Charlie Mars didn’t get a chance to absorb much of his native Little Rock – his parents left here when he was barely a year old. But he’s come back enough in recent years, in from touring his with guitar to places far away as England, to find out he likes his birthplace.
The rocking singer-songwriter who has called Oxford, Miss., home for the past five years has played both Sticky Fingerz and Juanita’s Cantina Ballroom the past several years, and he’ll be back at Juanita’s on Friday, June 17 (10 p.m., $7). Along with his four backing musicians on guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, he’ll be bringing brass this time.
“I’ve been using a horn section on some stuff and we’re doing a big festival in Jackson, Mississippi, the next night so it will be nice to get a show under our belts,” he said. “We’re just working out parts for some of my songs, trying to shake it up a little bit.”
Mars is seen as a shaker in the indie music business, being part of the V2 label (Virgin 2) that also includes the White Stripes. His music has had a Texas honky tonk flair, picked up when he played with Jack Ingram’s band while he was at SMU in the mid 1990s. But his latest self-titled album, released in May 2004, covers much more ground with rock and pop sounds.
When music writers typically go searching for a way to describe Mars, they pull out the Coldplay reference. Fortunately, at least from our view, he doesn’t try to warble in the near-falsetto range of Mr. Gwyneth Paltrow, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and the music sometimes has a small-town feel to it, too.
“They’ve compared me to anybody, sometimes it’s Bruce Springsteen, sometimes it’s Coldplay, but what do those two have in common?” Mars asks. “I’ll say that on the album I made a conscious effort to have a sound that is atmospheric in places, and anytime you do that, they say it sounds like Coldplay, or Oasis. If you have a guitar with delay on it, or anything with an atmospheric feel to it, there you go.”
Mars doesn’t mind Springsteen comparisons, since Bruce was one of the singer-songwriter inspirations for Mars early on, along with James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison. “That’s the stuff I listened to,” he said. “I loved Springsteen. In the ’80 I loved the college groups like R.E.M., the Pixies, the Smiths, HuskerDu.
“I just like classic singer-songwriters, but I enjoy a lot of the sounds that are coming from the U.K., especially in the last few years, and I’m trying to mix those together.”
Mars toured England playing without any backing in January. “It was incredible. I toured with this girl, KT Tunstall, she’s huge now, but then she was just starting to break. We’d play before 500 to 700 people a night. You could have heard a pin drop, it was so quiet. They listen so respectively over there.”
Mars’ father owned a bowling alley in El Dorado after the family left Little Rock, and later ran one in Laurel, Miss. His family still lives in Mississippi now.
His brother was living in Oxford when Charlie, just out of college, decided to drop in on his way touring.
“I thought I’d hang out a couple of days,” he said. “It’s a good college town and I stuck around. I had the U-Haul loaded up with all my stuff out front and the landlord walked by with a lease, and five years later, here I am. It’s nice to be close to home. I can get to Texas pretty easily, to the East Coast, to Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago. It’s a good spot. I’m just an hour from the airport to anywhere in the world.”
And, he’s just three or four hours from Little Rock, which means his fans here get to see him more often. This time, in what he says is a first, Mars is playing Little Rock on a weekend night.
“When you tour the whole world like we did last year, it’s really difficult unless you have a hit single to develop a following somewhere because you only end up going there once,” Mars said. “I’m in between albums, it’s a time that has slowed down for me and I want to tour in places that are close to home, talk to people, come back in six weeks and have a relationship with the crowd, not blow through town once a year with a new record.”
Mars has songs written for a new CD, but nothing’s certain on when it will be recorded. The road seems to suit Mars more than the studio anyway. He has a catalog of three indie records he put out before signing with V2, and there is no “typical” Mars show; it changes night to night. Some shows, he said, the band may put all the electric instruments down and play acoustic.
“It’s not about the last record or the next record,” Mars said. “It’s that I’m a working musician and I tour my ass off and that’s the only way I know how to pay the bills, so that’s what it is.”