Mark Ronson has spoken to Music Week about producing Barbie The Album, the soundtrack to the new feature film.
The LP is released via Atlantic Records today (July 21) - the same day as the Barbie movie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. It was trailed by the UK Top 20 single Dance The Night by Dua Lipa, who also makes a special appearance in the film.
The soundtrack also features new tracks from artists including Lizzo, Karol G, Billie Eilish, Sam Smith, Charli XCX, PinkPantheress, Ava Max, Dominic Fike, Khalid, The Kid Laroi, Tame Impala, Haim, Gayle and Fifty Fifty ft. Kali, as well as Ryan Gosling, who performs an original song as his character, Ken.
In addition, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice have contributed Barbie World - an interpolation of Aqua's iconic 1997 smash Barbie Girl - which was No.28 in last week's UK singles chart.
New York-based Ronson, who executive produced the album with Barbie writer/director/executive producer Greta Gerwig, told Music Week: "When we started on the film, the two nagging questions that kept me up a little bit at night were: how do we flip Aqua? What do we do there? And there's no way we can have a Barbie soundtrack without Nicki Minaj - the person who's literally kept the term 'Barbie' alive in music and pop culture for 15 years."
He continued: "There was this crazy serendipitous thing of Ice Spice. I was such a fan of hers - being from New York, you're always proud when someone is keeping New York on the map - and we were so excited to have her on it. Her producer RiotUSA flipped the Barbie Girl sample and it was fucking killer.
The way it all transpired was just crazy
"Because of her relationship with Nicki - especially [Ice Spice's] manager, James Rosemond, who had a huge part in linking it up - the next thing we knew, James was telling us, 'Nicki Minaj is going back and forth on the Barbie Girl beat.' We were like, 'What the fuck? Is this for real?'"
"The way it all transpired was just crazy," added Ronson. "Riot let me play a little keys on that one, which I'm very grateful for, but it was all his beat and Ice and Nicki just trading bars."
Here, the multi award-winning British hitmaker and DJ opens up on hanging with the "cool kids", bringing Dua Lipa on board and Ryan Gosling's special talent...
Fill us in on how you became involved in the film...
"I don't really know how my name came up, but my good friend George Drakoulias, who's a bit of a legend to me – he produced The Black Crowes, which was one of my favourite records when I was a kid – is now this big music supervisor for films and he sent me a message saying, 'I'm doing Barbie with Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach.' I didn't even register the word 'Barbie', I just saw 'Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach' and was like, 'Hell yeah.' It felt like being invited to the cool kids' table and, with the fact it was Barbie, I just thought it had to be interesting.
"I read the script and I loved it - it was so fucking funny, smart and brilliant. I just knew it was going to be great film and said, 'I'm in.' They were like, 'Cool, we need a song in a week because we start dance rehearsals' and I was like, 'Fuck, that's quite a lot of pressure.' I tried a few things, but anytime that I would go a little more sugary, it just felt too obvious, so I came up with a rough version of the track that became Dance The Night. I liked the fact that it was tough and in the back of my mind I was probably hoping that Dua would want to be on it eventually because it felt quite Dua."
What happened next?
"I sent it in [to Gerwig], and I always try and turn my phone off before I go to bed because otherwise you just wake up and you fucking look at your phone, and you're already on the stress wheel. But I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, 'I've got to see if she wrote back.' I grabbed my phone, turned it off airplane mode and waited for the buzz to come, and then I saw this text from Greta - because she was in England, five hours ahead of me. And she said, 'I love the track. I listened to it 1,000 times on the way to work, my driver says it's a hit!' It was really exciting."
Did Dua take much persuading to come on board?
"I wrote to Dua and she was in the middle of the Future Nostalgia tour. Obviously, she's one of the biggest pop stars in the world, she could have had her own movie deal, I had no idea what she was doing. I was just like, 'Hey, I don't know what the fuck is going on with you right now, but there's this movie and it's so funny. I really think you'd love it.'
"Dua has such a voracious intellectual curiosity for film, art and culture, and I knew she would dig Greta if they met. She dug the track and said, 'I already hear melodies, I love it.' And then Greta went to the Future Nostalgia show in London and they hit it off. That was March or April , but with how crazy Dua's [schedule] was, I don't think it was until September that we got in the studio to start writing the song with Andrew Wyatt, who's one of my favourite people to collaborate with, and Caroline Ailin, who wrote New Rules and Don't Start Now.
"We kept wanting to rework it to match the screen. We were always walking this delicate line of what inherently feels genuinely like a Dua Lipa song, but what also works in the film. We found that a lot with the soundtrack - especially with the Lizzo song [Pink] as well. It's not imperative that it happens, but when you have those occasional moments where the picture and the song really marry together, the audience gets this extra kind of tingly feeling inside. Dua kept coming back to New York whenever she had a moment to work on it. We spent so much time fine-tuning the song to get it right. It took all those sessions to get it the way it was supposed to be."
Does it feel serendipitous that the film is coming out in the midst of such a golden age for female artists?
