THE groove of Uptown Funk may sound effortless, but it’s the product of endless tweaking, Mark Ronson tells Fiona Shepherd ahead of his T in the Park gig
There were perhaps some eyebrows raised when Mark Ronson stepped up to accept the 2008 Brit Award for Best British Male. Surely this DJ/producer with the slightly affected transatlantic accent didn’t qualify for the description? His hit album at the time, Version, didn’t even feature original material, being a succession of indie covers souped-up by soulful backing band The Dap-Kings and sung by guest vocalists. Even the man himself seemed a little bemused by the accolade, despite his work on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album virtually defining the musical zeitgeist of the time.
“I’m very self-critical and over-think things,” says Ronson. “I’m probably a bit too neurotic.”
Yet Ronson is at it again seven years later, creating the hit sound of now, as it were, with the omnipotent and omnipresent groove of Uptown Funk and accompanying album Uptown Special, which has returned him to the top of the charts after the relative commercial disappointment of his previous album, the appropriately named but undeservedly underappreciated 80s-inspired electro odyssey Record Collection.
“I realised that I just had to make something really good to smack people in the face with,” he says. “After you have a really big hit record, of course everybody’s going to check out your next thing but the difference is if you’re bringing out the record after the record that was after the hit record then it’s a different story – you really have to make something really great to get people’s attention.”
The collaborative Uptown Special is a consummate feelgood suite of jazz, funk, disco and soul written with the likes of Bruno Mars and hit producer/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bhasker and executed as deftly as Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, another party album which benefited from assembling a group of talented musicians in the studio to play live and give things that subtle human touch.
Despite the success, awards and satisfaction of collaborations, Ronson is sensitive to accusations that he is simply a musical pastiche merchant, recycling the sound of the classic soul, funk and rare groove records he has favoured over the years in his DJ sets.
“I want to make music for this generation and future generations, not just for people who used to like something else,” he counters.
There is no doubt he is serious in his musical mission. He comes to DJ at T in the Park next weekend with more than 20 years’ experience of giving a club crowd a lot of what they want and a little of what he reckons they need.
Ronson, whose family moved from London to New York when he was eight, made his name locally as a DJ with diverse tastes while he was still a student at NYU. Although he is characteristically self-deprecating about his jump into production and making his own music a decade ago – “anybody who was a DJ in New York at the time was getting some kind of record contract” – he has subsequently turned in exquisite production work for Winehouse, as well as Adele, Lily Allen, Rufus Wainwright, even his step-dad Mick Jones’s band Foreigner and – still to come – Lana Del Rey.
As for his own albums, “it’s never kind of ‘right, it’s gonna be about me now’,” he says. “It’s just because I’ve got some ideas that aren’t really going to fit anyone else. So none of them were made intentionally. These were things I was messing around with.”
Uptown Special is the exception in his catalogue, forged with a sense of the imperative, then meticulously tweaked before it was released from the traps. Evidently, it takes a lot of work to sound this carefree.
“Regardless of how much time we might have spent perfecting the sound, the moment of inspiration, the creative spark for these songs does just come out of nowhere,” he says. “Uptown Funk came out of having a jam in the studio. Some people sit down to jam and it sounds like Neil Young or Fleetwood Mac or Arcade Fire. When Bruno and I sit down in the studio with Jeff and we start to make a song, that’s just the default that we go to, and the kind of music it is, soul and funk and R&B, it’s not supposed to sound laboured or forced because then it’s not going to feel right.”
The album is much more than one global hit. There are echoes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, who contributes a signature harmonica solo, in the sound, while mischievous rapper Mystikal channels James Brown, regular Ronson collaborator Andrew Wyatt provides bruised soul vocals and Kevin Parker, the frontman of Australian indie band Tame Impala, sings lead on a couple of blissed out, jazz-infused psychedelic soul numbers which recall The Isley Brothers and Donald Byrd.
However, Ronson’s most intriguing collaborator is not a musician at all, but novelist Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, who accepted Ronson’s unusual offer to try his hand as a pop lyricist. “He’s a massive music buff, he’s like an encyclopaedia,” says Ronson. Still, his presence among the musos is a testament to Ronson’s ability to think outside the box.
“I was out in Venice when I started to write the album,” he says. “Venice has got a spooky vibe after dark, and I started to write melodies that were different to what I’d written before. I felt like the lyrics had to be about stories and characters and that’s something that I don’t really know how to do.
“When you think of really great lyrics in contemporary music, it’s always indie music and rap. When you think of soul or groove-based music, it’s usually about the dancefloor or heartbreak so I just told him that I wanted to try something to stimulate the mind and the behind.”
These are not your standard get-up-get-down lyrics. Chabon atmospherically captures the sultry, slightly altered feel of pulling an all-nighter on Daffodils, the mix of invincibility and yearning that plagues the perennial clubber on Leaving Los Feliz and takes an evocative snapshot of a break-up on Crack in the Pearl.
Ronson has always picked his wing(wo)men astutely, yet somehow casually. Amy Winehouse casts a long shadow – so much so that I am politely asked not to bring her up in interview, as Ronson has been asked about little else surrounding the release of Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy (see review, p22).
But he has also teased out career-best vocal performances from Boy George and wee Kyle Falconer of The View on the affecting Somebody to Love Me and the blithe Bike Song respectively. For Uptown Special, he embarked on a road trip round the southern states to find an old school soul singer. His “discovery” Keyone Starr guests on the album, while he mustered the auspicious likes of Mary J Blige, George Clinton and Grandmaster Flash for his Glastonbury appearance.
When asked who he would like to work with next, Ronson says he is already collaborating with all the artists he likes – including Glaswegian DJ/producer Hudson Mohawke who has just released his second album Lantern.
“That instrumental orchestral piece Kettles, that’s one of my favourite pieces of music this year,” he says. “There will be something wrong if [Batman director] Christopher Nolan doesn’t snatch him up.”
Mark Ronson plays T in the Park on 10 July, www.tinthepark.com