Anatomy of a Hit: Bruno Mars' 'Locked Out of Heaven'
Bruno Mars’ "Locked Out of Heaven," a No. 1 hit for six weeks in a row and a standout performance of Sunday’s Grammy Awards, during which the singer performed with Sting, has all the trappings of an undeniable pop-rock romp -- an air guitar-worthy groove, a soaring sing-along chorus and sexual innuendo galore. No wonder it’s set the airplay record for largest reach across all formats -- to an audience of some 209 million people and counting. How did the song come to be? Two-thirds of production team The Smeezingtons along with their label A&R rep and producer Mark Ronson recall.
Phil Lawrence (songwriter, producer): “We were backstage after a show, jamming in our greenroom, and we started singing that phrase, “Locked out of heaven.” It developed a meaning as we started writing: the “Hallelujah!” when you’re with someone who’s showing you a new way to love.”
Ari Levine (songwriter, producer): “We went to New York to work with Jeff [Bhasker], Emile [Haynie] and Mark [Ronson], and we were just having a jam session with drums, bass, and guitar. Bruno came up with that riff. He started singing the chorus that we already had on top of that music, and it was awesome -- like The Police-meets-something new.”
Lawrence: “We took that back to L.A., changed the melody and actually finished writing the song. It was sort of empty but it had a carnal vibe to it. And it gave us the motivation to put on that sexiness it was thirsting for… When I think of a sexy song there has to be some sort of driving rhythm to it. Everything has to be really clear and defined and somewhat aggressive for an up-tempo song to feel sexy.”
Levine: “Truly, there are only so many singers in the world that could sing that and not sound crazy -- guys who can hit those notes, and easily.”
Lawrence: “It’s definitely unique. There’s nothing big in the song -- there’s not heavy hitting drums, the guitar solo is small. What carries the song is Bruno.”
Aaron Bay-Schuck (senior vice president of A&R, Atlantic Records): “The production was very cutting edge and, admittedly, it took a second to digest. I knew it was something special but I didn't know how to categorize it… By the third listen, I had my hands in the air singing that chorus along with the guys.”
Lawrence: “I remember moment being in the studio and feeling like, ‘Wow, we’re onto something special.’ It was what we felt with ‘Just The Way You Are’ and ‘Billionaire.’”
Levine: “We were joking around and dancing, saying, ‘If these songs aren’t hits then we might need to find new jobs.’ And how many months was it on the charts building towards No. 1? Almost two. During that time, you’re like, ‘I don’t know, did we mess up?’”
Mark Ronson (producer): "Bruno was convinced 'Locked Out of Heaven' had to be the first single. I was like, 'Cheers -- that’s a brave choice. I don’t know what it sounds like coming after a Katy Perry record.' But he kind of knew. He’s smart."
Schuck: “There were moments when it looked like the record was moving a little slower than expected, but it was one of those songs where, the more you hear it, the more of an earworm it becomes. So I also credit our promo department for making sure program directors understood that the song was reacting and that they shouldn't be afraid just because it sounded different from what else was on the radio.”
Levine: “It felt natural. It’s what we’ve been trying to do. Even with [Cee-Lo Green’s] ‘F--- You’ we were trying to do that. It took a couple of years of making songs, writing and producing more for us to get here.”