Until recently, Samantha Ronson’s public displays of contempt left little room for misinterpretation.
Paparazzi shots of the superstar DJ—who commands top dollar to spin records on the glittering Hollywood-Vegas-Downtown N.Y.C.-Dubai party circuit—tend to linger on her patented scowl. It’s her default expression and one that prompted the New York Daily News to label Ronson a “sourpuss extraordinaire,” as if her ever-present dangling Marlboro and penchant for raising a middle finger in defiance didn’t already confirm that perception.
“I scowl in pictures because I don’t want a fucking camera in my face,” Ronson, 34, recently explained, seated in her art-filled luxury condo in Venice, Calif. “Let’s face it: most of what people write is not friendly. So you want a big picture of me smiling while you talk shit about me? I try to not have anything I do be dictated by what others expect.”
What few outside Ronson’s close circle of friends expected, however, was her self-released and deeply personal debut album, Chasing the Reds—a CD that showcases the performer’s sensitive side as a singer-songwriter and arrives at a time when Ronson is still mainly known for something she’s not particularly eager to discuss. From 2008 to 2010, she was romantically involved with Lindsay Lohan in a tumultuous tabloid swirl that encompassed many of the former tween movie queen’s most notable flame-outs, drunken missteps, and arrests. Not that inquiring minds in search of the sonic equivalent of an E! True Hollywood Story should run out and buy the album for a vivisection of their love match. Spanning a mashup of disparate genres including garage rock, ‘80s pop, hip-hop, and acoustic lullabies, Chasing the Reds sounds alternately freewheeling and yearning; one song manages to chronicle the heartache and chaos of a bad romance—with LiLo?—without drifting into obviousness.
“When I first started making the record two years ago, my life was so public,” Ronson said. “I didn’t want to make a record where people would say, ‘This song is about that.’ But I think there’s also a way to keep things specific and private without losing a connection with the listener.”
First, the backstory. Before Ronson was rocking club bangers by Ke$ha and LMFAO or hobnobbing with the likes of Nicole Richie and DJ AM, turns out she had her sights set on becoming an acoustic balladeer in the Ani DiFranco mold. In the early 2000s, alterna-rocker Duncan Sheik caught a live performance by Ronson in New York and volunteered to produce her demo tape. Inspired by her brother Mark Ronson (who went on to great acclaim as a producer, working with such artists as Amy Winehouse), Samantha took up DJ'ing at various clubs and parties. And while spinning at an exclusive event in Manhattan one night, she bumped into music mogul Damon Dash, then label head of Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records, who asked her to play him her acoustic music. Never mind that the Island Def Jam–distributed imprint’s roster was dominated by hardcore hip-hop artists in those days. Ronson landed a deal as the self-described “white girl with the acoustic guitar on Roc-a-Fella.”
“Damon used to say, ‘You want some of the money or all the money? You want to ride on a plane or you want to own the plane?’” Ronson recalled, dragging hard on a cigarette. “I was like, ‘I want to go home! Stop making me do sit-downs with Beanie Sigel!'”
But when Dash and Jay-Z acrimoniously dissolved their partnership and Island Def Jam top brass defected to Atlantic Records, Ronson’s album went into purgatory. Although she never stopped writing and performing personal songs for her MySpace page, she devoted herself full time to DJ'ing.
As the stepdaughter of Mick Jones, the guitarist-songwriter for the platinum-selling rock group Foreigner, and twin sister of fashion designer Charlotte Ronson, Samantha had long been comfortable within the rarefied corridors of rock stardom and high design. But her ability to travel under the celebrity radar came to an abrupt end in 2007 when the person invariably described as Ronson’s “friend” until that point—Lindsay Lohan—was arrested for cocaine possession. And echoing another celebrity website’s report, blogger Perez Hilton blamed Ronson for planting the drugs in Lohan’s car after the actress crashed into a tree in Beverly Hills.
Ronson professed her innocence to anyone who’d listen, but lost a libel lawsuit against Hilton and was forced to reimburse him $85,000 in legal costs the following year. “I’ve had so many rumors about me, say whatever you want,” Ronson said. “I’ve never done drugs in my life.”
From then on, the tabloids provided Lohan and Ronson with the kind of blanket surveillance that Ronson, as a self-described “socially awkward” person reluctant about fame, found intolerable. Cameras caught their awkward initial displays of public affection and habit of leaving nightclubs hand in hand, although most mainstream media outlets initially stopped short of actually outing Ronson and Lohan as a couple.
But after Lohan made a nondenial confirmation about their romantic status during a 2008 radio interview, the celebrity industrial complex made sport of chronicling every new twist in Lohan and Ronson’s boom-bust relationship cycle: the explosive arguments, drunken scenes, angry cross-tweeting, and the lock changing on Ronson’s apartment that presaged the couple’s breakup.
Through the worst of it, though, Ronson remained tight-lipped, answering few questions and keeping personal information strictly off limits. “I never did interviews for ‘Hey, learn about me!’” she said. “Who fucking cares?”
Thinking better of her macho posturing, Ronson added: “Nobody acts all tough unless they’re a wuss inside. I’m supersensitive. I get hurt very easily.”
For someone who plays her cards so close to her chest, Ronson shows surprising emotional candor on Chasing the Reds. And toward the end of our interview, I insisted on reciting some of her lyrics from the song “Sometimes When You Win, You Lose” to her:
“I just wanted to find some peace with you / You needed the noise as proof / And we started this war on the same side / Now I feel just like a hostage in the room / But I’m trying to find a way out alive.”
I told her I thought some listeners would hear those lyrics and assume she was talking about a “certain person” in her life—Lohan—before Ronson interrupted me.
“Maybe they’d be right. Maybe they’d be wrong,” she said, smiling coyly. “I wrote that song when I was with the person that it’s about. They knew what it was about when I wrote it. Yeah, it’s a little tough on that one. It’s funny because you think it’s tough because it’s figuratively brutal. Imagine if that song was actually literal.”
The name Lindsay had not been spoken, but it hung heavily in the room—not least because Lohan moved into an identical luxury condo next door to Ronson’s Venice home shortly after getting out of rehab in early 2011 (the actress later moved again).
So, were you really held “hostage” by that relationship? I asked.
“Most people would assume that it’s figurative, that it’s about emotions. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s actually literal,” Ronson continued. “It was not a healthy relationship.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that the whole album Chasing the Reds is about Ronson’s relationship with Lindsay Lohan. The reporter specifically discussed one song with Ronson that appears to be about Lohan.