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Mark Ronson Went Full ‘Batshit’ on the Barbie Soundtrack

Photo: Jeffrey Mayer/Media Punch/Alamy

Since Mark Ronson began spinning hip-hop records on the New York City DJ circuit in the early ’90s, the driving force of his music career has simply been chasing what he loves. When he became enamored with the retro-soul outfit the Dap-Kings, he turned their rhythm section into his go-to studio band. (They’re the glue that held together his breakout production, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.) Every few years, he rounds up some of his favorite musicians to make his own solo album — everyone from soul revivalists like Bruno Mars to pop stars like Miley Cyrus to psych-rockers like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. It’s the same approach he took on the Barbie soundtrack.

Ronson’s role quickly ballooned from initially producing two songs for the film to executive-producing the whole thing and scoring the movie, alongside his collaborator Andrew Wyatt. Working with director Greta Gerwig, they wanted the soundtrack to cover as much of the pop-music landscape as possible. Among the tracks: a dance-floor hit from Dua Lipa, a drill-pop linkup from Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj, a summery reggaeton jam from Karol G, a glossy K-pop anthem from Fifty Fifty and Kaliii, and a devastating ballad from Billie Eilish. “It was just crazy who kept being like, ‘Yeah, I’m down,’” says Ronson. “We were fucking spoiled for the amount of people that actually even came to the table.” Ronson spoke to Vulture about pulling the soundtrack together, what to expect from his next solo project, and his thoughts on the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic. (Ronson, who is a SAG member, spoke to us before the SAG-AFTRA strike began.)

You said you took on the project because you were really excited about working with Greta and Noah Baumbach. When they first reached out, what was your understanding of why they wanted Mark Ronson to work on this?
They could have literally been spitballing names and I was the first one to come up. However it got to me, I’m extremely grateful. I’m sure I would’ve been stressing it from the beginning if it had come to me through Atlantic Records or Warner Bros. Pictures, like, This is our big-tent movie for summer 2023, what are your hits? It just felt like, let’s have fun as long as what we make is incredible.

Coming up with the instrumental that became “Dance the Night,” I felt pretty free to create. I wasn’t thinking, This has got to be the summer smash. It was like, I’m really inspired by this film. I wanted to give them something that’s got disco, but has an unexpected slightly harder edge to it. Greta had referenced the Bee Gees a bit. The thing about the Bee Gees that’s really sneaky: A lot of great pop music, when you listen to it, it’s not as syrupy and slick as you think. When you listen to “Staying Alive,” there’s this big-ass kick drum just going, [imitates drumbeat]. I tried about three or four things and then I finally had this one that I liked and I sent it to her. I think I named it “Tastes Like Barbie,” because I just thought it sounded cool. I didn’t think the whole project hung in the balance — if she didn’t like that track, I was out — but I just wanted her to like it so badly. And she wrote back, “Oh my God, I’ve listened to this 100 times already on the way to the set. My driver says it’s a hit.” This is just the most basic instrumental ever. So they started to do all these dance rehearsals to it. And, listen, it’s not my first time ever at the rodeo, but to walk in and see a piece of music I made on a film set of that level of people rehearsing, and Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and shit doing choreo, it was kind of rad.

In the original brief, it only said two songs. It was kind of tongue-in-cheekly named by Noah and Greta “Barbie and Ken Hit Songs”: a mini-directive of what they imagined those songs being. The Barbie song is about her perfect night, and the Ken song — I got the feeling as soon as I read the script — is about this guy that just can’t get out of his own way. We all have these masks that we put on to impress people, and all we really want to be is ourselves. And that lyric just came to me, “I’m just Ken. Anywhere else I’d be a 10.”

“Dance the Night” was written for Dua Lipa, whom you’ve worked with before. It feels like a continuation of the dance direction she took on Future Nostalgia. How much were you two talking about that?
I want to correct this, because we didn’t write it for Dua — we wrote the music and then she wrote the song with Caroline Ailin. I’ve worked with Dua, but I’m also a fan of Dua’s records; I’m a DJ, so I play Dua records. It’s all mixed up in the soup. So I’m sure there’s somewhere where Dua and I have similar influences. I think that it felt Future Nostalgia–adjacent because her music does the shit that I really love, as far as dance music goes: It has an energy, but it’s kind of tough and weird. Same as Tame Impala’s music, like any dance music that’s just a little imposing.

That’s interesting to know that it wasn’t written with her, because the song got me thinking about where she goes on her next album.
I mean, I’ve heard some of it and it’s incredible. I think that’s why there’s the disco ball that smashes in the video, right? This feels like her triumphant stomp on that era of her music into whatever she does next.

I was surprised that the Ken song was my favorite on the soundtrack.
Are you into musicals at all?

Yeah, a little. And I hadn’t heard something from you that was that loose and self-aware and almost silly. What was it like to inhabit that?
That’s the thing about Andrew, who I get to work with a lot: When we get together in a room, we’re just fucking dorks trying to crack each other up. This was so wonderful because, obviously the sentiment and the emotion and the earnestness had to be there, but there was room for jokes. One of my favorite things, which probably goes under the radar for 98 percent of the people listening, is this last line that goes, “My name’s Ken / And so am I.” It’s so stupid, it’s the worst syntax. But that’s one of the things that made me laugh the most.

