Even Mark Ronson admits that nobody was waiting for him to make a new record. But after reinventing his process with a little help from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, a Pulitzer-winning author – and Stevie Wonder – he wound up with the biggest Number One single since ‘Get Lucky’. Greg Cochrane met the bewildered producer in the midst of a whirlwind in January 2015 to hear how he staged his impressive comeback…
‘Get Lucky’ had it. ‘99 Problems’ had it. ‘Crazy In Love’ had it. Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ has it: that instant classic quality. It’s in the barbershop bass line, the subtle ‘Thriller’ echoes, the fact that Bruno Mars’ verses are so ludicrously magnetic – “gonna kiss myself, I’m so pretty” – that the chorus is just a brass hook. Unsurprisingly, it’s broken all kinds of streaming and sales records, shooting to Number One all over the world.
Meeting on a Monday afternoon in mid-December, the idea is to talk about Ronson’s forthcoming fourth solo album, ‘Uptown Special’, but a certain song is dominating proceedings. ‘Uptown Funk’ has been UK Number One for 18 hours, and Ronson – in the midst of a promotional whirlwind – is dizzy on a mixture of pride and jetlag.
We’re in the control room of the 39-year-old’s recently constructed north London studio – a homely space dominated by an enormous wood-clad mixing desk, racks of analogue keyboards, LPs and scraps of handwritten lyrics. A poster of Stevie Wonder looks down from the wall. “It’s a great feeling”, he says, his transatlantic accent almost unconvincing in its slow drawl. “I never really thought anytime I was making a record that it’s in the realms of what a pop smash might be – so I wasn’t really thinking about Number One, but I’ll take it.”
During the seven months that he and Mars spent working on it, however, they knew they had something on their hands. “We all had that feeling you get very occasionally when you make a song and you’re all locked in the same zone. That thing where you get in the car and you want to listen to the demo 18 times on the way home. Every now and then you get one of those. It felt like it could be one of those all-time party tunes. As a DJ – who knows the importance of those type of tunes and how much you rely on those in a set – I was thinking it would be great to make one of those.”
He admits he was “blindsided” by Simon Cowell’s decision to have X Factor contestant Fleur East cover the track before it was even out – the ability to purchase performances from the show leading to the very real possibility that someone else’s version of it could beat the original to the charts – but insists it was “good to get the song out there”. “I can’t really be mad at someone making a cover,” he reasons. “I made a whole album of it.”
Ronson has been a chart fixture for over a decade now, at least since the release of ‘Ooh Wee’ in 2003, and something of an omnipresence since producing Amy Winehouse’s 2006 classic, ‘Back To Black’, and in particular her cover of The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’. He’s been DJing in high-profile New York clubs for even longer – something like quarter of a decade. Yet he still has something of the reluctant supporting actor about him: self-deprecating and refreshingly devoid of bluster, and perennially weirded out by his innate knack for this songwriting business. He readily admits that if he listened to his instincts, none of his recent chart success would ever have happened.
“It definitely took me a while to get to the point where I knew why I needed to make another record,” he confesses. “Because, first of all, no-one’s checking for the new Mark Ronson solo record, not the public, not my label. I have no problems saying that.”
At the end of the promotion for his 2010 album ‘Record Collection’ Mark Ronson’s head was in an odd place. That album featured some of his best work, tracks like ‘Bang Bang Bang’ (with Q-Tip and MNDR), ‘Somebody To Love Me’ (with Boy George and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt) and ‘The Bike Song’ (featuring Spank Rock and, oddly, The View’s Kyle Falconer). Yet it sold a fraction as many copies as his controversial covers record, 2007’s ‘Version’.
It did something much more valuable than that, though: it restored his credibility. Remember, this is the Mark Ronson, who in critics’ eyes had seemingly waltzed from a privileged upbringing (his mother was a socialite, his step-father Mick Jones from Foreigner; he was once baby-sat by Rod Stewart and went to Michael Jackson’s house to play) into a career in music. He DJ’d fashion parties and made a ton of cash with his second solo album, where he tarted up a bunch of classic songs with a few trumpets and a wardrobe of bad suits. He took a lot of stick. Then came his reinvention. Writing, singing and producing ‘Record Collection’, people realised there was more to Ronson than a stylish quiff and membership card to The Ivy: for all his bona fides, he’s essentially a rabid music obsessive.
