Singer-songwriter Mario on Maintaining His Youth, His Mark in the Industry, and How Music Helped His Mental Health
Multi-platinum singer Mario has been letting us love him and his classic hits for nearly two decades now, and it’s safe to say, that won’t be changing anytime soon.
Whether he had you in the mood to braid somebody’s hair… or maybe even questioning how to breathe without that special person by your side, the Baltimore-born vocalist helped lead a musical period that still, to this day, lives inside of our headphones and deep in our hearts.
Coming from what we know as Charm City, Mario definitely brought the charm and the chords when he first blew up the mainstream scene in the early 2000s, with the debut release of his self-titled album, Mario. The world-renowned album featured a remake of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” and chart-topping singles “Braid My Hair” and “C’Mon,” which instantly set the foundation for an explosive career.
A promising teenager with a soul drenched in talent, it wasn’t long before the screaming fans, flashing lights, and number one hits came. He was the young game-changer who every girl wanted to meet and every guy wanted to beat. Vocally, he was unmatched, and song after song, Mario proved just that, as he persistently marked his top spot at the face of R&B.
After a bit of a hiatus Mario returned at 18 years old to bless us with a string of bangers like “Let Me Love You” and “Crying Out for Me.” It was over that time when true fans saw the boy growing into a man. His versatility, the solidity of the voice that’d been permeating through the speakers of our boomboxes. But with the pom-poms and the polaroids have certainly come pain and re-opened wounds from the past.
However, through those losses and letdowns, Mario has proceeded to move forward. In October of 2018, he revealed his fifth studio album, Dancing Shadows. The LP holds a total of eleven songs, one of them being “Care for You,” a sentimental record that showcases a more vulnerable side of the entertainer and somewhat delves into his problematic childhood.
Additionally, Mario has also packed on another acting credit, as he now portrays ‘Devon’ on FOX’s Empire series, starring Hollywood heavy-hitters Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard.
We recently caught up with Mario to talk about mental health, music, movies, and more! Take a look.
Parlé Mag: So, you’re currently a part of B2K’s The Millennium Tour, which seems to be lighting up the country right now. Tell us a little bit about how this all came to fruition and your experience, thus far.
Mario: It literally is lighting up the country, isn’t it?! [laughs] At least, for those fans who have been waiting for years to see us onstage together and relive their teenage years. It pretty much came through CAA and talking with the promoter about this idea. I recently released an album, so I thought it was cool. The album is definitely a different concept than what The Millennium Tour is, but what I think it does is… it bridges the gap for what fans are getting from R&B out there, like what they want or what they remember R&B as. Also, the new R&B. I perform new records on the stage and get new vibes. I just dropped “Care for You”, so it all kind of makes sense, in a bigger scheme of things. For me, personally, I thought it was exciting and fun—the fact that we’re doing arenas, and fans are really coming out. It’s really a great experience.
Parlé Mag: Hearing people still sing timeless tracks like “Let Me Love You” and “How Do I Breathe,” word for word, how does that make you feel? To know that you’ve already left such an unforgettable mark on the industry.
Mario: I feel grateful, and I feel like it’s a testament to what having talent and the responsibility of having talent and actually following through with it can do. The effects of having a great team, the effects of having great writers, it really is a testament to what the music industry is for. And it’s for the people. We’re here to facilitate art on a level where it’s supposed to be timeless and can affect people for years. So, it just confirms my passion for music, and it confirms the gift that I have and what I was meant to do, in part. There are a lot of other things I have a passion for, but when it comes to music and performing, it specifically confirms that.
Parlé Mag: Speaking of unforgettable, let’s talk about your single, “Care for You,” from your latest album, Dancing Shadows. You recently unveiled a very heartfelt visual for it. Why was this particular song and video concept important for you to do?
