The secret origin of Bruno Mars, natural-born pop star
It's almost too perfect, this moment – but for him, there's really no such thing. He's gliding west on Sunset Boulevard in his big black late-model Cadillac with tinted windows, straight toward an actual sunset blooming pink at the horizon. It's a glorious Saturday evening in West Hollywood, and why wouldn't it be? Bruno Mars has yet another song on its way to Number One, an arena tour all booked up, a girl he loves and absolutely no worries, nothing weighing on his mind. Except the idea of getting sick and canceling a show. He never could stand missing a show.
He bought the Cadillac – Bessie, he calls it – immediately after getting his first big check from his label. It's an old man's idea of a pop star's ride, but it suits him. Mars is an old-fashioned kind of pop star, a dimpled, sharp-dressed, elastic-voiced, lady-charming showman who would've been just as successful circa 1960 (though he'd have probably sung the word "motherfucker" less frequently). "I'm old-school," a random middle-aged dude told him at a bowling alley yesterday, "but you've got it."
Mars flips on the radio, tuned to a retro-R&B station playing Janet Jackson's "Nasty." He blasts it, singing along with the synth riff. "Jimmy Jam, right?" he says, correctly naming one of its producers. Mars' window is rolled down, and we hear a faint, feminine Bruuuno! from a passing car. "Run!" Mars says, flashing very white teeth. Unlike fellow stratospheric-pitch purveyor Geddy Lee, Mars doesn't speak like an ordinary guy: His voice is high, reedy and sufficiently euphonious that people have assumed he's a singer just from hearing him talk.
Over natty brown slacks, Mars is wearing a short-sleeve aloha shirt with flowers and birds on it – since he's from Hawaii, he can get away with it. On his feet are crocodile loafers (no socks, per usual); on his head is a brown fedora. He wears the hats largely to avoid dealing with his tightly curled hair, which has gotten long enough to do a Sideshow Bob thing.
Much like Jessica Alba, Mars is panethnically, almost futuristically, good-looking: It's as if his face was designed by a focus group. The golden-skinned child of a Puerto Rican/Jewish dad and a Filipino mom, he never thought much about race in Hawaii. "Everyone's kind of mixed up there, kind of brown because it's sunny," he says. "So it was a shock for me when I came out here." He was taken aback when record execs had trouble categorizing him. "They were talking about 'What radio station would play this?' And it basically boils down to 'Who's gonna buy your albums? Black people or white people?'"
As traffic crawls on, he gestures across the street. "I used to live right down there, on Mansfield – it was really bad." That was nine or so years ago, when he first moved to L.A. One time, he recalls, he pulled up to his parking space and found it already occupied by a homeless guy. "It was a dude taking a shit in my stall," he says. "No toilet paper, nothing! It was just foul, and no one cleaned it up. So every morning, I got reminded of where I'm at."
Started from the bottom, now he's here – except Mars actually started closer to the upper-middle. He's 27 and has been in show business since he began impersonating Elvis Presley with his family's band at age two. That's a quarter-century of performing, which means he's got more stage experience than, say, Justin Timberlake – and his stagecraft-savvy parents put him through a homespun version of Motown's charm school literally from birth. His dad, Peter "Dr. Doo-Wop" Hernandez, recalled dimming the lights in the delivery room as his wife gave birth, so it was "almost like a nightclub," and playing "oldies but goodies" on a cassette boombox to usher Bruno – born Peter G. Hernandez – into the world.
At four years old, Mars appeared as a tiny Elvis in Honeymoon in Vegas and was interviewed by Pauly Shore on MTV. By age six, he had appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show. Throughout grade school, he sang with his family's band in front of a packed club for two shows a night, expanding his repertoire to Frankie Lymon and Little Anthony. But around age 11, as he'll explain, it all went away. It's not a stretch to say he's spent the past 16 years trying to get it back.
He pulls into an underground parking garage, and we're whisked up to the penthouse dining room of the West Hollywood branch of the members-only club Soho House, where he's given the best table in the place, under the branches of an olive tree. The sun has set, and the picture windows show most of L.A – including his own house, somewhere in the Hollywood Hills – glittering beneath his feet.
Mars orders us each a cocktail that turns out to be not only super sweet but served in a Sex and the City-ready cosmo glass. "Now we're really on a man date," he says. We both decide on the same fish entree. "I'm gonna get the cod," he tells the waitress with a smirk, "and my boyfriend is gonna get the same thing."