"I guess but - and maybe it's because I mostly work with female artists anyway - I don't know if this feels like a golden age or just how it's been in pop music for the past like 15 years. But yes, if you look at Karol G, Lizzo, Ice Spice, Nicki Minaj, Charli [XCX], Billie [Eilish], Gayle, it's pretty crazy, it really is. I do feel like it's the best of the best - such strong-minded artists with such individualist takes on the film. There's no song that's vaguely similar in lyrical content either, which is unusual for a soundtrack.
"We just came up with our dream list of people that we wanted to work with and thought that if we got a fraction of them, we'd be over the moon. And then everybody kept coming to the table and saying yes. Of course, all credit goes to Atlantic and [president, West Coast] Kevin Weaver and [EVP/co-head of pop A&R] Brandon Davis [both pictured with Ronson] for being able to pull it off because it's one thing for Billie Eilish and Finneas to see the film and be like, 'Yes, we'll write a song,' but what has to happen in the background is a whole other thing that I never want to have to be part of, because that is some UN-level negotiating."
How did this experience compare with the film soundtrack work you'd done previously?
"Obviously, we co-wrote - and that was with Andrew again - Shallow for A Star Is Born and have done some songs here and there. I'm proud of the song I did with Action Bronson and Dan Auerbech from Black Keys for Suicide Squad [Standing In The Rain]. And then weirdly, Ooh Wee was kind of a hit in England, but was really not a hit at all in America. The thing that kept Ooh Wee alive, or rather the royalties that kept me alive for eight years, is that it kept getting synced in films. For a long time, most people in America just knew it as the first song in Honey, the Jessica Alba dance choreo movie. There's something about it that directors seem to like.
"But [Barbie] is certainly the first thing I've done anywhere near this level of work on because it's different, it's not that much fun. I mean, some of it is really fun, but having to harass Kevin [Parker] from Tame Impala every day and be like, 'Hey, we're on deadline, do you think you could just redo the way you say "speedboat" in this thing,' you don't just get to be the fun creative guy, you have to suddenly become the hall monitor a little bit. I had to put my A&R admin hat on a bit to get some of this stuff done, but it was just because we all loved the movie so much and believed in it. Greta's energy and inspiring spirit is so great, so we were willing to do whatever it took."
Ryan Gosling's I'm Just Ken has garnered a lot of attention, talk us through the making of that track...
"So on the first call with Greta and Noah, they said, 'We want a Barbie song and a Ken song' and no one really knew what the Ken song meant, it was pretty vague. I read the scripts and it probably helped that I knew Ryan Gosling was playing Ken, because you're picturing him saying all these lines and some of them are so comically brilliant, but you feel his pain. Obviously, there's humour in it, but you're like, 'God, all this guy wants to do is impress this girl who doesn't feel the same way about him as he feels about her' and we all know what that feels like. Usually I'm not a person that jump-starts the lyrics, I'm like a bouncing board - chords and a beat, that's kind of my thing - but I had the line, 'Because I'm just Ken/Anywhere else I'd be a 10,' and it felt like a chorus. I wrote the hook and sent it to Greta and Noah. I also had a line about 'blonde fragility' but I thought I'd better mumble that one because I didn't want them to think I was trying to be funny or cute, like, they're the scriptwriters, but they really dug it.
"At that point, Greta and Noah rewrote the ending of the film, or the near ending - this big climactic scene - to be this musical number that Ryan sings. I'd signed on to it because I love the comedic minds of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and here they were saying, 'We think this thing you've written is really good and we're going to put it in.' It was just such a cool, crazy thing. Andrew Wyatt wrote the verses and then Noah had this great point that where the opening chorus is kind of mopey, the end could be this different kind of emotion with the same words. It was a great idea and we wrote the end to fit that.
"I went in the studio with Ryan. I knew his band Dead Man's Bones; I knew La La Land and I knew he had a nice voice, but I was like, 'I'm going to have to feel this out because I don't quite know what his range is.' We lowered it to start with and then as he was warming up, he was kind of killing it, so we kept moving it back up, and then we were in original key. By the time we hit the middle eight, he was bringing something to it that I didn't expect. I hadn't even thought about it, but because he's an actor, of course he's performing the song on another level because he is Ken. We went in the studio with Josh Freese, who played drums, Slash, who played guitar, and Wolf Van Halen, who played the rhythm parts and got this wonderful group of people to really bring some life and some body to it. Then we sent it to Ryan, who was super fucking psyched about it."
Lastly, how have you found the process and how keen would you be to take on a similar project in the future?
"I really took this shit seriously - Brandon Davis, Kevin and I were in the trenches together on emergency midnight phone calls, and having two-hour Zoom calls twice a week on A&R clearances and stuff like that. And we were doing this at the same time as Andrew and me were writing the score for the film, so it was definitely a high-wire act.
"To put that level of commitment in again, I'd really have to love the project. So Barbie 2, for sure, but as for now I think I need to get back to making my own records. And I was in the middle of writing a book on '90s New York hip-hop club nights when this happened, so I'm excited to get back to that for a minute."