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Bruno Mars: Searching For a Deeper Groove

Tasked with matching megahit “Uptown Funk,” lifelong showman battles the anxiety of pop perfectionism.

Tasked with matching megahit "Uptown Funk," lifelong showman battles the anxiety of pop perfectionism.

‘I‘ve been living in this damn box for 18 months!”. It’s late July at Glenwood Place, a recording studio in Burbank, California. Bruno Mars is in the courtyard – white T-shirt, Versace cap over curls, white slip-on sneakers, no socks – smoking his umpteenth cigarette of the day and trying with every bone in his roughly five-foot-five body to will his third album to completion.

“It’s right there, man,” says Mars, 31. “I’ve got to finish one song and tighten up the bridge on another, and I’m pretty much done. I want to be finished by the middle of next month. I do have a deadline. And this shit ain’t cheap!”

The song he needs to finish is one he’s been working on with Skrillex, whom he brought in to add some pizazz to a track he’s been struggling with for months. “[Skrillex] is a sonic genius, and his version is amazing,” Mars says. “There’s just something that’s still not happening for me. The groove ain’t right, or we’re not doing something on the chorus – I don’t know the exact math. I’m just trying to figure out why I’m tuning out in certain parts.”

The last time Mars dropped an album was December 2012 – four years ago, an eternity for a pop star. He’s surfed the intervening years like a pro, with two Super Bowl halftime performances (headlining in 2014, and a cameo last February with Coldplay and Beyoncé), not to mention the biggest-selling song of the past few years, his collaboration with Mark Ronson, “Uptown Funk”. But it’s been so long since Mars made an actual album that he kind of forgot how it all works: the doubts; the endless tweaking and re-tweaking; the cigarettes. “We’re at the point now where we’re losing our fucking minds,” he says. “My engineer’s going crazy; he wants to kill me. This process is just such a weird process. Sitting in this freezing-ass-cold box trying to come up with songs.”

“Uptown Funk” cemented Mars’ super-star status, spending 14 weeks at Number One in the U.S. – tying for the second-longest run in chart history – and winning the Grammy for Record of the Year. To date, it’s sold more than 12 million copies, been streamed nearly 2 billion times and made several dragons want to retire. But if you thought the song’s runaway success would be a confidence-booster, Mars maintains the opposite: It was actually kind of paralysing.

“Coming off the biggest song of my career, it was super-daunting to come in here,” he says. His insecurity has him second-guessing everything. “I don’t know if people are going to love this shit,” he says. “I don’t know if radio is going to play it. But what I don’t want to have happen is I put it out and say, ‘Damn it, if I’d just done this and this, maybe it would have had a shot.’ “

But on the other hand… this is Bruno Mars. Six Number One singles. Thirty combined weeks at the top of the chart (44 if you count “Uptown”). Two albums, 26 million in sales worldwide, four Grammys and counting. So when you ask him if he’s usually right when it comes to these things – if he has pretty good instincts for what makes a song a hit or not – he can’t help but swag out.

“I don’t know,” Mars says, flashing a smile. “Google me. Do I?”

That night, Mars stays at the studio until late. Around 3 a.m., he climbs into his 2010 Cadillac (“It might be time for an upgrade. I look like an Uber driver”) and makes the 20-minute trek to his home in the Hollywood Hills. His girlfriend, model Jessica Caban, is already long asleep, so Mars sits in the driveway by himself for another half-hour, listening and re-listening to today’s mix. The driveway is where he does some of his best work: “We’ve worked on songs till 3 or 4 in the morning, like, ‘This is gonna be the first single!’ – and the minute I take it to the car, it’s so obvious we were tripping,” he says. “Something happens when you roll down your window and you can hear the traffic and real noise – the way people are actually going to hear it.” There’s something about his car’s speakers in particular. “Even if I do get a new car one day,” he says, “that thing’s gonna be parked on the side of the house.”