In the studio with Ryan, it was really his performance that lifted the whole thing. All these lines that felt a little bit throwaway-ish, delivered by him, suddenly took on much more. I knew he was a good singer, but because I’d never made anything like this before, I hadn’t accounted for what he would actually bring to the performance emotionally. Then it kept getting a little more ridiculous in the best way. They started to rewrite the end of the movie, so in this big penultimate scene where, I don’t want to ruin too much about it, but Ken’s going into his destiny, he’s singing this song. Greta was like, “Now we’re going to shoot this crazy scene in this big white space, and we need this extra thing to go up another level.” This two-and-a-half-minute song that we wrote is now in an eight-minute giant sequence. And then we had Slash come and play on it, and Josh Freese from the Foo Fighters, and Wolf Van Halen — not to get these names, but we’re like, Let’s just make this fully realized as the thing that it’s supposed to be: this wonderful heartbreak epic that’s totally batshit.

I want to go through a few of the other songs that stuck out to me too, starting with Lizzo’s “Pink.” Is that a “Holiday” sample?
No, definitely not. We originally wrote that as an instrumental piece. There were a lot of ’80s movies that we were talking about in the beginning, where it wasn’t bad to be in a major key. Working Girl or Tootsie, there’s this thing when the movie starts, she’s marching into her day and everything’s fucking great. So we had this piece of music, and as we started to sit with it longer, we’re like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this was a song?” And I’ve worked with Lizzo a bunch, and she was obviously at the very top of the list of people that we spoke to, and she dug it.

We had a hard time cracking the code at first. I only had two days, she was about to go back on tour or play the Grammys or some shit. Halfway through the second day, I was just like, This isn’t going to work. I’m going back to Greta empty-handed. Lizzo said, “You know what? Throw this picture up again.” And she’s like, “Play the track.” And she just starts narrating what’s going on on the screen. Like, “Hey, Barbie.”

The song ends at about two and a half minutes, but the credit keeps going with the instrumental. And Greta’s like, “Tell her to do whatever she wants. She can keep singing, she can tell Helen Mirren, ‘Stop talking, I’m singing here’ — whatever. This is wonderful.” It seemed to set a nice bar of how meta we could get without making every word of every song “Barbie.” We could have some of these songs almost feel like a reverse-engineered musical.

Another song touching on that metaness is “Barbie World,” with the Aqua flip and Nicki Minaj. I had read that originally you couldn’t get in touch with Nicki for it. What was going on there?
It was sort of keeping me up at night: How do we possibly put out a Barbie soundtrack with no Nicki Minaj single? That is the Barbz. I don’t have any personal relationship, I’m just a fucking fan. I’ve been playing her records for 15 years. We just had this wonderful miracle alley-oop in how that song ended up going down, because obviously Ice Spice was going like that [motions upward]. Even from when we started talking about the soundtrack in probably July 2022 to when we started talking about her in December, January, it was like watching this fucking trajectory.

Riot worked on the beat, and he had already flipped it and it was fucking phenomenal. The next thing we know, it’s her and Nicki going back and forth on it. And I’m just like, This is a fever dream. What the fuck? We were already pulling out every single stop possible to try and get Nicki on a song, and now we have this. I remember reading a thing, or maybe Ice’s manager told me, “They’ve been asking Nicki to rhyme over Aqua literally since she came in the game.”

The soundtrack’s very referential with the other flips too, like Charli doing “Mickey” or the Gayle song that updates “Butterfly,” by Crazy Town. Were those coming from the artists or was there an idea of, We’re going to play with older pop?
That was really just from the artists. The only thing with Gayle specifically was that we had “Butterfly” in the film at one point. It was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to give it our own version? And wouldn’t it even be cool to have a young female artist flip it in a different way?”

What was it like watching Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For” come together?
That one was just ridiculous. I would’ve been jealous of that song. And it’s not something I could ever write anyway. It’s probably my favorite Billie Eilish song, and also one of my favorite vocals of just, hands down, of the last ten years of pop music. They didn’t even get to watch probably more than 20 minutes of the film. It was still shooting, still editing. How they managed from that to get to the very heart of everything about the film, I don’t know — all the beautiful existential questions that the film also poses. We got a text a week later, maybe, that said just, “I wrote something today.” It was just flooring. It’s the song that says all that Barbie’s heart and soul wants to say, and maybe doesn’t even fully get to say in the film.

