True songwriters like Charlie Mars are a dying breed.
True songwriters like Charlie Mars are a dying breed. For a plethora of reasons that Mars himself would talk your ear off about, singer-songwriters who work hard at perfecting their craft while tirelessly traveling the listening room circuits are dwindling as the years roll on. It makes Mars and his contemporaries almost stand as vestigial branches between what the music was before the media and corporate dominated it and what it is today. This Friday at The Tin Pan in Richmond, Mars will showcase just what a true singer-songwriter is and before that show, we got a chance to chat with the Mississippi native about his latest record and thoughts on the music business as a whole.
Mars’ seventh record The Money comes out this October and is another collection of songs from the veteran who’s been working the grind of the music world for over two decades. After all this time, Mars isn’t just making records for the sake of making records or for the sake of keeping the ball rolling. For someone who’s deeply invested in the craft of songwriting, deciding to make a record is almost as meticulous a process as it is recording for Mars.
“I don’t go into the studio unless I’m excited about the songs so I do like these new songs a lot. We recorded the album in a studio that was a half a mile from the Mexican border in a real border community called Tornillo about forty miles east of El Paso. It was on a seven thousand acre pecan or almond farm so that alone was quirky and interesting and gave the record a spirit and freedom. It was a really beautiful place to make a record that really inspired us.”
For the last album in his Texan Trilogy, Mars set out to make the recording in the same process he’s followed for the last decade where he diligently attempts to follow the spirit and technique of the past while integrating the efficiency and innovations of the modern age.
“I try and find a good arrangement with quality musicians done in a way that the sound still is close to how it would sound if you were in a room with a musician hearing them play the instrument in front of you, which is often contrary to digital recording. I’m not a die-=hard traditionalist, but I do try to incorporate things from the past that are truly timeless. I think there are certain ways of the recording that went on in the late 60s and 70s that haven’t been beaten really. I like the sounds of those records and I like to use the same type of equipment to further things along that continuum. One point that I’d make that I think is valid is that there is a difference between being stuck in the past and incorporating things from the past that you think are important in the present. I try and do that. I’m not some old man who doesn’t use e-mail. I have seven albums and I made my first three on tape only and I remember when I made my fourth one, it was when Pro Tools came along and it was almost entirely a Pro Tools record. Since then, I’ve tried to find a balance between the two where I incorporate some of the advantages of digital recording that speed up the process and allow for a much more industrious experience, but also staying true to some of the things I did on my earlier recordings with the tape, consoles, and microphones to maintain some of what I was talking about before. That’s exactly what I did on The Money.”
The balance between old ideals and new is interesting for someone who comes off as the last of his musical tribe almost: the travelling lunch pail artist more concerned with creating a truly great song than with playing a sold-out stadium show. Singer-songwriters like Mars are indeed a dying breed and the genre itself is becoming more and more like a relic of the past. It’s not because of the music or style itself either, but more of the way the music business has shifted these last fifteen years to a place where things are just so controlled and any true singer-songwriter is required to put his music through a dozen pop filters before it’s even released.
“It’s just all comes down to money. Young guys who want to compete on a national or an international level or get recognized in some way, which is only naturally to want to do especially if you want to make a career out of it, they have to create recordings that are comparable to things that get attention and so they end up making these really polished, bombastic pop records that are single oriented. And it works. It turns heads and it sells downloads and people like it, but it’s essentially a pop artist masquerading as a songwriter. It’s what it feels like to me at least.”
Despite those feelings, Mars does admit that he has opportunities and luxuries that new singer-songwriters coming out today just don’t have and perhaps never will. He’s very adamant that it’s not an indictment of the musicians in anyway, but rather the system that may have affected his career in the same way had he debuted in this period.
“I’m established so I have a way to not work a local job in my town and go out and play in between. I have that advantage. I’m not someone straight out of the box trying anything to make anyone pay attention to them. I’m somewhere in the middle so that definitely gives me the luxury of doing things without being concerned necessarily with what’s going on in the current climate. If the shoe was on the other foot though and I was 18 just trying to get noticed, I would probably consider doing what was going on in the climate. [Singer-songwriters] are a dying breed in the sense that those of us that were able to get established at some point aren’t necessarily having to play by the same rules as most others attached to a big machine or just trying to get noticed.”
The lack of established artists coming out in the past five-to-ten years is what Mars really laments as he doesn’t quite see a generation ready to take the reins from the current mainstays, something that could very well be the death knell for true singer-songwriters in music.
“There are guys making music and getting in a car and touring and writing songs and recording in a way that’s not necessarily to a script. But it does seem like a lot of the guys who are going around driving their own career are a little older and it doesn’t seem that there’s a generation following them that is necessarily of the same ilk. I think of guys like Hayes Carll or Todd Snyder or Bob Snyder or Steve Poltz and there doesn’t seem to be a next generation that I see touring and doing it in the quote the same way.”
Still, Mars is very aware of why young singer-songwriters are quick to abandon the model that he was taught so early on, but it’s still something he thinks ends up being empty and hollow. To Mars, it’s the elephant in the room when talking about music today in that much of what makes musicians great and beloved these days actually has nothing to do with the music itself, but rather the baseness they’ve reduced themselves to in order to appeal to the masses.
“In the end, you can wrap tons of words around everything, but it just comes down to how does this shit feel? What does it really feel like? When I watch the CMAs or the VMAs or the whatevers, it just feels like a lot of fluff without a lot of substance and the substance that is there gets overshadowed by the fluff. It reminds me of this poet Frank O’Hara who once said ‘I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar.’ What he meant by that is that crassness and showmanship and vulgarity and controversy – those things all have an energy to them that’s palpable, loud, flashy, and big. It comes out strong and everybody has to pay attention. In the 24 hour news cycle of today, I see why a lot of successful artists are a part of that. The challenge though is to do real art and for it to be just as alive as that without reducing yourself to it. It’s really hard to do and it’s the thing I challenge myself to do. To make exciting music without resulting to vulgarity.”
Mars obviously has opinions to spare on the music industry, but if you press him for advice for new artists, he’ll actually stick you with a very simple idea that most people chase for their whole career. “Just write great songs. That’s all you have to do. Great songs are really rare and hardly anyone can write them and that’s a fact.” Mars himself admits that he doesn’t know if he’s ever written a truly great song, but he does feel like his work has sparked an interested in enough people over the years to the point that he’s able to actually make a living doing this.
“I have a passion for this. When I stumble upon I think is really good and it really interests me, I’m just in awe of it and I love it now more than I ever have. In this day in age, to be able to talk about your job like that is a real blessing because most people don’t get to do that. Whether I’m big or small, I’m blessed just to be able to play my songs how I want and when I want.”
Charlie Mars plays The Tin Pan this Friday night with Sam & Margo opening the night. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, just click here.