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Inside Track: Barbie

Mark Ronson (left) and Andrew Wyatt at the premiere of Barbie in LA.Mark Ronson (left) and Andrew Wyatt at the premiere of Barbie in LA.

The amazing success of the Barbie movie was powered by its music. Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt were the producers, songwriters and composers who helped to turn the world pink.

Released in July 2023, Barbie became the highest‑grossing live‑action comedy of all time, Warner Brothers’ highest‑grossing movie, and the highest‑grossing movie of the year. It was also a major event musically. With songs featuring Lizzo, Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, Charli XCX, Sam Smith, Billie Eilish, the Kid Laroi and many more, the accompanying album went to number one in many countries, while the instrumental Barbie (Score From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) became the most successful soundtrack album of the century so far. The two albums received a whopping 11 Grammy nominations between them.

Surprisingly, the score album was written by two people who had no previous experience of writing a movie score: Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt. The duo also co‑wrote three and co‑produced five of the songs on Barbie The Album, including two of the biggest hits, Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance The Night’ and Billie Eilish’s ‘What Was I Made For?’

“It feels good to be part of a cultural phenomenon that brought people back into the movie theatres,” says Wyatt. “It’s also really cool because it’s the first scoring gig Mark and I have done together. Mark has done the soundtrack for a movie called Mortdecai [2015, with composer Geoff Zanelli providing the score], but that seemed to be more an extension of what he did on his album Version, with the Daptone horns. This was the first time both of us had to score a film and bring in orchestral elements.

“We worked 10 to 15 hours a day for several months. In addition, because Mark was also doing the executive production of the soundtrack, he got no sleep. And he just had a kid. He’s a beast!”

A scene from the movie: Barbie, played by Margot Robbie.A scene from the movie: Barbie, played by Margot Robbie.

Something In The Woodshed

Andrew Wyatt first came to prominence in 2009 as singer and songwriter with the band Miike Snow, and two years later as co‑writer of Bruno Mars’ megahit ‘Grenade’. He released a solo album called Descender in 2013, and a couple of solo singles in September 2023 as a precursor to a second solo album. In addition, the fourth Miike Snow album will soon see the light of day.

Wyatt has an extremely prolific parallel career as a songwriter and producer, working with artists like Charli XCX, Mark Ronson, Beck, Dua Lipa, Florence + the Machine, Lady Gaga, Liam Gallagher, Lorde, Miley Cyrus, Major Lazer and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Wyatt has also created sound installations, and together with Mark Ronson, wrote music for a ballet called Carbon Life (2012). The Barbie movie thus brought together the full range of Wyatt’s musical interests.

“I see myself as a weirdo who loves to experiment,” he comments. “I’ve spent a lot of time exploring all kinds of domains in music. I find them all fascinating and rewarding, in different ways. There’s always some new skill to acquire. I started my path as a jazz pianist, and in my first band there were people who had played in Ornette Coleman’s band, and Greg Kurstin, who is a great jazz pianist, and saxophonists Chris Potter and Walter Blanding Jr.

“The jazz tradition is closely related to the classical tradition in that the main feature is not to be famous or to create work that is famous. The main thing is what in jazz nomenclature is called ‘woodshedding’. The term comes from the days when jazz musicians in the rural South would go the toolshed, or even the latrine, to practice their trumpet or saxophone, because it would drive the family crazy if they did it in the house.

“Woodshedding became the idea of setting time apart to learn a new musical skill, almost like a researcher, and it’s very different from being famous. I feel very lucky to be able to devote myself to the more academic side of music, and promote innovations. That’s the tradition I come from, and it’s one reason why I have been in the business for so long. I constantly remind myself that the most important thing is to deploy all my talent and intelligence to try and solve problems in new ways.”

All That Jazz

Wyatt’s jazz career goes back to late‑’80s New York, when he played in bands called Fires Of Rome and Funkraphiliacs. The latter featured the aforementioned Greg Kurstin, who went on to become one of the world’s most famous producers. For a while, Wyatt also studied at the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. “I was kicked out because I never went to class! I felt that the jazz community was trying to roleplay being in the 1950s, and I wanted to make modern music. So I got a job at a studio called Marathon Recordings, which led me on the production path I’ve been on ever since. This was around 1990. I also got a record deal with Capitol as a solo artist. However, I went crazy and became a drug addict for 10 years. I didn’t start making music again until the beginning of this century, when I was about 30.”

