Bruno Mars finds success at center stage
He’s one of the hottest stars in pop music, with a hit album and seven Grammy Award nominations for his work as a recording artist, songwriter and record producer, but Bruno Mars is still in touch with his island roots.
A hectic cross-country jaunt from Boston to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards nominee show and a quick trip back east for a concert in Pittsburgh were just behind him, and he’d picked up a bad cold along the way, but that didn’t keep the Roosevelt High grad from calling home to talk about his career, the music business, and the show he’s bringing to Honolulu this weekend.
“I’m a little under the weather after that Grammy performance,” Mars explained. “I had a show in Boston, then at 4 in the morning I got to the airport, flew to the Grammy thing, rehearsed it all day, performed it live — and then right after I was told I was nominated for seven (awards). I had to do a little press junket and then jump right back on a plane, took two flights to get to Pittsburgh, and it caught up to me. I got real sick.”
“Other than that, I’m ecstatic.”
And with good reason. Signed by Motown shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles in 2003 and then dropped without even a CD-single to test the market, Mars was two days away from returning to Hawaii when he got word that a song he’d written had been sold and payment was on the way.
A string of ever-bigger successes followed.
In 2009, a turning point came when a song Mars co-wrote and sang, “Right Round” with Flo Rida, made an impact on the charts. That year, he and his songwriting partners, who call themselves the Smeezingtons, went into the studio to contribute to notable pop songs by Lupe Fiasco, B.o.B ( “Nothin’ on You”) and Travie McCoy.
This year, “Billionaire” with McCoy, co-written by Mars and featuring Mars’ vocals, became a sensation.
And now he’s up for several Grammies as a writer and producer.
MARS says the record label “rolled the dice” on signing him as a recording artist and came up a winner.
“It would have been very easy for them to just replace (my voice) with a bigger name because that’s how it is these days,” he noted. “If you put a bigger name on the song it’s easier to get on the radio, but they didn’t do it.”
Actually, the label had good reason to trust in Mars. The A&R man who ultimately signed Mars as a solo act, Aaron Bay-Schuck, had been working with him for a couple of years behind the scenes to set the groundwork for Mars’ solo career.
As Bay-Schuck told the music industry network Hit Quarters in an online interview this week, “Bruno made it clear from the beginning that being an artist was always his biggest goal, but that he was also willing to write and produce and do anything that it took to be recognized as an artist. … We wanted the public to know from the outset that there was more to Bruno than just the voice.”
Bay-Schuck, who counts Mars as his first “get,” or successful signing to a label, calls Mars “an incredible live performer” who can “live on a lot of different radio formats” — getting airplay on Top 40 while earning legitimacy with hip-hop and “left of center” fans.
In fact, Mars is the biggest act to come out of Hawaii in almost 40 years. No artist from Hawaii has hit the national charts harder straight out of the box since Bette Midler went platinum with her debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” and won the Grammy Award for best new artist in 1973.
“Every little stepping stone I’ve had is all in my music,” Bruno says. The songs on his debut album, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” present him in a range of moods and characters, from sweet romantic (“Just the Way You Are,” the first single off the record, “Our First Time”) to cynical ladies’ man (“Runaway Baby”).
“That’s the multiple personalities of who I am,” he explains. “I’m from Hawaii, a Puerto Rican kid, my mom’s Filipino, I impersonated Elvis by night, then transitioned to a Michael Jackson impersonator, then hopped into a doo-wop band, played in reggae groups in high school — I was just all over the place.”
Mars’ tastes in music are eclectic. Among his current favorites are Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Kanye West’s current album and Cee-Lo — and also the Police, Bob Marley, the Jacksons, Prince and the classic doo-wop acts of his father’s generation.
SO WHY is Bruno Mars hitting now?
“One (reason) I think, is the simplicity of the songs that I’ve been a part of,” he said. “(With) ‘Just the Way You Are,’ ‘Nothing on You,’ I’m not saying mind-boggling lyrics, I’m just saying what I think (and) I’m hoping when I’m writing my songs, that it’s coming from a real place and you can just feel that.”
Mars thanks his sister Jamie, who’d moved to California years earlier, for helping him make initial contacts. A “very, very crappy demo” got Mars the deal with Motown.
“Through Motown I just started building different relationships, and while I was signed with them I met Philip Lawrence — and when I was released from Motown, me and Phil kept going … (we) met Ari (Levine), and kept writing until (record) labels started tip-toeing around. That’s when we started selling songs.”
Those early successes were “bittersweet, (because) we were making income, but it was hard for us to understand. We were writing the songs, I’m singing the songs coming from my heart, and they want to give ’em to someone else. We’d think, ‘Don’t you think people’d like to hear the guy that wrote this?'”
He got his opportunity. After writing and producing for other artists — including a Grammy song of the year contender fronted by Cee Lo, with a title this paper can’t publish — Mars is now a star in his own right. With that has come media scrutiny on a 24/7 basis.
“That comes with the bag. I’m getting used to it,” he says.
He’s under scrutiny, too, for a cocaine arrest in Las Vegas, with a court date pending, but is not talking about that.
As for the title of the album, while Mars’ roots in doo-wop are well known, “(‘Hooligans’) is more a part of the live show,” he says.
“A lot of people are saying that I’m a ‘crooner,’ which is fine, that’s really what doo-wop is, but I think when you see the live show you understand that I’m not in the studio writing love songs all the time. I’m a fun guy, I need to be with the band, just a bunch of young guys jumping around. We’re having a blast. That’s when the ‘hooligan’ side comes out. … It’s definitely not a lounge act.”
Asked about his long-term goals, Mars hesitates for a moment.
“I really want to be known for making classic albums, not necessarily an album full of singles,” he said. “With this album I feel like I sat down in a room and just wrote songs. It’s all scattered all over the place, (but) that’s what I wanted to do. … Hopefully by album two, I can really hone in on something.”
“That’s the best part, man. This is just the beginning for me, and I know that. But I have so much more to go and so much more to show.”