Is Mark Ronson the hardest-working producer in the music business? In pursuit of the perfect groove, the British/American DJ and guitarist helped launch the careers of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and Wale. A star-studded fourth solo album, Uptown Special, is due in January through RCA. To complete the record, Ronson, 39, ping-ponged between London and Brooklyn, and road-tripped up the Mississippi auditioning unknown church singers, and hit up legendary studios from coast to coast.
But right now he’s ensconced at the famed, Jimi Hendrix-built Electric Lady Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village, giving Billboard an exclusive preview of Uptown Special. It’s jammed with unlikely musical partners like Aussie alt-rockers Tame Impala, New Orleans rapper Mystikal, and the novelist Michael Chabon. The picture of understated cool, Ronson rocks Saint Laurent pineapple-skull print sneakers and Mad Men-era slicked-back hair. He bobs his head in quiet satisfaction as the horns blare on the first single, “Uptown Funk,” released Nov. 10. Then the horns give way to vocals from the album’s biggest “get” of all: Bruno Mars.
“It’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Ronson says of the track, chewing on a toothpick while Tommy Brenneck, a member of the Budos Band and the Dap Kings, looks on between recording guitar parts. “And I know that it’s one of Bruno’s favorite things that he’s ever done, as well.”
Ronson accrued some serious frequent flyer miles trying to pin Mars down for Uptown Special. Mars wound up playing drums throughout the album, and he co-wrote the kinetic single. “It was six or seven months of chasing Bruno around on tour,” says the soft-spoken Ronson, who co-produced “Locked Out of Heaven” and other tracks on Mars’ 2012 hit Unorthodox Jukebox.
Ronson and Uptown Special co-producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, fun.) would set up shop whenever and wherever they found time with Mars, eventually recording in L.A., London, Memphis, and NYC. New York is where Ronson — the son of socialite Ann Dexter-Jones and stepson to Foreigner’s Mick Jones — first cut his teeth as a DJ in the mid-’90s. On Nov. 22, Ronson and Mars will head over to Rockefeller Center to perform on Saturday Night Live together.
“Uptown Funk” stems from a lick that Mars and his band were playing on tour. It turned into a full-on combustible groove workout with elastic bass and indomitable spirit. “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,” Ronson tells Billboard. “I pushed myself much more than I have on anything else in the past.”
Big words from the man who won a Grammy for Producer of the Year after helming the majority of Amy Winehouse’s breakout LP Back in Black. But those airtight turnarounds and sharp horn lines in “Uptown Funk” — courtesy of members of Antibalas and Dap Kings, who also played on much of Ronson’s work with Winehouse — didn’t come easy. At one point during the song’s seven-month creation, Ronson collapsed over lunch.
“There was all of this pressure because Bhasker was leaving at the end of the day,” Ronson recalls. “The plan was for me to record my guitar part by lunch. Lunchtime comes around and I still haven’t nailed the part. We go out and in the stress of finishing this song I fainted in the restaurant. I threw up three times. Jeff had to carry me back to the studio.” In the end, they got it — on take 82.
Ronson wrote the majority of Uptown Special with Bhasker, Emilie Haynie (Eminem, Lana Del Rey), and an unexpected lyrical contributor: Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author behind 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. “It’s probably my favorite piece of modern fiction,” Ronson says, “I’ve basically bought it for everybody. I knew [Chabon] 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 typing furiously away at these great lyrics in the corner,” says Ronson, who returned to Bhasker’s space this fall to score the upcoming Johnny Depp/Ewan McGregor comedic-action film, Mortdecai. The Uptown Special collaboration was a learning curve for both Ronson and Chabon. The dark, 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.
But despite Chabon’s contributions, it’s the American South that looms largest over the album. “The music that we love somehow has its roots in the South,” Ronson says. “Whether it became rock ‘n’ roll or gospel, that is where all our shit comes from.” Ronson recorded much of Uptown Special at Memphis’ storied Royal Studios, which has hosted giants like Al Green and Chuck Berry. A chance encounter with Mystikal at the studio led to the rapper throwing down on “Feel Right,” which, with its sweaty horn section and call-and-response parts, is James Brown for the post-crunk era.
And then there’s the story behind Keyone Starr, the unknown 23-year-old who sings alongside Grammy winners and platinum sellers on Uptown Special. One of her cuts is a soul workout that interpolates the stutter-step beat from SOHO’s house classic “Hot Music.” Of another Keyone track, “I Can’t Lose,” Ronson says, “We wanted a young Chaka Khan on it, but there just wasn’t anybody coming to mind. Jeff was like, ‘We’re going to drive down to the South, we’re going to call it the Mississippi Mission, and go to the churches.’ It was a wild idea that became a reality.”
Filming the journey as they went along, Ronson and Bhasker drove up the Mississippi River over the course of nine days, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Jackson, St. Louis, Little Rock, and up to Chicago. They scouted choir singers at churches, local community centers, and side rooms of sports bars, where “Lil Wayne would be blasting through the glass doors,” Ronson says. “People were trying to sing as loud as they could over the music that was coming through. We saw so many great singers.”
In Jackson, at Mississippi State University, they found Starr, a preacher’s daughter with a big spiky earring. She’d been shunned from her church after getting pregnant. “She just looked so badass. I remember thinking: it would be awesome if this one could sing really great,” Ronson says. “She just opened her mouth and she had it instantly. I’m so drawn to singers with rasp and something broken in their voice, where you really hear the rawness.”
Of course, Ronson’s description of Starr’s voice could easily be applied to his former muse, Winehouse. Her passing in 2011 left a big void that Ronson is still trying to process. “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, wafts through the speakers. “There are things on this record that I think she’d like, and others she’d fucking hate.”
Another big change in Ronson’s life? There’s a ring on his finger. Despite all of his racing around the globe making Uptown Special, Ronson has settled down over the past few years, tying the knot in 2011 with French actress, model, and singer Joséphine de La Baume. “I feel a bit less like fucking around at this point,” he says, when asked how his new status affected his sound. “With this record, I felt like I needed to be firing on all cylinders.”
Ronson took care to not craft a straight ’60s or ’70s period piece with Uptown Special, despite citing Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan as influences. “Production-wise, this is the most progressive record I’ve ever done,” says the man whose retro-soul sound on his 2007 album Version — plus Back To Black in ’06 — helped pave the way for Adele. “When I play my last album [2010’s Record Collection] next to something contemporary, it’s obvious we just recorded all of our drums with one mic,” Ronson says. “This time around, I wanted that shit to sound tough, crisp — and fucking massive.”