It’s a special day for Bruno Mars. In a few moments, he’ll divulge details about his eagerly awaited sophomore album and declare his musical independence.
The heat is blistering this late September afternoon outside Larrabee Sound Studios in North Hollywood, Calif. Mars strolls in with carefree swagger, removes his gold-framed Aviators and pours a glass of orange juice. He plops into a chair in the lounge area that leads into the studio of engineer Manny Marroquin, the five-time Grammy Award winner who’s mixing the retro-pop artist’s edgy new album, “Unorthodox Jukebox,” due Dec. 11 on Atlantic Records.
| Harper Smith
Bruno Mars + Billboard
The 10-song set is the follow-up to his closing-in-on-double-platinum 2010 debut, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” (Elektra), which produced two Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles, “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade.” The indelible and dramatic pop hooks of those songs, along with his preceding vocal features on two Hot 100 top five singles-B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire” (which he also co-wrote)-helped rocket Mars into global superstardom.
He’s anxious for the imminent release of his energetic new single, “Locked Out of Heaven.” It debuts digitally and on radio on Oct. 1 and becomes available for purchase the following day. With production by Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, Emile Haynie and songwriting/production team the Smeezingtons (Mars, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine), the track recalls the upbeat grooves of the Police. It’s unlike anything heard from Mars to date. A music video was being shot at press time, but a premiere date hadn’t been set.
This is a rare sighting of Mars (real name: Peter Hernandez), who’s just two weeks away from his 27th birthday. For the past six months the Hawaiian native, who moved to Los Angeles about a decade ago, has been holed up in Levcon Studios. It’s a cozy Hollywood recording spot he shares with Lawrence and Levine. Since hooking up six years ago, the Smeezingtons have not only written or produced solo hits for Mars, but also worked on an impressive list of breakout hits for Flo Rida (“Right Round”), K’naan (“Wavin’ Flag”), Cee Lo Green (“Fuck You”), B.o.B (“Nothin’ on You”), McCoy (“Billionaire”), Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa (“Young Wild & Free”) and Bad Meets Evil (“Lighters”).
On Sept. 19, Mars announced the completion of “Unorthodox Jukebox” to his 12 million Twitter followers. The message included a link to a hilarious FunnyOrDie.com video featuring Mars as everything from a dancer clad in gold hot pants to James Bond to the Brawny Paper Towel man, set to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man.” Today is Mars’ first interview about his new album, thus officially launching a still-developing promotional campaign that will dominate the next couple years of his life.
It’s been a while since Mars last spoke to the press and beads of sweat are forming on his forehead. He’s admittedly a bit rusty. “I don’t know what to talk about because no one has heard anything,” Mars says, pulling off his navy blue captain’s hat and running his hands through his thick, uncoifed hair. “This is rough for me.”
“I’ve had big record label presidents look me in the face and say, ‘Your music sucks, you don’t know who you are. Pick a lane and come back to us’ … That was disgusting to me, because I’m not trying to be a circus act.”
His thoughts could be muddled from lack of sleep. He was texting with Marroquin about fine-tuning some track mixes until 5 a.m. The singer recalls having to literally turn off the radio when hearing his song “It Will Rain” (written for 2011’s “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 1”) because of his displeasure with the track’s final mix. “I felt like I was a mosquito singing,” Mars says with noticeable agitation. “I don’t want that to happen again.”
As the annoyance fades, a devilish grin creeps across Mars’ face. He’s finally found the proper words to describe the growth that’s come with writing “Unorthodox Jukebox.” He sits up from a slouched position and reaches for his American Spirits that sit on the coffee table. Pulling a cigarette from the half-empty pack, the artist begins to explain his musical liberation.
“This is me going into the studio and recording and writing whatever I want,” Mars says confidently. “This album represents my freedom.”
Mars isn’t a stranger to rejection. Early in his career, he was signed to Universal Motown and quickly dropped after studio time yielded disappointing results. Since then, he’s learned a few lessons and proved himself an undeniably talented singer, songwriter, producer and performer. A quadruple threat, Mars has earned the respect of his music industry peers and is now ready to unleash his full potential and blow some minds.
“I’ve had big record label presidents look me in the face and say, ‘Your music sucks, you don’t know who you are, your music is all over the place, and we don’t know how to market this stuff. Pick a lane and come back to us,'” Mars says. “That was disgusting to me, because I’m not trying to be a circus act. I listen to a lot of music and I want to have the freedom and luxury to walk into a studio and say, ‘Today I want to do a hip-hop, R&B, soul or rock record.'”