Mars’ new album is called 24K Magic. He says he wanted to re-create the feeling of the R&B he fell in love with as a kid, growing up in Hawaii in the early Nineties: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, New Edition and Bobby Brown, Jodeci, Boyz II Men, Teddy Riley, Babyface.

“There’s nothing more joyous for me than those school dances,” Mars says. “Slow-dancing at the Valentine’s Day banquet with the girl you have a crush on,and the DJ spins ‘Before I Let You Go’, by Blackstreet. And the shit is magical, and you think about it for the next eight months.”

“Sometimes I think I’m in the music biz 10 years too late – you don’t even buy songs anymore, and I’m making albums.”

Mars says he wanted to make a soundtrack for a movie in his head. He sets the scene: “We’re in New York. Summer night. The baddest rooftop house party. 2:30 in the morning, the band comes out, fucking dipped in Versace. The girls are screaming. And then the flyest lead singer the world has ever seen comes on and starts singing some shit.”

The next day, Mars is back in the studio to fix some of the mistakes he heard last night. First on the agenda is a song called “Finesse”. “There’s just some things fucking the groove up,” he says. “Anytime you see us,on tour, on TV, I want to be moving… I was very conscious on this album of the bounce.”

Mars opens his laptop and pulls up the latest version – the 20th or so, he guesses. He threw out one where he sang about gold chains and cognac over a silky beat (too corny), and another for sounding too much “like a Seventies cop show – like I should be on roller skates”. This version he’s finally happy with; he just needs to fix the bridge. There’s something bugging him about the harmonies, or maybe the chord progression. “I don’t know what’s not hitting home. There’s just something weird that I ain’t fucking with yet.” He jabs at his Korg keyboard in frustration. “I just have to open it up.”

If Mars is obsessive about songcraft, it’s probably because that’s how he first broke into the business. He moved to L.A. from Hawaii when he was 18, with dreams of becoming a star. (“I was a kid, man. I thought I’d go to Hollywood, sing for someone and that’s it, I’m playing Madison Square Garden.”) He briefly got signed to Motown Records, but then got dropped. “That’s when the hustle changed,” he says. He started working the song-hawker circuit, co-writing and producing tracks for Brandy, the Sugababes and the reconstituted Menudo.

James Fauntleroy, who worked on 24K Magic, is a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer who’s known Mars since the early days. “The first day I met him I was doing a song, and this little guy with an Afro walks in like, ‘This is tight, let me sing on this!'” Fauntleroy recalls. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ He hadn’t done shit! He was a star from Day One.

“Some artists are purely entertainers,” he says. “But [Bruno] is a real musician. He cares about how the bass and the high hat sound. He literally could do it alone, like Prince.”

Bruno 2With girlfriend Jessica Caban at the Grammys in L.A. earlier this year.

This doesn’t make songwriting any easier for him. “Bro, it’s the hardest,” Mars says. “Every beat has already been made, every rhyme has already been said, every chord progression has already been done. I’m competing with billions of other songs… It’s like winning the lottery – you just gotta get lucky.”
To illustrate his process, Mars cues up another new track, a seductive slow-jam called “Versace on the Floor”. “I could play you six different versions of this song,” he says. He starts with the original demo, which he calls the “poolside version”. (It does have a strong piña colada vibe.) The lyrics feature Mars telling his girl that they can “fly through a storm on a unicorn. . . . Make love on a mountain, bathe in a fountain.” He laughs as he listens back: “I’m really promising!”

“So I’m smiling at these lines,” Mars says. “I play it for people and they’re smiling; it’s awesome. But what’s the beat doing? We’re lounging. I don’t want to make poolside music. Let’s make it feel like these unicorns we’re talking about.”

So they remixed the beat. Mars plays the next version, which features the same lyrics but a more epic musical track. “So we get there with it,” he says, “and it’s good, it’s about to be on the album. And then it’s like… are you sure?” There was still something bothering him. “We’re painting this picture – both in silk, I’m promising the world. But I’m not singing. This is supposed to be a big ballad on the album, but I’m not giving it to ’em! If we’re gonna really, dramatically slow things down, I’ve got to be singing some shit.”

