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From The Archives: Bruno Mars' 2011 VIBE Cover Story

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Bruno Mars scored his first VIBE cover in 2011

WHEN MARS ATTACKS!

Seven Grammy nominations in, and Bruno Mars’ ego still hasn’t landed. Does he not know how good he is? No, he’s aware. Did he miss the chapter on his idol Elvis’ arrogance? Probably not. He’s just not into the song and dance that comes with drama. Say aloha to music’s second most drama-free international pop star

Words: Touré

Photos: Jill Greenberg

Bruno Mars breezed into the Zeitgeist like a breath of fresh air flowing into a smoggy city. At a moment when the culture is filled with ego-driven, irony-drenched songs meant to perpetuate various cults of personality, here comes Mars with a slew of hits with—wait for it—good messages that have nothing to do with him or his life story. The Hawaiian native—born to a Puerto Rican by way of Brooklyn dad and Filipino mom—has brought a laid-back islander vibe to music by writing lush, dreamy, well-crafted pop songs like “Nothin on You” for B.O.B., “Billionaire” for Travis McCoy and “Just the Way You Are” for himself. Even “Fuck You,” the omnipresent single he wrote for Cee-Lo, is cheeky enough to make you laugh, even though the protagonist is cursing mad.

Mars’s desire to please comes, perhaps, from being a lifelong performer. He grew up onstage in a musical family, so even though he’s only 25, music has been his life for almost two decades. He played all over Waikiki with his family, and then by himself in Los Angeles before becoming a well-respected writer and producer who worked with Brandy, Adam Levine, Sean Kingston and Flo Rida. But he always wanted to perform, so his 2010 debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Now, he’s nominated for seven Grammys, including Record of the Year (a performer’s award where both “Nothin on You” and “Fuck You” are nominated) and Song of the Year (a songwriter’s award where “Fuck You” is nominated) and Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) with his trio the Smeezingtons. Even if the academy gives him the proverbial finger, and the little-island-boy-who-could walks away with nothing, he seems destined for a long career. Because Bruno Mars is that rare thing: a writer/producer/artist who knows how to make hits and get respect. We spoke in Midtown Manhattan, in an almost-empty hotel lounge, as he sat in a new Moncler winter coat, ready for a trip to Germany.

VIBE: You’re all about trying to make people happy and saying things that make people feel good about themselves and feel good about you—which is interesting because right now there’s a lot of egotistical music succeeding.

BRUNO MARS: That’s probably because of my upbringing in Hawaii. If you ever go to Hawaii and just kick it with people, you’ll notice that they’re just really content with life and what they do. You know, they work at a bar, they do construction, but they’re content and happy. Their girl’s pregnant for the third time, and it’s all good because the beach is two minutes away. You know what I mean? Everyone’s laid back. You’re driving around and everyone’s driving a little slower. It’s what I would call island time. It’s a little slower, it’s a little mellower.

You grew up playing music?

Yeah, my father used to do a 1950s rock ’n’ roll show in Hawaii. That’s where I started. Where you see the Elvis clips and stuff like that, that’s me in his show. When my parents got divorced, the money thing kinda fell through. And so from being in sort of a well-off neighborhood we go into the slums of Hawaii. A lot of people think Hawaii is all white beaches, but there’s definitely ’hoods… But wherever you go in Hawaii there’s live music. If you ever go to a party, if you ever go to a barbeque, there’s a Hawaiian dude with a guitar, with the prettiest girls in the world singing. You go to the beach, there’s cats with guitars and bongos and just jamming. Everybody’s all about jamming and singing. It’s in the air over there.

You come from a family of musicians. Did you ever imagine doing anything else with your life?

CLICK THE ARROWS ABOVE TO CONTINUE READING >>> Bruno's 2011 VIBE shoot, three years before he'd perform at halftime during the Super BowlYou come from a family of musicians. Did you ever imagine doing anything else with your life?

Other than music? That’s the problem! I can’t do anything else, ’cause I’m not really good at anything else! And I’m not saying that I’m good at what I do. I’m just saying that the way my upbringing was, music was my focus. I was doing shows five days a week at 5 years old. That was my whole gig all the way up until high school.

