Charlie Mars has something to prove. After a failed radio-friendly attempt at major label success, Mars knew he had to reinvent himself if he was ever going to be able to meet the gaze of the man in the mirror.
“I really had to do a gut check,” Mars says. “I had to decide whether I wanted to do it because it was just something I had no choice about, and if I was going to, I knew then I had to get better so that what I was doing was not as easy to dismiss.”
And get better he did. Mars’ last two albums — 2009’s Like a Bird, Like a Plane, and 2012’s Blackberry Light — were impressive reinventions on which he carved out a new niche for himself as a craftsman of supple, soulful, minimalist alt-country.
After self-releasing three albums in the 1990s, the Mississippi native ended up in the hands of number-crunching record executives, but they quickly cast him aside after his overly polished and under-written major label debut didn’t meet their expectations.
“I was angry that people I thought were my friends had turned their backs on me. I was angry that I had trusted people in positions of power, and because I had not paid off in the short-term, they had turned their backs on me,” Mars says. “I was naïve. I was green. I was from Mississippi and not an industry area. I didn’t know anything. That anger has fueled me through the nights where there were eight people there and no one cared.”
When he entered his 30s, Mars found himself at the crossroads. He’d devoted himself to a career in music, but he’d yet to find a signature sound.
“I started out like just a dumb frat guy getting drunk, playing at frat houses and singing shit that sounded like Big Head Todd. But you wake up 10 years later and decide you want to be a man and you want to do something that is your own,” Mars says. “You start to use your intellect and your soul, and you apply it to what you’re doing. I think there were signs that I might wind up there, but I had to live that down for a long time, all that stupid shit.”
With Blackberry Light, Mars has gone more acoustic, slowing the tempos and excising much of his early radio-ready warmth. It’s much closer to an Americana album than anything he has ever released. The simplicity of the approach helps the lyricism rise to the top, and Mars delivers from the album-opening shuffle, “Let the Meter Run,” to the dreamy “Nothing but the Rain.” There’s a tenderness, honesty, and hard-won wisdom to the songs, and none more so than “How I Roll.” It was written during the recording sessions for Blackberry Light, an unusual move for Mars who likes to go in fully prepared with an eye to studio costs. But when producer Billy Harvey (Steve Poltz, Bob Schneider) suggested they needed something rocking to break things up, Mars obliged.
The funky tune centers around a lawbreaker who spots the police in his rear view mirror. “I shouldn’t have smoked so much weed/ I shouldn’t have done so much blow/ Oh, don’t you know sometimes that’s how I roll,” he sings.
“That song is about when you’ve made mistakes and you apologize for them and you try to atone for them. That’s what you do for a long time when you make mistakes, and I think ‘How I Roll’ is the realization that you’re going to make mistakes and sometimes you’re going to be unapologetic about them,” Mars says.
Although Mars is happy with Blackberry Light, he’s not altogether satisfied. “I was shooting for the stars on this record,” he says. “Did I get there? No. Am I happy with it? I am.”