Charlie Mars keeps a residence in Oxford, Mississippi, but his de facto home is the stage he’s currently standing on somewhere around the country. After over a decade of touring and record label fits and starts, Mars expanded his audience with 2009 hit “Listen To The Darkside,” which has led to two more albums using the same trusted collection of players. His latest, The Money, finishes the trio of discs with songs ruminating on love, trust and time.
Over two coffees one morning in Austin, Texas, Mars talked to us about favored songwriters, hard work and the willingness to chase some dreams at the expense of others. Says Mars: “Music is my dream that keeps me going in life. I like having pipe dreams and unrealistic expectations. That’s a big reason to do what I do.”
You’ve been doing this for a long time, but musicians are really in flux today due to technology. How challenging is it to make “singer-songwriter” your vocation in 2014?
It’s never been easy. You accept the struggle as a reality and go from there. Strangely, as the industry side has gotten tougher, my path has gotten better — which is really the result of touring and working for 18 years. I’ve had some good things happen at the right time. None of it led to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but if one is industrious and a scrapper, you find ways to help your music stay alive. But you have to work harder than the other guy, and the sacrifices are immense.
In what terms?
Your personal life and relationships. . .you’re going to have a hard time maintaining that. I certainly have. Plus the cycle never ends — if it does, that just means it has ended for you. The show must go on.
Do you scoff when people romanticize the road?
Yes, it happens all the time! They’re just speaking in code, though. If you’re taking your kid to pre-K, driving around to bars and playing music every day looks fun. It’s like being single and wanting a girlfriend, or having one and wanting freedom. When you’re a suburban dad, you want to be a rock star sometimes. But last night, I saw a handsome dad with his wife and kids leave a restaurant, and they looked so happy. I can’t lie, it looked really meaningful. It can make what you do seem less meaningful in those moments. But you are what you are.
How much of your songwriting is observation versus autobiography?
It’s a collage. You see feelings you can relate to in others, and you mix them with things happening in your own life. Or you make them up! All three of those can actually live in the same song — in fact, they frequently do.
As you travel the country, is there anything you hold dear as a routine in your life to stay grounded or focused?
Yes. That’s how you survive. One thing I do is engage is physical activity in each town - I enjoy looking up trails and walking or running. Nature grounds me deeply. Being outdoors has a way of making you feel connected. On the other extreme, I’m always looking for a great meal or a great coffee - you’re always trying to beat the best experience you’ve had in that town. Finally, there’s always pursuit of leisure society activities, which is a term my running buddies and I use to describe books, coffee, tobacco, music, film…and girls.
You’ve professed a love for the sound of the more minimal session playing of the '70s, and aimed for that on your new record. Which modern artists do you think are good at paring down their work to showcase the song?
I think Ryan Adams is pretty good at that — certainly Heartbreaker is a great example. [Producer] Ethan Johns, who did Heartbreaker, is also good at that sparseness — a lot of his work has that Jackson Browne or Bill Withers sound. The Pixies did that on Surfer Rosa. I tend to focus more on older artists, though — that Laurel Canyon era where there was a certain aesthetic that they took pride in. The world is chaos, and such a clouded environment. So paring things down appeals to me, because subtlety has gone away of late. As have manners and taste!
Do you struggle, as many of us do, with sitting down and paying attention to a full LP?
No. I’m kind of a curmudgeon. I listen to a lot of radio, but I buy records at truck stops and listen to them over and over. Right now, I have Dire Straits, Jim Croce and Paul Simon from a stop a few days ago. The bargain bin of re-mastered CD’s at the Flying J — those are the kinds of records I like. There’s a lack of pretense. One other thing I’ll do is buy records when I read reviews that compare me to someone I’m not familiar with. I discovered both Tony Joe White and Jesse Winchester that way. But yes, I still listen to records straight through.
Finally, you threw a cover on this LP for the first time. Why?
The song I covered isn’t available on iTunes, and we can’t even find it in publishing catalogs. It was interesting to me to do a quality song that no one had really heard — or if they had, it was in a bar 20 years ago. It was a college band from Tuscaloosa that made a 5-song EP. Everyone I knew loved this band. I thought it was genius. I thought it was random, esoteric and true. It’s also got a blues-y Elvis shuffle thing that I’ve never really done before.
The Money is available on iTunes.