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Caught in Mars' orbit

POP MUSIC

The sky's the limit for this Grammy nominee and his cohorts.

February 06, 2011|Matt Diehl

In early September 2010, Bruno Mars found himself sitting in the posh lounge of North Hollywood's Larrabee Studios, a high-tech temple designed for creating pop-music smashes. Platinum discs from artists who've recorded there line Larrabee's walls, and in an adjoining room, renowned mix engineer Manny Marroquin rushed to complete the 25-year-old singer-songwriter-producer's debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," due out less than a month later.

Marroquin's Midas touch is legendary, blessing hits for Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Usher, among others; in his short career, Mars' ability to create pop blockbusters is proving similarly gilded. At this point, Mars had already helped write and produce chart-toppers for artists such as B.o.B, Flo Rida, Cee Lo Green and Travie McCoy; as a solo artist, Mars' first single, the stirring ballad "Just the Way You Are," was midway through its chart ascent.

By early October, that song would reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, attaining triple-platinum status; "Doo-Wops" would also eventually crest at No. 3 in the U.S. and top charts internationally. But Mars didn't know this back in September: Despite the hit-making firepower backing him, he was nervous. His label, Elektra, was preparing to follow up "Just the Way You Are" with a soulful power-pop ditty called "Grenade," and Mars exuded anxiety about its reception: "What's 'Grenade' compared with 'Just the Way You Are'? I'm crossing my fingers, hoping people dig it."

They did, demonstrated by Mars' seven Grammy nominations in 2011, second only to Eminem's 10. "Grenade" would also top the charts, making him the only male solo artist to do so with his first two singles. "Hearing Bruno on the radio for the first time is almost like discovering the pre-pubescent Michael Jackson," says McCoy, whose 2010 hit single "Billionaire" was a Mars collaboration.

"Bruno is poised to be one of the next generation's greats," notes Green, whose Grammy-nominated hit "[Forget] You" was co-written and produced by Mars and his production team the Smeezingtons.

"I'm feeling like a winner right now, sir -- I'm not going to lie!" Mars exclaimed in a recent phone interview between European tour stops. "But I'm still crossing my fingers about the Grammys. They stay crossed: I tend to overthink things. I'm not the guy who screams 'This is a world smash!' when I finish a song." The Grammy Awards take place next Sunday at Staples Center.

Indeed, although "Just the Way You Are" was nominated for best pop vocal performance alongside John Mayer and Michael Jackson, Mars seems more excited by his collaborations. "I'm fortunate to work with guys like Cee Lo and B.o.B," he says. "'Nothin' on You' by B.o.B was the first song where I heard myself on the radio. I'd been trying my whole career to write a song like that, which incorporates live instruments with hip-hop and singing."

And Green's 2006 hit as part of Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy," captured Mars' imagination: "It epitomized what I wanted to achieve: a song that would be played on pop stations, on hip-hop stations, on rock stations -- just because it was good." (At the 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony, Mars will perform with B.o.B and another crossover success of last year, Janelle Monae.)

Mars' voice and production style -- blending classic soul, reggae-tinged grooves suggesting the Police and Sublime, OutKast's iconoclastic hip-hop and Sade's smooth internationalism -- have become pop radio's dominant sound. "Bruno's songs have no boundaries," says John Ivey, program director for the influential top-40 radio station, KIIS-FM. "No one in the past year has had hits as varied. When we first heard 'Just the Way You Are,' it was a little shocking. We'd assumed he was a hip-hop artist, and all of a sudden he's Billy Joel!"

Born to a Puerto Rican father and Filipino mother (his birth name is Peter Hernandez), Mars grew up in Hawaii, playing in his family's cover band, the Love Notes. By age 4, he was performing onstage as "the world's youngest Elvis impersonator," and appeared in the film "Honeymoon in Vegas," where he sang "Can't Help Falling in Love." Mars attributes his unique sound to this multicultural upbringing.

"Honolulu is a melting pot," he explains. "Melody is everywhere you go. Kids would come to school with guitars and ukuleles on their back, and we'd all jam at lunch." At age 18, he'd moved to L.A., quickly scoring a solo deal with Motown; within a couple years, however, that deal soured. "You wouldn't believe how many label presidents I've heard say, 'Bruno doesn't have what it takes, we don't know how to market him, we don't know what kind of music he does,' " Mars says. "You know, 'Who's this beige-looking kid with curly hair? We can't figure him out.' It was devastating."

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Future stars

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