Mark Ronson on How Fiction Inspired Uptown Special

The songwriter-producer collaborated with author Michael Chabon on his new album.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Steven Pinker, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

On his fourth record, Uptown Special, Mark Ronson assembled an eclectic team—musicians as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Mystikal, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker all put their stamp on the album. But one contributor’s presence is less immediately obvious, even though his fingerprints are everywhere: Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon, who penned most of Uptown Special’s lyrics.

In his interview for this series, Ronson described how a passage from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close helped him fall in love with the written word again—and inspired him to make an R&B record with memorable lyrics and literary clout. Uptown Special puts Ronson’s favorite 70s influences through the blender: You can hear clear references to Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan, James Brown and Earth, Wind, and Fire, but these flavors coalesce somehow, and the end result transcends its component ingredients. The record’s first single, “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, is a number-one hit for the second week.

Mark Ronson spoke to me by phone.

Mark Ronson: There was a time in my life when I didn’t give much thought to books. I hadn't read that much in school, to be honest. Later, I was DJing in nightclubs and I spent my spare time making beats. But around the time Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was published, something changed. I started reading fiction again. I was discovering people like Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, and Dave Eggers for the first time. To me, it seemed like such an exciting moment for fiction. Those writers got me back into reading.

One image from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close strikes me especially—since the first time I read it, it’s remained indelibly stamped in my mind.

I started carrying blank books like this one around, which I would fill with all the things I couldn't say, that's how it started, if I wanted two rolls of bread from the baker, I would write "I want two rolls" on the next blank page and show it to him, and if I needed help from someone, I'd write "Help," and if something made me want to laugh, I'd write "Ha ha ha!" and instead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favorite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green, and the music would run down my legs, at the end of each day I would take the book to bed with me and read through the pages of my life:

This knocks me out every time I read it. There’s this beautiful, melancholy feeling here that I love. As someone who’s perceived to make funny, upbeat music, I think it’s strange I’m so drawn to melancholy art. Maybe you seek out the things that are furthest from what you do, trying to find some kind of balance.

The part that really floors me is this line: “I would write out the lyrics of my favorite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green or the music would run down my legs.” The idea of music running down your body in the shower is such a beautiful thing. I don’t know why the image feels stamped into me forever—I’m reluctant to examine it too much, because I don’t want to ruin it. But that image means so much to me.

Most days, I’m so wrapped up in music—whether my own or someone else’s—it does feel like it’s tangled up and intertwined with my body. I have such a close relationship with my music, and I take it with me all the time. I don’t go to the studio, compose a while, turn off the computer, then leave and come back again. It’s a thing that is always around you. It comes with me when I leave the studio. There’s no way to shut it off. You never want to shut the music off, because then you’re closing yourself off to those wonderful moments when something unexpected emerges from your subconscious. It’s probably one reason why we have this romantic notion that you can be in the shower, and suddenly have this brilliant idea pop into your head.

I think the shower is a compelling space for people and music. It even resembles a vocal recording booth, and the water makes a lot of noise in a way that’s freeing. If you just stand alone in a room and start singing, you might feel self-conscious. But there’s something about the shower, with all that water coming down: it’s the one point in your day when really no one is watching. That’s what’s freeing about it. It’s probably one reason why we have this romantic notion that you can be in the shower, and suddenly this have a brilliant idea pop into your head.

This passage had such an impact on me that, in an indirect way, it affected the way Uptown Special developed. It was one of the first times I read something so poetic I thought it maybe could inspire music. Somewhere, in the back of my head, I think a seed probably got planted: it would be an interesting thing, potentially, to have an amazing author give you words to write music for. On some level, it inspired me to do what I ultimately did—which was write this letter to Michael Chabon, asking  if he’d write some lyrics for my album.

I just sent him an email. I told him the kind of record I was making, and asked him if he wanted to work on some music together. I’d just written the piece of music that became “Summer Breaking,” and I could already tell that the chords and the melody needed something more interesting than I was capable of doing. I love how, in Michael’s fiction, you end up rooting for these anti-heroes, these incredibly flawed characters that you love anyway. I wondered if he could pull that feeling off in a song.

A few days later he sent me these lyrics, which eventually became the song “Crack in the Pearl.” While I was reading them, this strange thing happened: I felt like the words were floating up from the page, into my head. By the time they hit the back of my brain, a melody was already forming. This was completely unexpected, because songwriting is usually such hard work. A lot of the time, the final product sounds effortless—but it’s really this arduous task of trying everything in the book, every single chord, and hoping something does the trick. It’s rare for a melody you really love to appear by itself out of  some lines like that, like a gift.

