Through a light haze of American Spirit cigarette smoke, the din of a typical New York Saturday afternoon many floors below making its way through the hotel-room window, Bruno Mars squints at me from his plush armchair, puts on his best Cockney accent and asks, “So ooh is dis den?”
The singer is in a playful mood. He’s upbeat; a little hyperactive, even. And who can blame him? Having spent the past two years talking about and performing music from his debut album, 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans, he finally has new songs to share. His second record, Unorthodox Jukebox, is about to be released and his excitement is palpable. Either that or the giant Starbucks coffee in front of him has just begun to really kick in.
Of course, this time around, there’s just the teensiest bit of pressure. Although Mars had already written and featured on two enormous hits before the release of Doo-Wops & Hooligans (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”), few could have predicted just how huge his album would end up being. It sold more than six million copies worldwide (and was the third biggest-selling album in the UK last year), it spawned three number-one singles (“Just the Way You Are”, “Grenade” and “The Lazy Song”) and he has been showered with nominations and awards, not least a total of 13 Grammy nods and one Brit Award for Best International Male. He even made Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World last year, and became just the 10th man ever to grace the cover of Playboy. Not bad for a 27-year-old from Hawaii who began his career as an Elvis impersonator (he may have been two years old at the time, but still, that’s quite a journey).
His record company must have high hopes for the album, but if the global superstar is in any way anxious, he’s certainly not showing it. “I really feel so strong about it… If you don’t like it, then there’s nothing I can do; there’s no way I can make it better,” he laughs.
Indeed, it has already begun to make waves. The debut single “Locked Out of Heaven”, a funky Police-esque number, went in at number two when it was released (it was only kept off the top spot by that pesky One Direction). The song also introduced us to a racier, grittier Mars. Everything from the single’s artwork (a shot of a woman’s chest, just about covered by a slashed-to-the-navel top), to the chorus of “Your sex takes me to paradise”, to the grainy video of Mars performing in a sleazy underground venue, drinking and partying, all suggest that Mars is trying to shed his rather clean-cut image and is willing to try something new.
His sole brush with controversy so far comes from a 2010 arrest for cocaine possession in Las Vegas (in keeping with his nice-guy rep, Mars expressed deep regret and then reportedly completed more than the 200 hours of community service ordered by the judge).
“I’m gonna be singing ‘Just the Way You Are’ and ‘Grenade’ to the day I die. I already have those. I wanted to try something new,” he explains of the new record. “I’m 27 and, you know, I want to sing about new things and I want to experiment with my music. I want to evolve lyrically and sonically and, production-wise, I wanna keep pushing myself to try new things. I never want to feel like I’m taking the safe route or the easy way. Like, just because one of the songs worked before then I’ll do the part two of that song? There’s no part twos on this album. There’s no, ‘If you loved that album then you’re gonna love this album’; this is where I’m at in my life right now.”
The familiar image of Mars in the snazzy suit, doing the splits on stage while a full jazz band plays seems at odds with this rejuvenated Mars. “Being influenced by doo-wop, I mean my first album, classic love songs, 1950s, my love for that – the pompadour, the suits – I have a passion for that era,” he says. “But that’s not everything that I listen to. That’s just something that heavily influenced me when I was a kid. This is more of me. I feel like this album is more the whole of everything I love; the music I love to dance to, the music I love to listen to with my girl; good music that I just want to sing. Things that I want to say that I’ve always wanted to say.”
Like his previous album, though, the sound of Unorthodox Jukebox is an eclectic one. He brought in a number of people to contribute to songwriting and production. “These are the guys that I’ve always wanted to work with,” he says. “I’ve worked with Diplo and Jeff Bhasker on the last album and I wanted to reconnect with them. I’ve been a fan of Mark Ronson for a long time and really wanted to work with him. This is fun time for me now and I wanted the opportunity to work with those guys; it’s like bringing another element into the band that might change the course of where it might go.”
Once again, Mars has refused to stick with one style, incorporating pop, soul, rock and R&B. Amid the musical smorgasbord there’s the delicate 1950s soul of “If I Knew”, a big love ballad in “When I Was Your Man” and an up-tempo, dancey number in “Treasure”.
I ask whether releasing a genre-spanning record is a safe way of appealing to lots of people. “No, if anything that’s been the struggle since I started,” he replies. “That was why I couldn’t get a deal, that was why a lot of record executives said they don’t know how to market me, because who do they market it to? Is it young fans? Is it old fans? Is it urban music? Is it rhythmic music? Is it pop music? Is it rock music? They didn’t know what lane they could push the brand to.”
Bruno Mars was born Peter Hernandez, to a musical family in Honolulu, Hawaii. Of Puerto Rican, Filipino and Jewish heritage, he was one of six children. His mother was a dancer while his father played Little Richard-esque rock’n’roll. Young Peter (nicknamed Bruno from when he was a toddler; the Mars was added later for pizzazz) performed with his family’s band the Love Notes, his Elvis impersonation making him famous across the island (you can catch some adorable – albeit slightly disturbing – performances on YouTube).
