Charlie Mars is a singer/songwriter from Tupelo, MS who’s not just another white guy with a guitar whining about his girlfriend. He’s releasing his latest album, Blackberry Light today, independently, and about to go on an extensive tour in support. I recently had what turned out to be a really sobering conversation with him, as he provided a glimpse into the more arduous aspects of being an independent musician trying to break through. Shit can get hard sometimes, and not every effort leads somewhere. But Charlie Mars has searched for a sound and found it, as well as realized many of his dreams because of making a genuine effort to write songs he’s proud of, that people can connect to. He says he’s not a badass, but this is what he does, how he lives, and he keeps it fuckin’ real. And that’s pretty badass.
Kelly Knapp: First I just have to ask, you’re not related to Bruno Mars, right?
Charlie Mars: No.
KK: Alright, so who is Charlie Mars, and how would you describe your music?
CM: Well, I don’t know how to tell you who I am, but I’m a singer/songwriter, and I grew up listening to 70s singer/songwriters, mostly, and I would describe my music as folk. It’s basically rooted in folk music – really rhythmic folk music.
KK: Who were you most inspired by growing up?
CM: JJ Cale, Dire Straights, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and I liked the Grateful Dead. All kinds of different stuff. R.E.M. were one of my favorites.
KK: You have a new album coming out August 14. Is this your sixth album?
CM: This is number six.
KK: You really have a decent discography built up already.
CM: It’s startin’ to feel like it.
KK: I was reading about the last one, Like A Bird, Like A Plane, and there’s a whole story behind it. What’s the story behind this one?
CM: Very similar to the story on the last one. We made it in Austin, same players. I think we stumbled upon a sound that I had been searching for on the last one, and we just took what we liked from that, and tried to build on it and make it better.
KK: Yeah, I was reading that the last one ‘can best be described as a new debut,’ so does this one feel like a sophomore album?
CM: It feels like a follow up to that album, for sure.
KK: Did you use any new techniques or effects, or any major differences in the songwriting?
CM: No. Just tried to raise the bar on the sonic quality of the songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m shootin’ for the stars here, and I wanted to make a great record, and as good a record as anybody who writes songs makes, period. That’s what we go in there to do and that’s what we’re tryin’ to do. I think some of my players are some of the best in the world, and I’m trying to bring songs in that are as good as they are, and I’m trying to do something different. I think the last record was like nothing else that’s out there. There’s similarities to other things, but I think it was something different, and that’s why. It was a record that came out on no record label, really, and with no money behind it, and nobody gave a shit when I put it out. The reason they had to give a shit was because people reacted to it, because it was good. This record is – I look at it as my chance to have a real career. A career that lasts, and allows me to do normal people shit, like buy a car or have a family. So, what do I think this is, who am I, what is it? It’s everything to me. And I have everything riding on it, and I have nothing. So, there you go.
KK: So who you are is embedded in the music, and anyone listening can just hear it.
CM: I hope so. I mean, I’m trying to keep it real and do what that means to me – cutting it live, using analog recording gear, mostly. And everybody in the room has gotta be able to play. We don’t have any half-ass motherfuckers on our records. These are real badasses. I’m not a badass musician, but I’m trying to bring songs to the table that, like I said, are as good as the players they are. So, this isn’t just I’m puttin’ a record out, I hope it works out, I write songs like guys from the 70s, I’m another fuckin’ white guy with an acoustic guitar whinin’ about his girlfriend. This is everything for me, so I hope that it works out.
KK: Did you intentionally choose to work with people who challenged you musically, to raise the bar for yourself as well?
CM: I just try to work with great people, period. Whether it’s great photographers, good graphic designers, great musicians, good mixers, good engineers. I want, when people spend $15 on the album and listen to the whole thing, I want them to feel like they got their money’s worth, not that they got fucked. So I try to do that. I try to do everything I can to make it all quality. A lot of people really don’t seem to care, but the ones that do, I’m doing it for them.
KK: Are your songs mostly biographical, and it’s not that you’re playing any kind of character – you’re the same on stage as you are off?
