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'Barbie' music producer Mark Ronson opens up about the film's 'bespoke' sound

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. If you've seen the most popular movie of last year, there's no denying it. You know this tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST KEN")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Ken, singing) 'Cause I'm just Ken. Anywhere else, I'd be a 10. Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?

MOSLEY: The song "I'm Just Ken" from the movie "Barbie" is up this year for a Grammy Award and an Oscar. It's written by Mark Ronson, who is the co-executive producer of the score and soundtrack for the fantasy-comedy film, which follows Ken and Barbie as they leave Barbie Land and enter the real world. It was directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. "Barbie" is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, supporting actor and actress, adapted screenplay, production design, costume design and twice for original songs "I'm Just Ken" and "What Was I Made For?" "Barbie" is also nominated for 11 Grammys, including for record of the year and song of the year, as well as best song and best score soundtrack.

Mark Ronson, who is an Oscar-winning music producer, was tapped by Greta Gerwig to produce the soundtrack. He's known for his work as a DJ and record producer and songwriter, creating party hits, pop songs and soulful arrangements for stars like Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Adele and Bruno Mars. But believe it or not, even with all of his credentials, Ronson lost a lot of sleep over Gerwig's request. Even before Barbie came out, critics were forecasting that it was destined to be one of the highest-grossing films to date. It was also the first time Ronson had created a soundtrack of this scope and size. What followed was a year of conceptualizing, producing, and composing songs for the album with artists like Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and PinkPantheress. Ronson is the co-executive producer of "Barbie The Album" and the score, which he co-wrote and produced with Andrew Wyatt. I spoke with him in September.

One of the first songs you worked on for this soundtrack is "I'm Just Ken," sung by Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST KEN")

GOSLING: (As Ken, singing) Doesn't seem to matter what I do. I'm always No. 2. No one knows how hard I tried. Oh, I have feelings that I can't explain driving me insane. All my life, been so polite. But I'll sleep alone tonight 'cause I'm just Ken. Anywhere else, I'd be a 10. Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility? I'm just Ken.

MOSLEY: That was "I'm Just Ken" from the "Barbie" movie soundtrack. Mark, you wrote these lyrics, but you're not usually a lyrics guy, right?

MARK RONSON: I'm not. You know, when you're working with different artists as a producer, your job is always just to fill any hole that's needed. But I work with a lot of brilliant lyricists - people like Amy Winehouse, obviously, Adele and Lady Gaga. And sometimes you're just there to provide the music, to bounce ideas, to be an editor, just to do the arrangements sometimes. But I love coming up with a lyric or helping someone when they're, like, a little blocked to fill a hole here and there. But that's not really the thing that I start with. But I was so inspired by this script and Greta and her vision. I just - I love the whole message of it. I love the whole idea of it. Obviously, Barbie's story is so wonderful. And then Ken's story that's going on on the side about this guy - like, and maybe it was because I knew Ryan Gosling was playing it, so I had the advantage of picturing him saying every line as I'm reading this script. But he just got his hooks in me, that character, you know? And he's dopey, but you root for him. And, you know, all he wants is just for this person to feel the same way about him that he feels about her, and it's never going to happen.

So I just - I had this line. I think I was walking to the studio one day, my studio in Manhattan. And I just - I'm just Ken. Anywhere else, I'd be a 10. It just came to me, and I was like, that kind of sounds like something to start a chorus from, you know? I wasn't even thinking at that point, I'm going to write this song by myself or write the lyrics. And I got to the piano, and I just was working. I found the chords and a melody that I thought was good. And all you can ever tell is, is it making you excited when you're in the studio, you know? And I sent off the demo to Greta, and she just wrote back so enthusiastically.

MOSLEY: I agree with you about Ken's storyline in particular. It was a surprise for me. Of course, we know that Ken would be a part of the movie. But the richness and the layering of his character - and this song in particular adds another dimension to it. When I was in the movie theater watching it and the line blonde fragility came up, it was like, oh, wait. These lyrics are actually kind of deep. And you came up with that lyric as well.

RONSON: Yeah. That's all I had when I was writing the chorus. It was, I'm just Ken. Anywhere else, I'd be a 10. And I kind of mumbled the rest and - (vocalizing). And all my - I think it was - all my blonde fragility was the original lyric. But I kind of mumbled that lyric as well because it was, like, maybe taking a bit too much license to - like, I had just met Greta and Noah. I didn't want them to think, like, I'm trying to be the - provide the funny or the thing. Like, you guys are the genius writers. Like, let me just give you a song. But she was like, are you mumbling? Is there something about blonde fragility? And, you know, of course it was a nod to "White Fragility," the book, like, everything. And I - but I just - it just felt right. And then we wrote the rest of the chorus, Andrew and I, together.