You’ve also been working on a solo album, which I read is very ’90s-inspired. Is that still the case right now?
Yeah, I’m writing a book about DJing in New York in the ’90s. I started out in ’93, when I was like 17, and then by ’96, ’97, that’s when I was DJing for Jay-Z and Puffy and all this shit. It was a really lovely time in New York, and it’s not very well documented because it’s before camera phones. I was writing this book before Barbie overtook my entire life, but this is the first week of trying to get it back going again. The record, yeah, they both started evolving in my head at the same time. I don’t know yet if it’s covers or it’s just influenced. I just hope that by the time I finish this fucking book, people aren’t totally done with the ’90s. It was Aaliyah, Missy, Q-Tip, Jay, Puff, Biggie, all that stuff, so it was also a really fantastic time for music, and especially for a hip-hop club DJ.

I guess what I’m trying to do, and it sounds very high-fucking-handed of me, but the way that Anthony Bourdain wrote for chefs, it’s sort of a book for DJs. Everybody would hopefully, whatever era you DJed in, recognize that club with the shitty sound system where the turntables were set up facing the wall and you couldn’t even see the crowd, or whatever it is. It’s a little bit inside the mind of a DJ, because we’re all a little bit odd. Each chapter is a different club night.

I don’t mean this as a knock on the other albums, but it sounds much more personal than a lot of the other stuff you’ve done, where you’ve pulled in a bunch of other artists.
It could be. Who knows? I’m not sure. The book is certainly as personal as you get. The last album was fairly personal to me, because it was sort of the breakup record, but it was still a lot of other people’s experience and a lot of cameos.

I was actually thinking about your last album, Late Night Feelings, in relation to the Barbie soundtrack. You seem to be a producer who’s very comfortable with femininity and letting that exist in your work, and that felt very important to whoever was going to be working on Barbie.
Yeah, I guess so. I got asked that a lot on the last record because it was just so obvious, because it was only female artists. And I was like, Is it because I was raised by my mom and in a house with lots of sisters? Who knows? Any time that you even start to try and parse it out too much, it sounds dodgy, any way you could answer that question. I can’t give you a really good concise answer on that.

Some things are just more nebulous and harder to put into words.
All my biggest, most celebrated work has been with female artists for sure, except for the “Funk” wedding song.

There’s a biopic being made about Amy Winehouse, Back to Black. How involved are you in that? Had you been reached out to about it?
I am good friends with Sam Taylor-Johnson, the director. She’s made some great stuff, and she actually even helped me find my dog that I adopted, Pablo. She told me when she was making the film, and I read the script, and I really loved … One of my favorite things about Amy, and I think anyone who knew her knew, was her sense of humor was just so wonderful and extremely sharp and cutting. Obviously, you know from listening to her lyrics, she’s just razor-sharp. So it really nailed a lot of her deadpan, which I really loved. And they were shooting in New York, and I think it was the very last day of shooting, and Sam and the actor that plays Amy came in and they wanted to see the studio. The studio I’m in right now is where we wrote Back to Black and did all the demos. I think it was a nice sort of closing the circle for them on the last day of filming, coming through and seeing where Amy actually did some of this stuff. But other than that, I’m not involved in the movie.

Had they asked you about using music at all?
No. I remember in the script they do use a couple of the songs, and obviously I would give my blessing. At this point it’s like, if the family’s down, if Mitch is down, if Janis is down, I’m fine with it, because I feel like this is their story to tell.

A lot of producers are getting asked about AI. Is it scaring you, or does it seem to have potential?
I’m certainly glad that I’m on the other side of my recording career, because who knows, for people coming up, what this is going to be in five, ten years? It’s obviously still a novelty and a gimmick, but it’s extremely powerful. At the end of the day, there’s a part of people that just want to listen to a piece of music that makes them feel good and they don’t really mind how it’s generated. But I also think that, until it really nails human emotion and we’re in the Ex Machina phase, there’s something about a voice that, we hear that pain, we hear that fraughtness, we hear that emotion. I don’t think there’s ever going to be anything that beats it. All I can do is what I’ve always done, and that’s go to the studio every day and just make the best shit you can.

That seems to be something that you’ve already gone through — you’re one of the guys who’s still insistent on bringing a full band into a session even as people move away from it. 
We’re definitely seeing going back to guitars, which is encouraging, and I think that guitars will always represent a piece of angst and adolescence. I never was into recording live bands — it wasn’t something I even knew about. I came up because I wanted to produce beats and I loved Q-Tip and Wu-Tang and I had a drum machine. Then I met the Dap-Kings, and this was this band that could sound like an old breakbeat. When we got with them for Back to Black, it really blew my mind. It was like, Okay, this is what I’m going to be about.

Now I’m like, whatever’s best for the song. So when there’s something that calls for that sort of majesty or that full spectrum of sound — and it happens quite a bit even on the soundtrack in “Ken” and “Pink” — I’m all for that. And then listening to Charli XCX make a grimy electropop tune that’s fucking distorted all over the place, I love that too. So yeah, I do love, still, the nuance in live performance. Slash is playing guitar at the end of “Ken,” these licks that come out, and it’s like, Holy shit. It’s my every boyhood dream to have these Slash licks that sound like Appetite for Destruction or Use Your Illusion, these records I listened to. And I do think that you have to pick more of your spots to put those things, but they’re still really special when you can find the place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mark Ronson Went Full ‘Batshit’ on the Barbie Soundtrack