Mars moved to Los Angeles on graduating from high school and got a record deal with Motown Records in 2004. But success was not immediate and he was later dropped by the label. He did, however, meet Philip Lawrence, who was also signed to Motown. Along with Ari Levine, the three of them formed a songwriting and production team about six years ago, calling k themselves the Smeezingtons, and writing songs such as Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You”. But Mars still dreamt of solo stardom. Did he ever think it might not happen for him? “Oh yeah,” he nods. “Those days when I was dropped and was shopping some songs that we’d written to different labels and they were saying it was too unorthodox… It all happens for a reason and it’s all part of my story. Learn the hard way that you gotta know who you are, and know what you want, and know what you want to sound like, and walk into a label saying, ‘This is me, take it or leave it.’”
Is he happy to have suffered such setbacks earlier on in his career? “Setbacks? You mean being short?” he jokes. He then launches into an enthusiastic rendition of “Short People” by Randy Newman (“Short people got no reason to live/ They got little hands/ Little eyes/ They walk around tellin’ great big lies”). It’s true, he is short. In fact he brings up his height (or lack of it) so often that I begin to think he has a serious complex about it. So I ask him. “No!” he cries and leans in close. “I’m on the cover of Playboy, sweetie. All this five-five… take that, tall motherfuckers.” He cracks up. “God these write-ups are going to be so bad, I can feel it.”
He’s certainly cocky. But it’s in a cheeky, rather than obnoxious, way. And he seems as though he’d be good fun to hang out with. The confidence he has in this album, and himself, is clear to see. It’s even there in some of the new lyrics. For instance, the track “Gorilla” makes him out to be quite something in the bedroom. I start giggling when I ask him about the song. “Does it make you laugh?” he grins. “It’s not supposed to make you laugh. You’re supposed to fear for your life. And for your vagina.” He cracks up again. Whereas there was a lot of talk about broken hearts on his previous album, while they are still there, this one seems more preoccupied with sex. “Damn straight!” he cries. “Let’s accept it, world, it’s 2012. Let’s have sex!”
I ask him when he got so sure of himself. “You don’t want to watch a guy with confidence?” he says. “You want to watch some nervous schmuck on stage? Or you want to watch someone who enjoys what he does and has confidence? Look at Michael Jackson and Prince and Elvis. Those guys exude confidence and those are the guys that I grew up watching. Jackie Wilson. All those guys that are dancing and basically showing off. You know, when Michael Jackson does the moonwalk he’s showing off! When Prince or Hendrix do a guitar solo, it’s confidence! I would hate to be at a show and some nervous wreck is sweating up there and doesn’t feel like he deserves to be there.”
In fact, the new album, he says, was tailored to be fun to play live. A lot of thought went into how the songs could be performed. “After I toured I really put a lot of energy in this album, knowing what I want to sing and how I want to sing it,” he insists. “How I want the show to feel. That was a big influence on this album.” What does he have in mind exactly? “I’m gonna be naked for half of them. And then socks for the other half. Just socks.” I assume he’s joking but who can tell any more?
Mars is clearly passionate about putting on a great show and he has a reputation as a natural entertainer. He is also a talented musician, telling me that he played a number of instruments on the new album. “I’m not the best guitar player or the best bass player or drummer or anything, but I’ll play guitar [on a song] and then we’re always like, ‘Oh, this is just the demo, we’re gonna get the best guitar player to come and really do it.’ And we get the great guitar player and it never feels like the demo. There’s a certain beauty in the shittiness of the way I play it that just kind of matches the song and it feels like more of me; when you get it a little too slick or too good, it changes the way the song sounds.”
Despite such obvious talents, like many of the biggest stars in the world, Mars is not without his detractors. Our own David Cameron even branded his music “appalling” earlier this year after being introduced to it by his children (he didn’t rate Katy Perry either, incidentally). I gently break the news to him about the Prime Minister. “Damn it, that sucks,” he says in mock disappointment. “Because I really wanted him front row at my concert.” He falls about laughing again. But can he handle his critics?
“Yeah, you know, people aren’t going to love everything you do,” he shrugs. “And you gotta realise that that’s the way the world is today, especially with the internet and Facebook and Twitter; everyone has an opinion. And it’s gonna be more in your face because of the times we’re living in, so the sooner you realise that, at the end of the day no one’s opinion matters, the sooner you’re gonna have fun.” He pauses for effect and leans forward. “And I’m having a fucking blast, sweetheart.” Again, the laughter.
He is, however, still getting used to being famous and having people take his photo while he’s eating in a restaurant. His signature trilby, along with being short, he says, allow him to go somewhat unnoticed. But it must be slightly overwhelming to know that the next two years of his life are going to be swallowed up with this album? “Yeah, that gets a little funky. But this is all I know how to do, so what am I gonna do? I’m going to sing to the Prime Minister. And sing to him all day.” He stops and smirks. “The closet Bruno Mars fan.”
‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ is out on Monday on Atlantic Records (brunomars.com)