Mario: When I wrote “Care for You,” it was about vulnerability and a young man who—because he’s in the process of possibly losing something that he loves so much—is at a point where he has to finally let his guard down. He has to finally be honest with himself, finally be open to all of it, to life, which he never has. I think that we all, whether man or woman, have those points in our life where we have to just throw our hands up and let go of the control and just really feel, be vulnerable, and be honest with ourselves. That’s what that song is about. So, I wanted to create a visual that bridges the gap between that and lights creativity. What I found special about this particular concept was that I was able to show a few things in my life that I’ve faced, but also show that it all turned out well.
Because I never lost myself, and I had to allow myself to heal. So, [in the video] you see me looking at my younger self, saying, “I care for you. I’m grateful that we made it through.” It’s really just an inspiration for anybody out there going through something, and they feel like they can’t make it through. You know? Look at me, I’m an example. Of course, I’m not perfect, but at the same time, I feel like, with all that I’ve been able to accomplish under the circumstances of growing up in Baltimore, I think I’m an example to those kids, men, and women, growing up in the inner cities. Anywhere in the world! Anybody who’s going through things like that.
We also partnered with Equitas, an organization to bring awareness to the lack of mental health facilities in underprivileged areas, which I feel like is a big issue, especially in Baltimore, where I grew up. A lot of things start with mental health. To prevent those kids from ending up incarcerated or ending up in spaces where their actions and their lack of awareness cause them to be.
Parlé Mag: As you mentioned, in the clip, you’re seen portraying a therapist to your younger self. Have you, personally, ever gone through therapy? Do you feel that it’s beneficial?
Mario: I’ve never gone to therapy before.
Parlé Mag: Okay.
Mario: I think that it is beneficial for some people, and I’m not going to say that it wouldn’t be beneficial for me, because I love expressing myself. More so than ever now. But the difference between me and people who may not have found their passion, or found the type of talent that being an artist is, I can kind of use that as my therapy. In most cases of my life, music and writing [have been that for me]. Whether I’m just writing a book or writing a song. I’ve written many books that some people may never see; there is one book that I would love to release and publish. But, you know, writing and being an artist are both very therapeutic. Being creative is a therapeutic gift, and because of that, that’s always been my therapy. But for some people who don’t have the outlet, maybe for people who haven’t found a passion or labor of love, and they need another place to express themselves, I think therapy could be great for them.
Parlé Mag: Why do you think so many people of color dealing with mental health issues are afraid to seek that additional help?
Mario: Well, being a person of color, you’re born into a system that already shames you or influences you to feel ashamed of being Black. I was having this conversation with someone the other night. On top of that, most of our households are very unstable.
Parlé Mag: Oh, I can definitely agree.
Mario: It’s just a fact. I grew up seeing it. We have unstable households where a child is supposed to grow up and feel safe, but it’s a very unsafe space. When you feel alone, and you feel that even in your own house, you have to fend for yourself.
Parlé Mag: Right.
Mario: That’s supposed to be your first therapy! Your first therapy is supposed to be your parents, where you can trust and feel vulnerable enough. When you don’t have that, there’s this distortion, and it just creates this shamefulness and judgment toward everything that you are, in that moment. So, I think that it just builds and gets bigger and bigger as you get older. That’s why it’s important for there to be people who may have been through this… to come back to help and say, “Here’s a way to help. Let’s create awareness.” Awareness, in itself, is an ally to the process of healing. When you can show somebody and teach somebody to practice awareness, you may even spark someone to become the next mental health specialist!
Parlé Mag: I love that “Care for You” raises awareness for those who may be battling inner demons from their past, and it shows that it’s okay to confront them. How would you describe your journey to self-love, self-sufficiency, and emotional healing?
Mario: For me, it was a multi-layered mortal combat. [laughs] I was thrown into the industry at such a young age, like thirteen or fourteen years old.
Parlé Mag: Wow, I know that had to be a lot.
