When Charlie Mars was preparing to record his latest record, 2012’s “Blackberry Light,” he estimated that he’d need about $20,000 to make it happen. On the second day of the Kickstarter campaign he launched to raise the money, he was as surprised as anyone to watch the funding jump to $14,000 within 24 hours; he eventually raised more than $30,000.
The boost came from a fan named Christina, who contributed $10,000 and earned the pleasure of hearing her name included in the song “How I Roll,” one of the singles off the album.
“I was shocked,” Mars recalls, on the phone last week while piloting a rental car to a gig in Boston. “It was very generous and it really gave me the boost that I needed to keep moving forward. Making records is expensive, and I just didn’t know how I was going to get that initial influx of cash to get things off the ground.”
Despite nearly two decades of touring and semi-hit songs like 2009’s “Listen to the Darkside,” Mars’ success hasn’t translated into riches. He’s driven himself along the entirety of this month’s 25-date solo tour, concluding in Charleston on Friday at the Circular Congregational Church.
“Don’t get me wrong, I could use some help, but if I can do something myself and get home with a little more money in my pocket, it’s worth it,” says Mars, who moved home to Oxford, Miss., last year after a stint living in New York while dating Mary-Louise Parker of the Showtime series “Weeds.”
On his most recent visit to Charleston last fall, Mars brought his band to the Pour House, where he collaborated with fiddle-playing Dixie Chick alum Martie Maguire. But he claims that touring solo isn’t a financial decision but a musical one that began after the release of his 2009 album, “Like a Bird, Like a Plane.” Although tracks from his 2004 eponymous release were picked up by radio, helping him build a national following, he was left without representation when his label, V2 North America, changed ownership.
“I started doing solo acoustic opening gigs for musicians I was friends with out of necessity because I didn’t have any money to pay a band,” he explains. “Over the course of the last five years, I’ve really started to enjoy the acoustic shows and have found venues that cater more to that kind of performance.”
In the past year, Mars has also toured with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, an Allman Brothers spinoff group that draws two to three thousand people to their shows. He says the large audiences have surprised him with how well they’ve received his solo set.
“I love playing with other musicians, and I love being able to just get up there and keep it simple. I don’t think I could live with just one,” Mars explains. “I’m not convinced at the end of the day that the songs don’t resonate more with an audience if they’re delivered in a very simple way, as a solo performer. In the right environment, playing solo can be more rewarding than playing with a band.”
That sentiment translated into an acoustic bonus disc followup to “Blackberry Smoke,” on which Mars plays the album’s songs stripped down to their purist form.
“My manager said, ‘Everybody loves these acoustic shows,’ so I went in and made acoustic versions of the songs,” says Mars. “The funny thing is that the album took two months and 10 people and tens of thousands of dollars to make, and then I go in for an afternoon and cut something just sitting there on a stool, and half the people like that better.”
That half will likely enjoy the intimacy of Mars’s show at Circular Church, and despite a few lyrics that might raise eyebrows in a place of worship, the songwriter says he plans to play whatever songs the moment calls for.
“When I’m playing in a church, I subscribe to what Johnny Cash said when he was asked what he thought about Marilyn Manson,” says Mars. “He said it was ‘all God’s music.’ I like that.”
Clean and sober
Mars makes one thing clear, despite a few lyrics that might imply otherwise, he doesn’t do drugs.
After leading his rock band throughout the ’90s, Mars wound up in rehab before heading to Sweden for an extended soul-cleansing trip. But the devil is in the details, and the definition of drugs may be up for debate.
“I haven’t had any alcohol since 2000, but I’ve had some nights where, you know — I’ve had some nights along the way, let’s just say,” Mars explains.
Mars understands where the confusion lies. His two most popular songs are arguably “How I Roll” (from “Blackberry Light”) and “Listen to the Darkside.” The former opens with the lyrics, “Oh no, look in the mirror, it’s the 5-0. I shouldn’t have smoked so much weed, I shouldn’t have done so much blow.” The latter, a song about helping a friend through a tough relationship, sports the repeated chorus, “If you want to come over, come over and get high. We can listen to the ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ ” Add to those lyrics the fact that Mars dated the star of a show called “Weeds,” and the association makes sense.
“The thing is, I have six albums, and among them there are two songs that reference drugs in any capacity, and it just so happens that those two songs became popular,” says Mars. “I think it’s really trivial. How many country artists reference drinking beer in their songs? No one asks them about it, but if you reference pot, because it’s illegal in most states, it becomes a point of interest, whereas in my life and the people I hang around with, it’s very common. So I’m honest about the things that I do.”
Mars’ honesty means he’s just as likely to write a song about narrowly avoiding an arrest as a sweet love song for a friend getting married, like he did with “I Do I Do,” also from “Blackberry Smoke,” on the morning of a college friend’s wedding, after being reminded the day before that he’d promised to perform an original song for them.
“I wanted to really represent what it must be like to be getting married and to love someone and to feel on the inside that there’s a part of you that’s unworthy of that, and yet you’re still willing to go down that road,” Mars explains. “There’s something heroic about that, and I wanted to capture it in a song.”
Mars says he’s not sure that he could write that song today, although since breaking up with Parker and moving back to Mississippi, he’s been enjoying the most productive creative streak of his career as a songwriter. Even with the industry’s transition to streaming music and the decreasing financial payoff of recording full-length records, Mars says he’ll continue to create and release traditional albums.
“My records are events that you listen to start to finish and they’re meant to capture a snapshot of my life at that times. I can’t control how people consume music or these streaming services like Spotify, but I don’t like it. I don’t mind iTunes because it makes the distribution of music easier. Some guy in Iceland can hear my song on a TV show and he can download it and I get paid, and I like that, but the streaming services are a rip-off. You have to get your song played a billion times to get a decent check.”
Mars laments the gulf that occurs between an artist and a listener when the exchange is totally digital. Even on a solo tour in a rental car, he hauls around a box of CDs and vinyl records to every show.
“When I sell an album that I worked very hard on to someone at a show, and I sign it and they walk away from me, I feel good inside. Nothing else does that,” says Mars. “Streaming feels so disposable. The people that buy a record from me, I feel like at the end of the day, they’re my truest fans.”
With his current touring lifestyle, Mars gets to interact with those fans on a daily basis. And part of his mission, says Mars, is to serve as an ambassador for the arts and progressive culture in his home state.
“I do wear Mississippi on my sleeve, it’s just that my version is not some caricature stereotype,” Mars claims. “I stay there because I want it to change, and I want what Mississippi stands for to be something different. I’m not saying I want it to do a 180; I just want to take the good things from the past and translate that into something more contemporary.”
Although Mars’ casual drawl reveals his Deep South origins when he speaks, his music can’t be qualified as blues or anything traditionally Mississippian. He’s both an authentic Southerner and something brand new and worldly, like his vision for his home.
“I think Charleston is a prime example of a place that has transformed itself into being more contemporary, from music to design to the food that’s served to you at the table,” says Mars. “I think these changes are for the better and signify progress, and in my own small way, I want to help to do that through music back where I’m from.”