When Mark Ronson makes a record, he makes a record.
On Uptown Special – TIDAL’s HiFi Album of the Month – the Grammy-winning producer behind memorable albums from Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Bruno Mars and Paul McCartney is a shining example of stunning artistry working in chorus with an uncompromising attention to detail.
Long inspired by the funk and soul music of the ’60s and ’70s, Uptown Special is Ronson’s funkiest and most focused solo effort yet. The album also harkens back to his musical beginnings.
Growing up in New York City, Ronson first made his mark as a DJ in the early ‘90s, which found him lugging around boxes of scratchy second-hand vinyl, heavy on hip-hop, funk, soul and R&B. He had those days in mind when crafting this album.
“Biggie, Chaka Khan, Amerie, Boz Scaggs, Missy, Earth Wind & Fire, N.O.R.E….Those songs would set alight the dance floor. The New York club scene was filled with girls, boys, dancers, drug dealers, rappers, models and skateboarders who came mostly for one reason: to dance,” says Ronson. “And regardless of genre or era, if the song was good – if it had dope drums, if it had soul to it – they danced. With Uptown Special I set out to capture the feeling I remember from those New York nights”.
Over 18 months, between studios in London, Memphis, Los Angeles and New York, Ronson’s fourth album was written, produced and recorded with friend and Grammy-winning producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Drake, Alicia Keys).
The majority of the album’s lyrics – though not lead single “Uptown Funk” (feat. Bruno Mars) – were written by Ronson’s favorite living author, Michael Chabon. The Pulitzer-winning novelist became a part of the songwriting process early on and was fully immersed in the album’s narrative creation, even working with Ronson and the vocalists in the recording studio.
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker played a huge role on the album, lending his signature, woozy vocal to three songs, as well as laying drums, guitars, synths and background vocals on other tracks. Longtime collaborator Andrew Wyatt [Miike Snow] also contributed vocals and songwriting.
Fellow producer Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, FKA Twigs) provided sterling sonic landscapes to the tracks. Living legend Stevie Wonder lent his unmistakable harmonica to featured on the album’s opening and closing tracks.
On a mission to discover the young female vocalist they had been imagining in their heads, Ronson and Bhasker set out on a road trip across the U.S.
While scouting a gospel choir in Jackson, Miss. they discovered 23-year-old singer Keyone Starr. Blown away by her impressive range and presence, they hastily invited Starr to the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis, where she provides lead vocals on three tracks.
Ronson dedicated Uptown Special to the late Amy Winehouse, as well as R&B guitarist-songwriter Teenie Hodges and French hip-hop producer DJ Medhi. Of Winehouse – whose legendary LP Back to Black helped earn Ronson three 2008 Grammys, including Producer of the Year – he wrote in the liner notes, “I’m always thinking of you, inspired by you and your music lives on in myself and everyone who ever felt it. Love, Mark.”
We caught up with Ronson to talk about the Sound of the Sixties, his philosophy as a producer and how he got Stevie Wonder to play harmonica on his album.
We selected Uptown Special as our HiFi Album of the Month because it demonstrates an exceptional level of care to sonic detail. Can you speak to the importance of sound quality in the production and consumption of your work?
Although I believe the song is always the most important thing, as a producer, it’s my job to make the sonic side sound great. People used to think of technology as a means of innovation, and now people use technology as a means of convenience. It used to be that people would buy the newest multi-track tape machine or a LinnDrum [drum machine] to make their music as exciting and progressive as possible. Now people use the latest innovations and computer program to fix technical mistakes, shitty vocals, laziness.
So when I’m recording a drum kit – and this is definitely something I learned a lot about from the Dap Kings – it’s the care that you take to record those drums. It’s a bit of a forgotten art form to have that awareness of exactly where you place the rhythm mic, how you tune the drum kit, and the way the drummer plays that kit. All those things are so important and it’s the reason we love those songs.
It’s not just the “Sound of the Sixties” that we love, it’s also the sound of our favorite hip-hop records that sample those drums sounds from the ‘60s. You can buy one of those Ableton computer packages that have all those different drum breaks, it’s always loops that sound like they were made in the ‘60s because that was the absolute gold standard, high peak of drum recording.
The first day that I walked into the Daptone Studios, when we went to record Back to Black, I couldn’t believe how they were recording samples off of actual drums. They were playing the drums and it sounded just like every drum break and expensive record I’d ever bought at the flea market – and they were making it live.
