Q&A: Mark Ronson On His Favorite Records To DJ, Writing With Michael Chabon, And Uptown Special‘s Accidental Law & Order Homage
This week Mark Ronson released Uptown Special, his fourth proper solo album and the launching pad for the increasingly inescapable Bruno Mars jam “Uptown Funk!” The album — Ronson’s first in nearly five years — features contributions from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, Mystikal (!), Stevie Wonder (!!) and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (?). While the album shares the same kind of savvy curatorial vision as his previous records, Uptown Special is a much more cohesive collection of songs, diving deeper into seamless R&B, dirty funk, and soul-inflected pop music than anything he’s ever done before. I chatted with him about how the record came to be and how sometimes it’s good to just recognize and embrace the things that inspire you.
STEREOGUM: Uptown Special is kind of an insane record. There are so many incredible superstar people involved and I know you also spent time road-tripping through the South as a part of the process. Did you go into the making of this record kind of knowing what you wanted it to be or did it sort of reveal itself to you as the process went along?
RONSON: I’d definitely say it kind of revealed itself over time. I was a bit clueless at the beginning of the process and was just kind of pretending not to be. You know the record company will check in every now and again and ask about what kind of record you are making, and early on I’d just be like, “It’s a rap record and a kind of global pop record, whatever whatever” — basically just making up shit because I didn’t know what to tell them. It wasn’t really until last October when I got into the studio with Jeff Bhasker and we started to write some songs that I realized that it was definitely way more complex music than anything I’d done before, so I decided to just kind of roll with it. Jeff is an incredible pop and hip-hop producer, but he also has a very deep jazz background, and I think I was kind of looking for that. And then, bringing Michael Chabon into the equation … it just started to come together. I had been working with Jeff for a couple of weeks and I decided to write Michael Chabon a letter and see if he would like to be involved. It was so weird — and this has never happened to me before — seeing his lyrics on the page, I just immediately started to hear the melodies in my head as I was reading them. I never usually have that sort of instant inspiration, but it happened a couple of times. Then, when we went to Memphis to start recording, that became it’s own crazy thing. After we got there things really changed. I don’t know if it was the studio or just the assortment of people we had there, but the record really took a different turn. It really became — forgive me for using this term — more funk-driven. It was just kind of a feat trying to make the whole thing come together as a record, especially since there are such a wide variety of people involved. You know, everyone from Kevin Parker to Mystikal. It’s a lot to rein in.
STEREOGUM: It all hangs together. It’s one of those things that, on paper, maybe shouldn’t make sense, but taken as a whole it does.
RONSON: It’s weird. I just finished it, so at this moment I could happily go for about six months without hearing any of the individual songs again. I was mastering and sequencing the record and working out all the little transitions between the songs while also trying to finish a film score, so it was all a bit much … but I have to say, just letting the record play front to back, it really does play nicely as an album. I’m not just blowing smoke because I made it or anything.
STEREOGUM: It’s been nearly five years since you released a proper album of your own. Were you feeling the pressure to finally get something new out?
RONSON: I don’t know. I guess because I always tend to think of myself as a producer first and foremost, there is a thing that happens where I get to be the artist instead every couple of years. There was just this thing that happened around [2008 LP] Version — which was something I really made in my studio just for fun — but because of the involvement of Amy [Winehouse] and Lily [Allen] and Santi [Santigold], and the fact that they were all kind of blowing up around that same time, I just got to be swept up in it. I got signed to Columbia as an artist. I just really can’t make an album now until I know I have at least a couple of pieces of music that really make sense together. Especially since nobody really cares about buying albums anymore, I feel like if you’re gonna go through the trouble of making something, then you really want to make sure that the pieces all make sense together and it really works as a whole. You want to inspire people enough to actually have the thought, “I want to own this collection of songs.” I’m not comparing my album to The Suburbs, but you know, you don’t want to just own one song from that album, you want to own the whole thing. So anyway, it took some time. There was definitely a good year there where I was just kinda throwing shit at the wall and trying to figure out what kind of record I wanted to make. At first I thought it would be more of a rap album, but then I’d go and DJ with these kids like Hudson Mohawke or Baauer and just realized that I couldn’t really compete with the kind of shit that all these younger guys were making. I just needed to go back and do my own shit. Focus on the kind of stuff I really know and love and figure out what that was going to be. Also, taking so long to make another record kind of took off any pressure. I don’t think there was anyone in 2014 sitting around and thinking, “Man, I can’t wait for a new Mark Ronson album! I wonder what that’s gonna sound like?”
STEREOGUM: I remember seeing you DJ a lot around NYC back when I first moved here and I’ve always kinda thought that your taste as a DJ — a kind of anything-goes vibe where, in the right moment, literally any two records could logically sit next to each other and actually work — is the same vibe that has always characterized the records you make.
