Mark Ronson: Recording 'Uptown Funk' was a multi-continental process
Mark Ronson got his start in music as a DJ spinning funk and hip-hop at tiny underground parties, but over the past decade, he’s built a successful career as one of the most distinctive producers in the industry, crafting pop hits infused with crackling retro-soul for a long list of top-shelf artists including Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars, and—in perhaps the most defining collaboration of his career—Amy Winehouse. Recently, he reunited with Mars for the chart-topping “Uptown Funk” from his new album Uptown Special (out today on RCA), which also boasts contributions from rapper Mystikal, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker, and novelist Michael Chabon.
A few weeks ago, EW dropped in on Ronson while he was holed up in New York’s legendary Electric Lady Studios, putting the final touches on Uptown Special, to talk about the album and some of the people he’s worked with.
EW: So how’s the record going? Are you close to finished?
MARK RONSON: It’s kind of all pretty much done, there’s just this intro that Stevie Wonder played harmonica on. It’s just I can’t believe I have his harmonica. I keep fine-tuning and fine-tuning and fine-tuning the song. It’s like being given the world’s most beautiful diamond, and you keep being like, “I have to set it better, it has to be a better ring, what’s around it? Maybe I need to put two little f—ing carats on the side, I don’t know.” It’s just such a weird amazing… it’s easy to say blessing, but just this thing, to be given this piece of music of his. And then also, because the label keeps telling me it’s due, and I know they always tell me like a week earlier than it really is so I will play with that time as much as possible and keep tweaking, or whatever it takes.
The first single, “Uptown Funk,” is really cool. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
I’d already sort of started working on the album with Jeff Bhasker, and obviously I had really good chemistry with Bruno. All of us when we were working on Bruno’s album, and I knew I wanted him on this record. There were a couple demos with some ideas that were kind of interesting, left over from his album that I thought we would finish, but when we went over to his studio, he was like, “Man, I want to do something else.” And he just got on this tiny cocktail drum kit in the studio, and Jeff was on the keys, and I was on guitar, and we couldn’t even actually see each other, because the drum’s like, in this closet. Bruno had been f—ing around in soundcheck on his tour when they were playing the Trinidad James song live, the [sings] “Don’t believe me, just watch. Don’t believe me, just watch,” and we were like, “That would be cool to kind of work that in.”
So we kind of kept getting back together to finish it, because the first session was so exciting. It’s like you have this seed of a good idea, and every time you try to get back to recapture that magic, or build on it and it’s never as good, and then the song kind of threatens to buckle under that pressure. Bruno was on tour, and we’d keep trying these different arrangements, and I’d send this and he’d send me an idea back, and then he’d be in London to play some festival, so we’d get together and start to recut stuff. And then he sent me this new bass line, and that became the gel. Everything started to fall into place a little bit more, but he was still on tour, so I’d borrow a five-string bass from my buddy and go up to Toronto and we’d like get bass line down, then run back to Daptone in Brooklyn, like take a 6 a.m. flight out of Toronto, land in New York, go to Daptone, cut the horns, like whatever it took to finish the song at that point.
Why is it important to you to keep putting out solo albums when you seem to have steady work producing for other people?
I guess it’s the only time I get to indulge all my artistic kind of things that I wouldn’t get to do on somebody else’s record. I can’t really go find some young singer and be like, “Alright I’m gonna take this album, and you’re gonna sing it, and we’re gonna get this person to write the songs, and we’re gonna drive through Memphis and Michael Chabon’s gonna write the lyrics.” It’s like, that’s the only time that I really get to exercise all the things that make me excited about music without forcing them on another artist, for better or for worse. I can’t really force a record. It only comes when there’s a series of ideas and I really feel like I have something to say that maybe nobody else is doing, or I make the first piece of music that I can come back to and listen the next day.
If I heard this on the radio tomorrow, I’d either be psyched to buy it, or I’d be jealous I didn’t make that. I’m not really a good judge of what’s a hit. I wouldn’t be a great A&R man, ‘cause I think if you brought me some song that would be like eight weeks at number one for Katy Perry, I wouldn’t necessarily know. But I know when I’ve made something that I feel is sort of like exciting.
You mentioned earlier sort of the difference between a British audience and a U.S. audience, or you know, how you’d had more success in the U.K. and haven’t really broken here. There seems to be pretty distinct differences in what those two audiences are looking for. Do you have any insight into what they might be?
Well, it used to be that when American pop radio was kind of in a dire place, England was this exciting place. In the mid-2000s you had this explosion of like exciting British indie. It was the beginning of Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party, and it seemed like the White Stripes and the Strokes, even though it was a little before that, they all broke England first. I remember going there and then listening to Radio1 and hearing like, Beyoncé “Crazy in Love” next to “I Predict A Riot,” and being like “What is this f—ing amazing thing, that you get to hear these next to each other?”
And now it’s a little bit different. I feel like England’s like in a little bit of a boy-band abyss, and America’s a little more open. I’m not saying it’s completely switched, but America’s a little bit more open to, like… you can have a song like “Latch” in the Top 10, which kind of at some point seemed a little bit unheard of. I don’t really know what the secret is. I think why my music maybe has always done better over there is probably something about just growing up in England until I moved here, with kind of just a bunch of general influences that I have. But in some weird way, this is the most American record I’ve made, because there’s a lot of R&B and Earth, Wind & Fire, and Chaka Khan. And we obviously went driving through the South to go find singers, and me and Jeff almost are like paying our respects to our favorite music.
I want to go through a couple of artists you’ve collaborated with, and have you tell me something about what it was like working with them. Ghostface?
He’s just a legend, right? I remember when I called him, I played him the “Ooh Wee” beat, and he was like “Yeah, I get it! It’s like some John Travolta Saturday Night Fever shit, right?” He just heard the disco strings. But he’s like, one of the best ever to write uptempo records like that. And any beat, really. But yeah.
Jack White, you know, that was an odd one because you know, he played guitar on the record, and then he didn’t like the rap that ended up going [over it]. I had to take him off at the last minute. So I can’t ever technically say like… Jack White definitely recorded guitar on something I did, but I can’t technically say that we’ve sort of ever worked together. I wish. But yes, he makes great music.
You know I learned so much from them, both when I was five, and then like, three or four years ago when we worked on their record. They’re just like, you know, as far as sonic architecture with great rhythm section, and pop melodies, and kind of out-there lyrics, they’re good godparents to have. Musical godparents.
Didn’t you do a remix for the [posthumous] Michael Jackson record [Xscape]?
I didn’t. I started it, and I was really excited about it, it was a good song, I obviously like, kind of half-finished it lyrically for him. And more and more, as I sort of got into it, I realized that there was something that wasn’t connecting. And I think in the end I realized I wasn’t supposed to be working on that song. I was too much of a Michael Jackson fan to keep working on it. I didn’t think I was going to do the job that it deserved.
I know it’s probably hard to sum up shortly, but Amy Winehouse?
I mean, you know, we made Back to Black in like two weeks, so it’s hard. I wish I remembered more, because it was such an amazing, creative spurt. But so quick. I remember much more about after, and hanging out and coming to listen to the record and playing her the mixes and that kind of stuff. She came with so many of those songs written, all I had to do was really arrange them. And then “Back to Black” and “Rehab” were the two that she wrote when we were together in New York—and “Back to Black,” I played her the music and she wrote the song in like an hour. So, I wish I kind of remembered more. And I wish, obviously, that we had made more music.