Even after rebuilding his reputation, however, Ronson was unsure of his next move. Or if there would even be a next move. He recalls a period of doubt around 2013. “‘It’s three years after my last album came out. If I have to go out DJing and play the ‘Bang Bang Bang’ intro routine again, I wanna kill myself.’ So I kinda started thinking, what kind of record do I want to make?” He tried holding some unsuccessful recording sessions to spark ideas. “I’d been fucking around, doing beats, collaborating with some young producers that I think are really exciting like Lil Silva and Skream but, I didn’t hear me in any of this stuff. I heard me forcing myself into another world.”
While he searched for inspiration he continued to produce albums from some huge names – including Duran Duran’s 2011 comeback ‘All You Need Is Now’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘New’, from 2013. The irony was it took a producer for Mark Ronson to be able to realise what he wanted to do next – the first time he had ever worked with one. He booked in time with Jeff Bhasker, the award-winning songwriter whose worked on records such as Kanye West and Jay-Z’s ‘Watch The Throne’ and Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’.
Eighteen months ago, the pair were drinking whisky and writing songs at Bhasker’s home in Venice, California, where they hatched the plan for the album. They’d decided they wanted to find a new, young female voice to appear on a track, but couldn’t find the sound they wanted from any contemporary artists. They code-named it the ‘Mississippi Mission’, planning a road trip through the southern states. What they found in the bars and churches there reaffirmed Ronson’s love for the sound of R&B, soul and Motown. “That’s the music that will always have a lock on me,” he says. After holding auditions they discovered the voice Ronson had been looking for in Keyone Starr, a 23-year-old singer from Jackson, Mississippi who appears on album track ‘I Can’t Lose’. “When you’re driving through the southern states you’re pretty spoilt for incredible voices,” he says, saying that he hopes to produce her debut album this year.
Ronson and Bhasker settled in Memphis, at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios – considered the home of the south’s legendary soul sound. By this time Ronson had invited collaborators Andrew Wyatt and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker into the process – along with Ronson’s favourite modern author, the Pulitzer Prize-winning US novelist Michael Chabon, who accepted Ronson’s offer to try writing lyrics for the album, despite not having written a song since being in his college band.
“I was shocked and flattered,” he says of the request. “When we began, I had the advantage and the disadvantage of my ignorance. I didn’t know how to write lyrics. I didn’t know there were things you couldn’t do or weren’t supposed to do.”
Beyond ‘Uptown Funk’, the other indisputable highlight of ‘Uptown Special’ is ‘Daffodils’, the smokey, trippy funk song sung by Parker about coming down from a massive high. “I know Kevin really loves that song, and he was really trying to describe the feeling of coming down to Michael Chabon, who is not necessarily a big druggy at all,” remembers Ronson. “He just said ‘Listen to this song by The Streets’, and I can’t remember what it was, I think it was ‘Blinded By The Lights’, and said that’s what I want it to feel like’.
Chabon wrote the whole of ‘Daffodils’ on the spot in the studio: “I felt nervous, but Kevin Parker was very gracious. I wanted the lyrics to be as good as anything he could have come up with. In the end he smiled when he was singing, so that was a great experience.”
The pieces of the album were coming together, but for Ronson there was still something missing. In mid-2014, trying his luck, he’d approached Stevie Wonder. For Ronson, the idea of having him on the album was a “crazy pipedream”. Four months after contacting his management a message arrived confirming that Wonder would head into his own studio a couple of days later to craft his part. Then an email arrived in Ronson’s inbox, subject line “linkstevieharpsession”.
“I couldn’t listen or even open it for half an hour,” says Ronson. “It was so overwhelming that my favourite singer/musician – probably 50 per cent of the reason I write music the way I write it – played on this song that I wrote. It was definitely still hard for me to even equate in my brain that’s happened. People say, ‘What’s the one thing that if it ever happened you could retire? I don’t want to retire because I still enjoy making music – but if I had to say the biggest rush would be having Stevie Wonder play on a song.”
Recounting this story is as excitable as the typically laidback Ronson gets over the course of our interview. While it’s easy for someone who’s had plenty of success to be nonchalant about it, the sense with Ronson – as the meticulous process behind this record proves – is that he’s much more intent on beating his own personal standards than chart records. His focus and ambitions remain the same. “The greatest thing is always going to be making a song that gives people that feeling, that rush,” he says. “I love DJing and playing other people’s records because it’s fun. I love just being able to have an amazing night in a club, being in a crowd, playing other people’s shit, but there’s no more satisfying feeling than doing that, but with one of your own songs. That’s the ultimate.”