Bruno Mars smells like wealth. And cigarettes. The former is due to some impossibly expensive fragrance he undoubtedly had made custom, the kind with "top notes of Artemisia" and "base notes of cedar, musk and amber." The latter because, well, he smokes, though at the insistence of his mother, he's trying to quit ... sort of.
"She wants me to, but she told me not to try those electronic cigarettes," he laughs, removing his coat inside New York's Carnegie Club (one of the few places in the city where you actually can still smoke). "She's like 'Stay away from them ... they explode!' And I'm going 'Okay mom, whatever you say.' Because, you know, you gotta listen to your mother."
Mama's boy Mars is in New York to begin promoting his second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, and he's doing so in a manner befitting of its title: Hours after our interview, he will unceremoniously release the video for first single "Locked Out of Heaven" ("People want to do a big premiere," he tells me, "but I feel like I have the luxury to go straight to the fans and say 'Here it is,'") and in a few short days, he will try his hand at sketch comedy as performer and host on "Saturday Night Live" ("This might be the biggest misstep of my career!" he jokes). In a way, it all seems like Mars has grown bored of the traditional promo plan and decided to call an audible, but nothing could be further from the truth.
"I am incredibly excited about everything ... The only way I'm going to have fun doing this is to be able to do whatever the hell I want to do," he says, patented smile stretching across his face. "I feel like I don't want to write 'Just the Way You Are, Part II,' or the extension of 'Nothin On You.' I have those songs and I'm going to be singing those songs 'til the day I die. I learned so much on tour; performing songs live, and I feel like I have a much better view of what I want to be doing on this next round, and I put all of that focus onto these songs on Unorthodox Jukebox."
And while it's become a bit of a cliché to mention artists taking risks these days, there's really no better way to sum up Jukebox, a wildly varied collection of classically indebted pop tunes, stadium-ready sex jams and deeply personal ballads. Mars and his Smeezingtons cohorts spent six months locked away in the studio working on it, throwing out more songs than they kept, striving to push beyond mere radio hits and create something that showcases the breadth of Mars' talents: his lithe voice, his unerring musical sensibilities, his knack for penning choruses that don't just latch to the ear but burrow deep inside. It is, in every conceivable way, a producer's album, one that hops from genre to genre and proudly displays its influences (Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, the Police). And because of that, it sacrifices the immediacy so necessary these days and eschews format-specific hits — there is nothing on it as grabbing as "Grenade" or as sweet as "Just The Way You Are" — in favor of something larger, something grander. So yes, let's call it a risk, even if Mars doesn't want to.
"It's not a risk; at the end of the day, it's me, so it's like either you like me or you don't," he says. "I don't know if I've earned that. I don't know what people are going to think of this album; but I do know it's me, it's who I am. I am all over the place, because I'm a producer ... I think it's a good thing to weird a couple people out and scare a couple people.
"Because this is the artistry now, this is evolving, and I've always looked up to artists that evolve," he continues. "Michael Jackson, Kanye West, every album sounds like something different; it's because you listen to new things, you're seeing new things, you're feeling new emotions, you're dating a new girl. Everything is always different, so it always has to change and evolve."
And if Mars is nervous about any of that, he's definitely not showing it. Inside the Carnegie Club, he is the picture of confidence: wide-brimmed hat cocked slightly back, two chains dangling from his neck, gold rings on his fingers, he sits back and exudes the kind of calm cool that only comes after writing smash hits for others (B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You," Cee-lo's "F--- You"), establishing himself as a solo artist, scoring an armload of Grammy noms and selling something in the neighborhood of 40 million singles worldwide. In short, he's proven himself, time and time again, and now, he's out to do it again.
"It might be a struggle this time around, because [Jukebox] is not the easiest pill to swallow. It's not first-listen, 'Oh, what a great song.' You've got to listen," he says. "Being a producer, I feel like you've got to experiment, and keep pushing yourself, and hearing new sounds. You want to be excited about it at the end of the day [and] that was the point on this album, 'Let's top everything we did, let's try to blow our minds. We know what it feels like to write a 'Forget you' or a 'Grenade,' let's try to remember that feeling push it even harder.'"
And while talk like that may make the folks at Atlantic Records a little antsy, Mars insists his label has been nothing but supportive during the process — and subsequent delays — that led to Jukebox ("The label allows me to be free," he says. "They understand that's the only way they're going to get a record. Luckily they love the songs.") But, with its prime holiday release date, and the caliber of the name attached to it, there's no getting around the fact that the album is also a very major tentpole in Atlantic's fiscal circus ... an extremely tenuous tentpole.
So, will Unorthodox Jukebox be able to match the sales of his Doo-Wops & Hooligans debut? Can a second single find traction (or, shoot, is there even a second single?) As you'd probably expect, Mars isn't sweating any of that. After all, he's made the album of his life, and earned the right to do so. Everything else is beyond his control ... and as if Unorthodox Jukebox's big ambitions don't clue you in on this fact, well, then Mars will do it for you: He's no longer merely a singles artist; he's an career artist.
"I'm not going to be the same person I was this year, so that's going to come across on my next album, and the album after that and the album after that," he says, one more smile creasing his face. "No matter what happens to the record, whether it blows up or two people buy it, I need to feel like I gave it all I've got. I know it's a little cheesy, but I genuinely feel there's no more that I can give; this was everything I had, everything I've learned and this is the music I love, and I'm proud of it. That's how I wanted to walk away from this second album."
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