Charlie Mars Biography
“Down here you’re never far away from a casino, you know?” Charlie begins, speaking over a wash of Clinch’s impressionistic images. “I was touring and my keyboard player and I went over to Biloxi. I had like 400 bucks and lost down to like 50 bucks, and I just went on a streak. Won some money on a slot machine and then ended up [winning] about 16 grand. The only reason I didn’t lose that money, I think, is I was so drunk that I passed out at the blackjack table, and my keyboard player had to carry me up to the suite that they comped us. [When] I woke up the next morning, I had $16,000 in cash, and it was all over the bed and all over the floor and everything. And my keyboard player, he had passed out in the Jacuzzi and it was ice-cold and his lips were blue [laughs]. I woke him up and like, ‘Fuller, man, get up!’ Anyway, drove home, really didn’t worry too much about touring for a while. If it wasn’t for that window of time where I didn’t have the financial pressure, I just don’t know if I would’ve been able to get things back to a point where I was writing good songs – and everybody who’s ever been on the road for any period of time knows it just does something to you, good and bad…My lucky streak.”
More recently, Charlie has been on another, somewhat more significant lucky streak, which has lasted for more than a year, starting with the making of the album in December 2002, and which, I suspect, is far from over.
“It’s pretty unbelievable, the whole thing,” Mars says from his apartment in Oxford, the marvel in his voice obviously real (the guy hasn’t been interviewed yet, so what I got was fresh and unrehearsed). “I mean, I toured for seven years and I put out three indie records that no one paid any attention to. I never talked to an A&R guy in my life until this record. What a turn of events. If one domino had been out of place, I don’t think I’d be talking to you right now.”
Charlie pauses as if lost in thought, then says, “Look, a year and a half ago I had no manager, no booking agent, no album, no band, no label; I had these songs written and that was it. I had no job. The money had run out. If you had told me then that I would be signed to V2, booked by the William Morris Agency, managed by the same manager as Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day and All-American Rejects, that I would be working with David Campbell, that Jim Scott was gonna mix my record, that Danny Clinch was going to do all the photography and the movie, I would have said you had lost your fuckin’ mind. If I had written down on paper what my dreams would be, they’ve already come true.”
In the darkness of the night
When all is fast asleep
And the moon is shining white
Make a wish, make a wish
It’s not difficult to understand why a “big time” manager, V2 Records, renowned arranger Campbell (who played a similar role on Sea Change, the most recent album by his son, Beck) and A-list studio artist Scott (Tom Petty, Wilco, Whiskeytown) were willing to make such a leap of faith on an unknown—it was all there in the music, resonant and undeniable. Mars had made this album on his own, borrowing the money to pay for it, and what they heard was what you’re hearing, apart from Campbell’s strings (Mars and producer Rick Beato had sketched out the orchestral arrangements on a synthesizer to indicate where they wanted to take the album) and Scott’s masterful mix.
What they heard were thrilling songs like “Gather the Horses,” “Close to Home,” “White Out” and “When the Sun Goes Down”—anthems every one, simultaneously widescreen and intimate—delivered by a distinctly southern voice with the warmth of Willie Nelson, the emotiveness of Bono and the directness of Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
When I tell him just that, Mars seems delighted by the comparisons, though he’s heard them before. He rates Nelson as “insanely good—the best living solo singer/songwriter,” and readily acknowledges his regard for Coldplay and U2.
“It’s refreshing,” he says, “to see people making good music who seem to be functional and relatively happy and capable of existing in society in a positive way. I’ve romanticized the Keith Richards of the world enough. Coldplay and U2 look at music as a way to reach out and touch people. It’s very much inspirational, coming from this spiritual place. I’m prone to that other side, and I don’t want to go there anymore.”
Bless me father
I have sinned
And I will sin again
For the weight of this unholy ghost
I’m living in…
Tell me why we have to try so hard
To get things right
Mars says that these dozen songs “came from a really personally hard, painful time that I don’t ever want to have to relive—that’s what I needed to get out. This record is about a desire for redemption, being human and accepting your faults. It’s about a child becoming a man.” His songs come to him intuitively and spontaneously, he claims. “Very rarely will I sit down with a pen and paper and write lyrics. Ninety percent of the time it comes out of me when I’m sitting there with a guitar; otherwise it doesn’t happen. I don’t have to write it down; the stuff that’s any good I remember, and the crap I just forget. I’m a firm believer in the hypothesis that the good shit sticks.”
