“I’m all about just trying to get in front of a new crowd.”
For Mars Jackson, 2018 was a year of momentum-building. Last January, he released the single, “Heart Dance,” a winkingly grown ‘n’ sexy track studded with some unabashed Michael Jackson worship.
Then in May, he followed that up with his first full-length, Good Days Never Last Forever, which was met with positive responses from local hip-hop fans and media alike. With that came more opportunities to perform, collaborate and grow as an artist. On Feb. 9, for example, he’ll headline at Mr. Smalls, his first performance with a full band.
“I went above and beyond what I had to do,” Jackson reflected, leaning forward on his seat and glancing out the big windows of a Point Breeze coffee shop. But even so, he didn’t do everything he wanted to do last year. “I wish I’d have been able to tour more,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to tour. My first show that I did out of town last year was in New Jersey … Things like that, I always wanted to do it.” As with everything else, he’s willing to put in the work, adding, “There’s nothing in the city of Pittsburgh that’s actually helping artists in the area of touring.”
As the first-ever hip-hop artist to sign to the Pittsburgh-based, nationally-focused label Misra Records, Jackson is in a better position than many to find that kind of support. While Misra is a small, independent label with limited resources, they do provide financial assistance to touring artists.
“With Mars it’s a little too early to tell what we’ll be doing,” Misra’s general manager Jeff Betten said in a later phone call. “But … we’re basically willing to do whatever it’s going to take.”
Jackson, who studied public relations at Slippery Rock University, works hard to make connections around the city and would love to meet with local booking agencies and music industry professionals to discuss how to potentially encourage local musicians to get out on the road. That, along with his own desire to tour, reflects not only a love for the Pittsburgh scene, but a willingness to hustle, to show up, to get in front of people and show what he’s got.
“When you’re an indie artist you have to just throw yourself out there,” Jackson said. “You have to go out of town. You might rock in front of five or 10 people: act like you’re in front of 100 people. … Everything can’t be done through internet and email.”
It’s not stardom, per se, that’s motivating Jackson. “I have this piece of artwork. I don’t think of it being just a local piece of music.”
Jackson grew up around music: both his grandfather and great-grandfather were musicians, and his uncles, who all liked different genres, shared all of it with him. “I knew rock, I knew R&B, soul… music was always played in my house.” In school he was assigned a violin instead of his first choice, drums, but went with it anyway.
“Growing up in a single-parent household, I always wanted to be part of something, I wanted to be part of a team,” Jackson said. “So I kept myself around music and sports, so whether I was singing in the choir at church or the ensemble at school, my mom kept me and my sister very active.”
He loved Outkast and Kanye, as well as the punk and indie rock bands like Green Day and Jimmy Eat World he heard on video game soundtracks.
“When we were signing Mars we were talking about how he was really inspired by Pink Floyds’ The Dark Side of the Moon,” Betten recalled. “He ended up using a couple interludes on Good Days Never Last Forever, and he was using the The Great Gig in the Sky as a reference point. And that really blew me away.”
“You want to make sure the music is good … [With Misra] I was able to get tools and learn, put myself in a different atmosphere,” Jackson said. “I guess I’m an alternative hip-hop artist, but I go where the vibes are. If the music is good, I’m going with it.”
The upbeat eclecticism Good Days Never Last Forever has garnered comparisons to the pop sensibility and energy of artists like Chance the Rapper and Pharrell. Thirty-two years old and recently engaged, his concerns tend towards the domestic, whether that’s working through problems of the past, celebrating present love, or guarding against potential threats to his current happiness. “I just know my space of writing now is not all about, ‘I got left out!’ or ‘I’m trying to be number one!’,” Jackson said. “That’s not growth. Right now life is good for me, I’m happy and healthy and I want to keep people dancing.”
The Paul Keys Band will back up Jackson at the upcoming Mr. Smalls show. Benji, a frequent Jackson collaborator and recent Misra signee appears as well, along with Clara Kent (who is on Misra’s sister label Dauntless Records) and Isaiah Small.
Jackson is excited for the energy that comes with a live backing band, something he experienced hosting the Spirit Sessions open mic nights in Lawrenceville.
“It’s a lot of work compared to having a DJ [where] you and he go up and have your set ready to go. But a band makes everything sound so much better,” Jackson said. “I’m giving you the rawness of what you would see if I was in the studio.”
That’s the sort of adaptability that will likely serve him well as he plans to head out of town.
“I’ll probably be booking my own shows,” Jackson said with a conspiratorial smile. “Or I’ll do what I did when I first started: Make a fake email and represent myself.”
“I’m all about just trying to get in front of a new crowd,” Jackson continued. “New crowds, nobody I ever saw before, and just giving them a first impression of me. And usually I grab people and they’re like, ‘Yeah, this guy right here.’”
Good days may not last forever, but Jackson seems to have enough in his future to last awhile.