So they started from scratch and wrote a whole melody. But that meant they had to compose all-new lyrics as well. He plays the most recent iteration, a Boyz II Menish anthem that climaxes with an indelible hook: “Let’s just kiss till we’re naked/Versace on the floor.” “At a certain point,” says Mars, “I needed to stop telling you we’re gonna get down, and just get down.”

It’s Mars’ MO to tear songs apart like this. His “Grenade”, which was Number One for four weeks, was originally British Invasion-style Sixties jangle pop, until Mars realised at the last minute that “it sucked” and revamped it just before its release. (He plays me the original, and he is not incorrect. “And this was going to be my second single!” he says, incredulously. “Thank God, right?”) Meanwhile, his hit “Locked Out of Heaven” started as a cha-cha-style duet, à la Santana’s “Smooth”. Mars keeps that version on his laptop to remind himself that it’s a process, and not to freak out. Even “Uptown Funk” was almost thrown out several times. “That shit was in the trash can,” Mars says. He turns to his laptop and plays a messy early version, featuring an inexplicable hard-rock breakdown and a chorus with Mars shouting, “Burn this motherfucker down!” “We spent months on that chorus,” he says. “And then one day it was like, ‘Maybe we don’t have a chorus.’ “

And sometimes it’s a single word that can make or break a song. Last year Mars collaborated with Adele for a track on her newest album, 25, called “All I Ask”. They got on like gangbusters, knocked the whole thing out in just two sessions. But they fought over one line in the second verse, where Adele sings, “Take me by the hand while we do what lovers do.”

“We were aiming for that big, diva, ballad thing – that’s what I envisioned,” Mars says. “But ‘lovers’? I don’t know if anybody really says ‘lovers’. ‘Yeah, we’re lovers.’ ‘This is my lover.’ I was like, ‘Should we rethink that?’

“But [Adele] was so gangster about it,” he says. “She was like, ‘Nope. That’s what it has to be.’ And she was right. It’s this grand word that makes the song bigger because no one says it. Because nobody talks like that, it pops out. It’s not ‘what boyfriends-and-girlfriends do’ – it’s this over-the-top
‘lovers’. Sometimes I play it on the piano, and I look forward to singing that part. It’s fucking perfect.” The lesson: “Don’t try to be cool. Let
it be what it wants to be.”

In the end, Mars was sad to see the unicorn lyrics go. “Some of the slickest shit we ever wrote,” he says. “But I will use that line one day,” he vows. “You’re gonna hear that on the fourth album.”

Six weeks later, Mars arrives for lunch at an Italian restaurant down the hill from his house. The album is finally in the mixing stage, and he’s eminently more relaxed. It also doesn’t hurt that he just got back from Lake Como, in Italy, where he performed at the wedding of Spotify founder Daniel Ek. “But you weren’t supposed to know about that,” Mars says, grinning. (The news got out when a guest Instagrammed it.) I ask him if he’s getting prime placement on the Spotify home page in return. “They’re going to help with promotion,” he says sheepishly. “And I got a nice little cheque.”
How nice? Mars smiles. “It was beautiful there, near Lake Como.”

Mars can’t remember the last wedding he played. (“I think there was one in China?”) But it happens more frequently than you might think. “I’ve been doing weddings since I was eight,” he says. “It’s 101. It’s back to basics. What are you going to do at this bar mitzvah? Can you rip up a talent show at the high school auditorium? It’s healthy to go back to that.”

In fact, he says, he and his band, the Hooligans, played a birthday party just last night. “In some sick Malibu house,” he says. “There wasn’t anybody under 50 there. I looked back at my band, and I swear I got emotional. These guys are dripping like we’re at Madison Square Garden!”