I know sonic detail is one of the things that sets my records apart from everybody else’s, so it’s definitely one of of the most important things to me. I don’t necessarily need it to sound the best or the most pristine. I wasn’t trying to make the Daft Punk album – something that they’ll be testing stereo systems with for hundreds of years to come – I need some grit on my stuff, you know. I still need it to sound part Wu-Tang, part Motown.
And it’s still a process of discovery for me. Sometimes I know what that sound is and sometimes I stumble upon it by accident. I can’t tell you why I like the crack of a snare drum any more than I can reason out why I love the color green, but when I hear it, it’s just my favorite thing in the world. I’m lucky that a lot of people also feel that way, because when I do it or when Tommy [Tom Brenneck – producer, engineer, Dap-Kings guitarist on Back to Black] does it on the Charles Bradley record – forget the puns – it seems to resonate with people.
You’re known first and foremost as a producer. What does that title mean to you and is that how you think of yourself?
I definitely think of myself as a producer. Hopefully, 20 or 30 years from now, I’ll still be producing records; that’s what I do.
I’m extremely lucky that I get to make my own record every few years, because I really do get to express myself and do the things creatively and write music that I wouldn’t be able to for somebody else’s album.
That said, a single like “Uptown Funk” probably wouldn’t have sounded drastically different if it had written it for Bruno’s record.
Your albums tend to feature guest artists on nearly every track. Do you think of yourself as this ringleader orchestrating a much larger circus show?
Well I absolutely need vocalists because I can’t sing.
But although it gets chaotic at times, I don’t know if I think of myself as a ringleader; I’m not there trying to reel people in or tell them what to do. It’s more like bringing people together and letting them do their thing.
Like when we were recording at Royal Studios in Memphis, Jeff [Bhasker – co-producer] and I tried to construct this world where people could come and go. Emile Haynie would drop in for a minute, and Kevin [Parker] would come down for a few days to sing some songs. He ended up playing drums on a few things because he’s also a fantastic drummer.
It’s like everyone knows the greater vision, and then they have all these little things they want to throw in and see if they fit. At the end of the day I just have to keep it together and make sure it sounds like my record.
On Uptown Special you seemed to refine your guest list to a more focused cast of repeating characters. Was that a conscious decision?
I really wanted to have fewer artists on this album. I probably have about half of the number of people I had on my last album because that one had two people on every song. This one has a lot of recurring performances – Kevin did three songs, Andrew is on a couple, Keyone [Starr] is on a few. I really wanted it to come out a little more cohesive, which I think it did.
I heard that when you read the lyrics for the opener, “Uptown’s First Finale,” you heard Stevie Wonder’s harmonica in your head and you had to have him. What was it like hearing Stevie Wonder play on your own song?
It was insane. I’m not being modest when I say it was honestly something I never thought would happen. When I started this record I never would have dreamed of asking Stevie Wonder to play on it – that just sounds ridiculous.
What happened was, I wrote this melody that was inspired by these lyrics from [American author] Michael Chabon. And over the lyrics I heard this melody in my head, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind that it was supposed to be Stevie Wonder playing the harmonica. It started bothering me so much that I thought, I’ll just send it to Stevie and see what he says. I’d never met him, so who knew what was going to happen. I wrote a nice letter to his manager, explaining the whole thing.
I didn’t hear back for a couple months, so I had to start scheming over who else could play it like that: Is there an impersonator? Is there someone from the Motown musical that plays the Stevie Wonder part? I was so obsessed with the sound of his tone. It got to the point where I had a week to hand the record in, and I thought I was going to have to restructure the whole album because this had to be the intro. Then, at the last minute, they said, Stevie has the song, he likes it, he’s ready to play it. Insane.
Some have observed a recent renaissance of innovative music coming out of the U.K., which has even attracted American artists like Mary J. Blige to migrate there and feed off the current scene. Given that you have feet on both sides of the pond, what is your perspective on what’s happening at the moment?
It always seems to go back and forth, but I think some of the most exciting things in pop music are happening [in the U.K.] right now.
America is where the big records come out of, but England has all the cutting edge stuff at the moment. You have people like FKA twigs and Arca, Hudson Mohawke and Rustie – those are some of the artists I really like. And then on the more commercial side you have people like Sam Smith.
England has always embraced soul music so much. People get even more excited about it because it’s not really our own. It’s cliche, but I think of that footage they use in every documentary of the Beatles, where they’re waiting on the dock for the new box of 45s to come in with the new blues records. I really think we still have that feeling. When artists like Mary come over, for them it’s like, Nice. They really get my shit over here.