Fifteen Minutes with… Charlie Mars
Jan 30, 2015 01:23PM ● Published by Becca Newell
For most artists, having complete control over their music - particularly the recording and production process - isn’t always feasible. But, for Mississippi-born singer/songwriter Charlie Mars, it’s a necessity.
Of his seven records, Mars has written every song (save for a few off his most recent release!), booked every studio, and hand-picked the producers and musicians - a feat not always easily achieved by artists.
We caught up with Mars to chat about his newest album, The Money, his early days as a musician, and his honest and raw approach to recording.
It seems you perform both live and acoustic shows… Will Saturday’s show be acoustic or are you bringing along the band?
I’m not bringing the band; I’m playing acoustic, which I think is all I’ve ever done in Easton.
Do you prefer acoustic shows?
I like both. Although, if I could only have one of the two, I would probably say I like playing solo. I like the intimacy of it.
Well, the Avalon is a perfect place for such a show! How did you get into music?
I got into music just listening to the radio and watching MTV, and falling in love with what I saw on the screen and what I heard coming out of the speakers. I wanted to be a part of it. I got my first guitar when I was about 14. Actually, I was in a talent show when I was 13, in Mississippi, where I grew up. I played piano. And my dad said if I played piano in this talent show, he’d buy me a guitar. And I did. I remember I wasn’t very good. [laughs]
You weren’t feeling the piano?
I was feeling it, but it didn’t seem like a very rock ’n’ roll instrument. The guitar seemed much sexier to me. Now, I would probably disagree. But when I was 13, I don’t know, there was something about the guitar.
Do you still play piano?
All the time. Piano is my instrument just as much as guitar. But, a guitar is a much more portable instrument, so as far as touring goes, it’s more realistic. Whenever there’s a real piano on a stage, I almost always play something on it.
Your music embodies qualities of rock, folk, country… Who do you credit as influences?
There’s a wide variety of singer/songwriters that I think I am a natural progression from. Most of them are people from the late '60s-'70s singer/songwriter era, like Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, or Bruce Springsteen. I think I’m just a hiccup away from being comparable to any of those people as far as where I’m coming from. And I’m trying to be as good as or better than most people. It doesn't always work, but that’s what I want. That’s why I’m doing it.
Was there ever an “a-ha!” moment when you decided to pursue music professionally?
Probably when I put out my first album forever ago and I got that first taste of girls liking me and making a little money and getting to drink and stay up late. All of that really resonated with me because I hadn't really had that kind of experience before and it was so fun. It seemed so glamorous.
So, it was all about the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle?
It was about not feeling invisible. Feeling like you mattered and that something you created got you there.
Is that mentality still present?
My 20-year-old priorities were "I wanna be heard; I’m tired of feeling like I’m standing in the corner and nobody sees me.” But now I would say it’s not. I love the craft and the art of writing and I love being able to express myself through that vehicle. I love getting better at it and entertaining audiences. I just love to play. I love to get better and push myself. I like the experience. I like being in the moment and entertaining people - laughing with them; connecting with them.
In a similar sense, do you think your music and the process of writing songs has changed over the years?
I think that I've gotten better by the process of doing it and growing wiser about what it is that I’m doing. But, essentially, when it’s good and occasionally great, it’s the same. It tends to be you were just there to catch the magic and it’s my job to then put that out into the world. It’s not a methodical process for me - it’s more about putting myself in a place to receive it. And I try to do that. I play everyday. I write every day. I spend time with my instruments every day. I put myself in a place to fall in love with something.
When it comes to writing material for an album, do you take time to sit down and work on specific songs or do you just let it come to you naturally?
I try to sit down and play every day and if something new comes out of that - great! Ever since I started playing when I was kid, I wanted to write my own songs. It’s still like that. I just like writing my own songs and I’ve never stopped liking it. I usually wake up six months after [I make] a record and go “wow, I have three or four more new songs” and then … I have 20 new songs and think “maybe I should make a record.” And that’s happened seven times. After my last record, I thought “I’m done. There aren’t anymore songs in me.” And here we are, 12 months later and I have new songs, I like them, and I’m playing them live and I’m thinking “well, I might make another record.” [Laughs] It’s not a methodical process and there are no rules. Yet at the same time, I try to put myself in a place to receive it if it’s there. And I also love to play piano and guitar, so I’m always doing it and, inevitably, it results in new material.
What about recording your material?
I hold myself to the standards that I think the people that I talked about earlier held themselves to. It’s important to me to not only be able to hear it on a record, but to be able to [perform] it as good as or better than. My taste tends to falls in the line of analog recording done mostly live with talented musicians and without a lot of tricks. It’s almost like the truth versus the lie - the more tricks you have, the more layers you have between what you’re hearing and what is. I want what is to be as close to what you’re hearing as humanly possible.
Sure. There’s nothing more disappointing than loving a record and then seeing the artist and the two not sounding anything alike.
Which lets you know that their record was a lie and that’s the part I can’t live with. When it comes to my music, it’s an area where I can control the degree of integrity. Whereas in my personal life, I’m a more chaotic person and I wish I had more control over integrity, but I don’t. But when it comes to my music, I can step back and be objective about it and really hold myself to a certain standard of truth. And of lyricism, I was an English major in college and studied romantic poetry for four years and I grew up listening to people that I think are good songwriters so I try to hold myself to a certain standard in that area.
With a background in English, do lyrics often come to you before a melody?
A lot of time it all sort of happens at the same time. In fact, it’s almost always like that. I’m just wading through this thing that I don't know what it is yet. I rarely write lyrics down. It’s all part of the same thing to me really.
You’re now touring to promote your newest CD, The Money. Tell me a little bit about it.
Well, it’s the third record I’ve made with the same cast of people. I think they’re characterized by a classicist formality in the sense that the instrumentation is comparable to songwriters in the late '60s/'70s and the recording process, too. Most songs have two to three versus, a bridge, and an out-chorus. And it’s a structure I held myself to because on some instinctual level that structure works for people listening to music as well as making it in a way that people expect it without realizing it because it’s so natural. And I wanted to be a great writer and, in order to be a great writer, I wanted to write within certain limitations before I decided to really step outside of that. These last three records were all about paying my respects to the past and learning from that, and then carving out my own niche. I don’t think this record is a huge departure from the other two that came before it except that it’s a little bit more of a rootsy, Americana sound, which is sort of a return to form from when I first started. I look at The Money as a bookend to Like a Bird, Like a Plane, which came out in 2009. And, I think it’s my best, if not one of my best.
Awesome! I can’t wait to hear some of the songs from it at Saturday’s show.
I’m looking forward to coming back to Easton. Easton’s one of those places that’s been so good to me, I always look forward to coming back. I don’t take it for granted.
Catch Charlie Mars at the Avalon Theatre in Easton on Saturday, January 31st. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.; show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 410-822-7299 or visit avalontheatre.com.