NEXT PAGE: On Sappy Songs & Issues With His Debut
“They made me change a couple of things on [‘Doo-Wops’] and I felt disgusted about that”
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Like his debut, “Unorthodox Jukebox” scales the broad landscape of Mars’ musical influences. Ten tracks previewed to Billboard ranged in style, containing elements of rock, pop, soul, R&B, funk, electro, reggae, doo-wop, disco and more. As many in Mars’ camp agree, the new songs are much deeper and more evolved than what’s featured on “Doo-Wops.” Some may be surprised to find him trading in lighthearted pop songs like “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade” for sexed-up rockers like “Gorilla” and “Moonshine.” Ever the charmer, though, Mars will surely make female fans swoon with piano ballad “When I Was Your Man” and the anthemic “Young Girls.”
He’s proud of his success with “Doo-Wops,” which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 1.7 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In addition to chart-topping singles, the set garnered multiple Grammy nominations and a best male pop vocal performance win for “Just the Way You Are.” He admits, however, that the completion of Doo-Wops was rushed in an effort to capitalize on the fast-building momentum of “Nothin’ on You” and “Billionaire,” which reached No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, on the Hot 100 in 2010.
| Harper Smith
Bruno Mars + Billboard
Now, Mars had the luxury of time. It allowed him to create a musically rich follow-up that dives deeper into his sonic palette and fully demonstrates his artistry.
“I had to change lanes from hustling trying to be a producer and songwriter for other acts. So I was writing a lot of pop songs and radio-friendly songs. It was a different mind-set,” Mars says of his debut. “When I worked on [“Doo-Wops”], maybe that trickled off into my stuff and I didn’t really have a chance to custom-make the sounds and sonics that I wanted to do. On this one, you’re going to feel a little more me and what I stand for.”
It was during his last two years of countless worldwide concerts and TV shows — including his unforgettable moment earlier this year at the Grammys in Los Angeles — that Mars realized his second album needed to reflect his raucously energetic stage show. To achieve a fuller sound on the new release, he recruited some of his favorite producers, including Ronson, Bhasker, Haynie, Diplo and the Supa Dups. The Smeezingtons, who co-wrote and co-produced all of the tracks, also serve as the new set’s executive producers.
Upcoming touring plans are still being ironed out, as are details of the overall marketing campaign for “Unorthodox Jukebox.” But Mars is expected to begin touring in second-quarter 2013, according to his manager, Brandon Creed. The trek is tentatively scheduled to launch in Europe and then visit North America in the summertime.
Mars explores some darker, edgier lyrical themes on “Unorthodox Jukebox.” In true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, he references drugs, sex and alcohol in the slithering standout “Gorilla.” Midway through the stadium rocker, Mars defiantly belts out the word “motherfucker.” It’s a noticeable departure from the softer subject matter of his past material (“I’ll be lounging on the couch just chillin’ in my Snuggie/Click to MTV so they can teach me how to Dougie,” he sings on 2010’s “The Lazy Song”). Mars points out, however, that on an alternate version of “Billionaire,” he sings, “I want to be a billionaire so fuckin’ bad” (on the cleaner version he says “frickin'”). Nevertheless, he acknowledges the mature new themes as further evidence of his newfound artistic freedom.
“They made me change a couple of things on [Doo-Wops] and I felt disgusted about that. I didn’t do that on this album,” Mars says. “If I can’t be me doing it, I’m not going to have any fun. If I’m changing things around because people might think it’s a hard pill to swallow — like, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t the Bruno we know’ — then I’m going to feel like a circus clown onstage, selling something fake.”
Mars also proudly boasts that “Unorthodox Jukebox” doesn’t include a single guest vocal from another artist. This may come as a surprise to some since Mars built his career early on by appearing on other artist’s tracks. “It’s my fucking album. It should just be me, right?” he says with a laugh.
Back at Larrabee Sound Studios, Mars further reflects on his musical metamorphosis during the past two years. When the subject turns to how some critics (he hates them, by the way) have suggested that “Just the Way You Are” and some of his other romantic songs were overly sappy, the singer gets playfully defensive.
“If you can’t hear the sentiment, as sappy as you want to call it, then maybe you’re a piece of shit,” he says, that devilish grin reappearing.
He pauses a moment to think.
“But if I was getting sappier we’d have a problem,” he continues. “Then it would just be mush.”