Pandemic life. You just gotta roll with it. This interview with singer Jason Mraz (who is stopping in Louisville at the Palace Theatre this Sunday, Dec. 5) was supposed to happen like any other but as anyone with kids or dogs knows — that’s not likely.
Mraz, a former cheerleader and chorus kid, got his career start in the coffee shops of San Diego. Then, with the release of Waiting for My Rocket to Come,” Mraz saw his star rise. This album included popular tunes, “The Remedy” and “You and I Both.” However, when Mraz released We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., the single “I’m Yours” quickly became a fan favorite. It spent 76 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, longer than any other single in the magazine’s history.
Mraz’s music is positive in a way that elevates the mood and honest in the way that it doesn’t just live in the sugar but also in the flaws and desires of being human.
LEO caught up with Mraz a few weeks before his scheduled show and asked him about touring, his old blog, the reissue of his Live & Acoustic record made in his early career while playing in coffee shops, and introduced him to the LEO arts “bork bork,” Martin, which sent the interviewer scurrying to the shelter of the nearest bathroom to finish the job. Apologies Jason, Martin was just excited to hear your voice. He just wanted to know if it was the “Geek in the Pink” singer on the phone.
LEO: Hi Jason, Tell us about the re-release of Live & Acoustic.
Jason Mraz: It’s been 20 years since we made our first ever little bootleg live recording, which at the time was really just to serve a purpose — to help us pay our rent and to fill the many fan requests we were having about, ‘Hey, do you have any CDs for sale?’ ‘Cause we didn’t have any in those days. So we made a little recording, a little bootleg and we’re just tickled that 20 years later that that little recording is such a treasure that it — and it really got us to where we are today.
It got us a lot of attention, a lot of engagement. And it catalogued a lot of old songs that would have probably never ended up on a studio album. So it’s this little body of work from another era when we were playing in coffee shops two nights a week doing the hustle. My percussionist friend who shares that album with me, Toca Rivera and the few people who were behind the scenes that were with us when we made that record, we’re all still together — 20 years later. So for us, it’s a little celebration to remember where we came from and tap into the fanbase that loves that era and that style of music compared to the other many incarnations that I’ve tried on.
It’s music, candor and banter. ‘Cause my buddy, Toca and I, we tell stories and we try to make each other laugh, try to delight each other with harmony and try to surprise each other with improvisation and… trying to bring back that feeling of the casual intimacy of a coffee shop. That’s what we’ll be doing on this tour.
So many years ago, you used to keep a blog. As an English nerd, I was very excited by that and loved reading it. Do you still keep a public blog or journal privately?
Yeah. Private journaling.
I don’t know what happened, but I want to say maybe around 2011/2012, the internet was really starting to get flooded with more and more engagement, more activity, more blogs, more opinions, more comments. And, for some reason prior to that, I didn’t, I don’t know if I knew anybody was even reading, but it just, it felt good. Maybe I grew up watching Doogie Howser, and he opened the show, typing on his computer. As a songwriter, I’ve benefited from keeping a journal since I was in high school. It just always felt good to kind of see your thoughts unravel on the page. But around 2012- ish, I deleted the blog. I don’t know why.
I just thought, ‘Where is this going to go?’ ‘How personal am I going to be in public… am I going to be in my life?’ And I retreated and honestly, I never got the desire after that to get into a public blog routine. Again, I missed it a little bit. I remember how I used to pour myself into it. Think about topics ahead of time. Like, what am I gonna write about this week. It was a mix of just throwing up out into the world. I don’t know. I think I know today where things can be… the internet is just so filled with opinions that I’m actually OK that I don’t participate. But, thanks for remembering.
Tell me about how your music has evolved.
I don’t know if I’d say it’s evolved. I’ve just been very lucky that, ‘cause my method is still the same — write a song on acoustic guitar or piano — and then, once I have that demo, I can dress it up in a variety of ways. And I’ve gotten to work with a lot of great producers who all have a different approach to dressing up as well.
I think if you took that producer away and just heard the song by itself, which — maybe this tour upcoming — will be very similar to that, ‘cause there’ll be no other big band. It’ll just be my friend Toca on stage. Then that would reveal that maybe the only thing that evolved would be some years, my songwriting was a little more formulaic. I wanted to write more like shorter songs that had that buttoned up sweetly or got to the chorus sweetly, but that maybe isn’t even evolution.
It’s just like trying to have a diverse or dynamic catalog. And, you know, I’ve got funny songs, short zones, long story songs, really write me songs, rap songs, love songs, healing songs, breakup songs. Those things usually evolved out of an idea or dream like, ‘Oh, this would be funny to write about’ or a personal urgency. Like, if I feel like I’m suffering to pick up my guitar that might help.