Mars comes by his showman hustle naturally. His dad, Peter Gene Hernandez Sr., was a percussionist from Brooklyn who packed his congas and moved to Hawaii in the Seventies. He got a job playing drums in a Polynesian revue at the Hilton in Waikiki, where he met Mars’ mum, Bernadette, a hula dancer and singer who’d moved from the Philippines with her family as a girl. By
the time Bruno came along a few years later, they’d morphed into a family act: His dad led the band (“all these doo-wop guys from Brooklyn, these killers”); his mum sang with some of his uncles; and his older sister and brother also made appearances. Mars, as is well known by now, impersonated Elvis.

Bruno 3Mars, age four, when he was a performer in Hawaii.

Growing up singing the King at hotel-dinner theatre six nights a week is obviously bootcamp for moulding a certain kind of entertainer. “I just came from this school: patent-leather shoes, pinky ring, processed hair – showtime,” Mars says. As a result, he’s one of the few old-school song-and-dance men around today, as comfortable serenading stay-at-home mums on Ellen as trading verses with Mystikal or Big Sean. “This is something I never thought about until recently,” he says. “But because of my upbringing performing for tourists, I had to entertain everyone. Not just black people, not just white people, not just Asian people, not just Latin people. I had to perform for anybody that came to Hawaii.”

When Mars was 11 or 12, his parents got divorced, and the show came to an end. His little sisters went to live with his mum, and Bruno stayed with his dad. Things got a little rough.

“It was a family show,” he says. “So when that went away, the dynamic changed. They got divorced, sold the house, my dad lost all his businesses. And we basically went from living in a good neighbourhood to being fucking homeless. That was a funky time. We were sleeping in a limo, but my dad, with his passion, would still go out and try to push these shows on hotels, and he put it together.”

Mars never wanted to do anything but sing. “There was no Plan B,” he says. “You might have caught me at some restaurant with a guitar – but no matter where I ended up, this is what it was going to be.” His unshakable faith in his own talent has served him well, especially when it comes to dealing with people like the NFL. “God bless the Super Bowl,” he says. “They hooked me up, they took a chance on me. But I had to keep reminding them why they took a chance on me. You put that camera on my band and me, and I got you.”

He recounts a disagreement over the broadcast before his first Super Bowl gig. “They wanted to show a shot of the audience wearing these light-up bracelets,” he says. “I told them, ‘If you take that camera off me, you’re doing yourself a disservice.’ And what happened? They spent all this money on these things, and it didn’t work.” Naturally, he was prepared for just such a mishap. “I’ve rehearsed the shit out of my band, so even if you put cafeteria lighting on us, we’re still going to be doing it as if we had $5 million in production,” he says. “That’s the school I was brought up in. It’s bar-band shit. Every smoke machine and laser light is just a bonus.”

Somewhat surprisingly, when Chris Martin first called Mars to ask if he’d perform with Coldplay at the 2016 halftime, he passed. “I told him I don’t think so,” Mars says. “I just felt like I’d just done it.” Martin persisted, asking Mars to swing by the Malibu studio where he was working. “So I drove out there and he pitched it,” Mars says. “‘You and Beyoncé, doing “Uptown Funk” – I want to be responsible for giving that gift to the world.’ That’s what he said, in his sweet, charming, English way.”

Mars was still sceptical. “You’ve got to be careful with those [multi-artist] performances,” he says. “They do it a lot on award shows, where you’ve got so many cameos but nothing solid.” He told Martin to talk to Beyoncé and see what she thought. Martin’s response: “‘Let’s talk to her right now!'” He took out his phone and shot a video of himself and Mars, then texted it to Beyoncé. To Mars’ surprise, she was in.

