Bruno Mars' original game plan was like many aspiring singers': Move to California, get discovered, get signed, release a record, tour the world.
"That's not always how it goes," he says.
The Honolulu native eventually got the record deal and tour, but they didn't come about the way he wanted. Before he was able to step out with his debut album "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," he first had to prove his mettle producing and writing songs for others.
He co-wrote and can be heard on B.o.B's "Nothin' on You" and Travie McCoy's "Billionaire," two especially ubiquitous songs this year, and also lent a hand to Cee-Lo's "F*** You."
His work with these artists and with others such as Sean Kingston, Brandy, Flo Rida and Adam Levine came about while he was waiting for something to happen with his first record deal.
"I was frustrated, waiting around to work with producers and writers. Then I said, 'I can do that. I don't need anybody else,' so I started writing and producing tracks," he says.
Another label impressed by his songs approached him and wanted one of his productions for boy group Menudo.
"I said that was my art — my music. They offered me 20 grand. That's all it cost to sell out," he says of the song titled "Lost," which he says went "double plastic. It wasn't a great song. I wrote it when I was 17 and I didn't know what to write about."
Still, says Mars, now 25, it was the smartest thing he could have done.
"It opened my eyes. I was able to learn so much before putting out my first album. I got to work with other artists, and it laid the groundwork for me to be ready and put some real songs together," he says.
Atlantic finally took a chance on him.
"For years I had been getting rejected and rejected and rejected," he says. "I was like, 'Is this going to happen?' Then everything took off."
That route ultimately made it easier for Mars to step forward as a solo artist.
"It's easier when you understand more about what you're doing. It's like a football player knowing the rule book in and out and knowing the sizes of the pads you wear when you go into the field," he says. "You have to know every detail about your craft, and when I was younger I didn't know. And I'm still learning every day."
Mars says his prior work with other artists served as a warning to folks on where he's coming from.
—"'Nothing on You' had a Motown vibe, 'Billionaire' was a reggae acoustic guitar-driven song, though one of my favorites is the Cee-Lo song. I don't think anyone else could've sung that song," he says. "And there's 'Just the Way You Are.' If you know my story, you know I love all different genres of music."
Mars claims reggae, Michael Jackson and doo-wop among his influences. He calls doo-wop "just straightforward love songs — so charming and simple and romantic."
Mars says his love of doo-wop and his album title might make one think he's "a geek writing love songs in the studio all day," but he's anything but that.
"There is a romantic side, but I'm also a young guy having fun," he says. (Some may say too much fun. He's awaiting trial on cocaine possession charges after he was arrested in Las Vegas in September. He would not address it in this interview.)
"If you come to the show, you're going to see a couple of young guys jumping around having a blast. Get ready to have your face blown off," he says. "It's exciting and raw, and I'm dripping by the end of the show."