Mark Ronson has been in the music business for over 20 years as a DJ, producer and solo artist. He’s produced albums for some of the biggest names in the business (Amy Winehouse, Adele, Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and The Black Lips to name but a few), tasted solo success with covers of The Smiths and The Zutons, and won countless awards (including best producer at the Grammy Awards and best solo artist at the BRIT Awards).
Despite this, he still hasn’t been able to establish himself as a household name in his own right, until now that is. It has been a long journey, but with “Uptown Funk” the musician has finally been able to taste number one success in the pop charts in both the UK and the U.S.
Ronson’s new album “Uptown Special” out now features legends like Stevie Wonder and talents such as Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), and a movie score for Johnny Depp’s new film Mortdecai. It is fair to say that 2015 could well be the year Mark Ronson blows up on a global scale.
THE RED BULLETIN: You started out at hip hop clubs in downtown New York. Now you’re having an “Uptown Special”. Does that represent where you’re at now, that you’ve moved up the ladder quite a bit?
MARK RONSON: I think “Uptown” is, you know, because uptown in New York is synonymous with things like Harlem and The Bronx which are considered to be some of the best places of hip hop. I think that even though we were downtown it was like we were playing the music from uptown. Uptown’s just something that always sounded cool, it always sounded like something that was exciting. So it just kind of accidentally came about. And that’s just how it stuck.
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That’s why it would be amazing to have an “Uptown Special” at the legendary Apollo.
The album feels like a homage to the 60’s and 70’s. Is “Uptown Special” your funk album?
There’s definitely a lot of funk on it. I kind of started off writing the album in Spanish in Los Angeles with writer Jeff Bhasker, who is also a producer I work with. We went down to Memphis and when you’re down there you can’t help but be influenced by all of that great Southern American music like funk and soul. So yeah, there’s definitely a lot of funk on the record, but i’m a DJ, so there’s always got to be that element in my music where there’s something for the floor. Author Michael Chabon wrote the lyrics and I am a massive fan of his. There are a lot of beautiful stories on the album. There’s some hip hop stuff, some psychedelic touches thanks to the work I did with Kevin Parker from Tame Impala. That’s how I got a great back beat to it all the music, the drums always have a good groove. But the album is more than just funk I think.
How many air miles did you collect working in London, LA and Memphis?
Probably a lot. I was hoping to make the record in London. I built a studio here, this really great recording studio of my own. And then, like always, I ended up going to America to make most of the album, because most of the kind of musicians I wanted to work with were there. Making an album is always a bit of a journey. For example I didn’t really know we were going to take this trip to the South at first. I just thought about going to LA to write an album. When we got there Jeff had this idea about driving around the South and finding a great, amazing young soul singer. What sounded like a silly idea at two in the morning when you’re drunk became a reality, and it was fantastic. That’s why this record took a long time to make. You don’t necessarily know exactly what you’re making when you start off. You’re just searching to find something that feels good.
You sang on the last album. Will we be hearing your vocals on this one too?
No, I haven’t sung on this record. It was fun to sing on the last record, but that was the only time I have sung on an album. It was more out of necessity than desire because Johnny from The Drums didn’t want to sing on the song I wrote with him. At the last minute he was like: “I like this song, but I don’t want to sing it.” So I was pretty much forced to. The new record is kind of like a soul record though. It needs amazing singers, it’s not the kind of thing that I should be involved in. There are singers like Bruno Mars and Keyone Starr, the girl that we discovered in Jackson, Mississippi singing. And Stevie Wonder’s playing harmonica on it! These are great, great R&B talents. I just thought that it would be better for me to just play and write the songs.
How much of an influence has Stevie Wonder been on you?
He’s definitely my favorite singer and songwriter and musician of all time. It’s hard for me to even express in words how important his music is to me. There’s just something about his music and obviously most of the world feels the same cause that’s why people love him so much.
How did the collaboration come about?
I just sent him and his manager a song and I had this idea for him to play harmonica. I think we waited for about four months and I thought it probably wasn’t going to happen, but then just as I had to finish the whole album this email appeared in my inbox just like magic. It was a Dropbox session and it just said: “session from Stevie Wonder” from his engineer. I think it was probably one of the greatest moments of my life musically. The person whose music has brought me so much joy and influenced me so much - more than anybody else maybe - is actually playing on this thing that I wrote, it just seems too weird to even comprehend.