Mario: It was! So, not only did I have to deal with being adopted, moving from my family, but also being thrown into an industry where you have to pretty much hide most of who you are. You have to become this artist, become this machine, who can’t always express their feelings because the media can’t know. It’s like you have to be this extraterrestrial thing, that can do everything. [laughs] My earlier years were just me being numb and going with the flow, making music. As I got older, I wanted to express myself more. There were always different parts of myself that I never tapped into. Like, how do I do that and still be this artist? So, I decided to kind of step away a little bit, experience life, make some mistakes.
I think my spirituality helped me bridge the gap between what really is important and what is systematic and programmed inside of myself. I had to re-program myself from being this perfect artist to being a human and taking that human experience and turning it into alchemy, learning how to express from a real place. We’re in a different time now; people can tell when you’re a carbon copy. Like, what a label wants you to be versus a real artist, who really uses art as a way to express himself. That’s what the foundation of any piece of art truly is. Whether it be a movie or a screenplay. I did Rent and the soil of Rent is built from a play that happened a hundred years ago.
Parlé Mag: Wow!
Mario: True art really transcends culture. As long as you keep the core there, it will affect people on levels that are omnipresent. I really have that belief in me. I look at art and the alchemy of healing the same way. You have to get to the core first, and then you can heal what’s on the outside.
Parlé Mag: Throughout your career, being a part of such a fast-paced business, like entertainment, has it made it difficult, at times, to maintain your sanity and stay balanced? If so, what has sort of helped you preserve your peace of mind but also not lose sight of your passion?
Mario: Getting to the core of everything. When you think about your life, you have to look at the people, the circumstances, the things that are short-term and long-term responsibilities, and how they all set each other. When you think about it on that level, you can cater your actions and your energy into certain places to have certain outcomes. I take that seriously. I try to have fun, too. It’s important to have fun and be child-like sometimes. [laughs] Not take everything too serious, but, at the same time, it’s important to be aware of all of the things that are happening and the cause and effect of them all. I meditate, and it has really helped. Being quiet and being in a space of self-awareness, in the moment, helps. You’d be surprised what twenty minutes in the morning can do for your whole day and balancing everything.
Parlé Mag: If you could say something to the younger Mario, just starting out in the world of music, what would you say?
Mario: I would say, you are not like everybody else. Not from a judgment standpoint, but just from a responsibility standpoint. You’re stepping into a multi-dimensional world of responsibility, and you have to balance out staying true to yourself and also being open to new challenges while making sure that every decision you make is best for your core, best for you. And having fun with it. Outside of that, I think everything else was a part of me growing and learning. I look back on it now, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s why that happened! Oh, that’s why this happened like this!”
Parlé Mag: It all makes sense now!
Mario: Yeah! It’s crazy, man! When you’re young, you think you know it all; you think you’ve experienced it all. But as you get older, you look back on it and see that you didn’t. I still feel young, though. I still feel like I’m twenty-one!
Parlé Mag: That’s a good thing!
Mario: A lot of that comes from, also, if you allow it to, music can keep you young; creativity can keep you young! I still believe in the impossible. I still believe that magic is real, I believe that fairies are real. The things that we look at and we’re like, “Oh, that’s just a movie–” no, I think that those things happen in real life. You have to see it in your mind, first, before you can manifest it. So, if that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is! [laughs]
Parlé Mag: Well, that’s really awesome that you’re able to still have that sense of youth, even though you’ve been in the industry for so long.
Parlé Mag: What has been your biggest accomplishment, as a man and as an artist?
Mario: Waking up every day… prepared. Happily ready for any challenge that is set forth in front of me. My perspective is my biggest accomplishment. That affects everything else in my life, on a day-to-day basis. What happened yesterday is yesterday; what’s going to happen tomorrow is going to be tomorrow. But what happens right now is what matters most. How I respond to things and the practice of responding to things in a way that’s beneficial to my growth are my biggest accomplishments.
Parlé Mag: Taking it back for a minute, as I said, your most recent full-length project happens to be Dancing Shadows. For you, what does that body of work signifies?
