Mark Ronson Discusses Writing “Shallow” with Lady Gaga

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Mark Ronson, who has famously written great songs with a big range of powerful artists (Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and beyond), said each collaboration is a different dynamic.

“Sometimes I have to bring a lot – maybe the whole melody, or a full lyric. Other times I don’t have to do much, I just make suggestions.

“Working with Gaga,” said Mark Ronson, “is like getting strapped into the space station. You put on the headphones, and you’re off on a journey.  Sometimes it’s like a maze I help her navigate through, careful not to pollute the emotion. Mostly, it’s like working with a great master chef, and I’m a sous chef. She’s making this giant wonderful stew, and I’m holding up celery and saying, `How about this? How about carrots?’ My job is simply to help her get it right.”

Often this suggestions are really smart ones, such as the time he was walking with Amy Winehouse between recording sessions. Just for fun, she started singing, “My baby wants me to go to rehab, but I said no, no, no…” His suggestion was to write that song. She laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn’t. “But you can’t write a song called ‘Rehab,'” she said. “Why not?” said Mark, and a classic was born. They went back to the studio, wrote the song and made the record in one night.

With Gaga, he said, it was different. For their song “Shallow,” co-written with Anthony Rossomando & Andrew Wyat for A Star Is Born he let Gaga steer the way, while he offered only some gentle, but important, suggestions.

“Working with Gaga,” said Ronson, “is like getting strapped into the space station. You put on the headphones, and you’re off on a journey.  Sometimes it’s like a maze I help her navigate through, careful not to pollute the emotion. Mostly, it’s like working with a great master chef, and I’m a sous chef. She’s making this giant wonderful stew, and I’m holding up celery and saying, `How about this? How about carrots?’ My job is simply to help her get it right.”

Still, he’d make gentle suggestions which made an impact. “I suggested she play with the word ‘shallow,’ so she did that `sha-la-la-la-low’ thing,” which is beautiful. Though it is a classic song, it has a little of that naughty Gaga thing.”

That suggestion created a second hook to the song, a poignant and haunting refrain which might be the very ingredient that held the song together. He also suggested a structure change, which also made a major impact on the shape of the song.

Although Gaga had already conceived of the dramatic chorus, it was the tenderness of the verses which Ronson felt was key.

“It’s such a personal thing to write a song,” he said, “and all the artists I work with have such specific language. So I am reticent to put myself into too much. because I don’t want to pollute the emotion.
Andrew had this little guitar progression for the verse. It was just three chords, and he sang, ‘Tell me something, girl.” And when I heard that, even more than the chorus, it really made my hair stand up. And “Are you happy in this modern world?” Everybody relates to that. Everybody feels unfulfilled, that life doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would. And that was the part that got me. The chorus felt massive, but the melancholy and emotion in the verse was the part that  put its hooks in me. 

Mark Ronson and Lady Gaga

“It was not going to be a duet,” he said. “It was just going to be a song for (her character) Ali to sing. And it went verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. Which always felt a little predictable. And I wished we didn’t have to do that. The verses are very special to me, maybe even more so than the chorus. By turning it into a duet, and the way it plays out in the film it is perfect, because he does his verse and then pulls her out to do it. And then it gets to the chorus, and I love that, cause you don’t have to do Songwriting 101, verse-chorus-verse-chorus. So the movie forced us to change the song structure. 

Ronson didn’t know going in what kind of singer Bradley was, and was happily surprised.

“I worked with Bradley,” he said. “At first he was trying to figure out how he wanted his singing voice to sound, whether it was going to be grizzled and country like it was in the film, or different. I accidentally discovered he has this great falsetto, so I started thinking of doing a kind of Jeff Buckley song with him. We got together and did a recording of `Fake Plastic Trees’ just to record some songs he loved to sing, to understand where the voice is.  But I agree they made the right decision. The voice that they found for Jack was best.” 

“There’s a lot of emotion and power in the song,” said Ronson. “Though we were writing it for the film, it’s a personal song. With me, Anthony, Andrew and Gaga, there’s a lot of life-experience and pain and emotiion there. Your own baggage, for better or worse, can’t help but find their way into the things you’re writing, no matter who you’re writing for, There’s some songs I work on that have a lot of emotion, and get inside people, and that’s beautiful.”  

Although it’s one of the few songs he co-wrote but did not produce, he loved the production. “I thought, `I can’t top this. I wouldn’t have thought to have made it this organic and honest, which is part of the reason the song really connects… There’s a lot of emotion and power in the song. Though we were writing it for the film, it’s a personal song. With me, Anthony, Andrew and Gaga, there’s a lot of life-experience and pain and emotion there. Your own baggage, for better or worse, can’t help but find their way into the things you’re writing, no matter who you’re writing for. Some songs I work on have a lot of emotion, and get inside people, and that’s beautiful.”

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