Plenty of musicians bang out good songs. But to really get a hit, you have to work for it.
That is the lesson songwriter-producer Jeff Bhasker imparts as he discusses the painstaking efforts that went into crafting Mark Ronson’s 2015 hit “Uptown Funk.” Co-written primarily by Ronson, Bhasker and Bruno Mars, the song is an explosive funk throwback replete with brassy horns, sexy synths and a beat that aims straight for the loins.
Though it sounds like the kind of thing a top-notch R&B band would bust out during an especially productive jam session, it actually came together through a months-long process of workshopping and rewriting. “It was really fun for the first day,” Bhasker says, “and then it was hell for the next eight months and 29 days.”
Clearly the hard work has paid off, as the song made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has now been nominated for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 58th annual Grammy Awards, whose nominations were announced this morning. The album it came from, Uptown Special, was been nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album, and Bhasker himself was nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, for his work on Uptown Special as well as hits by Nate Ruess, Cam and Elle King, among others.
Bhasker is no stranger to the annual awards ceremony; collaborating with heavy hitters including Kanye West and fun., he's bagged three Grammys in his career, and been nominated for the award more times than he can count.
But when we caught up with him over the phone, just a few days before the nominations were scheduled to be announced, he seemed awfully humble about the whole thing, making it clear that the song itself is its own reward.
Around this time of year, do you get a sense of anticipation or expectation about Grammy nominations?
[deep sigh] Yes. Not this year, I guess. You know, my perspective on Grammys has changed a little bit. I guess maybe it’s easier to do that after you’ve won one, but having won and lost, it’s better to just, you know, let the universe take control.
It’s a real honor to be nominated for a Grammy, and it’s an honor to win, but I think over the years my perspective has changed from being too caught up in winning or losing a Grammy, and I think everyone’s work is valid and anyone who’s nominated deserves to win, you know? Winning or losing does not diminish or augment the work you did. There’s plenty of stuff that has never won a Grammy or an award that is amazing work.
So you’re not about to let the Grammy contest get into your songwriting process, is that what you’re saying?
Well, not necessarily. When we did the fun. album I definitely verbalized, like, “We’re gonna make Album of the Year.” But it’s more of a benchmark to aspire to. It should enter your songwriting process only in the sense of, “I wanna write a song that is worthy of winning a Grammy.” But I think once you’ve done that, the actual winning or losing of a Grammy doesn’t matter, you know? It’s about reaching people and people being moved by your song. It’s not about winning the award.
When you, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars first came upon the groove for “Uptown Funk,” where were you? How did that all happen?
We were at Bruno’s studio in Hollywood, and actually, a cool thing about it was they had a drum kit set up, and Bruno started playing that drum groove, and it all started from there. Which is really cool that Bruno started the song on drums. We rarely do that; we use a piano or a guitar and start writing a song. And that one started with the groove, and right from Bruno, so he’s singing and playing drums.
So, you know, it’s a fun dance song at its essence, but kind of in a different mold than what we think of as dance music today. We were all a band. Bruno’s playing the drums, I jumped on the keyboards and Mark jumped on the guitar. We got a couple lines, and we were like, “Wow, this sounds great!” And then we worked on it for nine months and perfected it. It was really fun for the first day, and then it was hell for the next eight months and 29 days. That’s basically how the process went.
When you come upon an idea like that, do you set out being like, “We gotta make this a hit!” and you actively try to make it one?
Absolutely. Especially me and Bruno early on — we started working together 10 years ago when we were both kind of up-and-coming and struggling. We really studied the mechanisms of what makes a hit song, and one of our mentors, Steve Lindsey, really pounded that into us. The term "hit song" implies a successful song, but you can also think about it as, like, a song that hits you. To get your point across and to get people to understand a concept clearly within a three- to four-minute time frame takes songcraft, and making it very clear and interesting to listen to, almost like you’ve heard the song already.
One thing I’ve always wondered is if songwriting principles have changed over the years to reflect how times have changed. Do you tackle a song now differently than you would have in the age before YouTube and social media and stuff like that?
Not really, because we always go back to songs of the past as a model and an inspiration for that, even standards and Broadway songs. A good melody and a good lyric is timeless and it never changes. I think production tends to change a lot, to say the least. From just, like, Motown production to Skrillex. But a song itself is timeless. A good song should be valid 100 years from now, because at its essence, it’s something that we just sing. A song is to be sung, so in that sense, it has to evoke something human.
Obviously “Uptown Funk” has a totally classic sound to it. Your keyboards are straight out of the ’80s, some Zapp and Roger Troutman–type stuff.
Yeah, I mean, those are the production elements. But as far as how the song is crafted, hook after hook after hook, it’s something that people want to sing. That stuff helps a lot, but that’s kind of what we struggled with over the months and months after we had the initial groove was, “How do we turn this into something that people want to sing along to and that’s catchy?” Because at its essence, not everybody can play synth keyboards, but everybody can sing along to the song and also dance along to it, too. That was a big part of the song, that there’s a dance that goes along with it. That was a special part of the song that used to be more prominent in the past, too. Every song had a dance: “Let’s do the twist.” “Uptown Funk” is very much in that vein.
In this long period where you guys were working on the song, were there arguments or disagreements you had over the direction it could take?
I mean, absolutely. Over and over and over again. Luckily what we wound up with was, like, the solution. It’s kind of like doing a Rubik’s Cube with three people or more, because Philip Lawrence is also a writer on the song. Like, how do we solve this Rubik’s Cube? Is it solved yet? Going through that process, that’s kind of like that band thing I was talking about.
It’s fun, too. That’s why we do it. I think when you solve the puzzle, you know it’s right and you know it feels right, and that’s when you kind of feel like you know a song’s gonna be a hit — if you really feel in your heart that you left no stone unturned, this song is bulletproof, there’s nothing more I can do to this song to improve it.
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Do all the songs you write take nine months to finish?
No. Some songs take four hours to finish. But that’s kind of the challenge when you have something, to not get discouraged. Some people say if it doesn’t come out in, you know, 30 minutes or an hour, it’s not right. But I think that’s far from the truth. Most good songwriters, great songwriters, they make it sound like it was written in 30 minutes, but they slaved and slaved and slaved away at it to make it sound that effortless. Stephen Sondheim is one of my big heroes, and he talks a lot about how much work it is to write a good song and to make it sound that effortless and to leave no stone unturned, to really make it bulletproof.
Sometimes it just flows out of you, and sometimes you have to work and work and work at it. That’s why it’s our job to be songwriters. It’s a job. It’s work. And it’s work we love to do. We love to suffer.