Was your dad your music teacher?

I think what really taught me was watching videos. I would watch Jimi Hendrix, and I would say, “I gotta learn how to do that!” I gotta know how he makes the audience freak out! I learned my instruments watching Stevie play piano and seeing how he captivates everybody just singing a song on the piano. I said I wanna learn how to sing a song on the piano with no band. Just stuff like that.

You’re big on Elvis. Now, a lot of people of our generation don’t understand Elvis. So explain the genius of Elvis as you see it.

The reason why I like Elvis is the same reason why I like Michael. And the same reason I like James Brown. And Little Richard.

Showmen.

Showmen. The show was first. No tricks. You know: no smoke, no mirrors. No background tracks. Just a band and the artist… I’m a fan of the young Elvis. And I’m a fan of the story, how he freaked out white America by doing this Black rock’n’roll. He would go onstage shaking his hips, and people were freaking out. They said, “You can’t film him from the waist down.” To me, that’s fucking awesome.

But I mean, he had songs. He wasn’t just charisma.

Yeah, but the thing about Elvis was he never wrote his songs. He would do Little Richard songs. He would do blues songs that Black artists wrote. He would cover ’em basically. But he would show them to an audience that would never listen to ’em. And you know, the dude was a star.

Just the charisma, the presence?

Everything. Yeah. He would dress different. He would dance. There was nothing like that at the time.

’Cause everybody else you named—Michael, James Brown—all our peoples would be, “Oh yeah, no doubt.” And Elvis, they would be like, “Huh?” So should we be, like, re-evaluating Elvis?

You can go deep. I mean, a lot of people say he stole music, and you know what I mean. But I’m looking at it as like Eminem’s a great lyricist, a great artist doing hip-hop. That’s not a color thing for me. And if there were no hip-hop, there’d be no Eminem. You know what I mean. If there was no rhythm and blues, there’d be no Elvis.

No doubt. I mean, Eminem in particular takes hip-hop very seriously. He is like a monk. He studies the technique like few people around today. I’m like, how can you fault the dude just ’cause he’s white? He’s amazing.

That’s the thing. No one knows what the fuck I am as far as… Like, I’m not Hawaiian. I’m Puerto Rican. My dad’s originally from Brooklyn, my mom is Filipino, and they met in Hawaii. So I’m just like—you know—all mixed up.

How proud is your father of you for having gotten this far with your music when you started doing music at his side?

Super proud. I was just with him a couple weeks ago and—you know, he’s a little shocked with all these things coming my way. Like, I’m a songwriter now, and they know that I didn’t go to California for that. I didn’t go to California to be a producer.

So you moved to Cali at 18 to do what?

To drop my album and tour the world. But after I moved out, nothing was going on. My family was expecting me to knock ’em dead, but it didn’t happen for a long time. And that’s when it got weird, like, “What the hell’s going on?” Then I got signed at Motown, and that didn’t work. But that’s when I figured out that the producing thing could keep me afloat. And then I felt like I could still do music in California if I just stuck to this producing stuff. And then hopefully one day somebody’s gonna take a chance on the guy demo-ing the song and writing the song. But my family didn’t know what was going on. I was like, “I’m working with Brandy today!” They’re like, “What does that mean?” “I’m writing a song and producing Brandy.” And they just couldn’t figure it out.

You’ve shown an extraordinary ability to make hit records. How do you do it?

I wish I knew! I’d be writing one right now as we speak!

You gotta have some idea by now.

You know what it is? It took me a long time to figure out. It took me a long time to write a hit song. But after you write one, let’s take, “Nothin’ on You,” for instance. You know that feeling you get when you hear it.

You say, “Oh I got something here.”

It just was like, “Man, this feels so damn good.” You got this rapper with this great tone in his voice, and he’s saying something real cool. He’s riding the beat perfectly, then I come in with the lullaby hook. And it’s cohesive, and it flows. It feels right. It feels natural. It doesn’t feel contrived. It just feels natural. And I try to remember that feeling. You never know if it’s going to be a hit, but there’s that feeling of it being a special song. You know, “This feels good to us, or to me.” And I think the main thing is to never forget that feeling. I got that same feeling when I wrote ‘Grenade,’ and when we were in the studio with Cee-Lo and we did ‘Fuck You.’

