Mark Ronson may be one of music’s hardest-working – or at least hardest-traveling – producers, but right now he’s the picture of understated cool. Rocking Saint Laurent pineapple-skull-print sneakers and Mad Men slicked-back hair, Ronson, 39, is sitting at a mixing board at the Jimi Hendrix-built Electric Lady Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village, giving Billboard an exclusive preview of his new RCA album, Uptown Special (due Jan. 27). Ronson jammed the LP with unlikely collaborators (including Aussie alt-rock act Tame Impala, rapper Mystikal, Lana Del Rey producer Emile Haynie, novelist Michael Chabon), and on this sunny October day, he’s bobbing his head and chewing on a toothpick in quiet satisfaction as the blaring horns of first single “Uptown Funk” (released Nov. 10) give way to the vocals of the album’s biggest get: Bruno Mars.
“It’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done,” says Ronson — the Grammy-winning British-American guitarist-DJ who helped launch the careers of Amy Winehouse, Wale and others — while Tommy Brenneck, a member of The Budos Band and The Dap Kings, looks on between recording guitar parts. “I know that it’s one of Bruno’s favorite things that he’s ever done as well.”
Big words from the man who won the 2007 producer of the year Grammy for Winehouse’s 2006 breakout, Back to Black, and his own 2007 album Version. While making Uptown Special, Ronson ping-ponged from coast to coast, jetted between New York and London and road-tripped up the Mississippi River to write and record his all-star-packed fourth album. But most of his frequent-flier miles during the making of the LP came while trying to pin down Mars to finish the kinetic lead single, which the singer co-wrote (Mars also plays drums throughout the album).
“It was six or seven months of chasing Bruno around on tour,” says Ronson, who co-produced “Locked Out of Heaven” and other tracks on Mars’ 2012 Unorthodox Jukebox. Ronson and Uptown Special co-producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Fun) would set up shop whenever, wherever they found time with Mars, recording in Los Angeles, Memphis, London (Ronson’s current home base) and New York, where the son of socialite Ann Dexter-Jones and stepson of Foreigner‘s Mick Jones first cut his teeth as a DJ. (Younger twin sisters Samantha Ronson, the other celeb DJ in the family, and fashion designer Charlotte Ronson are bold-faced names themselves.) The single, which the pair will perform on Saturday Night Live on Nov. 22, stemmed from a groove Mars and his band were playing in their live show.
“When we hit on that opening line — ‘This shit, that ice cold/Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold’ — we knew that we had the seed of this really exciting idea,” remembers Ronson. “I pushed myself much more than I have on anything else in the past.”
Indeed, during the song’s grueling seven-month creation, Ronson collapsed in a London eatery. “There was all this pressure because Bhasker was leaving at the end of the day,” he recalls. “The plan was for me to record my guitar by lunch. Lunchtime comes and I still haven’t nailed it. We go out and in the stress of finishing the song I fainted in the restaurant. I threw up three times. Jeff had to carry me back to the studio.” They finally got it — on take 82.
Ronson specializes in uniting unexpected musical partners — “Introducing the Business,” from his last album, 2010’s Record Collection, features Atlanta trap rapper Pill and the London Gay Men’s Chorus — but he may have outdone himself on Uptown Special, which includes lyrics written by Chabon, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. “It’s probably my favorite piece of modern fiction. I’ve bought it for everybody,” Ronson says. “I knew he was a huge music fan because his last book, Telegraph Avenue, has details on ’50s, ’60s and ’70s jazz albums.”
Chabon would fly down from Berkeley, Calif., to Bhasker’s Venice Beach studio, where Ronson, Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow, and Kevin Parker and Jay Watson from Tame Impala “would all be jamming in the studio with Michael furiously typing in the corner,” says Ronson, who returned to Bhasker’s spot this fall to score the upcoming Johnny Depp–Ewan McGregor film Mortdecai.
It was a learning curve for both Ronson and Chabon. The creepy, Leonard Cohen-influenced “Summer Breaking” – sung by Parker and featuring the lyrics “Avenues empty as 44 clips/Cargo ships and teen zombie ships riding their whips” – took four drafts to get right. “He’s one of the great living American novelists and it’s tough to be like, ‘Uh, we don’t really like this one, could we try it again?’ ” Ronson says.
He need not have worried, according to Bhasker. “Mark’s a total master of bringing people together and getting the best out of them,” says the producer, likening Ronson to Quincy Jones, “who just shoots love and positivity out of him. Mark has that too.”
But despite Chabon’s big contributions, it’s the American South that looms largest over the record. “The music that we love has its roots in the South,” Ronson says. “Whether rock or gospel, that’s where all our shit comes from.”
Ronson recorded much of the album at Memphis’ Royal Studios, former haunt of Southern soul legends like Al Green. A chance encounter with Mystikal led to the rapper throwing down on “Feel Right,” which, with its sweaty horn-heavy groove and call-and-response parts, is James Brown for the post-crunk era. Then there’s Keyone Starr, a 23-year-old unknown who sings on three songs, including a soul track that interpolates the stutter-step drums from Soho house classic “Hot Music.” “We wanted a young Chaka Khan on it, but there wasn’t anybody coming to mind,” Ronson says. “Jeff was like, ‘We’re going to drive to the South, we’re going to call it the Mississippi Mission, and go to churches.’ It was a wild idea that became a reality.”
Filming the journey as they went, they drove up the Mississippi River in nine days, from New Orleans to Chicago, scouting singers at churches, community centers and side rooms of bars, where auditioners had to compete with “Lil Wayne blasting through the doors,” Ronson recalls.
In Jackson, Miss., they found Starr, wearing a big spiky earring, a preacher’s daughter who had been banished from church after getting pregnant. “She looked so badass,” says Ronson. “She opened her mouth and she had it instantly. I’m so drawn to singers with something broken in their voice, where you really hear the rawness.”
Ronson’s description of Starr’s voice could also apply to his former muse, Winehouse. Her 2011 death left a void. “I’m going to think about her for the rest of my life,” he says, as the psychedelic strains of “Daffodils,” a trippy collaboration with Tame Impala, waft from the speakers. “There are things on this record that I think she’d like, and others she’d f—ing hate.”
Another big change in Ronson’s life? The ring on his finger. He wed French actress-model-singer Josephine de La Baume in 2011. “I feel less like f—ing around at this point,” he says, when asked how marriage has affected his sound. “With this record, I needed to be firing on all cylinders.”
But Ronson, whose retro-soul sounds for Winehouse helped set a sonic template for Adele and others, says he was careful not to merely make a period piece with Uptown Special, despite citing Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan as influences. “This is the most progressive record I’ve ever done,” he says. “When I play my last album next to something contemporary it’s obvious we recorded all of our drums with one mic. This time around, I wanted that shit to sound tough, crisp — and f—ing massive.”