Charlie Mars' new sound is a 'vibe that feels true'

Josh Franer / Big Hassle Publicity
Former carefree rocker Charlie Mars is now a serious artist.

Josh Franer / Big Hassle Publicity Former carefree rocker Charlie Mars is now a serious artist.

Charlie Mars record release with special guest Josh Maze

Saturday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar Ave. Doors open at 9 p.m. Ages 18 and up. Tickets: $12, available in advance at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 901-278-8663.

With a mixture of nostalgia and candor, Charlie Mars recalls his early days playing Americana on the late '90s Mid-South frat and bar scene as a time when art was just the middle of party.

"I look back at all that as a learning period and a lot of fun," says Mars, a Laurel, Miss., native who still calls Oxford, where he briefly attended college, home. "I was a kid and I was just playing guitar and getting drunk and hanging around bars late at night. It wasn't as much about the craft as it is now. But ultimately, I'm still doing the same thing."

The difference now is that Mars takes his music much more seriously. Gone are the three-chord party anthems of his youth, now replaced by evocative, moody songs of subtlety and depth as heard on his recently released fifth studio disc, Blackberry Light.

"I always kind of existed outside the mainstream of the music business," says Mars, who is marking the release of Blackberry Light with an album release tour that stops at the Hi-Tone Saturday "It took me a long time to learn stuff. There are some people who progress quickly. I think I progress slowly."

For Mars, the turning point from carefree roots rocker to considerate tunesmith began in 2004. After working his way up the touring food chain — and releasing three records under the name The Charlie Mars Band — Mars signed with major label V2 Records. His self-titled album of that year put a professional polish on his raw rock while also trying to branch out into some new territory, including country and pop.

The record was critically well received but failed to do much commercially, and after one release Mars was back on his own again, though with a newfound sense of artistic purpose.

"For me being on a record label was very positive. I learned a lot about how the business works," says Mars. "Around that time was when I really started setting my sights on what I wanted to do. Though that record was a faithfully realized version of what I wanted to do at that time, I think that my last two records are my best."

Without a label deal, agent, money, or a band, Mars began to tear down and rebuild his sound. He started to analyze the rhythmic pulses he heard in J.J. Cale, Dire Straits and Bob Marley, and he found particular inspiration in the ethereal sounds producer Daniel Lanois lent to albums by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan.

"On all those records the common thread is, I think, ambient sounds and an emphasis on the groove," Mars says. "It was a natural progression, drawing from those records and wanting to do something along those lines; but rather than continuing to emulate artists I had grown up listening to, trying to find something that was my own thing."

Mars' efforts at rebuilding his sound began to pay off with 2009's self-released Like A Bird, Like A Plane. The album was praised for its evocative, warm production, and Mars was singled out for his growth into a more confident, steady-handed song writing. The record also gave the singer-songwriter his first real brush with success, thanks to the minor hit "Listen To the Darkside," which had a video that starred his new girlfriend, actress Mary-Louise Parker.

Mars has repeated the experiment — and perhaps even improved on it — on Blackberry Light, which is at once hookier and more restrained that its predecessor. Recorded in Austin, the disc again teams the artist with producer Billy Harvey, who also plays in Mars' touring band alongside regular band members John Ginty (keys), Dave Monsey (bass), and J.J. Johnson (drums).

"We kind of stumbled on something that sounds authentic and interesting," Mars says of his new sound. "I don't want to say original because you can always point to something from the past and say, well, what about this or what about that? I don't necessarily know where all the influences come from, but it has resulted in a feel and a vibe that feels true."

Songs from Blackberry Light have popped up in recent episodes of the TV shows "How I Met Your Mother," "Weeds" and "Up All Night," and CMT has just added the video for "Let the Meter Run" to its rotation. But after his first brush with success, Mars is relatively sanguine about what it all means.

"Every little thing helps, but no one thing makes all the difference," says Mars who recently wrapped solo acoustic tours in support of Citizen Cope and Steve Earle. "I'm just out there fighting for every little victory I can get and trying to write the best songs that I can. And also enjoying myself. "

Charlie Mars record release with special guest Josh Maze

Saturday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar Ave. Doors open at 9 p.m. Ages 18 and up. Tickets: $12, available in advance at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 901-278-8663.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.