sound.
Photo: Courtesy of Apple TV+

Collaboration has always been at the core of your work as a producer. Did you feel exposed, having a camera in the studio while you were working and having these intimate conversations with musicians outside of the more private environment you’re used to?

I didn’t really mind so much. I know that the more we film, the better the show is going to be. But these people are my friends, and all artists are very vulnerable and sensitive and some people aren’t willing to lift the veil off right away. When Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend is there, singing into the mic with the same autotune setting that he used on “Diane Young,” every step of the way I was like: “Are you sure you’re cool with doing this?” Angel Olsen jumping on the piano and playing a beautiful torch song at Capitol Studios to show what reverb does, too. As a producer, your main job is to protect the artist at all costs, keeping everybody in this protected mode. Lady Gaga comes into the studio and she’s been tailed by 20 paparazzi on the way, so the minute the door closes she’s got to feel as safe as possible to express her most vulnerable emotions. In this, it’s a little different because I’m like, “I still want to capture and film this.” It was a bit of a balancing act, but I feel like it was great what we got to capture.

I’m curious about how you feel the show reflects on the role of the producer, which in the public consciousness has usually been quite a behind-the-scenes character. Between your podcast with The Fader and this show, it feels like you’re stepping into the spotlight more. Is there a correlation between the communication skills and the ability to listen that you developed as a producer and the skills you need to be an interviewer or presenter?

I don't know if there’s a correlation, but definitely, one thing that you said is kind of… I wouldn't say my mantra, but I’ve realized the longer I’ve been in this game, it’s all about the listening part. Obviously, you have your toolkit, but for me, it always starts with listening. The first time I met Amy [Winehouse] and she came into the studio, I was like, “What kind of record do you want to make?” And she said, “I like this ’60s-girl-group pop they play down at my local.” She played me some The Shangri-Las, and I was like, “Cool, I’ve never made anything like that ever, but I like you, so let’s try it.” The same thing with Lady Gaga. When she came into the studio, she might’ve thought we were going to make a more jazzy record, because everyone thought that I was the horn guy. But then she came in in cut-off jean shorts and this hat and cowboy boots. I was like, “I’m feeling like there’s a really organic, open, honest record that’s supposed to be made here. But what do you want to make?” It always starts with that conversation, being a listener, and being there as a conduit to get these brilliant people’s ideas out of their heads in the best and most appropriate way.

Do you feel like you were able to showcase your philosophy or approach to working as a producer through the show?

It might come through at times, but really I’m not there in this show to talk about what I do. I’m there as a conduit to talk to these people about what they do. The fact that I’m a producer makes it easier to relate to some of the things and to know which questions to ask. I talk a little bit about my thing, but what I’m really trying to do is talk to everybody else and find out how they do it, because that’s what’s exciting to me.

So it was a learning process for you, too?

When autotune first came out I was a bit of a hater, because I’ve always been drawn to these extraordinary voices—Amy [Winehouse], Miley [Cyrus], Bruno [Mars]. These voices are very evocative and they conjure so much emotion, I thought autotune was cheating. Then Kanye came out with 808s & Heartbreak and I started to obviously change that way of thinking. And now, I’m completely on the other side of the argument, because I think it helps brilliant music-making. It’s part of the evolution. There’s a scene with Charli XCX where I’m like, “If anyone can sing with autotune, why don’t we try it?” And she said, “What, you’re going to put me on the spot?” I was like, “No, me,” and she was like, “Fine, you do it.” I got in the booth and had the setting wrong, so everything I was singing became the opposite of autotune. Autotune is supposed to make it so that you can't sing a wrong note. I had the setting so I couldn’t sing the right note. It was horrible. Charli actually started sweating in embarrassment for me. We make a song in each episode that has to do with the topic, and I had to write a song for autotune, so I’ve got to put myself out there if I’m saying anyone can sing with autotune. People’s stories and why they found this technology was a huge part of it. Kathleen Hanna saying, “I couldn’t express myself—the wellspring of emotion inside me—but distortion is the sound of abundance and the sound of birth, and that’s what enabled me to get this giant thing out of me.” It’s the combination of the technological and the human-touch side of why these sounds are important to these people.

DJ Premier and Mark Ronson in episode two of Watch the Sound.
DJ Premier and Mark Ronson in episode two of Watch the Sound.
Photo: Courtesy of Apple TV+

It was a fun touch to have that original song at the end of each episode.

One of the very first parts that we filmed was with DJ Premier, who is one of my absolute heroes. While he was showing me how he makes these beats, his legendary technique that he’s never really shown before, we just started jamming. I was playing piano, and we were like, “Wow, if we get to make a piece of music it would be great to have a song for each episode.” It was something that happened organically and was a lot of fun. In the song for the synth episode, there was a moment where Paul McCartney was showing us how the Moog works and he’s just messing around, but because everything Paul McCartney plays is brilliant and iconic, he just starts going… [Ronson mimes the sound.] I didn’t say it out loud in the room, but the first thing that went off in my head was: “I’m going to turn that into a song later.”

Originally Appeared on Vogue