By Matt Diehl, Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 6, 2011
In early September 2010, Bruno Mars found himself sitting in the posh lounge of North Hollywood's Larrabee Studios, a high-tech temple designed for creating pop-music smashes. Platinum discs from artists who've recorded there line Larrabee's walls, and in an adjoining room, renowned mix engineer Manny Marroquin rushed to complete the 25-year-old singer-songwriter-producer's debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," due out less than a month later.
Marroquin's Midas touch is legendary, blessing hits for Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Usher, among others; in his short career, Mars' ability to create pop blockbusters is proving similarly gilded. At this point, Mars had already helped write and produce chart-toppers for artists such as B.o.B, Flo Rida, Cee Lo Green and Travie McCoy; as a solo artist, Mars' first single, the stirring ballad "Just the Way You Are," was midway through its chart ascent.
By early October, that song would reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, attaining triple-platinum status; "Doo-Wops" would also eventually crest at No. 3 in the U.S. and top charts internationally. But Mars didn't know this back in September: Despite the hit-making firepower backing him, he was nervous. His label, Elektra, was preparing to follow up "Just the Way You Are" with a soulful power-pop ditty called "Grenade," and Mars exuded anxiety about its reception: "What's 'Grenade' compared with 'Just the Way You Are'? I'm crossing my fingers, hoping people dig it."
They did, demonstrated by Mars' seven Grammy nominations in 2011, second only to Eminem's 10. "Grenade" would also top the charts, making him the only male solo artist to do so with his first two singles. "Hearing Bruno on the radio for the first time is almost like discovering the pre-pubescent Michael Jackson," says McCoy, whose 2010 hit single "Billionaire" was a Mars collaboration.
"Bruno is poised to be one of the next generation's greats," notes Green, whose Grammy-nominated hit "[Forget] You" was co-written and produced by Mars and his production team the Smeezingtons.
"I'm feeling like a winner right now, sir — I'm not going to lie!" Mars exclaimed in a recent phone interview between European tour stops. "But I'm still crossing my fingers about the Grammys. They stay crossed: I tend to overthink things. I'm not the guy who screams 'This is a world smash!' when I finish a song." The Grammy Awards take place next Sunday at Staples Center.
Indeed, although "Just the Way You Are" was nominated for "Best Pop Vocal Performance" alongside John Mayer and Michael Jackson, Mars seems more excited by his collaborations. "I'm fortunate to work with guys like Cee Lo and B.o.B," he says. "'Nothin' on You' by B.o.B was the first song where I heard myself on the radio. I'd been trying my whole career to write a song like that, which incorporates live instruments with hip-hop and singing."
And Green's 2006 hit as part of Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy," captured Mars' imagination: "It epitomized what I wanted to achieve: a song that would be played on pop stations, on hip-hop stations, on rock stations — just because it was good." (At the 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony, Mars will perform with B.o.B and another crossover success of last year, Janelle Monáe.)
Mars' voice and production style — blending classic soul, reggae-tinged grooves suggesting the Police and Sublime, OutKast's iconoclastic hip-hop and Sade's smooth internationalism — have become pop radio's dominant sound. "Bruno's songs have no boundaries," says John Ivey, program director for the influential top-40 radio station, KIIS-FM. "No one in the past year has had hits as varied. When we first heard 'Just the Way You Are,' it was a little shocking. We'd assumed he was a hip-hop artist, and all of a sudden he's Billy Joel!"
Born to a Puerto Rican father and Filipino mother (his birth name is Peter Hernandez), Mars grew up in Hawaii, playing in his family's cover band, the Love Notes. By age 4, he was performing onstage as "the world's youngest Elvis impersonator," and appeared in the film "Honeymoon in Vegas," where he sang "Can't Help Falling in Love." Mars attributes his unique sound to this multicultural upbringing.
"Honolulu is a melting pot," he explains. "Melody is everywhere you go. Kids would come to school with guitars and ukuleles on their back, and we'd all jam at lunch." At age 18, he'd moved to Los Angeles, quickly scoring a solo deal with Motown; within a couple years, however, that deal soured. "You wouldn't believe how many label presidents I've heard say, 'Bruno doesn't have what it takes, we don't know how to market him, we don't know what kind of music he does,'" Mars says. "You know, 'Who's this beige-looking kid with curly hair? We can't figure him out.' It was devastating."
