It's nearly 10 a.m., and Mark Ronson has just arrived 40 minutes late to a session at a midtown Manhattan studio. But it's not his fault – it's Stevie Wonder's. Ronson had been trying to get his hero to play harmonica on his new album for months, and was even thinking of browsing YouTube for a Stevie impersonator. But the day before, Wonder finally cut his part in a Chicago studio, and Ronson stayed up most of the night listening to the takes. He cues up a track, and Wonder's unmistakable harp floats through the room. Ronson gets a little misty. "It's probably the peak musical highlight of my life," he says. "I'm fine if I never top it."
Wonder's cameo is the final piece of Uptown Special (due January 27th). "It's my best record, for sure," says Ronson, the dance-pop guru whose past LPs have featured everyone from D'Angelo to Boy George to Amy Winehouse (Ronson co-produced her Back to Black LP). Ronson says he went through a "musical identity crisis" after 2010's Record Collection. He started writing with producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Bruno Mars) – crafting tracks that he imagined being sung by "a young Chaka Khan." Bhasker suggested they take a road trip to hear gospel groups in Southern churches. "I just thought he was talking shit at two in the morning, drunk," says Ronson. "But it became a reality." They spent 10 days driving from New Orleans to Chicago. In Jackson, Mississippi, they found Keyone Starr, a preacher's daughter, singing in a club. "I had the voice in my head, and she embodied it," Ronson says. They took her to Memphis' Royal Studios (where Al Green made his best work) and recorded cuts like the deeply funky "I Can't Lose." "It breathes music," Ronson says of the studio. "You want to start playing the minute you walk in."
From there, Ronson recruited Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon to write lyrics and vocalists like Bruno Mars and Mystikal to deliver them. Tame Impala's Kevin Parker sings "Daffodils," a psychedelic epic about a made-up drug. "I started it, but he developed it further to this weird, progressive disco, great pop track," says Parker. Mars flew to Memphis to write "Uptown Funk," which is getting heavy radio airplay. "I got in an Uber last night, and I was like, ‘That's . . . holy shit, that's me!' " Ronson says, laughing. "The driver was probably like, 'Who the hell are you?' "