Spotlight: Charlie Mars
Photo by Danny Clinch
The Colorado night is young. The subterranean rock club in Denver is muggy but comfortable. And Charlie Mars is standing on the well-lit stage with only a guitar and a smile.
“There’s a story behind this one, too,” he says casually, drawing the early crowd at the Soiled Dove into his affable charm and warm eyes.
The Mississippi-born singer/songwriter isn’t nervous, even though the room is still settling with hushed conversations as the capacity crowd awaits headliner Griffin House.
Mars tells the audience a story about living in California, and he plays “Picture of an Island,” which was inspired by his time in the Golden State. He tells another about a stay in Austin, Texas, where he crashed with his pal Bob Schneider, and another song follows: “Nothing but the Rain.”
Both of the songs are off his brand-new Blackberry Light, and the crowd is taken with them—even though they had yet to hit iTunes or Spotify.
And then Mars’ storytelling takes him to Manhattan to an exclusive “publicity party,” which involved “some strong California weed” beforehand. After his paranoia settled, Mars somehow approached esteemed Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger without having met him before and pitched him an idea that later turned into a collaboration between Mars and his buddies—House, Schneider, Ben Kweller and Dierks Bentley—and the magazine’s website.
“The moral of the story,” Mars told the tentative Denver crowd: “You never know what’s going to happen when you smoke some pot.”
After a half-hour of stage time, the crowd wasn’t surprised that Mars turned a chance meeting with an influential publisher into a legit project involving photographer/filmmaker Danny Clinch. Mars is that kind of dude—easygoing, likable, literate, modest and persuasive.
“My dream is to have a tour bus that will take me and my band around to play places that are big enough where I can make enough money to have a house and car and a family and pay for college and shit,” Mars confides earlier that evening, sitting backstage with a non-alcoholic beer in his hand. “Past that, I don’t have any ambitions.”
Mars’ story is already a rich one. Born and raised in Oxford, Miss., he still lives there—in an apartment above a bar. About 10 years ago, Mars got blackout drunk at a casino and won thousands of dollars, allowing him to sit back and write an album that later got him signed to V2 Records.
“At the time, I was pretty burned out,” Mars said. “It gave me the time to take a break and refocus.”
V2 released one Mars record before restructuring/folding in 2007, but the experience gave the songwriter the perspective to move forward on his own: “I tried ‘em both—the majors and indies,” he said. “I had a great experience on V2, but whenever I have a success as an independent artist, it’s so much more vivid and rewarding. At the end of the day, I’m still driving a van with a cracked windshield.”
Mars recorded the just-released Blackberry Light over three months in Austin—the same town that he recorded 2009’s Like a Bird, Like a Plane. Many of his fans think that he lives in Austin because of the amount of time he spends there, not to mention the peculiar fact that his whole band lives there.
And he is there a lot. When he’s in the Texas capital, he stays in the guesthouse of friend Liz Lambert, Austin’s preeminent hotelier, and he drinks at the little lounge above the Continental Club (“a lot of musicians hang out there”) and at Donn’s Depot (“an old country bar with shag carpet and popcorn”).
Truth is, he’s thinking about moving to Austin. But that would require moving away from Mississippi, and he’s not sure if he’s ready for that just yet.
“It’s a state where there’s so much poverty and strife that it has produced really special people out of that,” Mars says of home state. “Look at the stew: Morgan Freeman pops out and Tennessee Williams and Robert Johnson and B.B. King and Carl Perkins. What the fuck? There are only three million people in the state, so it’s pretty incredible.”
When he ponders how much Mississippi has influenced his own work, he smiles as if he’s winning Jeopardy saying, “I grew up in Mississippi and I love it there. But I also grew up with a computer, college radio and 120 Minutes .”
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