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Mark Ronson on ‘Uptown Funk’: Pop Songs Don’t Need to Have Dumb Lyrics

7 minute read

Mark Ronson’s brassy Bruno Mars jam “Uptown Funk” was the first new Billboard No. 1 of 2015. And though it’s also the first chart-topping single for Ronson (in both the U.S. and the U.K.), you’re probably already familiar with his work: in addition to his four solo records, Ronson has also produced material for Amy Winehouse (you can thank him for “Rehab”), Lily Allen and Adele.

TIME caught up with Ronson to talk about why “Uptown Funk” struck a chord with listeners and how he recruited his famous collaborators.

TIME: “Uptown Funk” is your biggest hit ever. What’s the weirdest place you’ve heard it in public?
Mark Ronson: A friend called me and was like, “Hey man, I’m in Morocco!” and recorded it playing on the radio. Puerto Rico, Nigeria—stuff like that is awesome to think about. It’s cool to know people are listening to your music. I’m reaching all these places where I’ve never had any records get played.

You’ve been critical of the “retro” label that’s sometimes applied to you and your music. How do you feel about that word?
What we do is essentially dance music with live instruments, which really doesn’t happen anymore. It’s become a dying art. Somewhere along the line computers made it easier not to have to do that. The actual art of recording a band making it sound cool is what I learned from the Dap-Kings [who played on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black]. Whatever it is, the things that I love and care about and preserve people haven’t cared about or preserved for the past 20 years. Of course it’s going to remind people of something else.

There’s no specific manifesto when I’m making a record. In the Venn diagram of [co-producer] Jeff Bhasker, myself and Bruno Mars, what meets in the middle is our love for great, classic American soul and funk, with Afrobeat as well. That comes out in the music. I guess I don’t really care, because I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s the music I’m attracted to. Thing that you ever don’t want to sound like is something that came out last year, but 20 years ago is fine.

Do you worry that people will mistake it for a novelty song, or think that you’re some of kind of cultural interloper — like, white guy discovers funk!
I already think [that’s happened]. But the song couldn’t come from a more genuine place. That song started as a jam with Bruno Mars on drums, [co-producer] Jeff Bhasker on synths and myself on bass playing the music that we love the most. That’s literally how the song started. I can’t obviously run around to every person and explain my process to them.

Does the success of “Uptown Funk” and, say, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” mean people are hungry for more live instrumentation?
It swings back and forth all the time. There’s been an oversaturation of [electronic] music for a minute. You look at the charts and records like Hozier [“Take Me to Church”] or “Uptown Funk” or Ed Sheeran — maybe people want to hear an unadulterated human voice and some instruments as well.

You recruited author Michael Chabon to write lyrics for this album. That must have been an interesting pitch.
I sent him a letter because I was such a fan of his writing since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I remember telling him it was my fourth record and that I had started writing some music that seemed like it needed slightly deeper or more complex lyrics. Obviously my music comes from quite a rhythmic place — drums were my first instrument — but why can’t the lyrics be about something interesting?

When we think about good, clever lyrics, we think of Vampire Weekend or whatever. It’s always the domain of guitar-based rock or indie music. But there were a lot of great records in the ‘80s, like “Automatic” from the Pointer Sisters: “All I can manage to push from my lips / is a stream of absurdities.” Why can’t we have lyrics that will stimulate the body and mind at the same time? Because of those lyrics being slightly abstract, or maybe you don’t know exactly what it’s about the first time you hear it, it makes it fun to hear that song again because your brain is stimulated to figure things out.

So who’s next, J.K. Rowling? She could help you write a fantasy rock opera.
It was never a question of having another writer do it. It wasn’t like if it didn’t work out, we were going to try someone else. I thought he might send some fragments or a loose storyline, but it blossomed into this thing where he wrote all the lyrics except for “Feel Right” and “Uptown Funk.”

"Why can’t we have lyrics that will stimulate the body and mind at the same time?"

Stevie Wonder also worked on the album after you wrote him a letter. What do you put in these letters? I bet you could make good money sharing the secrets of how you get such great people to say yes to you.
Maybe one thing I know is what music people sound good over. It’s definitely a DJ side of my brain: you throw a record on, you’ve got two minutes to figure out what’s going to blend with that record. If I’m sending Stevie Wonder a piece of music, it’s probably going to be something he’s going to dig. Obviously, you never know for sure.

D’Angelo put out his first album in 14 years in December, but you worked with him on your 2010 album, Record Collection. How’d you get him out of his hibernation?
I just brought him to the studio. I’ve known him for a long time because I’d been around when they were finishing up Voodoo. The first album I ever produced was for this artist named Nikka Costa, and she was on his label. Obviously I was such a massive fan. I went to the Voodoo tour, and it was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever seen in my life. You still get a little fanboy-ish around him. I remember reading that he had said the only records he had dug in recent memory were Back to Black and Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. I remember thinking, “Well, it’s worth it to reach out and play him the music and see if he’d be down to get on this record.”

You’ve been a DJ for two decades and produced for so many artists. Now with “Uptown Funk” under your belt, do people treat like a new artist?
Definitely 90 percent of the people who discover the song wouldn’t have had any idea who I was before. A photographer told me he was leaving the house and his wife was like, “Honey, who are you shooting today?” He was like, “I’m going to photograph the white guy in the Bruno Mars video!” I have no problem with that. As long as people are discovering the music, it’s cool.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com