Wyatt returned to music by being the bass and keyboard player of a band called the AM, who released one self‑titled album in 2003. He continues, “A few years later, one of the guys I knew from my Capitol days asked if I was interested in writing for some of his artists on his new Downtown Publishing company. I was one of the first to sign for that company. He sent me to Sweden to work with production duo Bloodshy & Avant, which is how Miike Snow was formed.

“Around the same time I met Mark [Ronson], and we became close friends, and have since had a great time working on music. It’s hard to find people that you can have a great creative partnership with, and also get on with personally. We also had luck on our side, because the first song we did together became a hit in the UK in 2009.

“When we first met, I was more the songwriter and Mark the producer. I’d say he’s still more the producer than I. He asks for my opinion, of course, but I tend to trust his instincts. I mean, he’s one of the greatest producers ever in pop music! Over the years his songwriting has improved, and I think as songwriters we’re 50/50 at this point. Sometimes one of us will start a song and the other will finish it, and vice versa.”

Their breakthrough hit song, ‘Change’, was co‑written by Wyatt with the artist, Daniel Merriweather, and produced by Ronson and Wyatt. When Wyatt co‑wrote ‘Grenade’ with Bruno Mars not long afterwards, his status as one of the world’s top songwriters was assured, resulting in a swathe of major credits, amongst them a co‑write of Lady Gaga’s Grammy Award-winning song ‘Shallow’ for the movie A Star Is Born. Less known is the fact that Wyatt co‑wrote much of The Fall (2015), the debut solo album by Emile Haynie, another of the world’s top producers.

Some of the orchestral material for the Barbie soundtrack was recorded at New York’s Manhattan Center by engineer Alex Venguer. “We brought in a bunch of outboard pres, including vintage [Telefunken] V77s for the Neumann M50s on the Decca Tree, some Burl and Chandler preamps and my vintage API 312s. We also had four Telefunken ELA M251s as the string spot mics — two reissues and two vintage, plus Mark Ronson’s RCA77s he used on Amy Winehouse’s vocals, which we used as brass section mics. Add in the usual suspects and my Mesanovic stereo ribbon and the Nordic Audio Labs NU100ks as my main wide pair, and my trusty Blue Microphones omni mics as string overheads, and we were set with great sounds.”Some of the orchestral material for the Barbie soundtrack was recorded at New York’s Manhattan Center by engineer Alex Venguer. “We brought in a bunch of outboard pres, including vintage [Telefunken] V77s for the Neumann M50s on the Decca Tree, some Burl and Chandler preamps and my vintage API 312s. We also had four Telefunken ELA M251s as the string spot mics — two reissues and two vintage, plus Mark Ronson’s RCA77s he used on Amy Winehouse’s vocals, which we used as brass section mics. Add in the usual suspects and my Mesanovic stereo ribbon and the Nordic Audio Labs NU100ks as my main wide pair, and my trusty Blue Microphones omni mics as string overheads, and we were set with great sounds.”Photo: Alex Venguer / @ootermindstudiopics

Hand In Hand

The Ronson‑Wyatt collaboration reached peak prominence with the Barbie movie. It started with an innocuous‑sounding request in 2022 to Ronson from the co‑writers of the movie, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, and music supervisor George Drakoulias, to write a couple of songs: a dance track for Barbie, and a song for her male counterpart, Ken. Ronson started work on an instrumental dance track in his New York studio, with help from production duo the Picard Brothers, and he invited Wyatt in as well. The decision was later taken to invite Dua Lipa to add vocals.

“The agreement was to work on the song with Dua and her topline writer Caroline Ailin,” recalls Wyatt. “But I was working on a lot of stuff with Dua for her new record, so she asked if she could bring me in. It was a very weird coincidence! We ended up doing a bunch of different versions of the Barbie song, because Dua is very hands‑on and decided that the verses weren’t really flowing with what was happening on the screen. She wanted to add lines that coincided with some of the things that we were seeing, like when Margot Robbie gestures and goes ‘Come along for the ride!’ This in turn influenced the movie.

Andrew Wyatt: In a weird way, we ended up working like they do in Bollywood films, with directors writing movie scenes to the songs.