RONSON: Totally. It can also be a bit of a detriment sometimes, though. The reason some records are so good is because they are so purely one thing, but I just can’t imagine being able to do that. I love so much different shit and I often think that it all kind of comes from the same source anyway. That was one of the really great things about driving through the South when we were making this record. We went under the guise of trying to find a great new singer to have on the record, but it really became this experience of visiting the roots of everything you love about music. I would have to say that about 80 percent of the music that I love the most originally came from gospel music … which became R&B which became soul which became rap. When I hear Steely Dan or Chaka Khan or Biggie, it can all be traced back to those same roots.
STEREOGUM: The songs on Uptown Special really each inhabit their own aesthetic pretty completely. If someone had played me “I Can’t Lose” and told me that it was some long-lost club track from the ’80s, I would have believed them. It’s not even that it’s trying in some way to sound retro, it just seems like you understand that kind of music so well that you can conjure it in a super authentic way.
RONSON: Yeah, but that has a lot to do with Jeff Bhasker as well. Also, after you’ve been DJing for so long, at some point you can look back and see the records that you know you always go back to — anything by Earth, Wind, & Fire, “I Know You, I Live You” by Chaka Khan, “Peg” by Steely Dan, “Lowdown” by Bozz Scaggs … I will never get tired of playing those records out. I came to realize that as much as I love other genres of music, those songs are the things that just do something to me and for me that other songs don’t. “I Can’t Lose” was one of those songs that started to happen after we’d been in the studio for about a month. Up until then I’d been writing almost everything. I hired Jeff because he’s a great producer, but also because he’s a great writer as well. So I was like, “Give me some shit man. Show me what you’ve got!” And then he came in with “I Can’t Lose.” Then he decided that we needed to go out on a Southern road trip and find the person with the perfect voice to sing the song, so what started out as a drunken idea at 2am quickly became a reality. We drove from New Orleans and wound our way up to Chicago. That led to us being in Memphis and being totally awestruck by the city, which is why we came back there to record the album. That’s also how we eventually found Keyone Starr, who sings on the record.
STEREOGUM: The roster of people involved — Andrew Wyatt, Kevin Parker, Bruno Mars, Mystikal, STEVIE WONDER — it’s crazy. You got a Pulitzer-winning novelist to also contribute lyrics. Obviously Michael Chabon is a music lover and has written about music in the past, but how did this collaboration come to be?
RONSON: Well, this is my fourth record, and I didn’t want to just end up writing eleven songs about heartbreak or songs about partying or whatever. I just knew I wanted it to go a little deeper. Not like I was trying to go full Leonard Cohen or anything, I was just thinking about great pop songs that also have awesome lyrics. Like “Automatic” by the Pointer Sisters, for example. “All I can seem to push from my lips are a string of absurdities.” So fucking cool. So anyway, a couple of years ago I was in Europe and I went to one of Michael Chabon’s book signings. I am a big fan of his, so I went and stood in line to get my book signed, and after he signed it he asked if I was Mark Ronson the music producer guy. So we started talking and he mentioned that he’d really liked some of the songs on Record Collection. I’d read Telegraph Avenue and I knew that he was a music obsessive from all of the stuff he’d written about liner notes and whatnot, so I just decided to write him an email and asked him if he would be interested in writing some lyrics for me. I was surprised that he was instantly really into the idea, and he started sending me these lyrics that were so amazing and so totally out there. Then he came down to the studio and the three of us sat and really hammered out some of the ideas. Michael Chabon was basically subjected to Jeff Bhasker’s songwriting boot camp, but he was totally loving it. He wasn’t precious about it at all. A song like “Summer Breaking” … I think we might have totally re-written those lyrics three or four times before we got it right. He had no problem with just throwing shit out and starting over sometimes. He was great.
STEREOGUM: “Summer Breaking” is probably my favorite song on the record. I’ve gotta be honest, though, the first time I heard it I thought it was some kind of riff on the theme song from Law & Order. I don’t mean that as a slight.
RONSON: [Laughs] Really? I have honestly never really watched Law & Order, but my sister is a massive, obsessive fan. I could see why it might have that vibe though … maybe a kind of ’70s cop show kind of thing?
STEREOGUM: Yeah. Like New York City in the summertime.
RONSON: OK. That’s good then.
STEREOGUM: What will 2015 be like for you? Will you tour this record?
RONSON: I don’t think I’ll be able to tour that much. I really don’t want to play “Uptown Funk!” live without Bruno, or “Daffodils” without Kevin. If we can play a few special shows with everyone there, that would be amazing. We’ll just have to play it by ear. I’m just so glad to have it done.
Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special is out now via RCA Records.