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The hits just keep coming for pop’s stylish wunderkind Bruno Mars

Jon Bream
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

MINNEAPOLIS — Bruno Mars, pop's most dangerous quintuple threat, is accustomed to juggling.

On a recent day, he was spending his first day in a recording studio in nine months, trying to find a cure for a sinus infection and doing an interview to promote his first-ever appearance at a fashion show, Macy's Glamorama, on Friday in Minneapolis.

He's not doing it for the fashion but rather because it's a benefit for the Children's Cancer Research Fund.

"I've never been in this situation before. I've been broke my whole life, basically," Mars, 26, said from his Los Angeles studio. "The fact that I can use my music to bring people together and help a good cause, that's really why I'm doing it."

Mars was a struggling artist for years until he got into the hitmaking business in 2009-10 — singing the hooks on Travie McCoy's "Billionaire" and B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You" (which he co-wrote), scoring with his own "Just the Way You Are," "The Lazy Song" and "Grenade," and co-writing and producing "Forget You" for Cee-Lo Green.

As a singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and performer, Mars is enjoying the kind of golden touch with different artists that hasn't been seen in pop since Prince's reign in the mid-1980s.

At Glamorama, Mars will sing a few of the songs that have made him famous. The unpredictable part is his outfit. Will he be stylin' in a suit, two-tone shoes and pompadour, as he did at the Grammys, or will he favor the denim, T-shirt and fedora he wore at his sold-out St. Paul concert in May?

"When you say Glamorama, I'm thinking leotard, cowboy boots and possibly a shower cap," he said with a chuckle. "It's fashion. You've got to take chances, right? So why not?"

Mars describes his sense of fashion the same way he defines his music — "very unorthodox," he said. He drew a parallel to the title of his hit debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans."

"'Doo-Wops' is the more gentleman and 'Hooligans' is more in-the-street-everyday," he said.

The album has sold 14 million copies worldwide and yielded the sweet ballad "Just the Way You Are," which spent four weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart and 20 weeks atop the adult-contemporary chart, a record for a debut single.

"We wrote it to make women, especially young women, feel beautiful about themselves," he said. "The message behind that song is: Beautiful and sexy is the way you carry yourself. It's not about designer brands or plastic surgery. When you feel sexy and you feel confident, it shows. We wanted to boost women's ego. It's a positive song."

Rolling Stone called Mars a master of no-brainer songs. He keeps it simple, favoring uncomplicated lyrics, basic melodies and catchy hooks, seasoned with pop, soul, reggae or another style in his broad palette. In short, he's like a modern-day Smokey Robinson — if not as poetic.

Peter Gene Hernandez was born in Honolulu to a Filipino singer and a Puerto Rican percussionist. When he was 2, his dad started calling him "Bruno" because he looked like pro wrestler Bruno Sammartino. At 4, Bruno was onstage imitating Elvis Presley in his parents' 1950s-inspired revue on Waikiki Beach. His father schooled him on classic performers.

"I grew up watching and idolizing Prince and guys that write their own music and play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix and then get on the piano and sing an R&B song, and get up and dance, whether it's like Michael Jackson, James Brown or Jackie Wilson," Mars said. "That's what my father filled my brain up with; that was his music. I was growing up watching those VHS cassettes."

After high school, Bruno moved to Los Angeles and played in dive bars in front of fewer people than he could count on his fingers. After five years of struggling, he signed with Motown but got dropped a year later without ever releasing an album. In 2006, the drummer for Black Eyed Peas introduced him to another aspiring songwriter, Philip Lawrence, and they formed a partnership, eventually bringing in a third wheel, Ari Levine.

The trio became known as the Smeezingtons, writing and producing enough hits to be nominated for producer of the year at the 2011 Grammys. And Mars, the recording star, was just nominated for four MTV Music Video Awards, including video of the year for "Grenade." He'll compete against Green's "Forget You," a song he co-wrote.

"That's the only song where we all said to each other, 'If this song doesn't go, we're in the wrong business,'" Mars recalled. "That song felt so good to us in the studio and so unique and Cee-Lo just sang the hell out of it. It had all the ingredients to a feel-good summer record. It's such a cool message because he's saying 'eff you' with such sentiment that I don't think had ever been done before."

Mars is now getting called by veterans, including Kanye West and Jay-Z for their highly anticipated collaboration "Watch the Throne," scheduled for release this week

"I met Kanye briefly in Hawaii and played him some songs," Mars said. "I wrote a little bit of this song called 'Lift Off.' Their raps are great. Kanye is an incredible producer. Jay-Z and Kanye, these guys are the biggest. It was extremely flattering."

Working with the biggest stars, scoring some of the biggest hits of the past two years, winning a Grammy, receiving a bunch of MTV nominations — Mars paused a moment to take it all in and admire his juggling.

"It's good to be me right now," he said.

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