- 19 Feb 15
He's a serial hit-maker who has Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers and Macca on speed-dial. The art of songwriting, departed friends and cocaine sheeny high-hats are all on the agenda as Stuart Clark meets 'Uptown Funk' man Mark Ronson.
Before we get him to cast an expert ear over 61-years of modern pop history - we're taking Elvis Presley's 1954 debut single, 'That's All Right' as our starting point - I'd like on behalf of a grateful nation to say a big "thank you" to Mark Ronson and his pal Bruno Mars for making Simon Cowell's Christmas a little less merry than it might otherwise have been.
"I don't have a problem with the X-Factor as a TV show - in fact, it's kickstarted some pretty decent careers - but I hate this assumption that whoever wins it's going to be the Christmas number one. It was always Slade vs Wizard, Culture Club vs Duran Duran, George Michael vs Eurythmics; epic battles between the biggest artists of the day, which went right down to the wire.
"Anyway, I was in London when somebody said, 'You've got the Christmas number one in Ireland!' I was like, 'No shit? That's amazing!' We didn't get it anywhere else, so thank you guys for rolling with the funk - I know Bruno appreciates it too."
Ah, he's making us feel all warm and gooey inside. Currently enjoying its eighth consecutive week atop the Irish chart - no mean feet when you've got Messrs Sheeran, Murs and Hozier-Byrne sniffing around - 'Uptown Funk' is indeed a pop pearler, but not the best track on its parent Uptown Special album. That honour belongs to 'Summer Breaking'; a heavenly, if slightly unseasonal, coming together of the Isley Brothers and Toto, with a bit of Christopher Cross thrown in for good measure.
"Wow, I'm blushing!" he beams. "People assume from the single that it's a dance record, but musically it's all over the place - in a good way!'
The starting point for Uptown Special was the epic American road trip Ronson undertook with Jeff Bhasker, the Grammy Award-winning producer whose CV includes Kanye, Drake, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Pink and Alicia Keys.
"We drove through New Orleans, Baton Rouge, St. Louis, Little Rock, Chicago and Jackson, Mississippi where we discovered so many amazing singers, including this 23-year-old girl called Keyone Starr who just blew us away with her voice and her presence. I asked somebody, 'How comes these people aren't in Los Angles and New York being stars?' and they said, 'Man, it's just too nice down here, nobody wants to leave.' We took Keyone with us to Memphis - she's on three songs - which had never really been top of my places to visit, but got under my skin in a second. Like Detroit, it has this underdog vibe. There was ice on the ground because it was a freakishly cold winter, and I was walking to these places like the Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel where the Martin Luther King memorial is. I went to Sun and Royal and all the other famous studios - it was supposed to be a bit of a tourist stop, but I remember looking at Jeff and saying, 'There's something about Memphis. We've got to come back and do the whole album here.' I read somewhere that 'Uptown Funk' is the first number one single to be recorded in Memphis since '73. I'm not sure what the last one was - Al Green's 'Let's Stay Together' or 'Love And Happiness' maybe. It's nice to be part of that lineage."
The recording of Uptown Special was both a pleasure and a serious impediment to Ronson's normally rude health.
"Bruno's a great guy, there's no excess ego there," Mark notes. "He'd be working on the record and say, 'Okay, I've got to go now and do something...' and neglect to mention that it's a rehearsal for the Super Bowl, which is happening in two days time and will be watched by half a billion people. You'd be around him and forget he's a complete superstar. We were trying to finish 'Uptown Funk' off in the studio in London and a car suddenly arrived to take him to Finsbury Park where he was playing to 50,000 fans who started screaming the second he walked on stage. Bruno's such a level, solid mensch of a dude. Again, when we were working on 'Uptown...', I thought to myself, 'If I deliver a 9.6 out of 10' performance I'm doing okay, but this kid's at a level where everything he does has to be an 11 out of 10 because it's being measured against genius tunes like 'Locked Out Of Heaven' and 'Young Girls'. The expectation is off the scale.
"The expectation didn't get to him, but it did to me a bit. I guess it was a culmination of things. I love songs like 'Bang Bang Bang' and 'Somebody To Love Me' that were on my previous album, Record Collection, but it was definitely seen as a commercial disappointment. The musical landscape changes so fast now that I was thinking, 'Does anyone give a shit about a Mark Ronson record in 2014 or '15, whenever this is coming out?' I was going into the studio every day by myself and nothing I was doing was exciting me. I felt like I was hitting a brick wall, just stumped for inspiration. That eventually came when I decided to go to Jeff Bhasker's place in Venice Beach, California where his producer friend Emile Haynie who's done Lana Del Rey and FKA Twigs was also hanging out. Last March I said 'yes' to giving a TED Talk, which was probably a bad idea because we were in the initial phases of recording. It's all going on, and the skin on the back of my neck and hands broke out in this crazy nerve rash, something I've never seen before. Six months later finishing 'Uptown Funk', knowing the importance of the song it all came to a head. I was sweating over this guitar part, went out for lunch during the middle of the day and pretty much collapsed in the restaurant. Jeff had to carry me out of there. It's kind of a funny anecdote now, but at the time I was in a real state."
DJ-ing the other night, a pal of mine made the brave/daft decision to follow 'Killing In The Name Of' with 'Uptown Funk', the gaff going more mental for it it than it did Rage.
