Editor’s Note: A condensed version of this interview appeared in the November/December issue of Evansville Living.
Philip Lawrence is no stranger to performing. The middle child of concert promoter Phil Sr. and singer Cheryl, the Reitz Memorial High School alum started singing as a child with his siblings DeVonna and Shane, graduated to performances at Universal Studios and Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and hit global success as the longtime songwriting and producing partner of singer Bruno Mars.
Lawrence stepped away from touring in 2018 to launch a new company and focus on family along with his sobriety. But when Mars came calling four years later, he hopped back onstage (nearly) without skipping a beat. In the year since, Lawrence has accompanied Mars for shows across the globe, including Australia, Asia, and — coming up this fall — the Middle East.
“I’m just in gratitude now to be back,” he says. “Every moment is a pinch myself kind of moment.”
Lawrence returned to the region on Sept. 17 to perform with Mars as Bourbon & Beyond’s closing night headliners in Louisville, Kentucky. Ahead of the 100-minute set — which included old favorites from their time recording as The Hooligans, songs from Mars’ Silk Sonic collaboration with singer Anderson .Paak, and hits they’d written for other artists — Lawrence sat down with Evansville Living and shared how returning to the road after nearly five years has felt like coming home. Here are 10 highlights from that conversation.
He returned to performing in 2022 because the timing was right.
“Bruno had been doing Silk Sonic, and I think it was reaching an end. He had gotten some gigs just for him as Bruno Mars overseas, and he was like, ‘Let me see if I can get the old band back together.’ He reached out to me, and as fate would have it, I was ready,” Lawrence says. “He and I had reconnected about maybe a year and a half, two years before that, and had a great conversation. We talked about getting back in the studio and working together, but it wasn’t time. And when this opportunity came back around, I was in a different place. He was obviously in a different place and God said, all right, let’s make it happen now.”
Muscle memory from nearly a decade of touring came back — but not right away.
“I was so out of practice,” Lawrence laughs. “As fate would have it in my favor, we had a private show with no fanfare, like, two days before we were to go out. So, I had a dry run, and I missed everything. We were all like, ‘Yo, I’m glad we got that out the way before we hit these stadiums.’ The funny thing is, when I was rehearsing, I nailed the performance part of it. So, I knew the songs, the steps. What I forgot was the transitions. Where does your mic go after this? What side of the stage do you come in? Is your tambourine here or is it here? Just forgetting (and) not knowing that threw my entire show off. But after that, I was an old pro.”
Their residency shows in Las Vegas are interactive, wild, and phone-free.
“Everybody comes to Vegas to have fun,” Lawrence says. “Although it’s smaller audiences than are at our festival shows, it’s an audience that is ready to go. They’re some of the most fun crowds we’ve had.”
He adds that Mars introduced a phone-free feature to the Las Vegas residency, so the audience engages with each set.
“As performers, the entire reason we’re there is to connect with the audience, and it’s so hard nowadays with these phones. All we’re seeing is, like, lights on people’s phones. We check the phones at the door. So, it was kind of an experiment that worked really, really well.”
Lawrence and Mars are working on new music — but mum’s the word.
“We have been (working on new music),” he laughs, adding, “That’s about all I can say about that!”
Aside from touring and making music, he recently voiced a character in a short film called “Pacemaker.”
The animated film, which was released in July and is making the rounds on the film festival circuit, is centered on a transgender youth and his struggle to reconnect with his grandfather.
“I played this grandfather who is from a different generation and is having a little bit of a hard time understanding it. But by the end, they see where they can connect, and they sing this beautiful song together about acceptance and love,” Lawrence says. “The animation’s really, really cool.”
He’s accomplished the rare feat of enjoying having eight Grammy awards as well as a degree of anonymity.
“I wanna keep it that way! I like my anonymity,” he says. Asked where he keeps his eight Grammys, he jokes, “Under my pillow.”
He loves performing any song he’s written, but “Uptown Funk” occupies a special place in his heart.
The 2014 hit penned by Lawrence, Mars, producer Mark Ronson, and eight others topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks and remains a favorite — for fans and the performers themselves — at Mars’ shows.
“‘Uptown Funk’ is one of those moments that never gets old, and never fails to make me smile. We have everyone put their hands up. We were just in Brazil, and there were 106,000 people at the first show. So, you can’t even see the end of (the crowd). But you could see everybody put their hands up at the same time. It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” he says. “It’s one of those feelings that’s hard to put in words.”
Lawrence says the famous intro to “Uptown Funk” was one of the hardest parts to write.
“It was incredibly stressful. We’d been working on it for about a year in different parts of the world. And it (came together as) just an experiment. Just singing,” he says. “I think it was just me and Bruno, if I’m not mistaken, we were in Mexico backstage at a little makeshift studio trying to figure this out because we knew we had something special. And I think Bruno might’ve said, ‘Just sing something,’ and it was ‘doh-doh-doh-doh.’ ‘Yo, that sounds pretty good!’”
Hearing nearly any song he’s written can transport him back to its creation.
“Almost every song does,” Lawrence says, pointing to the 2011 ballad “It Will Rain” as an example. “Bruno and I wrote that hook on FaceTime. We were in the studio, and we had a little idea, and we went away from it. Bruno got inspired and finished a bit and he was like, ‘Yo man, I need to get this last section going.’ Two of my kids were really little. They were running around, and he FaceTimed me and I was like, ‘I don’t know, this isn’t a good time.’ But he was like, ‘I just need something about, you know, like the rain and the clouds,’ and we wrote it right there. I was like, ‘Look, pretend like the clouds are, like, you cry and your eyes are gonna be like —’ ‘OK. All right. I think that’s – yeah! Yeah!’ And it was done. Every time we sing that, I flash right back to that.”
He still gets recognized for his memorable cameo in 2010’s “The Lazy Song” music video.
Longtime Mars fans will remember Lawrence’s appearance as the singer’s bathrobe-clad roommate who inadvertently interrupts Mars’ musical musings during the hilariously low-budget video off 2010’s “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” album.
“I think that was my first appearance in a music video!” Lawrence laughs. “I get so many people that ask me about that video.”