The producers might’ve helped me, you know, evolve in sound and some sonic experiences. My last record was a reggae album out of a bucket list idea to want to have that experience as a performer. But I think it’s hard too to think that I have evolved. I’ve only had experiences, and I still feel very much like the same kid, almost like a contest winner, really. Like, ‘Wow, I still get to do this.’
Because positive energy is such a big part of your work, how do you preserve that? Especially considering the world we live in, it has to be difficult at times.
I have to credit music in general, because that’s how I arrive at positivity. It’s usually because something in my life is off or lacking. I’m a little sad, a little lost, a little broken. You go to a piano or guitar and you start to — I don’t know if brood is the right word — but, lament.
And it becomes very cathartic to let the music take you away and let the music sort of guide your mouth, your thoughts, your breath, your tears — to arrive at something. And to me, music is such a joyful experience that I can’t help usually arrive at joy. I start to look for the good, I started to try to find the light, and I credit music for that.
I will admit one of my first jobs was at a Barnes & Noble and I was assigned to the new age book section. So a lot of my wisdom was gleaned from a garden of self-help books.
Talk about how the last year affected you as a creator
Interesting. I felt like, ‘Wow, the world is waking up.’ We all saw this coming… been hearing about it for years. It was a great awakening coming and we really got this see some really big transformation in the last two years.you know. So I think even starting with the Women’s March in 2016, 2017, those events, which then led into the heartbreaking experience around George Floyd and Black Lives Matter marches. And all of those sort of uprisings were necessary. And I felt like, OK, I loved the last album I made. I felt like it was in alignment with the thinking that is, ‘To help bring world peace, we must have inner peace’ and ‘For there to be true freedom and joy, we all have to have freedom and joy.’ We all have to have the freedoms, not just some, and so watching this unfold over the last year or two, and the health part putting us all in our homes was a little sketchy, a little scary. Like, ‘What the hell, we all have to go home now?’
That was a little strange. But prior to that, like the social justice movements were huge. And honestly, I felt like now is not the time for me to be on anybody’s screen or stage saying, ‘Look at me; here’s what I have to say about this’. Because I felt like the system was set up for a guy like me to succeed.
I had a dream when I was in high school, I was going to go play music and everyone was like, ‘Absolutely sure you’re going to do that.’ I figured it out and I did it. I’ve gotten to see through the years that not everybody gets that opportunity yet. You know, not every kid grows up in a community where they said, ‘This is my dream. I’m going to go do it.’ But here was this sort of awakening, this uprising that was going to make it possible for other dreamers to have their shot. So I personally felt like, you know what, I’m going to be a part of the movement, but I don’t need to be out front because this ain’t about me.
[As mentioned earlier, resident dog Martin interrupted the interview with loud barking, er…his own input.]
Sorry about that. I’m going to stand in the bathroom, shut the door and hopefully get some quiet. Where were we?
[Mraz doesn’t miss a beat.]
I was in no position to complain that, ‘Hey, I have an album and no ones going to find out about it.’ Now ain’t the time to try and enroll people in hearing or buying my record. It’s just not.
[Dog still barking…]
We’re entering into a new era. Right. So take a deep breath, stay out of the way and help, you know, solution, you know, I realized, okay, ‘Hey, my shit, ain’t as important as this right now.’ And I had also had a very lucky, long run and I can go back to it later. For now it’s probably best to put my dollars towards organizations and events that are actually getting some shit done. So it just allowed me an opportunity to reset just like everyone else.
Looking toward the future?
I like that I get to serve with my songs to generate a lot of popularity and dollars. I started a foundation where we help the advancement of equality through inclusive arts education. We partner up with a lot of great orgs that are providing various services, whether it’s actual teaching and tutoring or refurbishing the very classrooms and music rooms that these students will have to create to be inspired, to putting on collaborative programming where they really get seen in their community and celebrated. That is something I think will go forward for a long time. I will always make music, record music and put it out. But as I’ve gotten older — and it started for me probably about five years ago — slowly withdrawing from the celebrity side and the competitive side of music and settling into, ‘OK. The music that I do make, it definitely resonates and it earns. So how can I put that to good use?’ In a way it’s kind of this early retirement feeling where it’s like, ‘Thanks to “I’m Yours” I’m taken care of, so what can the rest of my music do for others?’ And that’s the position I get to be in right now. It feels pretty good to invent in that way. So a lot of gardening. That’s what’s in my future.
Tell Martin I said, ‘Goodbye.’
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