Mars says he got an education watching Beyoncé prepare. “She’s not fucking joking around,” he says. “She’s going to get onstage and show everybody why she’s the best every single time. She’s got that monster in her.” But the memory that stands out is more relatable. “Me and Beyoncé were both working on our diets, stressing out,” he says. “Then the day before, we’re watching playback backstage, and she’s eating a bag of Cheetos. I’m like, ‘That’s what you’re doing?’ “

He mimes Beyoncé popping a Cheeto in her mouth. “She’s like, ‘There’s nothing more we can do these last two days. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. So I’m gonna enjoy this bag of Cheetos.'”

One of the first songs Mars ever recorded came when he was four. It’s called “I Love You, Mom”; his dad helped write it. It’s worth finding on YouTube, if you like cute things, or life. Here’s the first verse:

My name is Bruno, I’m only four years old
And at that age I have to do what I’m told…
I play guitar, but my fingers are too small
I try to play piano, but my feet can’t reach the floor
My mommy helps me with my voice
‘Cause a superstar singer is my first choice.

“I think it was for her birthday or Mother’s Day,” Mars says, smiling at the memory. “I gave it to her on cassette. I don’t remember her reaction, but she probably bit my face off.” He smiles again. “She played that song forever.”

Mars thinks he got a lot of his stage presence from his mum. “I would watch people just fall in love with her,” he says. “She just had this gift. And she was such a ham – a comedian, almost.” Some of which presumably got passed down to him? “Are you kidding? I’m a full pork chop!”

In May 2013, Mars was performing on a German TV show. He’d bought his mum an iPad, and she used it to follow Bruno fan accounts so she could see photos and videos of him from around the world. “So I’m doing this performance in Germany, and she texts me, like, ‘You need rest’,” he says, laughing. “‘Look at you. You got bags under your eyes.'”

Mars flew home to Los Angeles. “And when I landed,” he says, “that’s when I got the call.” His mother had suffered a sudden brain aneurysm; she was unconscious in a hospital in Honolulu. Mars didn’t even leave the airport: He got back on a plane and flew straight to Hawaii. But his mother never woke up. She died a day later. She was 55.

Mars pauses for a moment. “To this day, I don’t know how to handle it,” he says. “That piece of your heart is just gone forever. I don’t even know how to talk about it with you. It’s a nightmare. It’s literally a nightmare.”

He says no one was worried about her health. “If anything, she was getting younger,” he says. “I’d just bought her this house in Hawaii, and she would call me almost every day to tell me how much fun she’s having, she and the grandkids are in the pool, running around in the yard…” That made it even more incomprehensible. On one hand, “I didn’t have to go through my mother suffering in the hospital for years,” he says. “But it’s like – she was just bugging me about something… That was the hardest part. That was the spike in the heart.”

In the weeks that followed, “I was in shambles,” Mars says. “I didn’t know what to do. There’s nothing you can do. You just ball up and bawl your eyes out every day.” He had a world tour starting in three weeks, months of concerts already booked. “I’d pray and ask, ‘What do you want me to do?'”he says. “And I felt like what she wanted me to do was keep going. She wouldn’t want me to stop.”

I wanna jump rope,
I wanna play Nintendo
But I just choose to 
write a new single
I sing it to my mom, sing it to my dad
I just hope I don’t sing bad….
I love you, Mom
You are my favourite girl
I love you, Mom You’ll always be my favourite girl.

Mars thinks for a moment. “I’m confident that she’s looking down and smiling, you know?” he says. “And every time I mess up onstage, I hear her. ‘You’re flat!’ ‘You missed that move!’ ‘Tell your brother to shave his moustache!’ It’s all there.”

These days, Mars lives with Caban and their Rottweiler, Geronimo, in a reported $6.5 million mansion, which he bought in 2014. Caban designs a swimwear line called J. Marie; she and Mars have been together for six years, since before his first album dropped. I ask if he’s ever going to make it official. “Jesus!” he says, laughing. “She’s my best friend. My rock. What’s wrong with that? We’re just happy.” A pause. “Until she reads this.”

