The soundtrack for Barbie, director Greta Gerwig’s zeitgeist-defining high-wire act of art and commerce, could only have been as big as it was. And the only person who could have handled it is the producer Mark Ronson, who anointed the film with not just one Billboard Top 20 single but three: Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night,” Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?,” and Nicki Minaj, Ice Spice, and Aqua’s “Barbie World.” The soundtrack has since garnered 11 Grammy nominations, two Oscar nominations, and a Best Song win at the Critics Choice Awards for Ryan Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken.”
The film is teeming with so many chart-topping earworms that one might wonder if Ronson’s destiny is to become his generation’s John Williams, scoring blockbusters with music that both enhances and transcends the medium. But instead of conducting an orchestra, Ronson waves a wand over a keyboard, an MPC machine, and a phalanx of pop stars, shaping and mixing and polishing their sounds to gleaming perfection.
It’s banal to describe someone as having been immersed in their calling from a young age, but in Ronson’s case it’s literally true. “There’s a picture of me as a baby just drowning in 45 singles,” he tells me, speaking on the phone while driving through Los Angeles. He grew up in a blended, creative family, his childhood split between London and New York. His stepfather, Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, could be considered an obvious creative influence, but Ronson also credits his father, the entrepreneur Laurence Ronson, for his sonic education. “My dad was a music obsessive,” he says. “Ever since he was a kid, he loved American R&B and funk. The music always on around the house was everything from the Ohio Players to more obscure stuff like Leon Haywood.”
As a teenager, Ronson was in a few bands, but he was always “outshred,” as he puts it, by his peers. “There were all these things that I wished I was—a better guitar player, a virtuosic pianist—but instead I was just kind of average at everything. That ended up being really great for the toolbox of being a producer. I mean, most of life is just wishing that you were better at something else, and then coming to terms and becoming grateful for whatever the hell you have.”
Ronson had already made his name as a DJ before his first success as a producer, on Nikka Costa’s 2001 Everybody Got Their Something, which caught the attention of Ronson’s heroes, including Jay-Z. “But then three or four years went by, and, just like in the movies, suddenly people aren’t calling you back,” Ronson recalls. The careers of Kanye West and Danger Mouse, whom he considered part of his cohort, were skyrocketing, while he was paying his studio rent with DJ gigs and remixes for the occasional car commercial. “I thought, Maybe this is not what I’m supposed to be doing, or maybe it’s not going to ever work out for me the way I imagined it.”
That was his mindset when he met Amy Winehouse, then a rising British singer with one jazz-inspired album under her belt. “I thought, I’m obviously never going to have any success, so I might as well just make music that I would really want to listen to.”
Their collaboration resulted in 2006’s Back to Black, which paired Winehouse’s raw lyrics and raspy wail with Motown melodies. The album won five Grammy awards and cemented Ronson’s status as a hitmaker. The list of world-famous artists he has worked with since then is so wide-ranging that it feels almost impossible to select an exemplary few: Who else can claim acts as diverse as Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars, and Foo Fighters as creative partners? In the middle of our phone call, Ronson pulls up to a driveway intercom and announces himself as “Mark, for Lizzo.”
When pressed to define what unites all of the music he’s made over the years, and to say if he considers himself in possession of a signature style, he struggles. “I love the sound of real people playing instruments,” he says. “It’s probably why I get labeled retro, because it’s not as common to have live instrumentation anymore, certainly not on pop or dance music.”
“Timeless” might be a better word than “retro.” Ronson so deftly blends eras and genres that the music he released in the early 2000s, both under his own name and as a producer, could easily be mistaken for an early-’90s hit or a TikTok-era bop. “Ooh Wee,” a hip-hop track he made with Ghostface Killah and Nate Dogg in 2003, has been used in ads for Domino’s pizza, McDonald’s, and Carolina Herrera fragrance. “Uptown Funk,” his megahit with Bruno Mars, has been performed at so many weddings over the past decade that some brides take the trouble of banning it from their playlists. For 2018’s A Star Is Born, Ronson produced a soundtrack that included both blues rock and electro-pop, winning an Oscar for “Shallow.” That chameleonic virtuosity made him the perfect choice for Barbie, which takes place mostly in a realm outside time and place while speaking directly to the moment.
“I’ve never made a film that wanted this much music, this much pop fantasy, so it’s not a space I’m familiar with other than as a fan,” Gerwig told me when asked about what made Ronson right for the project. “I think at his core, Mark is also a fan. That’s what makes him so much fun to work with. We are united in our total fandom.”
Ronson describes the source material as “a fucking meteor of inspiration. I really feel that, without sounding cliché or something, the film kind of told us what to do.” He and his producing partner Andrew Wyatt were tasked by Gerwig with not only pulling together the pop hits that ended up topping the summer’s Billboard charts but also writing the score, adding a doo-wop melody to the beach-off scene or a menacing militaristic tune to the action sequences that took place at the fictional Mattel headquarters. “We had to learn a lot as we went along, but the approach was sort of the same as making a record: It all starts with pure emotion, and then it’s just honing it from there,” says Ronson.
Since Barbie wrapped, he’s been hard at work on other projects. He’s been collaborating with the new Gucci creative director, Sabato De Sarno, on the soundtracks for his first men’s and women’s runway shows with the brand, remixing the Italian pop star Mina’s 1978 ballad “Ancora, Ancora, Ancora” for the womenswear show last September, and is currently writing a book about his experiences as a nightclub DJ in the ’90s. “I think that there will be a record that’s probably somewhat inspired by that,” he says. “But I’m just trying to finish the book first.”
The most important feather added to his cap lately is a less conspicuous one: In March 2023, Ronson and his wife, the actor Grace Gummer, welcomed their first child, a daughter. “My whole life, I’ve had a bit of a workaholic attitude, where nothing could drag me out of the studio,” Ronson says. “Now there’s no song or idea that I’m working on that’s more important than being back for bath time.”
Grooming by Laila Hayani for Baszicare Skincare at Forward Artists. Photo Assistant: Jordan Zuppa; Fashion Assistant: India Reed; Special Thanks: Electric Lady Studios.