CM: I think they’re mostly about feelings that I have, and the songs – whether they’re a story or autobiographical – capture feelings that I feel. And I feel them through the music. So whether it’s something really personal, which is the case sometimes, or whether it’s something that just is, and it feels right to me, I think they’re all about feelings. I write form an emotional place. I don’t write from a hysterical place, but I write from a place that I think is rooted in how I feel. I’m trying to connect, trying to reach out into the abyss. Somebody else might feel the same way.
KK: When does inspiration come to you? When you have these feelings, are you able to translate them with immediacy, or do you need time to sit back and reflect, and let it percolate?
CM: I would say there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Sometimes I sit down and try to write songs and I do, and they’re good. Sometimes I don’t try at all and they turn out good, sometimes I try my ass off and they all suck. I never know, you never know. But it happens. It’s consistently happened for 15 years, and for six albums. You know, it just happens. I don’t know why, it’s just my thing. Some people like to play fuckin’ Monopoly, I just like to write songs. I don’t know why.
KK: You just have to do it.
CM: No, it just happens. I feel like it happens, and it’s something that I do that I believe in. I don’t really like work, so I have to believe in it. I believe in the songs, or I don’t make the record. Once I do that, I’m willing to risk everything.
KK: Well cool, I mean, if you didn’t believe in it, then what’s the point?
CM: The point is having a house and shit, having an apartment, not losing everything. That’s the point. I got nothin’. But that’s how I live, until I won’t have to live that way. I wanna do it. I want it to work out. I don’t wanna be playing to 20 people in the corner of a fuckin’ bar in 10 years.
KK: Is that how you started, and then just slowly built it up, playing your ass off?
CM: For 17 years, yeah. I’ve done 125 a year for almost 20 years. I’m 38 years old, and it’s my 6th record, and I’ve been on a major label, I’ve been to colleges, touring frat parties, bullshit. And I’ve been, the last five years, off of a major, and doing my own thing in a different way that I’m proud of. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it sucks, but it’s what I do.
KK: Do you feel more fulfilled on your own, as opposed to when you were on a major, or was it more comfortable to have that backing?
CM: Yeah. Both. I like being on my own, the victories are mine, it feels great. But also it’s very hard, because you’re using your own money to do everything all the time, and releasing an album is a very expensive process if you want to have a chance of actually doing something with it. Some people are so good, and people recognize that they’re doing something so different that the press picks up on it, and that can sort of carry you through. But for every Bon Iver there’s five thousand guys out there that are trying to get somebody to listen to their record. That costs money. So yeah, it’s hard. I don’t wanna pay for this shit, I wish someone else was paying for it, but I do like the fact that no one really gets in the way of me doing what I want to do.
KK: What are you most proud of to date?
CM: I’m proud of the last two records, and the fact that through a lot of adversity I stuck with it. And most of my dreams I had going into have come true. I’ve met all my heroes, I’ve played on stage with lots of them. I’ve had so many amazing experiences that most people never get to experience. I’ve done it all. The only thing left now is to make it. I want to be on a tour bus with a band that I love, playing to people every night.
KK: Do you feel like it’s coming, you’re almost there?
CM: I do.
KK: With everything you’ve gone through so far, both musically and personally, what advice would you give to another band or artist just starting out, and just beginning this whole thing; this drudgery?
CM: Write good songs. If you write good songs, good things will happen. They always do. Whenever I write good songs, good things happen. Whenever I write mediocre songs, I might delude myself to thinking they’re better than they are, and go out and fuck around for a year. People don’t relate to it, and you wonder what you’re doin’, and what you’re doin’ is playing mediocre songs. So, write great songs, and you’ll have a great career, period. Unfortunately, very few people write great songs. I’m not saying I’m one of the people who write great songs, but those who do always do well
KK: What’s coming up in the world of Charlie Mars?
CM: I’m goin’ on tour. And it’s gonna be different; I’ll be out for a long time. I go out for three or four weeks here, on my own, and then I go out with Steve Earle for a month, and then I go...I don’t even know. I’m just touring, touring, touring. Some band shows, some solo shows, whatever I can do to stay busy, stay on the road, and try to make a livin’. I do have a lot of fun. I eat lots of good food, drink lots of good coffee, see lots of new towns, read lots of books, take lots of walks. It’s killer, I love it.
KK: Well, I will see you at City Winery in NYC next week; I’ll be reviewing your show.
CM: Oh really? Well, you better say how great I am or I’ll track your ass down. Just kidding.