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Just like he did for 2009’s Like a Bird, Like a Plane and 2012’s Blackberry Light, singer-songwriter Charlie Mars recorded his latest album, The Money, in Texas with producer Billy Harvey and core musicians J.J. Johnson, John Ginty and George Reiff.
Those facts might give the impression Mars is in a rut. Actually, he’s on a roll. On The Money, released in mid-October via Rockingham Records/Thirty Tigers, his low-key, acoustic-driven music continues to be deceptively deep, but Mars also shows a sense of humor at times. It’s all part of Mars’ effort “to move toward something more positive, more lighthearted” while continuing to make high-fidelity, organic music.
Mars checked in by phone to discuss his recent boost in confidence and why he chose to record The Money at a different Lone Star State studio, as well as break down select songs on the new album, his seventh full-length effort.
When we spoke in spring 2013, you talked about the excitement of walking the tightrope that went along with doing solo acoustic concerts and how that reinvigorated your love of performing. In what ways did those feelings transfer over to, or have an impact on, the sessions for The Money?
Charlie Mars: “Well, I would say the most concrete way is that I feel like a self-contained unit when I walk into the room. I feel like the songs are there and my ability to perform them are there, and I don’t have insecurity when it comes to myself. Therefore when it comes to dealing with really great musicians, I feel like I’m pulling my own chair to the table — whereas maybe before, I wasn’t as sure about what I was doing or whether what I was doing on guitar was comparable to what great musicians play. I just feel very secure about my place at the table, and I think that resonates to the people who come into the room and play with you.”
Did that result in more confidence in the direction you gave your backing musicians, or did you sit back, watch what they did and guide them along with subtle suggestions?
Mars: “The latter. I’m very confident in the material and in my ability to perform that material, and I think that people sense that whenever that’s the case, and it raises everybody’s level of expectation.”
For The Money, you worked with the same producer and core backing musicians as your previous two albums, but you recorded in a different part of Texas, instead of Austin. What prompted the change in location, and how did it influence the way you guys worked?
Mars: “I wanted to be somewhere where we were all living together, away from our friends and loved ones, so that we could just focus on the music for a while. A lot of the guys live in Austin, so with the last two albums, we were splitting up at the end of the day and getting back at whatever time we could the next day. So it was nice to get everybody isolated and make it easier to get an early start, to do it all together.
“I had heard about this studio Sonic Ranch [in Tornillo, about 35 miles south of El Paso] from several people. When I looked into it, it seemed like a great place to go make a record. Also, it was a nice change from being in Austin. We wanted to keep things the same but also make them different, and that was a good way to do it.”
So by taking everybody out of their home and their comfort zone, keeping everybody together, did this album take less time to record than the previous two, more time or about the same?
Mars: “It took about the same amount of time, although having that core group of musicians together in one room, we were able to have more time together. We had the time to focus on some of the details that maybe we brushed over in the past.”
What in particular about “Pride Before the Fall” resulted in you poring over it the most?
Mars: “It sounds pretty effortless right now, but finding a way for the verses and the chorus and the bridge to all glide along in a way that felt natural took a while. The song could be done in a lot of different ways, and to settle into a groove and a feel that felt like the way we actually wanted to do it took a while to find. It was originally written on piano, then I started performing it on guitar. It really had to try a lot of foster homes before we found that one it wanted to get raised in (laughs).
“Lyrically, there was an attention to detail that seems simple, but it’s not. I don’t know to say it other than I kept revisiting the song because something wasn’t right. The process is so emotional, and there are no real rules to it, but when I got to the end, it felt complete.
“The song is essentially about something like love that you think is going to be this Cinderella story, but it ends up being much more complex and grayer. There’s a lot in that song about pride and loyalty and looking at love with a pragmatic face and still finding something beautiful about it.”
On the flip side, which song came to you the quickest?
Mars: “ ‘My Friend Ray’ I wrote quickly. In the studio, it took a while, but as far as the writing, I wrote it in one night with a friend of mine.”
Was his name Ray?
Mars: “No, his name is Martin Strayer. He had a riff on his guitar, and we wrote it very quickly. It’s a nod to some of my buddies from home [in Mississippi], kind of a character study — five or six different guys thrown into one song. It’s really about people who take an approach to life like The Big Lebowski; things just seem to happen to them for the greater good.”
The Money includes a cover of the Bentley Tock song “Rainfall.” Did you rediscover the song recently and realize it would fit the album? Or was it something you kept in the back of your mind for years and decided the time was finally right to do it?
Mars: “It was just a song I always thought was a great song. It was one of the earliest examples that I could think of that resonated with me on a lyrical level in a way that maybe pop music or stuff I was hearing on the radio wasn’t. [It has these] lyrics: ‘It’s not the disease but the word that gets around.’ How much better can you say it? Look at Ebola: There are 2,800 people who have it, yet the whole world is talking about it. There are so many great lines in that song, just one after another.
“I haven’t been able to get in touch with [Paco Ahlgren, who wrote ‘Rainfall’]. I don’t even know how to tell this guy that I used his song for my record. I’ve tried every way I could. Really, I just wanted to pay my respects to somebody who influenced me when I was a kid and nobody knows about.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Charlie Mars on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Nov. 12: WFPK Winter Wednesday — Louisville, Ky.
* Nov. 14: Sound and Page — Birmingham, Ala.
* Nov. 15: Eddie’s Attic — Decatur, Ga.
* Nov. 16: Safety Harbor Art and Music Center — Safety Harbor, Fla.
Photo by Darin Back