When Mars' onstage assurance spills over into real life, he can come off as charmingly cocky: the hardest-working bro in show business. But he can also seem strikingly insecure, seeking approval in a manner that's maybe not surprising for a guy who grew up expecting two shows' worth of applause each night. We've been talking for hours at Soho House when he suddenly asks me, in a soft voice, "Do you like the album?"
I tell him I do, and mean it – his style-hopping second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, is a leap forward from his debut, Doo Wops & Hooligans, which was weighed down by soggy ballads.
But he's not satisfied: "Yeah? What songs?" He doesn't relax until I name four or five. Mentioning the surging sex jam "Gorilla" earns me a fist bump.
'Double time! Half-time! Break it down!"
It's not easy, these days, to find hip young musicians fluent in spit-shined, turn-on-a-dime Famous Flames-style dynamics – but many of the guys in Mars' fiery eight-piece touring band grew up playing in gospel churches, where those skills are still mandatory. A few hours before our dinner, Mars puts his guys' chops to the test in a Hollywood rehearsal studio, burning through a large chunk of the set for their upcoming tour. "Don't it feel good, baby," Mars croons in his silken tenor, as they ease into a vamp. He starts hyping up the nonexistent audience: "Does it feel good on the left side? What about the right side now?"
The band's flashy drummer, a beefy dude named Eric Hernandez, is ever-ready to crash a cymbal or cut to silence at the slightest flick of Mars' arm – and he was Mars' easiest recruit: He's Bruno's older brother, who abandoned a 10-year career as a police officer to continue the family-band tradition. "I knew, I was like, 'If I don't give this up and I'm watching some other guy play drums for my brother, that's going to eat me up,'" says Eric. At five feet five, Mars is maybe seven inches shorter than him. "But I mean, honestly, I wish I had his swag," Eric adds. "I'm actually taking tips from that little guy."
Laid-back as he may be, Mars expects perfection. "I've never seen someone be so meticulous in my entire life, when it comes to anything," says Ari Levine, who, along with Phil Lawrence, formed the songwriting-and-production team known as the Smeezingtons with Mars. "Even when we remodeled our studio, if one thing was off" by an inch, it literally would drive him crazy. It's borderline neurosis, but in the best way possible." They spent three months, for instance, trying to come up with a second verse for "Moonshine."
Mars acknowledges that he yells during rehearsals. "I always tell everybody that we finally get to enjoy all the hard work that we've done when we play and when we sing. So don't fuck up our good time, you know what I mean?"
Right now, Mars is fixated on a two-song stretch of the set, where the dub-reggae-influenced track "Show Me" is meant to move seamlessly into his earlier tune "Our First Time." He's also unhappy with the band's synchronized moves during the song – he wants them to be choreographed without actually looking like they are. He walks down three carpeted steps, lights an American Spirit and watches from in front, where he determines that it's the guitarist, Phred, who's not nailing the dance. "We're spending way too much time on this shit," Mars says, eventually – and ends up dropping the moves altogether.
The rehearsal soon devolves into a jam session, with Mars sitting at a keyboard singing and playing some of Prince's "Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Afterward, he says he copped its feel for the indelible hook to his own breakthrough song, "Nothin' on You." "We could do a 'Beautiful' medley," he jokes, and then immediately does it a cappella, jumping from "You Are So Beautiful" to "Wonderful Tonight" to James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful."
Back onstage, Mars plays a synthesizer version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," a.k.a. Elvis' Vegas-era intro music, then jumps behind the drum kit. Phred kicks into Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," and Mars plays a credible approximation of Mitch Mitchell's jazzy drum part. He doesn't do this in the actual show for fear of coming off as a circus act. "Bruno's got good feel on the drums," says his brother, before adding with a laugh, "but I blow him away."
Finally, Mars lets the band go for the day – it's time to embark on his man date. "Good job, guys,"he says. "We'll change everything on Monday."
Much like Alvy Singer, Bruno Mars never had a latency period: He was always into girls. As a kindergartner, he was mesmerized by the pretty singers in glittery dresses he'd see backstage. "I was like, 'These girls don't look like the girls I go to school with,'" he recalls, eyes lighting up.
Right from the start, he loved everything about performing with his family's band, the Love Notes. "I would look forward to getting out of school," he says. "Just looking at the clock, waiting for it to hit 2:15." Mars would memorize videotapes of Elvis, James Brown and Michael Jackson, and to this day, he plays Brown's T.AM.I. performance or Hendrix at Woodstock or Prince singing "Purple Rain" before he goes onstage.