“In a weird way, we ended up working like they do in Bollywood films, with directors writing movie scenes to the songs. Mark had first made a very raw demo of the instrumental of what became ‘Dance The Night’, with no lyrics or vocals, and he had sent that over months earlier, so the choreographer had something to create choreography to. The music influenced the choreography, and then more lyrics were created responding to the new visuals.”

The song ‘I’m Just Ken’, sung by Ryan Gosling, was composed early on and helped to define the musical direction of the entire film.The song ‘I’m Just Ken’, sung by Ryan Gosling, was composed early on and helped to define the musical direction of the entire film.

A similar two‑way process played out with the second song Ronson and Wyatt wrote for the movie, ‘I’m Just Ken’. They had been given some basic, throwaway suggestions (“Ken likes horses, has no genitals, wants to be hugged”), suggesting a throwaway song. Instead, the two‑way process transformed ‘I’m Just Ken’ into an anthemic power ballad, or, as Ronson put it, “a wonderful heartbreak epic that’s totally batshit”.

Wyatt: “Mark came up with ‘I’m just Ken, anywhere else I’d be a 10,’ and the melody and chords for the chorus. I helped him finish the melody for the chorus and the lyrics, and then we wrote the verses. We basically created a very short song that was verse, chorus, one instrumental section, and another chorus. We gave that to Greta, and two things happened. She played it for [Ken actor] Ryan Gosling, who liked it so much that he wanted to sing the song himself. The script then also required that the song included an eight‑minute‑long battle sequence. They shot it with the song on loop, so we later had to write the music for that section.

“We were like ‘OK, what templates do we have for this type of thing?’ We thought of ‘Flash Gordon’ by Queen, and in general the whole multi‑tempo, multi‑key milieu of prog rock. We wanted to make a sonically modern version of stuff that we loved, from Meatloaf to ‘Bohemian Rapsody’ to Yes and Jethro Tull songs, that had multi‑phase scene changes in them. That was a lot of fun. So they shot the battle sequence inspired by us, and we were inspired by what we saw to keep elevating and speeding up the song.”

Private Language

Wyatt and Ronson wrote and recorded the two songs for the most part at the latter’s Zelig Studios. “We have a level of trust and comfort in working with each other, where we have a language between us, and we know what the better bits are and what to leave out. It’s very fluid.

“With ‘Dance The Night,’ the Picard Brothers did some drums and stuff. I played a Fender Rhodes 73, the one with the speaker, and I played the bass line on the five‑string ESP bass that was used for ‘Uptown Funk’, and overdubbed that with the Moog Model D, to give it extra thickness. For vocals we used Mark’s Neumann CMV563, a great mic, going through a Neve 1073, and the usual Pultec and Tube‑Tech CL‑1B. We recorded straight to Pro Tools.

“When writing ‘I’m Just Ken’, Mark and I played everything in his studio. I did the drums and he did the bass, and we both played guitars and keyboards. When we realised that the song was going to be in the film, and also when it looked like the film was going to be a huge cultural phenomenon — we had no idea when Mark first took the gig — we decided to bring in the big guns. So we had Josh Freese come in to play drums, Wolfgang van Halen play rhythm guitar, and Slash on solo guitar. Mark and I can fake it but there’s something that happens when you have musicians come in who have gifts from the gods.”

Expanding Horizons

At this point, the making of the soundtrack album and the making of the Barbie movie score started to influence each other. First of all, with the film team thrilled about ‘Dance The Night’ and ‘I’m Just Ken’, the decision was taken to ask Ronson to oversee the creation of the entire soundtrack songs album. This led to Wyatt and Ronson also co‑writing and co‑producing the song ‘Pink’, sung by Lizzo, with the involvement of her regular producer Ricky Reed; co‑producing the song ‘Push’, also sung by Gosling; and Ronson co‑writing and co‑producing the Sam Smith song ‘Man I Am’, again together with Reed. The other songs on the album were curated by Ronson without his direct involvement.

In addition, the Billie Eilish song ‘What Was I Made For?’ was co‑written by Billie and Finneas, and co‑produced by Finneas, Wyatt and Ronson. Most of the producers’ work consisted of adding orchestration to the piano ballad. “I did the arrangement for that at my studio in Pro Tools using the Vienna Symphonic library stuff,” recalls Wyatt.

“The tricky thing was not to add anything that would mess it up, because it’s already so beautiful. It was a matter of adding a tiny bit here and there to expand the atmosphere, and putting in a little bit more of a larger dream space, but without it being an overbearing presence in the track. I had way more in my initial arrangement, and after that it was all about take out, take out, take out, and let the song shine and have this natural feeling.”

