Bruno Mars: The Billboard Cover Story
"I don't know," says Bruno Mars, kicking back in the opulence of a penthouse suite at the five star Sanderson Hotel on London's West End, "if it ever goes down like this."
The following day he'll play a blistering late-afternoon show to 64,000 sun-kissed British fans at the Wireless Festival (sponsored by Barclaycard), held in the U.K. capital's Hyde Park. But for now, the 25-year-old Hawaii native is enjoying a rare day off and reflecting on a "crazy surreal" journey that has seen him climb from childhood Elvis impersonator to the brink of global superstardom.
His public bow came at the start of 2010 with B.o.B's "Nothin' on You," which featured Mars singing the infectious hook. That was followed by McCoy's "Billionaire," once again featuring the artist. Those two releases provided the springboard for his solo career, says Janick, who credits Atlantic Records VP of A&R Aaron Bay-Schuck with bringing Mars into the label fold. The next stage of the campaign was the release of a four-track digital-only EP, titled "It's Better If You Don't Understand," in May 2010.
Mars Performs "Just the Way You Are" at Billboard Tastemakers Session
"We put that in the market right away because we wanted to make sure that people understood that he was a real artist," Janick says. The EP has sold 27,000 units, according to SoundScan. "Just the Way You Are" was serviced to pop and rhythm formats two months later and went on to top the Hot 100 Airplay chart for seven consecutive weeks. "Grenade" was serviced in October and drew a similarly ecstatic response. Like "Way," the track reached a total radio audience of more than 150 million people. "Mars' songs connect to our common elements of humanity," Atlantic Records executive VP Andrea Ganis says. "Love, acceptance, loss. The ability to marry those sentiments to engaging melodies is what makes his appeal so broad."
Another key moment in the campaign came on Aug. 25, 2010, when Mars performed his first New York show at the Bowery Ballroom. To build on the buzz that he was generating, Elektra filled the room with key tastemakers from the press, TV and radio. "It could have gone really bad. But that's how we got 'Saturday Night Live.' That's how we got all the great things that we got," Mars says. "That night was one of the most special moments for me. It was the first time I was singing my songs and the crowd was singing them back."
In addition to "SNL," high-profile spots followed on "Late Show With David Letterman," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "American Idol." Then there was the Dec. 1 CBS broadcast of the Grammy Award nominations concert where Mars picked up seven nods. And on the February Grammys telecast, in which Mars delivered a show-stopping doo-wop-style rendition of "Grenade" and teamed with B.o.B and Janelle Monáe to perform "Nothin' on You," he won best male pop vocal performance for "Just the Way You Are."
Video: Mars' "Grenade" Performance at the 2011 Grammys
"That gave us a huge spike," Janick says. Major European TV spots have included the finale of "X Factor" France, Germany's ECHO Awards and "The Graham Norton Show" in the United Kingdom. Live performance is now heating up too. U.K., European and Australasian runs have already taken place in 2011. Mars also recently wrapped a joint U.S. trek with Monáe, dubbed Hooligans in Wondaland. A European theater tour (average venue capacity: 5,000) takes place this fall. "As a new artist," Mars says, "it's important to show the core fans what I sound like live... for them to hear every single line and see the intricacy that we all put into a show."
Mars, for all the success, remains pragmatic, and focused. "When people fall is when they're like, 'OK. Now I'm here, what's next? A clothing line?' That's not what I'm trying to do." His website contains a modest selection of merch, including hot pants, T-shirts and wristbands. But he's firm. "It's like, 'Don't be a slut. Remember your dream. Do your music and keep it special.'" Mars' February charge for cocaine possession is discussed with similar frankness, and apparent humility. "It's something that I wish would go away," Mars says. "It's a cloud that constantly follows me no matter how many achievements. I'd like to move on. To show that I'm here for my music. Not to be in a tabloid."
To that end? "I'm itching and jonesing to get back into the studio," he says, "and fantasizing about doing a side project." No firm plans for that exist, but he's looking around. "I'm such a fan of how Jack White and Danger Mouse get down and put these bands together. I'd love to be the drummer in a band that I'm producing, and sit back there and have someone else sing," says Mars, who has recorded vocals for Jay-Z and Kanye West's forthcoming "Watch the Throne" album, but says he doesn't know if he'll appear on the final record. "Whether I'm on it or not I'm pretty sure it's going to be awesome.
"I'm just a mixed-up dude," he says when asked about his genre-crossing versatility. "I want to work with the Kanyes, the Jay-Zs... a Rihanna, a Gaga, Kings of Leon, Mumford & Sons. I want to do all those things. As proud as I am of "Doo-Wops," I feel like, 'Oh, man. People haven't seen nothing. They don't even know what I'm about to do,' and that's what I can't wait to show the world."
"It's definitely not going to be a case of here today, gone tomorrow," says Atlantic's Greenwald, who doesn't hesitate to call Mars a global superstar. "This is a guy who's going to be doing this for the next 50 years. His commitment to performing, touring and creating is so real and so genuine that nothing is going to knock him off."