Charlie Mars frames sharp narratives with soulful grooves. The Mississippi-based singer, who cut 2009's "Like a Bird, Like a Plane" in Austin, highlights each in the current Esquire magazine's songwriting round robin.
"You're so lucky to get to live in Austin," Mars says. "If I didn't have a girlfriend ('Weeds' actress Mary-Louise Parker) who couldn't live there, I'd move to Austin in a millisecond."
The 34-year-old performs Thursday at Shady Grove and Saturday at Threadgill's.
American-Statesman: The Esquire assignment was for each of you to write a song in two days. Did you write yours ('Back of the Room') that quickly from scratch?
Charlie Mars: I wrote it from scratch in about 30 minutes. I think Bob (Schneider) did the groove (for his song) prior to getting there, but everybody wrote their song (at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Miss.) unless somebody cheated (laughs).
Was it inspiring or intimidating to write around that group of guys (which also included Dierks Bentley, Griffin House and Ben Kweller)?
It was very laid-back. We had nothing but laughs and fun and camaraderie. That shoot was some of the most fun I've had in my life. I met (Esquire editor) David Granger, and I told him about this idea. He went for it, and it happened exactly as I'd hoped.
Do songs typically take shape that quickly for you?
Some songs take forever, and some pop out in 10 minutes. "Listen to the Darkside" took me 20 minutes to write, whereas another will have a section that works but I can't ever finish it. Sometimes I have to put them aside for years. There's no real rhyme or reason, other than when it's done, it's done. Or it's never done.
Did 'Listen to the Darkside' stand out to you immediately?
Yes. It had that special feeling. From the second I sang that chorus, it really resonated with me. You don't always get that good fortune. It's a tough chemistry to put together, where you have something that's not run-of-the-mill that people like and you feel when you sing it. That one feels so right, like a favorite pair of blue jeans. It just works.
What generally gives the album its lived-in feel?
We recorded at Jack Rock's studio in Austin, which is this beautiful studio with lots of analog gear. Eighty percent of that record is live. That's the only way I'll make records from now on. I think five of the tracks have live vocal.
Was (recording live) a conscious decision?
We did a bunch of takes and edited my last record (2004's "Charlie Mars") forever. We put all these guitars over everything, and it wound up being a big freaking bore. It's tedious, and it sucks all the fun out of it. I want to have fun when I'm recording. If you get the right players, there's no difference between cutting it live and editing a bunch of takes together.
Is that approach a result of being on your own after the major label experience?
Totally. Everything on "Listen to the Darkside" except a little guitar (we rerecorded) and the vocal is live. That song gets played on the radio all the time, and it sounds like it should be (laughs). A label usually isn't willing to let you take that chance.
Unplugged at the Grove
When: Charlie Mars kicks off this year's series at 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Shady Grove, 1624 Barton Springs Road.
Upcoming at the Grove
Radney Foster (April 22); Ray Wylie Hubbard (April 29); Seth Walker (May 6); Kelly Willis (May 13); Bruce Robison (May 20); Rhett Miller (May 27). More at theshadygrove.com
Charlie Mars also performs at 10 p.m. Saturday at Threadgill's South, 301 W. Riverside Drive. $15 in advance, $20 at the door. 472-9304, threadgills.com .