Taking Up The Reins

While Ronson and Wyatt were busy with the songs, the score for the Barbie movie was being written by French film composer Alexandre Desplat. However, by March 2023 he left the project, and Ronson and Wyatt were asked to step in and write the score instead, with a deadline only a couple of months away. This is where the long days came in.

“It was a crazy amount of work to do in such a short period of time, and because we were new at it, we felt like we had to give every single cue our absolute best. We looked from many different angles and tried many different things, and every time asked each other, ‘Are we really making the emotional experience of this film better and richer?’ Sometimes it would be something that worked but that didn’t really elevate it or make us feel the emotions that we wanted people to feel. And if we couldn’t make ourselves feel it, we couldn’t expect others to feel it. We set a very high bar for ourselves, and it took many attempts for us to feel like we got each scene the best that we could.”

Their dual role meant Ronson and Wyatt had a unique opportunity to make sure the songs and the score lived in the same sonic world — but, first, they had to work out the exact nature of that sonic world. “We couldn’t do a neo‑classical or neo‑romantic score, because that would have clashed with the visuals too much. Instead, the visuals were screaming ’80s synths to us. In the ’80s in the US, Barbie was untouchable as the uncontested champion of dolls, so it made sense to be drawing from the ’80s aesthetic. Also, a lot of what’s big in the pop world right now sounds like early synth music from the ’80s. Much of the Weeknd’s stuff sounds like a John Carpenter movie! Plus Barbie is occupying a kind of surrealist world with lots of really bright colours that suits these synths.

“So it felt appropriate to use those ’80s keyboards, and one of the most important is the Yamaha CS80. We dreamed of having one for about two weeks and then Mark just bought one. We were very excited. I’m very friendly with a lot of plug‑in makers, and many do a decent job of recreating analogue synths, but there’s still nothing that competes with a Moog bass sound, or a Roland Juno‑6 for a pad sound. Our challenge was then to find a zone where these synths could live together with the orchestra. It took a lot of trial and error.

Percussion for the Barbie soundtrack was recorded at New York’s famous Power Station.Percussion for the Barbie soundtrack was recorded at New York’s famous Power Station.Photo: Alex Venguer / @ootermindstudiopics

School Of Scoring

Ronson and Wyatt spent considerable time studying film music by the likes of John Williams, Nino Rota, Carter Burwell, Elmer Bernstein, and the synth and orchestra music of Maurice Jarre and Thomas Newman. “That’s part of the woodshedding. It’s like, ‘I kind of know what they’re doing but let me figure out exactly how they’re doing this.’ That’s the process, to learn new skills and improve your technique. We were trying to up our game. Again it’s exploiting your own labour. Also, the whole film is incredibly eclectic, the scriptwriting is eclectic, with pop references, philosophical references, and so on, and it goes from very erudite to very stupid, in a good way, like slapstick. It’s a very high‑low kind of movie, so we figured let’s use classical music, and crazy pop music, and punk rock. We wanted to have a similarly large range in the film because the script really called for it, and the production design was so wild that you know you’re in a world where anything can happen.

“I’ve studied at a conservatory, so I have a cursory knowledge of orchestral stuff, and Mark and I have each worked with orchestras before. I use the Vienna Symphonic Library, in Pro Tools, because to me it’s the classicalist sound. I’m the kind of guy who, if I want to listen to Schubert, I listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I don’t listen to new recordings. The VSL stuff sounds the most dusty, and you have choices like having ribbon microphones in mono only. You can tailor it to give it the feelings that you want. These samples don’t sound commercial to me, which I like.

“So I made mock‑ups of the orchestra arrangements in my computer, with Brandon Bost, our engineer, and got it sounding 90 percent of what we wanted. Brandon Bost is really like the Fifth Beatle in this situation because he’s so good at writing in the articulations on the Vienna Symphonic Library, and automating things. This meant that Mark and I could really concentrate on the themes and the orchestration.

“We’d then give the orchestrations to Matt Dunkley. With a film of this size, we at the very least wanted to run everything past him, so we knew it was going to work when there were 140 people on the sound stage for the recordings. We didn’t want to have any surprises, and he’s a real pro. It was our first rodeo, but he’s done this a million times.