"Great! As a DJ myself, I know the importance of having a tune you can throw on and know, 'I'm fucking good for three-and-and-half-minutes!' To do that as a service to other DJs is a great feeling. Those Rage Against The Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes have really funky basslines - I bet they're Motown and Philly fans!"
Has he worked out how he's going to perform Uptown Special live yet?
"Er, I haven't, no. I'm under the gun to figure that out, actually."
I asked her record company boss Martin Mills, "Did you know that Adele would sell records?" and he said, "Yes, I knew she'd sell 50,000. I had no fucking idea she'd sell 27 million!" Did Mark realise just how big a deal Uptown Special was going to be whilst assembling it?
"I knew by bringing some fucking incredible geniuses like Jeff, Bruno and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala in that we weren't going to make a horrible record but, like you said, the likes of 'Summer Breaking' are more harmonically complex than what's going on in a lot of regular music, and the lyrics aren't overly simplified like most pop music."
Which has a lot to do with Mark getting Pulitzer Prize-winner
Michael Chabon, his favourite living author, to supply a good few of the album's words.
"Yeah, I got in touch thinking, 'He's not going to go for it', but he did! I wrote this song inspired by Michael's lyrics, which screamed, 'Stevie Wonder!' so I sent him an email asking if he'd work on it. Me and Stevie? Ludicrous fairytale stuff, but he said, 'Yes' too, which was the crowning thing on this album. There was no masterplan to get these people on;
I just sort of made it up as we went along."
Mark's stepdad, Foreigner legend Mick Jones, was so impressed with 'Uptown Funk' that he thought it must be Nile Rodgers' handiwork.
"I was like, 'Thank you... I think!'" he laughs. "Nile was around quite a bit when we were kids. Obviously you have no idea of the importance of these people, it's just, 'That's my stepdad's friend'. I lost touch with him for a little while, but he always seemed to be keeping tabs and would send a little 'I'm really proud of you' note when I did stuff. It's amazing.
"He has such a generous spirit, like the music is for everybody, you know? The Chic stuff is such sophisticated and incredible music, so well played. The first time I got a little bit of insight into his process and the writing and the hooks is when we were working together on the new Duran Duran record. It's amazing to watch. He's still this fountain of endless ideas and did what Chic did so well, which is that combination of soul, pop and R&B sophistication."
When was the first time little Marky Ronson appreciated the production as well as the song?
"Back to Nile Rodgers! When I was 5 or 6 and realised there was a sort of link between David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' and Duran Duran's 'The Reflex'. The way the drums sounded, the guitars having this really amazing percussive funk thing going on. A few years later, I was totally grabbed by those early Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five tracks."
Ronson looked like all his birthdays and Christmases had come together last week when he appeared on the same French TV show fronted by Antoine de Caunes - remember Eurotrash? - as Italian Disco Don Giorgio Moroder.
"That was my first time meeting him," the pupil says of the master. "He's such a wonderful, warm guy. I was telling him that 'Love To Love You Baby' is probably the best disco high-hat ever. When I was doing the Uptown Special outro track, 'Daffodils', with Kevin, the question was, 'Is it as beautiful and cocaine sheeny as that high-hat on 'Love To Love You Baby?'"
To the list of total legends he's met can be added (Sir) Paul McCartney who got Mark to produce two of the standouts on his 2013 album, New.
"You can learn so much from just being around him, you don't have to open your mouth once. His approach to arrangements, to creating layers and textures... one time he got these wine glasses, poured water into them and made an A minor chord by running his finger round the rim. At this point in his career, having achieved every single thing you could dream of, he still wants to make shit interesting and creative. 'I don't want it to sound like an acoustic guitar; let's turn it all the fucking way up so it has character.' That's totally what I aspire to with my music."
Anyone still on Mark's to-work-with wish-list?
"Someone whose songwriting I've always worshipped, and who's been a massive influence on me, is Steve Winwood," he enthuses. "Traffic and Blind Faith were some of my favourite music ever."
Did he see Jay Bulger's hard hitting - in more ways than one! - film about Winwood's cantankerous Blind Faith bandmate, Ginger Baker?
"Of course! It's crazy, I love it. The guy's a total once-off genius."
Having co-produced Back To Black, and got her to contribute that stupendous cover of 'Valerie' to his own Version album, Ronson will forever be inextricably linked to Amy Winehouse. What does he make of the new Pete Doherty tribute, 'The Flags Of The Old Regime', and the overall handling of his old friend's legacy?
"I didn't know he'd written a song about her," he says somewhat bemusedly. "I don't think Amy would be happy if she was being overused and turned into this Mother Teresa-style figure, but stuff like the music programme in New Orleans that's being run in her name is great. There's this Amy movie coming out done by the same people as Senna. The main thing that's going to preserve Amy's legacy is her music. There's always going to be some 13 or 14-year-old discovering her for the first time, and possibly as a result getting through a bad patch of their own."
Mark was supposed to be contributing to the posthumous Michael Jackson album, Xscape, but come its 2014 release was absent from the credits.
"I got some files that I looked at briefly, but I didn't really know where to take it," he reveals. "I just couldn't figure it out. It wasn't meant to be."
At 39, but having packed as much into his career as people twice his age, what are Mark Ronson's 'I wouldn't swap 'em for the world' moments?
"Have you got all day?" he smiles."Getting the track back which Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on; performing on the Other Stage at Glastonbury in 2008; having a global number one with 'Uptown Funk' is pretty crazy and recording Back To Black with Amy. To have worked with so many cool people is just incredible."