Bruno Mars on his artistry: "I'm working hard for this"

He's been broke, busted and nearly homeless. Now, as 60 Minutes' Lara Logan reports, he's on top of the music world

Bruno Mars is one of the world's biggest music stars and he's one of the most driven people we've ever seen. Just 31, he's the product of what he calls a "school of rock" education -- a working class life of experiences that have taught him the music business. As we first reported in November, none of it came easily. He's been broke, busted and nearly homeless. 

To show us how he got where he is today, Bruno Mars did something he's never done: he shared with us some of the toughest moments of his Hawaiian upbringing, and gave us the opportunity to witness his extraordinary skills as a songwriter and producer.

We begin with Bruno Mars, the entertainer. 

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Bruno Mars at Paradise Park, Hawaii

Aaron Tomlinson/60 Minutes

This show in Connecticut was his first public concert last year, and he used it as a tune-up for the release of his new album and world tour to follow. On every song and every note, from arenas to halftime of the Super Bowl, he and his band, The Hooligans, perform full throttle.

His standards are high because the legends of music set them.

Bruno Mars: I just really care about what people see. I want them to know that I'm working hard for this. The artists that I look up to like, you know, Michael, Prince, James Brown. You watch them and you understand that they're paying attention to the details of their art. And they care so much about what they're wearing, about how they're moving, about how they're making the audience feel. They're not phoning it in. They're going up there to murder anybody that performs after them or performs before them. That's what I've watched my whole life and admired.

He is a throwback. You see it in the choreography on stage and hear it in the songs themselves. Descendants of the generations that came before him.

"I just really care about what people see. I want them to know that I'm working hard for this." Bruno Mars

Lara Logan: When I listen to your songs.

Bruno Mars: Uh-huh.

Lara Logan: You can hear all those people that you've listened to.

Bruno Mars: Yeah.

Lara Logan: Over the years.

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Bruno Mars

CBS News

Bruno Mars: A lot of people are really quick to say, "That song sounds like this." Or you-- "He's tryin' to sound like this." And I'm always like, "You're damn right I am. That's how-- that's why we're all here." You know, we all grew up idolizing another musician. That's how this works. That's how music is created.

The musical education of Bruno Mars began in his hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii. He was born Peter Hernandez, to a Puerto Rican father and Filipino mother: parents who were professional musicians, performing together in the tourist showrooms of Waikiki Beach.  Their act was called the "Love Notes" and when Bruno was four years old his parents included him in the family business. He played "Little Elvis" and it's when he first learned he could steal the show.

The "Little Elvis" routine lasted six years. But the lessons of his parents' Vegas-style Waikiki entertainment revue, have lasted a lifetime. 

Bruno Mars:  You know, it was, like, "School Of Rock" for me. And it was just this kind of razzle-dazzle lifestyle.

Lara Logan:  That's real showbiz.

Bruno Mars: Yeah, show business. You know?

Lara Logan: Right?

Bruno Mars: And if you wasn't hitting those notes and the audience wasn't freaking out, then you weren't doing it right.

By the time he turned 12, his parents divorced and the family band broke up. Money was tight. His four sisters moved in with his mom. He and his brother lived with his dad…

Lara Logan: On top of this building?

Bruno Mars: On top of this building.

…anywhere they could.

Bruno Mars: My dad was just the king of finding these little spots for us to stay that we should never have been staying at.

Lara Logan: But you were, like, homeless people?

Bruno Mars: Yeah. No. Yeah, for sure. We was in a limousine at once. 1984 limousine.

Sleeping in the back of a car, on top of buildings, and this place…

Lara Logan: So this is where you lived?

…Paradise Park, a bird zoo where his dad took a job. This was the first time he'd been back here since. Even people who work with him haven't heard this part of his story.

Bruno Mars: Where we were staying at first—

Lara Logan: Yeah.

Bruno Mars: --didn't have a bathroom. So we'd have to walk across the park to this other spot that had a bathroom.

Lara Logan: Wow.

Bruno Mars: In the in--

Lara Logan: And sometimes in the middle of the night?

Bruno Mars: In the middle of the night.

When the park closed, they stayed, moving into this one-room building. 

Lara Logan: This was your house?

Bruno Mars: Yeah.

They lived here for more than two years.

Bruno Mars: Just so people don't think we're crazy.

Lara Logan: Yeah.

Bruno Mars: It did not look like this.

Lara Logan: It had a roof?

Bruno Mars: It had a roof.

Lara Logan: It didn't have plants growing inside.

Bruno Mars: It didn't have plants growing inside. I don't know what happened to the roof. But the bed would be right there in the middle.

Lara Logan: Yeah? And you'd all sleep in one bed?

Bruno Mars: We'd all sleep in one bed.

Lara Logan: Happy memories?

Bruno Mars: The best.

Lara Logan: That's-- is kind of amazing in that, what you remember about it is not the struggle or the things you didn't have.

Bruno Mars: Nah—

Lara Logan: It's all the things you had.