One night when Mars was five, he forgot to pee before the show, and found himself wetting his jumpsuit while he sang "Can't Help Falling in Love." The audience tried not to laugh, and his mom cried – afterward, his parents briefly wondered if they were making a mistake. Mars himself never wavered.
The Love Notes, who specialized in doo-wop and other Fifties music, were as successful as a local cover band could be. Mars' dad, Peter, paid the group members $1,000 a week at their height, according to one member, family friend Bobby Brooks Wilson. Peter was also doing well as an entrepreneur, with businesses ranging from a temporary-tattoo parlor to two huge memorabilia shops. Mars' dad is handsome and smooth-talking – he met Mars' mother, Bernadette, at a Polynesian revue. "He was a Latin percussionist," recalls Mars. "Mom was a hula dancer. And he put the charm on her."
At the peak of his success, Peter had seven Cadillacs, and the family lived in a big house in Kahala. "Bruno had a room the size of most people's living rooms," recalls Wilson. "And he had a little drum set, a little guitar, a little piano, you know, some percussion. He'd take me in his room: 'Bobby, look! I can play this!'" Wilson remembers Mars pouting backstage when he was seven or eight – he was furious because he had a bad cold, and his mom had benched him for the night.
Around the time Bruno was 11, the band broke up, and his parents' marriage did the same. For reasons Mars doesn't elaborate upon, his father's many businesses also tanked. All their money was gone, and Mars moved with his dad to "the slums of Hawaii." It was a tough adjustment. "But you know what? I realized I wouldn't trade it for anything, man," he says, sipping a beer in Soho House. "Because I feel like I can enjoy this so much."
Mars had been accustomed to being a star among his old classmates, but at his new school he found himself being bullied. He acquired a nickname, "Peter Pan Hyma Dingier" – the first part playing off his pixieish looks, the second part still inexplicable. "Even the nerds were calling me that!" He laughs. "Oh, man, it was rough. I didn't even want to go to school. But then the guys that called me that became my good friends." He was popular for the rest of his school days – his best friends were the alpha jocks – but he never forgot what it felt like to be an outcast.
Through it all, Mars' dad never lost faith in what he seemed to see as his boy's destiny. One day, he and Bruno made a last-ditch effort at selling the remains of his Elvis memorabilia at a swap meet, earning a total of $125. At the end of the day, Bruno pointed out a Fender guitar at the next stall priced at $115 – and his dad bought it for him on the spot. "It was literally all the money he had," Mars says.
His dad taught him Ventures, Chuck Berry and Carlos Santana songs on guitar, even as Mars was getting into more modern music, gravitating toward the Neptunes' and Timbaland's production. His dad started up a band again; Mars would get up and sing songs like "My Girl," and also opened with his own 'NSync-style boy band, the School Boys.
During a pep rally in his sophomore year, Mars got onstage and sang Ginuwine's "Pony." Teachers yelled at him for singing the word "horny"; girls went nuts. Mars felt reborn. "After that, I walked around the halls like I was Sinatra," he says. "I was like, 'OK. I'm not just an impersonator.'" He pauses, then cracks up: '"I can also impersonate Ginuwine!'"
Mars found himself back in what passed for the big time of Hawaiian entertainment, making $75 a show while still in high school as the opening act for a big magic show, and playing Michael Jackson in a celebrity-impersonators revue. He was eerily good at the latter, as YouTube footage demonstrates – he's a far more gifted dancer than he shows now. "Just because I can moonwalk," he says, "doesn't mean I should moonwalk." He was also in a position to act on his backstage fantasies: According to Wilson, Mars started dating a backup singer in her early twenties when he was 16, concealing the relationship from his mom. Mars is more circumspect about his youthful success with women. "My mother and father taught me that a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," he says.
In the corner of Mars' living room, near a fireplace that's blazing despite the perfect weather outside, is a Steinway piano made of rich, dark-brown wood – an instrument so opulent-looking that Elton John might wonder if he could afford it. It sounds pretty good, too: Mars is sitting at its keys, demonstrating how he wrote his fifth Number One single, "When I Was Your Man," right here. He's justifiably proud of the fact that the record is just his piano and voice.
It's also the most personal song ever released by Mars, who's been wary of getting too confessional. "I'm not a fan of self-indulgence," he says. "For me, music is 'I want to feel good' or 'I want to dance,' as opposed to me singing about me growing up in Hawaii and 'my struggle to relate.'" He mockingly sings that last bit. "Ain't nobody trying to hear that. I'm not even trying to hear that, and that's my story!"
