When Mark Ronson started to approach his fourth studio album, ‘Uptown Funk’, he wanted to do something different with the lyrics. His massively successful second album ‘Version’ saw Ronson give a selection of notable covers his trademark brass-touch, and ‘Record Collection’ saw him introduce his own vocals more into the mix. But with ‘Uptown Special’ he wanted to experiment. A year after meeting his favourite contemporary author at a book launch, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Michael Chabon, Ronson took an opportunistic punt on getting his favourite wordsmith involved. The result? Chabon ended up writing the majority of the album’s lyrics – something the 51-year-old hadn’t done since playing with his college punk band. NME spoke to Chabon about the sensational success of ‘Uptown Funk’, Ronson’s manner in the studio and his own “satisfying new gift”.
NME: Before Mark Ronson invited you to take part in ‘Uptown Special’, had it occurred you to write lyrics before?
Michael Chabon: No I wouldn’t ever have imagined it, or thought it was remotely possible. I was in a punk band at college and wrote lyrics for them. But that was it. I closed the door and thought that was the end of that chapter of my life. I can’t play an instrument so I had no hope of approaching people and saying, ‘Hey let’s start a band and I’ll make noises in the microphone’.
Then I get this email from Mark Ronson who I’d met in a non-musical context with Andrew Wyatt [Miike Snow]. I just thought, ‘that’s cool I just met Mark Ronson’. A year went by and I didn’t hear anything, and nor did I expect to, then Mark emailed saying, ‘have you ever thought about writing lyrics?’
NME: What was your first reaction to the invitation?
MC: Shocked and flattered. I had a hunch, it was a good guess on his part. He must have inferred from reading my last book Telegraph Avenue that I was a music fan. I write about music and lyrics in the context of that novel and he just took a shot. It had never occurred to me that I would be able to do that. I went to LA and met Mark and we hit it off – I really liked him a lot. The initial affection he inspired in me grew over time as I watched him work and spent time in his company. From the start we hit it off, and I thought ‘let’s give it a shot’.
NME: What was the process? Did you fit lyrics to his music or the other way around?
MC: I had the advantage and the disadvantage of my ignorance. I didn’t know how to write lyrics. All I knew were the lyrics to the songs that I love that I’ve listened to millions of times. I’ve thought about lyrics in the context of music and analysed them and puzzled over them. That was the sum total of my experience. I didn’t know how rare it is for the creation of the song to proceed by starting with the lyrics and then setting those lyrics to music. Usually it goes it the other way around or co-evolves.
My understanding was Mark wanted me to create lyrics which had a point of view. Not lyrics from Mark’s point of view, or my point of view – it was the point of view of characters – I thought he wanted songs with a narrative with a story.
I wrote some lyrics and I sent it to Mark and Jeff Bhasker [who co-produced ‘Uptown Funk’] and I actually don’t know what their first reaction was – it inspired Mark to sit down at the keyboard and try and put music to it, I don’t think he’d had ever done that before. Those lyrics changed a lot over time. My first efforts were too hard to sing fundamentally. Those lyrics got edited, rewritten, cut down, two verses were cropped, they put a bridge in there. I had to work a lot on that. But that first song became ‘Crack In The Pearl’. At the very end of this process Stevie Wonder’s harmonica part appears in Mark’s inbox, Mark told me that Stevie Wonder said to him essentially, I’m paraphrasing here, ‘the only reason I’m doing this is because these chords are so cool’ so my lyrics led to the chords, and the chords led to Stevie Wonder – that’s pretty amazing.
NME: As a writer did you mind being asked to amend your work?
MC: Jeff Bhasker has very exacting standards of what a song lyric should be – not in terms of what it’s about, but how it fits the music. Essentially how singable it is. That was something I had never taken into consideration. Jeff Bhasker did me the incredible kindness of teaching me how to write lyrics competently. I’m not at his level of professionalism but he held me to his standards. Over time I could see myself picking it up.
G: Part of the process saw you travel to the legendary Royal Studios, Memphis to be in the studio with Mark, Jeff and Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) how was that?
MC: Well, I’m such a music geek. Even if I’d just been invited to sit there for a week I wouldn’t have believed my good fortune. I was worried that I was going to seem like an extraneous hassock parked in the corner with nothing to do. It turned out they really needed me. I wrote maybe two complete songs – I definitely wrote ‘Daffodils’ entire lyrics on the spot in the studio. That was the hardest lyric writing experience because I hadn’t worked with Kevin Parker before. I love Tame Impala and he writes his own lyrics. He writes entire complete songs and here I was stepping into this groove that he had come up with. I felt nervous, but Kevin was very gracious. He didn’t express any doubt or frustration that I was intruding. Kevin gave me a couple of rounds of notes on it, one more thematic and the other technical. I was working hard – I wanted the lyrics to be as good as anything he could have come up with. In he end he smiled when he was singing so that was a great experience.
NME: You’ve seen the reaction to the music you helped create – how’s that been?
MC: In addition to that ongoing sense of disbelief, I’m mostly so proud of Mark. I saw how hard he worked. I get the impression he’s a hard worker, period. He has that reputation and that’s part of why he’s such a sought-after producer. He had a clear vision in his mind of how he wanted this album to sound. He stayed focussed and pushed himself. Along the way he managed to open so many interesting doors for people to come in and collaborate. The combination of musical personalities and talents in the building – that musical vibe that he somehow knew would work together. It was a such a daring insight that he had. It’s paying off; certainly in the case of ‘Uptown Funk’, how could it go better? It’s such a great song, it’s instant, it just hooks you immediately. I feel like I’ve know this song forever, it’s like an all time classic. You think, am I only hearing it for the first time? It happened the first time I heard ‘Burning Down The House’ by Talking Heads. That feeling of… ‘Oh my god, turn it up, what is that?’ It belongs in the world.
NME: What about Mark as a personality?
MC: He’s softly spoken, gentle and unassuming – in the studio he doesn’t yell or lose his temper. He’s never demanding or insistent. He’s always unfailingly attentive to his collaborators.
There are two ways of getting people to do what you want them to do and give them your best. One is demanding and insisting on it and that is effective. The other is creating conditions where they want to do it for you because they want you to be pleased. That’s the approach Mark employs. He inspires the people around him to want to keep working and do their best. At a certain point you become invested in him and his work.
I had been working for him for half a year before I noticed that everything had happened that he wanted.
NME: You’ve had a taste – would you collaborate with a musician like this again?
MC: Yes, I would. But I know already that I’ll never have the same experience again that I had on this one – the combination of people, the pairing of Bhasker and Ronson. It’s rare that people that are so brilliant, so talented, so sure of themselves, so confident in their creative visions… its rare that people like that are also so nice. To be at a point in my life where I’ve worked for a long time writing fiction, screenwriting, finding a whole new thing I could do with words, with language that’s also amazingly pleasurable, satisfying and potentially lucrative its such an unexpected gift. I’m not going to give that gift back. I will just say ‘thank you’ and keep on trying to make the most of it when I can.