Mario: It really signifies an artist stepping out on a limb and doing something that they feel. Something that I felt. I wasn’t thinking about the past; I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was just being present and being creative, which is why the album feels the way that it feels. You can’t really say it’s R&B, you can’t really say it’s Pop, and you can’t really say it’s R&B Soul. It’s just an immersive experience. Life stories, live music, mixed with a little experimental and concepts that range from love and awareness to collective responsibilities. It’s a nostalgic experience, creatively, for me, but I wanted to share it with my fans.
Parlé Mag: Switching gears, I wanted to touch on your acting side. How was it landing a role on a record-breaking show like Empire and having the chance to work with TV and film icons like Lee Daniels, Taraji P. Henson, and Terrence Howard?
Mario: So far, Empire has been really cool! It definitely is, in this generation, a record-breaking show. There’s a lot of talent out there, so it really caters to people who want to know the ins and the outs of the music business and may not understand the responsibility and some of the drama that goes on behind the scenes. Not every case, but in certain cases. Empire has been fun, though. Just really getting back into the spirit of acting and understanding how things work on the TV set, it’s been amazing. Like, the responsibility and the team that it takes. I think they do a really good job with styling and wardrobe, cinematography, lighting, and everything. It’s great! Telling all of these stories at one time–literally in thirty, forty-five minutes–it takes a team, and they have that. I want to also have my own show, write my own movies. So, it gives me an opportunity to continue to learn as a businessman and creative. Working with Taraji, the first day, I was really nervous!
Parlé Mag: Aw, really?!
Mario: Yes! I was super nervous! Even she noticed it, but then I got over it, obviously, after the first couple of takes. [laughs] She’s a great actress! If you look at her career and what she’s done so far, man!
Parlé Mag: She’s done a lot!
Mario: She’s incredible! The range of shows she’s done, where she started at, and where she is now. Being in front of such a great actress and actor, Terrence Howard, come on! Come on! Not only is he an outstanding actor, but he’s an amazing man. He’s a very deep, multi-talented person. Although Empire focuses on a certain aspect of music and drama, the people and the cast have so much more depths to them. It’s just amazing to be in the presence of them.
Parlé Mag: What other kinds of roles do you hope to snag in the future?
Mario: I’m a huge Tim Burton fan, and I’m a huge supporter of Jordan Peele, who I feel is both a comedian and psychological-thriller-writing, screenplay person. We haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s best work yet. I don’t want to say this because it might offend him, but I honestly feel like he’s the modern-day Steven Spielberg, of our culture.
Parlé Mag: I can see it!
Mario: You know what I mean? Like, the modern-day Tim Burton of our culture, too. But he’s better in his own way. He’s such an important part of our creative potential, on-screen, and I hope to see more people like himself, and others, able to create and really put those on the big screen. That’s how we’re going to continue to create our legacy and compete in that world. I think [Jordan Peele] is taking a strong stance on supporting Black actors and actresses, and that’s an important role to take. Just in general. It’s something that’s very needed. For me, to merge all of these worlds of music and acting, it shows my fans that this is who I really am, this is what I can do. But it also helps the culture and inspires people along the way.
Parlé Mag: Anything else in store for 2019? Let us in on what you have coming up.
Mario: One more month of tour. The next season of Empire will reveal some more of my character, Devon. I’m going back in the studio again, after tour, to create my sixth EP!
Parlé Mag: Sixth?! That’s dope.
Mario: I don’t know the title yet, but I’m really excited about it. I’m taking all of this energy from tour and all of this energy from these creative spaces and putting it into that. I’m going to be getting back into the castings and auditioning for some other cool film projects. Even writing some of my own! Also, philanthropy. Aside from teaming up with the Equitas foundation, there are more organizations that I want to team up with as well, regarding that same mission. So, yeah, I have a little bit of everything coming up, to be honest.
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