I think “Fuck You” is the best song you’ve written. The story is told very economically, and it’s made so visible. I can really see this hot, red convertible pulling off, and the smoke blowing in this guy’s face as he goes, “Fuck you, dude! And fuck you, too! Arrhhh!”

I’m a huge fan of Cee-Lo. And “Crazy” was such a special song to me ’cause it was everything that I was trying to explain at a young age. Just trying to tell producers that I want to do a song that kinda has a little bit of this and it kinda has a little bit of that, and they were looking at me like I was crazy… I got signed to Elektra, and he was on Elektra. And I was praying, like, “I gotta work with him!” Then we sat down and did some records together, and we became friends. We’d be just cracking up at the studio, jokes and jokes and jokes; and we finally got extremely comfortable and figured out each other’s sense of humor. But after we [the Smeezingtons] came up with it, I was a little nervous to sing it for him. All I had was: “I see you driving round town with the one I love, and I’m like, Fuck you-oo-oo!” And he goes, “I love that! That’s beautiful!” I love working with a guy like that, because he’s so open and there’s no boundaries, you know?

So you’re nominated for seven Grammys, which is a gigantic number, especially for a newer guy.

Isn’t it amazing? A little Hawaiian dude? [Laughs]

Grammy nominations mean recognition from your peers.

Like, good job this year, buddy.

That’s gotta feel good.

It’s weird ’cause we do these songs in a shabby studio in L.A. It’s like, really bad. And we’ve been fortunate enough that the songs did what they did on radio and iTunes. And being recognized by the Super Bowl of music. It’s just awesome.

Take me into your studio. What’s the songwriting process? What’s the studio process? You’ve said that you produce “like a band.” Explain what that means.

CLICK THE ARROWS ABOVE TO CONTINUE READING >>> Bruno Mars continues to rack up GrammysTake me into your studio. What’s the songwriting process? What’s the studio process? You’ve said that you produce “like a band.” Explain what that means.

Being a songwriter, a lot of times you go to a studio and producers will play you a track, and you have to write to a track. So you’re kinda constricted from moving around because you already have those chords. But we write as a band, so we take the guitar and bongos and percussion and sit around and try to come up with something. We’ll be just jamming and seeing what works and feeling it out.

What are you searching for?

You know, it’s always different. But to me the best songs are like a joke. Like, you have to set it up in a way that no one’s ever heard it before. And then the hook is the punch line. So in, “Nothin on You” I say, “Beautiful girls all over the world/I could be chasing/But my time would be wasted. They got nothing on you.” I ain’t saying nothing that ain’t never been said in a million love songs before. But I feel like the way it’s set up is what makes it magical. I’m telling a girl, “Look, there’s beautiful girls all over the world. Already that’s different. How you gonna tell a girl there’s beautiful girls all over the world? I could be chasing them… But they got nothing on you. There’s the punch line.

It’s interesting that “Nothin on You” starts with the chorus.

Yeah.

And “Fuck You” starts with the chorus.

Uh-huh.

And “Grenade” starts with the chorus.

Yeah.

Is that something you’re thinking about? Starting with the chorus?

I feel like sometimes you wanna smack ’em in the face. And I think those songs required that.

What have you learned over the last year?

Everything is new to me. The world is watching me learn right now. I’ve got these new in-ear monitors I’ve never used before to hear myself. I’m used to hearing my voice bounce back to me. I’m used to hearing a little bit of the crowd. Now you’ve got to have these things in your ears to hear yourself. There’s a lot of little things like that I’m getting used to now.

Do you need to hear people cheering for you?

No, not at all. It’s just about when it’s gelling. When the drummer’s with you and you’re just connected. I mean, I have fun rehearsing in the garage. I just wanna play. That’s it. I wish there were instruments here right now so I could just play. Just sing. I just wanna sing.

For five people?

I’ll take two. I’m good. I’ve done it before. That’s it, it’s just my comfort zone. I mean, I’ve been growing up doing it my whole life. That’s my sanctuary.

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