It started, as these things do, with a call from his aunt. She told him that Wayne McGregor was interested in meeting him. He looked up Wayne McGregor and discovered his form: resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet and one of the dance world’s brightest talents. But Mark Ronson, DJ, producer and pop musician, does not do ballet. And McGregor’s elastic dance moves are not normally associated with all-nighters in Ibiza. Still, his aunt, Dame Gail Ronson, a trustee on the board of the Royal Opera House, might just have sparked something. A meeting was duly arranged.
That was the genesis of Carbon Life, McGregor’s new ballet opening on Thursday to a score by Ronson and the singer-songwriter Andrew Wyatt. “I expected somebody older and more austere,” says Ronson of his eventual encounter with the famously cerebral McGregor. “Obviously he had about 1,000 things going on in his mind. It took four or five meetings before we were in the same place.”
We are speaking in Chiswick’s Metropolis Studios where Ronson is putting some final touches to more than one of his current projects. If his name is ubiquitous in pop circles – he has masterminded albums by Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Robbie Williams, among others – it is because he works hard. He is lean and tall, made taller by his Mr Whippy hair, and talks softly, with a slightly slurred transatlantic inflection. Ronson’s music is uplifting and punchy but his speech is the opposite, sliding over consonants as if it would incur a fine to linger. I imagine the middle of the day is probably not his finest hour.
“I was flattered,” he confesses. “This is the Royal Opera House, they could have anyone. I’d seen Damon Albarn’s Monkey [the Blur frontman’s Chinese circus-opera, which played at the house four years ago], but, not to be overly self-deprecating, I’m not Damon Albarn. Wayne said he liked my records. And he works off such a strong rhythmic sensibility in his pieces, I could see why he might have been interested.
“He was workshopping something and let me go to a rehearsal on the first day we met. It was this powerful, melancholy piece of work, combined with these extreme movements. I actually started crying. Not hysterical bawling, but it was really moving. And then I thought this would be an amazing thing to be a part of.”
The initial meeting between the two men took place in spring 2010, and the discussion of a work that would open two years later was another culture shock. “That is dog years in the pop world,” says Ronson. But the time has come, and we are speaking on the day before the first full rehearsal with band, orchestra and dancers. I suggest he must be as nerve-wracked as he gets.
He gives a passable impression of the least nervous person in the world. “It is a little bit nerve-wracking. But not as bad as if it were my own show and I had to speak to the crowd.” Ronson will appear on stage, playing bass in a small band backing singers Boy George, Alison Mosshart of the Kills, Jonny Pierce of the Drums and rappers Wale and Black Cobain, performing a cycle of nine love songs.
“This is easier than going out to DJ at a festival. I’m not very good at engaging with crowds. I have to really work at coming out of my shell. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy my fans, because I do. But it is not in my comfort zone.” Ronson’s chief concern now is properly memorising his part. “If you make a small mistake in a band, no one notices. But with 48 musicians all reading the same piece of music …”
I ask him what the songs are about. “The end point is a song [Boy] George sang on my last album, “Somebody to Love Me”, and we asked what the narrative would be that led up to that song. Andrew had been reading Jung, the animus versus the anima, and all the things that happen to the human spirit as it tries to become whole again. It all relates to love, and the difficulties of finding it and keeping it.
“But that is very much Andrew’s brainchild, so I don’t want to talk too much about it. I do the chords, the beats, some melody.” He says the experience of writing for ballet and an orchestra has had a freeing effect. “It gives you licence to play with key changes, time signatures.” So it was a more complex piece than his usual work?
“More complex, but not in a showy way. It is just very nice to move into 9/8 beats and it is not a problem. If you deal with 4/4 beats and even bars of repetition, it’s great for pop because you know exactly what is coming next. But working with dance, you don’t want to know what is coming next. You want to get lost in the motion, and in what is going on on stage.”
I say that large posters of him are appearing all over the London Underground, promising “Mark Ronson’s distinctive sound [coming] live to the Royal Opera House”. “I know. I suppose people are expecting synths and trumpets.” He says there will be hard rhythms, but “much less groove-related, and more choppy.”
Ronson has just completed producing Rufus Wainwright’s new album Out of the Game, out next month, and the singer-songwriter has helped him on some of the arrangements for Carbon Life. Ronson has described the sound of the album as possessing a “real 1970s Laurel Canyon spirit”, which I say is music – seductive Californian soft-rock – to my ears. He takes me upstairs to a huge mixing desk, pulls out a laptop and plays some of it: within seconds, the growling slide guitars and thumping pianos have me in mind of Jackson Browne and the fall of Richard Nixon.
Two floors down, there is more activity, the polar opposite in musical sensibility: a Japanese remix of Ronson’s Olympic anthem for Coca-Cola, “Anywhere in the World”. The track, sung by Katy B, has an unremarkable melody but a brilliantly inventive rhythm track, using the sounds of Olympic athletes in training in the mix. There is a history of pop music to be told, somewhere between that slide guitar and the blistering beats.
In the Coca-Cola video, Ronson wears a white suit, scarlet shirt and shades, and looks anything but the stage-shy, back-room brain behind the beat. He is doing what he knows best: directing a party. It is the first visible sign that London’s Olympic Games may offer something more enjoyable than a corporate-logoed traffic jam.
But Covent Garden is something else entirely, a more reflective affair for the master of high-energy abandonment. Ronson says he loved the first few visits to the house, when he and Wyatt were trying out their songs at the piano. “It is such an amazing building. We would come in at weekends, it was around Christmas, and it was really quite quiet. And coming in and out of these rooms with our little cue cards. It felt … it felt … it was cool.”
‘Carbon Life’ is part of a triple bill that includes a world premiere by Liam Scarlett and Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Polyphonia’, April 5-23. www.roh.org.uk