Uptown Funk: Mark Ronson flexes his superpower

Mark Ronson is having another one of those zeitgeisty moments thanks to “Uptown Funk”. He talks to Jim Carroll about how Stevie Wonder, Michael Chabon and Memphis contributed to the making of new album “Uptown Special”

 

Mark Ronson has been on kissing terms with the cultural zeitgeist before. He worked with Amy Winehouse on Back to Black to produce an album that became a multi-million selling pop-soul masterpiece. You’ll also find his name attached to records such as Adele’s 19 and Lily Allen’s Alright, Still.

Uptown Funk is another one of those moments, except that it’s got his name on top rather than in the credits. It’s a song that’s magnificent from the first note, has a killer hook and the kind of fantastic sass and funk that never goes out of fashion.

That monster hit is a trailer for Uptown Special, Ronson’s fourth album. Decked out with funk and soul trimmings, the album comes with a cast of collaborators you’d expect to see (Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, newcomer Keyone Starr and savvy experienced producer Jeff Bhasker) and one who might surprise many (novelist Michael Chabon).

The record, says Ronson, owes much to him taking stock of where he was at musically over the past few years. “I was DJing at festivals and I’d always be on the same stage as Baauer, A-Trak and Hudson Mohawke because I come from that hip-hop background. But they were these young kids with amazing, massive productions and drums which made me wonder what I was doing.

“You have a bit of a musical identity crisis when you start a record. You have to work out what’s your superpower, what do you do well that no one else does. Did I really want to make a hip-hop record? I realised then the stuff that I do that I really love and that is innately more personal to me is influenced by soul, funk and r’n’b, the stuff that I came up playing in clubs in New York.”

 

Interesting stories

If he had made a hip-hop record, Ronson believes it wouldn’t have sounded genuine. “The great thing about being a DJ is that I can still express what I love about that music by playing it. But if I tried to go down the same road as some of the guys I play, like OT Genasis, it would not be genuine.

“It’s not an area I’m super-talented at and while I could figure out my own version, it would never be as exciting as what Young Chop or Mike Will produce. A track like Feel Right on the album with Mystikal is like a hybrid of hip-hop and funk and the other things that I love and feels more like a genuine thing for me to be doing at this point.”

The album’s key collaborator turned out to be producer Jeff Bhasker. “I was a big fan of his stuff, especially that song Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart that he wrote with Alicia Keys. He’s somebody who loves Earth, Wind & Fire, hip-hop and prog and can write great pop songs.”

He had no qualms about sharing the controls with Bhasker. “I produced my first and second records myself and it was a real case of ‘I know everything, I can do everything’. But part of the thing about growing up is realising that if there is someone who is better than you at a certain thing; it’s cool to let them take over a little bit.”

Bhasker and Ronson’s initial songwriting sessions at the piano put a soul-funk dimension on the album, but it was Michael Chabon who provided an interesting take for the lyric-writing process. Ronson is a fan of the writer of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and invited him to contribute lyrics to the album.

“I wanted interesting stories so I had to do something to push things forward a bit. I didn’t want to just have lyrics about heartbreak on the dancefloor. We associate good lyrics with bands like Arcade Fire and The National and bands that come from a more indie sensibility. I wanted to put similar stories and narratives over something which had groove and rhythm. It was initially just an experiment to see if this could work but it felt good and we kept working with Michael.”

 

Stevie Wonder

Ronson laughs when he recalls what happened when Chabon’s lyrics arrived. “I remember turning to Jeff in the studio and going ‘Okay, what do we do now?’ The lyrics which became Crack In the Pearl were really out there when they first arrived.

“But even though they were a little tough to get our heads around, they did inspire the whole bridge and chorus of the track. I was reading the lyrics on the page and by the time they’d hit me, they’d been turned into music. It was such a weird thing, I knew instantly what the melody was going to be. It was becoming a song as I was reading the lyrics. That’s the melody which became the thing which Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on the intro to the record. It’s beautiful how someone else’s work and words can inspire you.”

Ronson is very pleased about getting Wonder onboard. “I’m sure I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to Stevie Wonder records. I never thought about getting him to do a song because it was such a ridiculous fantasy but when I wrote the melody that became the opening track, I kept hearing Stevie’s harmonica tone in my head.

“I became fixated on this so I sent a letter and the track to his manager and that’s how it got done. Without the song, without the melody shouting out for Steve Wonder, I would never have thought to ask him because it sounds like such a ridiculous thing and long-shot.”

One of the other big influences on the album’s sound was a place rather than a person. “We wanted to discover a really young singer who’d come up in the church tradition to sing on the album and we found Keyone Starr in Jackson, Mississippi. We drove through Memphis on that trip and the city got completely under my skin. Everything about it, from the memorial to Martin Luther King at the Lorraine motel to just walking around by myself at night, was telling me that I needed to spend some time here.

“When we went to visit Royal Studio to see it, where they did all the Al Green and Ann Peebles stuff and where Willie Mitchell used to run the place, it felt so good that I said to Jeff that we had to come back and do the record there.”

 

Horizons

A blue-chip producer, surprising collaborators and a new city: it’s clear Ronson wanted something different this time around. “It’s my fourth album and I was bored of doing the same thing. I think it’s not so much maturity as just wanting to learn something new.

“You have to stay true to who you are as well, but you also have to constantly seek out new information. You’re always trying and striving to get better at what you do and that means learning from others and broadening your horizons with the instruments you play and the music you make.”

nUptown Special is out now on Columbia

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