With extreme reluctance, Mars reveals that he wrote "When I Was Your Man" about his current girlfriend, model Jessica Caban – he felt in danger of losing her at the time. The song started with simple chords and a line that reflected his regrets: "I should've bought you flowers." He's so awkward at talking about this, though, that at one point he actually buries his head in his arms on the table. "I'm not answering any questions about this song," he protests. "It's too close to home."
The song's narrative is exaggerated: Caban never actually left him for another dude. In real life, he says, "It was a happy ending." But he finds the song hard to perform. 'You're pouring your guts out, and you record it. And you're so proud of it. And then when you perform it, you know, you're bringing up these emotions again. It's just like bleeding!"
With his tour approaching, his relationship is about to be long-distance again.
"When you find that one, you buy them flowers and you hold their damn hand," he says, quoting himself. Even if it's over Skype? "Yeah," he says, singing, "I should've Skyped you, and gave you a tweet."
In his early years in L.A, he ran pretty wild: That's what "Young Girls," on the new album, is about. "You begin to lose yourself, you know," he says. "In that Mike Tyson documentary, he says something like, a lot of men think the more women they get, the better. But he says you lose a piece of yourself with every time you do that. And that's true. If you're out there wilding out, drinking and partying, that's not real life." Now, he can see marriage and kids in the future. "That's happiness," he says.
Mars was a late bloomer as a songwriter – it was the final piece of his puzzle. He left Hawaii after graduating (barely) from high school, signing a deal with Motown, which turned out to have no idea what to do with him. As that collapsed, he realized he'd have to start writing, and hooked up with Lawrence, an accomplished lyricist. The intention was to help Mars get signed again, but when they ran out of money, they added Levine and plugged into L.A's hits-for-hire scene, writing for Sugababes and Sean Kingston. Two of their best productions – "Nothin' on You" and "Billionaire," essentially choruses and beats, with blank spots for rappers – became smashes, with Mars singing the choruses. They rushed to get his first album out while the songs were still on the charts.
Now, Mars is pretty much done with writing songs for other artists. "That part of me kind of died," he says. "Because, you know, it's not a sport." He says listeners are tiring of the very "L.A. circuit" that led to his success. "I think people want to hear the artist talking," he says.
Mars has moved outdoors, to his palm-tree-laden backyard, where a swimming pool glitters under the bluest of blue skies. Today, as on most mornings, he woke up around 10 and swam with his Rottweiler. He's dressed down, in a Dolce & Gabbana black sweatshirt with Tyson's face on it, long faux-acid-washed shorts and leather sandals.
At the bottom of the pool, a little cleaning robot putters away. Mars is sitting on a deck chair, looking out to the mountains in the distance. He's idly strumming a blond Guild acoustic (when I admire it, he tries to give it to me as a gift). A moment ago, he was playing Santana's "Europa"; now he's strumming through fun.'s "We Are Young," which he kind of thinks he should have written: "Those are doo-wop chords I've known my whole life. I heard that right off the bat and was like, 'Shit, they did it.'" He's trying to pull back on the reins of his ambition, though. "I'm already jonesing to get into a studio," he says, letting out a sigh. "But I'm trying to enjoy the moment more – I used to be really caught up in, like, envisioning my life backward – like, this is where I wanna take the music" He lights a cigarette – he hopes to quit soon, even though he's not overly concerned about the effect on his voice ("I could stand to lose a couple notes from the pixie range – the gnome range").
Lately, he's found himself missing Hawaii. "Everyone's so content out there," he says. 'You're out here to be somebody. No one's just living. In Hawaii, the mentality is more like, 'Yo, we're in paradise right now, and we're, you know, living.'"
He's gotten back everything he lost and then some, and the truth is, he hadn't planned much beyond this point. "I don't know where I'm gonna end up," he says. "But I want to keep writing songs, man. There's a feeling you get from writing a good song that you don't get from anything else. You forever want that feeling, the same way you forever want to eat good food, you forever want to be in love."
He's never even imagined life without the crowds and the applause. "It's been with me for so long," he says. 'You know, it's always been, All right, see you later, I'm gonna go do the show'" But there's no show tonight, no rehearsals this afternoon – for once, there's nowhere he needs to be. Mars leans back in his chair, strumming his guitar by his precisely arranged palm trees under the vast, cloudless sky. Everything's pretty much perfect, and for a moment, he's just living.
This story is from the May 9th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.