Mars doesn’t go out much, and when he does, he keeps a low profile. “You’re never going to see me Instagramming at a party,” he says. “I don’t take my phone, because I’m going to lose my shit.” Mostly he prefers to keep to himself, avoiding the drama some stars seem to thrive on. “Drama?” he says. “I thought when we made it, that means we’re drama-free. I don’t play that game. I don’t want to say something stupid and mess this all up.”

Still, sometimes he can’t help but get dragged into it. Like a few years ago, when he won Best Male Video at the MTV Video Music Awards for his song “Locked Out of Heaven”. Afterward, Kanye West went off about it at a show in Brooklyn. “I’m sit- ting there… I’m watching Drake perform, I see Bruno Mars perform,” West recalled. “And then they start giving out awards and shit, and Bruno Mars won all the motherfucking awards! Can’t no mother-fucking networks try to gas everybody up so they can sell some product with the prettiest motherfucker out?”

Mars has no ego about playing weddings: “It’s back to basics. What are you going to do at this bar mitzvah? Can you rip it up?”

True to form, Mars doesn’t want to talk about it at first. (“That guy has so much press around him. I need my own damn press!”) But eventually he caves. “I won one award!” he says, laughing. (Actually, it was two that night.) He adds, “But he was right about the pretty part. It’s Kanye – bottom line, at the end of the day, we need Kanye. But what he said wasn’t a sting. You can come at me all you want – I’ve set myself up for that. But I am my own biggest critic. Whatever anyone says to me, they don’t know shit.

“But me and him, we’re cool,” Mars says. “He called me and apologised.” (A representative for West had no comment.) “Kanye loves me, man. You know that. Who doesn’t? I’m Bruno Mars!”

Bruno 4
Super Bowl Champ: With Beyoncé earlier this year at Super Bowl 50.

In the first week of October, Mars is back at the studio again for what he hopes will be the last time. The album is finally, officially done, and now he’s just worrying about the fonts. Tomorrow he flies to the East Coast, where he’s performing on Saturday Night Live. He’s also dropping his first single, “24K Magic”; he wanted to put it out a day later – on his 31st birthday – but he says Apple needed him to do it on a Friday.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m in the music business 10 years too late,” Mars says. “How many platforms do we have? Whose money are we giving to who? It’s this weird game. You don’t even buy songs anymore – it’s just a subscription, it’s Netflix. And while we’re in the process of figuring it all out, I’m here trying to make albums.”

And don’t even get him started on artists doing big streaming exclusives. “Everybody who wants to come to the party should be able to come to the party,” he says. “Don’t you want your music to be for everybody? But this is the way it goes. Apparently this is how it was when records turned into cassettes, and cassettes turned into CDs, and CDs turned into MP3s. And you don’t want to be that old man going, ‘Vinyl!’… But the other day I was doing my packaging – putting the paper in the sleeve, taking the CD out – and I got a little sad. Because this is probably the last time I’ll be doing this. It’s dying. Three years from now, this is done.”

And when the next thing comes, he’ll probably be the guy whose VR hologram gets beamed into the Singularity, or whatever. Because that’s just the kind of professional he is.

It’s times like these when Mars likes to remember some of the best advice he ever got. It came courtesy of Lionel Richie of all people, backstage after a concert in Germany. Richie was playing at the same place the next day, and invited Mars to come to his show.

“He walked in, so cool, hair whipped,” Mars recalls. “And he goes, ‘Hey, Bruno – you like going to the front of the line, right? You like not waiting in line at a restaurant? I know you do. I love that shit, too. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.'”

As Mars understood it, Richie was telling him: I’ve been in your position, top of the world. And I’ve also seen what comes after. “I’m sure that’s what he was trying to say,” Mars says. “He knows the ups and downs of this business. He was saying, ‘The moment you stop, you’ll see. You’ll see. So don’t stop.'” Mars smiles. “‘Keep going. Keep going.'”

From issue #782 (January 2017), available now. Top photograph: Mark Seliger.