Bruno Mars: Yeah. We had it all, you know. We had each other and it never felt like it was the end of the world. "It's alright we don't got electric today. It's alright. It's temporary." saying, "Well, we gonna figure this out."Maybe that's why I have this mentality when it comes to the music. 'Cause I know I'm gonna figure-- I'm gonna figure it out, just give me some time.

As soon as he graduated high school, he left the Waikiki showrooms and Hawaii altogether.

Lara Logan: You could've stayed here, right—

Bruno Mars: And be—

Lara Logan: --and you could—

Bruno Mars: --very happy.

Lara Logan: Yeah? And made a good living, and done what your dad did and been a big star in Hawaii?

Bruno Mars: I wanted to go for it.

Lara Logan: You wanted more?

Bruno Mars: I wanted more. And my family pushed me. And this island pushed me.

Lara Logan: How?

Bruno Mars: These are my people, and this is my culture, and I want to represent them. I want people to think of Hawaii and think of palm trees and magical islands and Bruno Mars.

So he headed for Los Angeles where he was quickly signed by Motown Records. Gone was his given name of Peter Hernandez, branding himself Bruno Mars instead.

"Bruno," his childhood nickname, "Mars" shooting for the stars. The name stuck but the record contract didn't. Motown dropped him.

Bruno Mars: I don't blame Motown. I don't-- I-- I was sim-- it's simply I wasn't ready yet. I think everybody don't know what color I am. It's like, "He's not black enough. He's not white enough. He's got a Latin last name but he doesn't have-- he doesn't speak Spanish.  Who are we selling this to? Are you making urban music? Are you making pop music? What kind of music are you making?"

With no hit songs of his own and dead broke, he started over, writing and producing songs for other artists with friends Ari Levine and Philip Lawrence. They were starving musicians. Inspired by the hustle just to pay for food, they came up with this song.

[Music from "Billionaire"]

It led to another record deal of his own. His career as a songwriter and performer was finally on track. About that time though, he was arrested for possession of two-and-a-half grams of cocaine. 

Lara Logan: From the outside you really seem to keep it together and to be very professional and, you know, very committed but you nearly threw it all away.

Bruno Mars: I did something very stupid. I'm in Las Vegas, Lara. I'm 24 years old. I'm, you know, drinking way more than I'm supposed to be drinking and it was so early in my career and I always say that I think it had to happen. That was the reality check I needed and I'm-- I promised myself that that, you know, you ain't never gonna read about that again.

Headlines for hits, not drug busts have been his narrative ever since capped by two Super Bowl halftime performances in three years and five Grammys including "record of the year" for his collaboration with producer Mark Ronson, "Uptown Funk." It's the biggest hit in a career full of them.

Lara Logan: How difficult is it to write a song that's great?

Bruno Mars: "Uptown Funk" took us almost a year to write. And there's songs that taken-- that's taken us two hours to write. And we throw 'em away. "Uptown Funk" was in the trashcan about 10 times.

Lara Logan: Really?

Bruno Mars: Yeah.

Lara Logan: Why?

Bruno Mars: 'Cause we made a lot of, you know, you can make a left turn and all of a sudden this song is something terrible. Embarrassing almost. But you have this one thing that keeps you going. This one part of the song that feels so good and it makes you want to keep going. And it makes you want-- "Ah, we should just try again. Let's try again, let's try again."

He told us the conception of much of his music begins, in this California recording studio.  

Bruno Mars: This is it, Lara.

Over the last two years he has been on lock down here trying to answer the challenge created from his run of big hits. Especially "Uptown Funk."

Bruno Mars: This album, it was daunting, because coming off of "Uptown Funk" was like the biggest song I've ever been a part of. And then you're like, alright, now what are you gonna do?

This is what he came up with. His latest album is called "24K Magic." The title song is already another massive hit. He showed us how they built the song from the drums up.

"I was built for this...It's dedicating yourself to your craft." Bruno Mars

Bruno Mars: That's how it starts.

Lara Logan: And then?

Bruno Mars: Well come on, come on!

Bruno Mars: And then we could put some sparkle on it. Like put a little magic dust on it.  Hear that? 

Bruno Mars: Drums and base is locking, right?

Lara Logan: Yes.

Bruno Mars: Feel good yet?

Lara Logan: Yes!

Bruno Mars: Then you add the sauce, the secret sauce.  You ready? 

Bruno Mars: That's it.

Bruno Mars: 24 Karat Magic!

Bruno Mars: Showtime!  Guess who's back again?

It's easy to see that Bruno Mars loves the only job he's ever wanted and that he's still driven, to get it right.

Bruno Mars: I was built for this Lara. It's dedicating yourself to your craft. Spending thousands of hours in a studio learning how to write a song, learning how to play different chords, training yourself to sing. You know, to get better and better.

Lara Logan: Are you there?

Bruno Mars: No. I'm not even close.

Produced by John Hamlin. Kate Morris, associate producer.

  • Lara Logan

    Lara Logan's bold, award-winning reporting from war zones has earned her a prominent spot among the world's best foreign correspondents. Logan began contributing to 60 Minutes in 2005.