"I try to bring realized material into the studio — music that I've spent a lot of time with, music that has consistency," says pop-rock songwriter Charlie Mars. "It's rare that people have a vision for music like that. I don't think I did back in the day."
Based in the bucolic college town of Oxford, Miss., not far from where he grew up in Laurel, Mars is on a major upswing with a solid new independent release which boasts the most inspired and personalized music of his songwriting career.
"Ten years ago, I didn't have the same vision. I just sort of sat around and wrote songs," he remembers. "Maybe I'm a late bloomer."
In the mid-'90s, Mars relocated from Mississippi to Atlanta and formed the Charlie Mars Band. Shortly after issuing a debut titled Broken Arrow, Mars and his bandmates moved an hour up the road to the college town of Athens. They released their second full-length album, Born & Razed, in 1997. It fit neatly alongside the likes of contemporary adult-alternative radio acts: clean and melodic pop with a hint of grooviness.
After a few years of touring and promotion, Mars and his mates seemed ready to venture away from the mainstream pop-rock thing, and to press into '99 with an album titled Deep 3 and a more daring sound that mixed folk, Americana, and Southern eccentricities into the formula. By the dawn of the new millennium, however, Mars' substance abuse took hold of his career, and he had to veer into rehab and recovery efforts.
"I was just kind of a young, party guy who was just blowing through life," Mars says. "I got serious about it about six or seven years ago. My level of devotion to craft and songwriting has dramatically increased, I really feel like I've come full circle."
Last summer, Mars' own label imprint Rockingham Records worked in conjunction with the Nashville-based Thirty Tigers to release his latest studio album, Like A Bird, Like a Plane. An atmospheric and crisp 11-song collection of soulful acoustic rock, slow-rolling power-pop, and modern Americana, Mars and a band of studio cats recorded Like A Bird, Like a Plane in Austin, Texas, in late-'07 and early-'08. It's an impressively mature follow-up to his solo debut for the now defunct V2 Records.
Drummer J.J. Johnson (John Mayer), keyboardist John Ginty (Citizen Cope), and bass players George Reiff (Jakob Dylan) and Dave Monzie (Fiona Apple) joined Mars for the sessions, working under the careful guidance of producer and guitarist Billy Harvey.
Mars admits he dove into three of his favorite albums — Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, Paul Simon's Graceland, and Dire Straits' Communiqué — for musical inspiration and studio ideas. "I loved the feel of those records and I wanted to have a similar feel with this material," he says. "At some point it's just up to the cosmos. It becomes what it becomes."
With only a few tasteful overdubs to enhance the basics, the strongest songs in the collection boast the most spare arrangements. Melodic, textured, and emotive, the album grooves at an easygoing, fluid pace.
"There's something about the original takes that is so fresh, and everyone is so excited," Mars says. "Even if you can get a better take later on, you tend to like the first ones, even if they're not as polished or perfected. I wanted this album to feel sexy, and like what it feels like when you're dancing around the fire."