MOSLEY: Gosling definitely brought your lyrics to life. And I read that when you were in the studio with Bradley Cooper for the song "Shallow" for "A Star Is Born," you warmed him up to sing with pop tunes. What did you do with Ryan Gosling in the studio?

RONSON: You know, it's awkward being with anyone in the studio for the very first time because it's a vulnerable place. And, you know, you're about to go on this - embark on this thing, and you're feeling each other out. And as a producer, you're seeing what somebody's, you know, vocal range is and their limits. And you always want to push them but then not push too far because if you're pushing someone to a place, to a range they don't have, then you can shatter their confidence. And then the whole session is, like, a wash.

So - and then add to the fact that Ryan is, you know, a giant movie star, and he's coming in here on his, like, one hour off from shooting this giant film. And he came into the studio, and we just talked for a little while. And 15 minutes in, we're like, OK, should we try this? And in the beginning, because Andrew sung on the demo and he has such an amazing range, I just thought, OK, let me make this a little bit easier for Ryan. We're going to lower it a key or two and just start there. And then as Ryan just started to get warmed up, I was like, OK, we could kind of bump this up another key. Oh, and now we can bump it up, and now we're in the original key, and he's just giving this wonderful vocal performance.

And also, because he's just such an incredible actor, he's imbuing all these words with even a different context and emotion than what Andrew and I had even been able to add to it, because he is Ken. And he was almost acting out the song as he was singing in a way that was like, oh - I don't know if that's true, but it felt like he was inhabiting the song, which was really wonderful. And I could hear it in what was coming back through the speaker.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Grammy Award-winning music producer Mark Ronson. He's the executive producer of the soundtrack for "Barbie The Album." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OOH WEE")

NATE DOGG: (Singing) Ooh, wee. Ooh, wee. La, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, la, la. Ooh, wee. Ooh, wee. La, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, la, la. Ooh, wee. Ooh, wee. La, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, la, la.

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to Grammy Award-winning music producer Mark Ronson. His latest work is as executive producer of the soundtrack for "Barbie," the summer hit directed by Greta Gerwig and written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Ronson also composed the film score with Andrew Wyatt.

OK, so when Greta Gerwig contacted you, you were basically like, I'm a huge fan; of course, I'm on board, which kind of made me surprised when I read that it wasn't exactly a slam dunk that you'd get every artist you wanted for this soundtrack. You had to actually do some maneuvering, calling up friends and friends of friends.

RONSON: I think a lot of people definitely just came to the table on the basis of Greta and the films that she's made before. And, you know, certainly in the case of Billie Eilish and PinkPantheress, that was the case. Some people came because Barbie was important to them and figured in their lives, and that was people like Karol G. Then what we had to do was show everybody a piece of the film. And what we did was, you know, because this was still early on, Greta was still editing the film, we would show maybe 20 minutes of the film, just different scenes, enough so people could get the sense of the film and the tone and the arc.

And then Greta and I had spent time before deciding where we would love a Sam Smith song to go, where we would love a PinkPantheress song to go, and get to show them specifically the scene. And that's what's so great about a lot of the songs that people wrote, because they seem so bespoke - the way that Charlie wrote "Speed Drive" for, you know, a chase scene/through Mattel offices/car chase. I think that what's great is that sometimes you listen to it and you're like, what came first, the songs or the film? It has this nice, interwoven thing. Every artist took what they saw, took the conversation with Greta, and just turned it into - you know, everyone ran with it and did something different.

MOSLEY: The song "What Was I Made For?", sung by Billie Eilish, I think director Greta Gerwig calls it the glittery, pink heart at the center of the film. It really does get to the heart of Barbie's predicament, which is basically what happens when the world turns against you. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WAS I MADE FOR?")

BILLIE EILISH: (Singing) I used to float, now I just fall down. I used to know, but I'm not sure now what I was made for. What was I made for? Taking a drive, I was an ideal - looked so alive, turns out I'm not real, just something you paid for. What was I made for? 'Cause I don't know how to feel, but I want to try. I don't know how to feel.

MOSLEY: That was "What Was I Made For?", written by Billie and Finneas Eilish. And it is such an important storytelling device in this movie, Mark. What was your reaction when you first heard it?

RONSON: Greta and I, I think we got it at the same time, like, a text thread or something. I think we just immediately called each other. We're like, what is - this song is just insane. Like, what is - I was basically like, what is wrong with these kids? Why are they so good? They're so young, like, you know, like...