What was it like visiting a hair salon with Bruno Mars?
Yeah, that was fun. I think it was his idea to put the rollers in, and I thought it would be fun to go with it. I’ve never had rollers in my hair before, but it definitely was a very positive experience.
Aside from the new album, you have also just finished the score for the upcoming Johnny Depp/Ewan McGregor movie Mortdecai. How was that?
It was a little crazy because I had to finish the album and the movie the same weekend. And they actually come out the same week, but it’s exciting because they’re quite different. I got to write the movie score. I love the soundtracks of the late 60’s and the early 70’s like Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin and Henry Mancini. It was great to get to write music without having to worry so much about things like whether a track is too poppy. As a musician you always want to write melodies that are memorable, but also you have to write different things like car chases, where your job is to make sure the music fits to the scene.
Johnny’s not playing guitar on it, is he though? Apparently he’s a pretty good player…
He is! I really wanted him to play on it actually. When I was producing some songs on the last Paul McCartney album he showed me this guitar Johnny had bought for him, which looks like a cigar box. He was like “Yeah, Johnny Depp’s a pretty good guitar player.” So when Paul McCartney tells you someone’s a good guitar player, then they’re probably pretty good. I think I wanted to have him at some point, but it never kind of materialized.
So he would be a candidate for Mark Ronson the producer in the future then?
Yeah, it just seems like he would be kind of cool to hang out with him.
As a producer you probably get lots of offers. How do you decide what to take on and when to say no?
I think you just have to use your own judgment. Sometimes the decision can be difficult if is somebody who you love or somebody who’s really exciting comes along and asks you to work on something. You have to really ask yourself if you are going to help them produce the best album possible. It shouldn’t just be about whether they’re hot right now, or if they’re important or you think it might be successful.
One thing I have noticed is that I’m definitely better at certain kinds of music than others. As much as I love rock and indie, maybe its not the greatest thing for me to be doing those kind of records. I think you just have to learn what your talents are and sort of go with that, and that’s all you can do. You’re not going to be able to be right 100% of the time, but if you act on what feels right inside as opposed to what you think it going to be successful then at least be proud of yourself.
Do you have any regrets?
Yeah, lots of them, tons of them. I have regrets every time I listen to anything that I have ever worked on. Like: “F**k, we should have turned the guitar down there, the vocal up or I should have changed the arrangement.” You just have to accept at some point that when you put out music and it’s in the world, then that’s just what it is.
Mark Ronson and style seem to go hand in hand, both musically and in terms of appearance. How does it feel being called the most stylish man in the UK?
That was seven years ago, so I think I’ve slipped down the list a little bit since then. It’s still nice in a way to have that said, but it’s not something I think about too much. The reason why i’m is to make music, and that’s kind of the main thing that I like to focus on. It’s nice to go out occasionally and get dressed up, but if you saw me right now you’d be disappointed…
So what’s your typical studio outfit?
When I’m working in the studio it’s mostly long hours and there is nobody there but my engineer and me. So I don’t have to dress up for anyone. I prefer comfortable clothes in that environment anyway: Sneakers, an old pair of jeans, a worn out sweater, whatever. Stuff that doesn’t necessarily look good, but feels good. You don’t want to worry about coffee stains or about creases in your suit when you’re recording. You just want to get on with work and not worry about any of that.
You’re turning 40 in 2015. Is that a scary thought or are you going to celebrate in style?
I don’t know. When I turned 25 I thought that sounded like the oldest thing ever. Then 30 seemed like: “Oh my God! What am I doing?” I’m not sure exactly how big or small I’ll celebrate it. But yeah, I think it’s great. Some of my favorite artists made their best work after they turned 40 or 50. So, I’m not worried about it.
Do you still get to DJ as much as you want to?
You know, I haven’t DJ’ed for a while, because I was waiting to finish the new album. And it had been a long time since I put out an album. I didn’t want to go and DJ and just be playing the old material. I recently DJ’ed with the new material and it was such a lovely thing to get to do and play for 2,500 English kids. It was just a great vibe and it was nice to see them get into the new music as well, because you never know how it’s going to go until you play it out there. Even if it’s a big hit on YouTube or something, the real test is when you put it on in front of a bunch of kids.