So I shared another piece of music I’d written—the song that became “Summer Breaking,” which inspired me to reach out in the first place—to see what he could do. He came back with these lyrics  about this sordid affair. It was clear that they were clever. They had this Leonard Cohen feel, and they were definitely good. The problem was, they just never married the music to me. As soon as we put them to the music, something in me just sort of turned off.

That made the beginning kind of tough. It was one of the first songs we worked on. And it was like: we barely know this guy, and we can tell he’s really nice, but how much is he really going to deal with us if we keep telling him to change lines? We thought he was going to tell us, “Screw this, I’m out of here.”

Then we had a kind of breakthrough.  When I wrote the melody the first time, I had this first line of the song that shot into my head. It was just about teenage ennui or whatever, it wasn’t a great line—but I just had a feeling that was what the song was about. So I said to Michael, “Actually, whenever I mess around with this, I imagine the song being about this subject.” And it was just like—oh! As soon as I said that, he came back with these amazing lines, like “riding through ghost towns, metal horses a thousand feet high.” That verse is about driving around Oakland in a convertible with nothing to do on a summer night, and soon it completely became the song that I always wanted it to be.

Lots of times, we had a melody already—and sometimes [Grammy-winning producer, Uptown Special co-producer] Jeff [Bhasker] would record a sketch vocal with nonsense words but very specific vowel sounds, because certain melodies work better when they’re sung with certain sounds. This meant that, when Michael came in to write lyrics, his words had to match the number of syllables in our melody and the vowels we had in mind. He just did it. I sometimes felt like we were feeding melodies into a supercomputer that was just spitting back these great, great words. Maybe it’s because I have this love of things that are analog and 70s and bulky, I picture it as a 70s computer printer. Melody in, brilliant words out.

It was amazing to write music based on the lyrics he brought in, too. Working with Michael inspired melodies I don’t think I’d have ever written if I hadn’t seen his words. That was an incredibly attractive thing about the process.

Whether it’s working with Michael, a singer, or an instrumentalist, I think part of being a songwriter-producer is knowing how to find the best collaborator for a track. There’s no formula, though—it happens so differently for each song. There are people like Kevin Parker from Tame Impala—with a guy that talented, you can just invite him down and know something good’s going to happen. Or, sometimes, the right person comes up organically. Never in my most self-important fantasy would I have thought Stevie Wonder would play on this record, for instance. But as Michael’s words inspired the melody to “Crack in the Pearl Pt. II,” I couldn’t stop hearing that Stevie Wonder signature harmonica tone. I just thought, what the hell, I’m just going to send an email to his manager anyway. And he ended up recording the part.

In the case of “I Can’t Lose,” Jeff had written this melody and we were sitting around thinking which contemporary R & B soul diva could we use. It was one in the morning, we were both a little lit, and he was like “Man, screw that, we’re going to get into the car and drive to the south and go to the heart of great American black music—gospel, soul!” He wanted to travel up the Mississippi, visit all these churches, nightspots, and juke joints and find a diamond in the rough. And that’s what we did. It ended up inspiring this whole trip to the south. In that case, we wrote the song and went looking for the voice. And we found her: Keyone Starr.

I love working for other people, but I also feel so lucky that, as a producer, I get to put these records out under my own name. It’s not so much because they have my name on it. It’s more because there are things I get to do on my own records that probably wouldn’t be fair to force on another person’s project. Getting Michael to write lyrics, or taking a road trip down south: these are things I would only get to really do because I’ve been given the opportunity to make my own record. At the same time, if “Uptown Funk” was just a song that I’d produced for Bruno [Mars], I’d be just as proud of it. The song probably wouldn’t sound much different.

It’s important to remember that DJs and producers for the most part are pretty much boring-type characters.  We should almost be heard and not seen. By nature of what we do, we decided early on in our lives that we wanted to be the lone person in a dark corner of a club, or in a basement alone chopping up drum samples. Because of the way the culture’s evolved, and we’re suddenly getting to do other stuff sometimes—dance music is suddenly very popular in America, and producers and DJs are becoming big names. But it’s still a different skill set. If you watch our SNL performance, Bruno is sweating his ass off—he’s leaving everything on that stage. His band is so incredible to watch. Meanwhile, I’m just standing there playing my cool guitar part trying to make sure I don’t fuck up. I understand who’s selling the song there. Because I’ve  worked with such dynamic, great performers it lets me know: don’t get it twisted, you’re not exciting in the way that that guy’s exciting. I think that’s a good thing. It keeps me in check.

There’s a kind of energy in that showman/sideman dynamic anyway.  Bruno likes to joke that we look like the Blues Brothers whenever we’re on camera together, me being shy and monosyllabic and him being a comet-like ball of charisma. However, great things can happen when you let everyone do what they do best. It’s good to remember that.