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

RONSON: You know, especially when it got to that lyric, like, it's not what he's made for, like, about, like, the way that it sort of applies to the film and could be - apply to many things like it, you know? And so Andrew and I had been working on a lot of pieces for the score, for the more emotional moments. And some of them, oddly enough, weren't really that dissimilar to what Billie and Finneas' song was. So there were moments when we were like, wow, let's take this song and make their song this thread that we weave through the film. And so we had been trying to come up with something for a while, some chords and some score. And we were like, let's just find a way to combine these two ideas and concepts, that Billie and Finneas song mixed with what we had already been doing.

MOSLEY: Can you briefly describe the differences between writing a song and creating a musical score? Because this was part of this project that was different and new for you.

RONSON: So different. And, you know, a lot of my instincts as a songwriter, when you're making a pop song, you're constantly thinking of hooks and melodies and ear candy and secondary hooks and tertiary hooks and stuff like that. And really, scores, sometimes, of course you want to have memorable melodies and things, but you really also need to get out the way. You can't be a distraction. You're there to support the emotional undertow of the film at that moment, especially when there's dialogue or an important scene going on. And, you know, I love film scores so much, like, everything from the obvious John Williams and John Barry and Danny Elfman to, you know, the '80s scores like Dave Grusin and stuff like that. Like, I love those soundtracks. I've always collected them. But we'd never done anything like that.

MOSLEY: I want to play a piece from the score. It's called "Mattel," which played every time there was a scene with executives at Mattel. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK RONSON AND ANDREW WYATT'S "MATTEL")

MOSLEY: Man, I am a sucker for a good score. That was the song "Mattel" from "Barbie The Score." Mark, for those who haven't seen the movie, all of the Mattel executives are men, and it feels apt that the music harkens kind of to those green little Army men that boys used to play with. It's very military in its sound. What was the process for finding that kind of layering that strengthens the storyline without maybe being too on the nose with it?

RONSON: Yeah. I think we started off, as you would say, a little bit on the nose. And we had almost scored "Mattel" on this more, like, Death Star, "Star Wars," just the more obvious way that it would be to score sort of ominous. And then Noah had such a great idea, and he was, like can you give them sort of a little bit more of like this false nobility, but they're still kind of bumbling idiots? And so we thought of turning the string motif from the Dua Lipa song, which is a motif that comes back in - you know, throughout the movie. The strings that go, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Like, wow, what if we put that on this marching band, but it sounds a bit more like a high school marching band? Or, you know, we're obviously always so - college university marching bands. Like, I think it's Grambling State and all the ones and, like, Beyonce uses...

MOSLEY: Oh, yeah. Those are...

RONSON: ...That stuff...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

RONSON: ...And "Lose Yourself."

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

RONSON: And it's so impactful. And, you know, just me, 'cause having my background as a hip-hop DJ, you know, those kind of sounds and stuff, I'm always thinking, OK, we're doing a score, but I can't help it. Those influences are going to creep in.

MOSLEY: Before this opportunity, was it an aspiration for you to score a film?

RONSON: I'm sure it was. You know, I don't think it was something that I would have ever put my hand up and say, like, I'd like to score "Barbie," you know? I think the way that it unfolded was so lucky. Listen, I mean, this is one of - now one of the biggest films of all time. I don't know if anybody at the very top of this thing would have been like, yeah, let's just risk it all on some guys that have never scored a film before. I think that we sort of proved ourselves probably along the way enough, but I don't know if we'll score another film because we were so spoiled. I mean, that's a crazy thing to say, but we were so inspired on this. Let's just say that.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I mean, when I'm hearing you, I'm also hearing something else. Like, it feels so good and exhilarating and maybe, like, life-affirming to be kind of new at something again, like, to use the skills you already have to, like, then do something even bigger and more expansive with other parts that, like, you're contributing your part to.

RONSON: Oh, that's the best. I love that. Like, if I ever felt like I was going to stop learning, that's the other thing. Like, you know, during the film, even as crazy as our schedule was, I started taking piano lessons again. I started taking music theory lessons again. I was like, I want to be able to know exactly what the orchestra notation is to these things. I don't want to just be, you know, kind of coasting by on my ear, like, so - yes. And now I'm really going to - you know, now I'm actually really going deep into, like, back to school. But I love that. I love being - A, the excitement of learning something new, B, the humbling of it. It's just - it's the best.

MOSLEY: Mark Ronson, I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

RONSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Thanks so much.

MOSLEY: Mark Ronson is the executive producer of "Barbie The Album," which he wrote and produced with Andrew Wyatt. Coming up, a review about the new FX series "Feud," about Truman Capote and the socialite women he both befriended and betrayed. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.