The album is a result of a month of intensive and inspired interaction among Mars (guitar, piano), Beato (guitar, bass, piano) and drummer Darren Dodd in an Atlanta studio (the trio reconvened a few months later to cut the newly written “White Out” and “Try So Hard”). His two collaborators had an innate understanding of what Charlie was going for.
“When we went in to do the production on these songs, I wanted to take what I had and put it on the playing field of the kind of music that I like,” he explains. The stuff I always go back to is either very intimate, almost like you’re sitting right there with the artist, or it’s just completely opposite—huge and it’s panoramic, cinematic. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s all I really told Rick, and he got it. He had a lot of the same influences; he knew where I was coming from. There’s definitely the whole British thing, starting with the drumbeats. There really isn’t a guitar solo on the whole record. And you don’t notice it. We just wanted it to be about songs.”
After the deal with V2 was finalized, Campbell and Scott put the finishing touches on Charlie’s painting, and it’s obvious that they, too, understood precisely what the artist had in mind—Charlie Mars is an album album, authentic and fully realized. This is one of those rare records that seems to have a life of its own.
And it makes me feel like I’m eighteen again In my car with my friends Singing, “The grass is green, the girls are pretty” The kids are alright in Mississippi
Mars, who grew up in the hamlet of Laurel, whose inhabitants think of nearby Hattiesburg as a bustling metropolis, had what he describes as his “conversion” (a perfect term for a guy whose home region is said to have more churches per capita than anyplace else in America) when he was 15 or 16, listening to Thriller and Slippery When Wet. “The first time I remember hearing something that I thought ‘What is this?’ was the first Violent Femmes record,” he recalls. “I took the tape to the store in the mall and I said, ‘Give me everything that sounds like this.’”
He discovered Springsteen and gobbled up the entire Neil Young catalog, then fell in love with R.E.M. “That band was a huge part of my life as a teenager. I deciphered all of Michael Stipe’s lyrics and bought into it hook, line and sinker.” Inspired, he formed his first band while in high school and started writing songs.
While majoring in English at college in Dallas, Mars focused on the romantic poets, a concentration that sharpened his verbal acuity. “I can’t listen to anybody if their lyrics suck,” he says. “That awareness definitely comes from having learned the difference between good poetry and bad poetry. I don’t approach writing song lyrics with that level of scrutiny, because part of the fun of rock & roll is that we don’t have all the rules that we have in the intellectual circles, but I do approach it to some degree with that stuff in mind. If you look at Springsteen, Neil Young or Dylan, Jay Farrar or Jeff Tweedy, there’s obviously that level of awareness going on.
“I had a band in college and made my first record in ’95,” he continues. “It sold 15,000 copies, mostly in the Southeast, enough to pay for itself. There was definitely a legitimate amount of success for a good three years there. For the two years following that it was a lot of fun. We toured, played clubs and made a good living—everything you’d want at 21 as far as a good time.”
After graduation in ’96, Mars made two more albums and practically lived on the road. Eventually, though, he tired of the endless gigging, and after hitting the jackpot in that Biloxi casino, he abruptly hit the brakes. “I just disappeared for a while,” he says. When he returned from his self-imposed exile, having confronted and vanquished his personal demons, Charlie brought a new attitude and some unfinished business back to Mississippi with him.
Houses of pleasure and houses of pain
Down here in the low they seem one and the same
And there is a battle here
To be won
“When I went to make this record, I was definitely doing it for different reasons,” he says. “There were no dreams of stardom; I wasn’t trying to get laid or get drunk or score some cash so I wouldn’t have to work. That was all gone; that had all disappeared. It was just me in a room with a guitar, getting it out and having no real choice in the matter. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do to make a record, but I didn’t really feel like I had any choice. It was like either I’m gonna do this or I’m gonna be finished—I mean spiritually. I just felt like this was the next step. What I had to live for was the thought of making this record; it kept me going on the hard days. I think that’s where the best stuff comes from.”
Charlie pulled his own best stuff from deep inside him and fashioned it into a work of art, seductive and moving. As remarkable as Charlie Mars is, I have a feeling there’s a great deal more where that came from.
“When I make music,” he says, “I think, ‘What’s the shelf-life of what I’m doing? Is it five years?’ Well, then I don’t want to do it. I want to write songs that carry it past a moment in time.”