“So, while we created many of the arrangement ideas and orchestration ideas, he was very important in translating them, and he also added many interesting ideas. He’d add things or take out things that he thought weren’t going to work, and when he was done, he gave things to his transcriber. By this time we had a really good idea of how things were going to sound, which is a wonderful advantage of the way you can work today.”

Whatever Works

The songs album was mostly mixed by well‑known pop mixers like Serban Ghenea, Manny Marroquin, Rob Kinelski and Tom Elmhirst. Elmhirst also mixed most of the score album, apart from the orchestral recordings. Cut at Abbey Road in London and the Manhattan Center in New York, these were mixed by Kirsty Whalley and Peter Cobbin at their Such Sweet Thunder studio in London.

For the New York orchestral recordings, engineer Alex Venguer brought in piles of vintage gear to augment the Manhattan Center’s own equipment.For the New York orchestral recordings, engineer Alex Venguer brought in piles of vintage gear to augment the Manhattan Center’s own equipment.Photo: Alex Venguer / @ootermindstudiopics

Both albums have proven to be fundamental to the enormous success of Barbie. How does Wyatt look back now on his and Ronson’s achievement? “During the Barbie rollout I met director and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who is a living legend in Hollywood, and he said, ‘I love working with first‑time scoring composers because they’re trying to solve problems for the first time and in the process they often find innovative or new ways of doing that.’ That rang true for me. We were trying to figure out ways to solve problems and we were pulling from a vast number of sources to inspire us.

“We didn’t know exactly what was going to work. All that really matters is: can you make something that helps the emotional energy travel from creator to audience? That’s the only real parameter. The beauty of what we did is that it seemed to really work. It was very rewarding. We eventually found a vernacular. Every film is different, and we’re already looking forward to doing a new film!”

Simplifying The Studio

Andrew Wyatt divides his time between LA and New York. “I had a studio full of vintage stuff on my property in LA, including a Scully four‑track tape recorder, an MCI 416 board, Ampex 351s reconfigured to be mic pres, and tons of outboard. The gear list was a mile long. I used this setup during tracking sessions with Miley Cyrus, Dua Lipa, Liam Gallagher, Charlie XCX, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and so on. But then, during the pandemic, I didn’t have an engineer, and while I was recording my new album, everything kept breaking. My Roland Chorus Echo weighed 16kg, and I had to take it out of the rack, and bring it to a place in Venice where it could be fixed. That took two and a half hours. I then had to pick it back up and reinstall it, and it was still not working. I did that three times! Then the 351s started making noises, then something else started making noise, then the transport went wrong on the Scully. I realised that if you don’t have staff that takes care of the gear all the time it’s just too much.

“So I sold everything, except for a few incredible pieces, like my Neumann U47, my modified CMV563, and my Sony C36 microphones. I kept everything that was perfect and had never given me any trouble. I also kept my Roland Juno‑6 with the Juno‑66 modification. I have one Waldorf Wavetable synth, and a new Prophet 10 by Dave Smith, which is one of the greatest analogue synths ever made. It sounds exactly like the old stuff and it doesn’t break every 10 days and it stays in tune. Plus I have a new Moog Model D. This is all in my basement in New York City now. I have nothing in LA any more. I have a small UAD Apollo setup next to my piano and a Neumann UM57 and that’s all I need. I’m out of the whole ‘Let’s fix everything every few weeks’ phase of my life! I want stuff that sounds great but works.

“My new album was mostly done in my old studio, but the newer stuff is done in my new studio, so not tape. But it sounds matched in a nice way. I’m nevertheless thinking of buying a refurbishment of a 1971 Nagra IV‑S stereo. It costs $20,000, but it’s like getting a brand new reel‑to‑reel from Nagra. It means I can bounce to stereo without it taking up a bunch of space in my studio. And it’s like new, so not likely to break.

“My new album is called Some Day It Won’t Feel Like Dying. During the pandemic I broke up with my long‑term partner, who I thought and hoped was going to be the last person I was ever with. You forget what life was like before. It takes a long time to feel like being single is OK, and not some tragic scenario. At least it did for me. So the whole record is about confronting middle age alone, which is tough, and that sort of icy chill that you get thinking about that, and the coping mechanisms deployed in order to deal with a situation that can feel insurmountable. The plan is for it be released in February, because I don’t want it to steal the limelight from the up and coming Miike Snow album.”