In L.A., Mars associated with future stars Ne-Yo, Kesha and Kanye West collaborator Jeff Bhasker (with whom Mars performed in a cover band called Sex Panther) as each waited for their big break. "Ne-Yo was one of the first people I saw write a song," Mars recalls. "He'd make something that sounded like a hit record within an hour — I couldn't believe it. Kesha and I were signed to the same management; we'd call each other up and see what the other was working on, which was usually nothing."
To keep his dreams afloat, by 2007 Mars had hooked up with two other young music-industry hopefuls: Philip Lawrence, a singer and songwriter, and sound engineer Ari Levine. "Bruno was a cool, normal dude, but even years ago, when he played his music, it was incredible — a no-brainer,'" Levine recalls. Working out of Levine's LevCon Studios, set in a ramshackle cottage between a laundromat and a medical marijuana dispensary on a seedy Hollywood side street, the trio honed their songwriting and production skills as a means of survival.
"We worked long and hard in this little shack, hoping just to pay rent and have someone listen to our songs," Lawrence says.
Calling themselves the Smeezingtons — "We'd say a song was going to be a smash, which turned into a 'smeeze,' which turned into a 'smeezington,'" Mars clarifies — the group developed its distinctive mode. "We're that weird middle ground, where there's live instruments but it's still rhythmic and pop," Levine says. "I'll listen to the Strokes or Black Keys, while Phil can sing any Motown song."
"I'm the Nickelodeon version of DangerMouse," Mars adds. He says he's a big fan of simple songs "that stand the test of time: 'Just the Way You Are' was inspired by songs like 'Wonderful Tonight' and 'Nothing Compares 2 U.' Writing for other artists helped me figure out that magic you have to capture to make everyone connect with a song."
"Bruno is extremely talented, and not formulaic — and that goes equally for all the Smeezingtons," notes Green (who says he was offered "Just the Way You Are" and holds other unreleased, single-quality gems from their sessions together). Undeniably, Mars' Grammy success represents an equal triumph for the Smeezingtons, nominated in the "Producer of the Year" category. The Smeezingtons began writing for the likes of Kn'aan, Matisyahu and Brandy, but their first big hit proved the hook for Flo Rida's "Right Round," catching the attention of Atlantic/Elektra's Senior Director of A&R Aaron Bay-Schuck.
"Bruno came in with his guitar and it was love at first sight," Bay-Schuck says. "Among the songs he had were 'Billionaire' and 'Nothin' on You,' which sealed the deal."
"Every song Bruno and his team had was a smash," adds John Janick, the co-president of Elektra Records. "Immediately, we had to sign him. They were doing something different, creating their own sound."
The Smeezingtons' run continues beyond Mars' solo success: the group produced r&b singer Mike Posner's upcoming single, Flo Rida's current hit "Who's Dat Girl," and much of Koreatown pop group Far East Movement's recent debut album. The anonymity of Mars' studio work has been upended by his pop-star status and some headline-grabbing events, however: He recently took a plea deal on cocaine possession charges after an arrest in Las Vegas last September; coincidentally, he entered his guilty plea right as "Grenade" topped the charts.
Although he declined to comment on the Vegas incident, he has quickly become aware of the trappings of celebrity. "I have to be a little more cautious about my surroundings," he says. "I'll be eating breakfast at a hotel, having just rolled out of bed — without realizing people are filming me with flip cams and cellphones. In that way, life has changed, but that's not that bad. Everything I've ever wanted, I have right now."
This past December, Mars, who still lives in L.A., headlined the Blaisdell Center, a 7,000-seat venue in his Honolulu hometown, and all that's happened came into perspective for him. "I'd done arena shows," he says, "but this was my first ticket that said 'Bruno Mars' at the top. The show sold out, but all I could think about was how close I came to giving up before 'Nothin on You' hit. I live for this. The best part is, it's just the beginning. I still have so much room to grow; I'm learning something new every day."
According to KIIS-FM's Ivey, he does have it all: Mars' triple-threat status as a performer, songwriter and producer puts him into an elite echelon that appeals to Grammy voters. "Kanye West, Diddy, Prince, Jack White — these are just music guys who can do it all, and really well," Ivey says. "I'm anxious to see where he goes: We need to hear more to determine what he is. But the sky's the limit in terms of potential. If this is the way he starts off — man, there's no telling what this guy could be."
"Bruno's still a work in progress," Green says. "Life isn't shaped as a pop song. He needs to go deeper, try harder, but that's his ambition: Soon he's going to win in that area, too, and be whole."
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