A talk about the meaning of music, finding the right sound and his favorite four-letter word.
Jason Mraz is in a noisy Los Angeles rehearsal hall, taking a break from doing something that doesn’t come easily to him: telling other people what to do. Mraz first emerged from the Southern California coffeehouse scene just over a decade ago armed only with a guitar, a sweetly melodious tenor voice and a rapidly growing stack of original songs. As his notoriety has grown, so has the scope of his musical vision—and so today this laid-back, easygoing fellow finds himself giving direction to the stage full of musicians with whom he’ll spend the next few months touring. “Once I realized I was a bandleader and had to be diplomatic and democratic, it was so much harder,” he says. “It was a nightmare. I don’t want to manage people. I got involved in music because I didn’t want to have to have a day job!”
But as with all the other aspects of his steadily growing career, Mraz has adapted. “I’ve always brought people into my band and said, ‘Do what you do, bring your gifts and express yourself how you choose,’” he says. “That’s great to a certain extent, but I’ve also created bands where we were just the biggest wash of muddiness, where everybody’s playing on top of everybody. It’s taken me a decade to learn how to lead inspired rehearsals and soundchecks, where even if you have to ask someone to play less it doesn’t squash their ego.”
Mraz doesn’t make it easy on himself—he likes to assemble an all-new band every time he tours, in an effort to keep things fresh for himself and his audience. At the moment he’s got a lead guitarist, keyboardist, bass player, drummer and horn section in place. “So far everyone in the band is a great singer,” he says, “so we may not need background singers.” The players will have some crowd-pleasing material to work with, given that their new boss has written some of the most popular songs of the new century. He enjoyed a Top 15 hit with his very first major-label single, the tongue-twistingly clever “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” from his platinum-selling debut Waiting for My Rocket to Come.
He stretched himself musically on the follow-up, 2005’s punningly titled Mr. A-Z, while building a loyal audience through relentless touring.
The Mechanicsville, Va., native broke through globally with 2008’s We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. The album appeared likely to underperform commercially, until the little-song-that-could “I’m Yours” slowly but surely began winding its way up the charts—eventually spending an all-time record 76 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 and selling 21 million downloads worldwide. Two more singles, “Make It Mine” and the Colbie Caillat duet “Lucky,” earned Grammys. After touring for 22 months to promote We Sing, Mraz spent much of 2010 traveling for pleasure and attending songwriting retreats and workshops. By the end of the year he had amassed about 40 new songs. “But they’re like spaghetti noodles—you throw them against the wall to see if they’re done,” he says. “Not too many of these songs stuck.”
Rather than get discouraged, Mraz simply recalled that he had written a staggering 80 songs before winnowing We Sing down to its final track listing and decided he must be halfway finished. “I had to do a little more soul-searching, break my heart open a few times to see what was in there,” he says. “I had to see what I was made of, where I was getting stopped and how to overcome that.” So he wrote—and wrote, and wrote, and wrote. “I have to do it,” he says. “It’s a luxury, but it’s also a curse.” His determination finally paid off—most of the songs that earned spots on his new album, Love Is a Four Letter Word, were penned in the summer of 2011. “Things just started to fly,” he says.
Mraz recorded Love
with producer Joe Chiccarelli at L.A.’s Sunset Sound studio. He insists there was no record-label pressure to repeat the blockbuster status of
We Sing, which went gold, platinum or double platinum in seven countries. “Atlantic never put any pressure on me,” he says. “There’s never been any, ‘It’s got to be as big as “I’m Yours.”’ They know that they’re only going to get good stuff if I’m living the life I choose and writing from the heart. The minute they put pressure on me, then the whole thing has been screwed up. Music is meant to heal, it’s meant to uplift and inspire.” As the bass tones of his fellow rehearsal-hall residents vibrated through the walls, Mraz, 34, gamely discussed his philosophy about making himself heard through song.
What drew you to music?
I’ve always loved music. Since I was a kid I felt I had this connection to something greater than myself, something that allowed me to channel ideas and melodies, to create songs as a way to understand what my life is about. I write songs for my own cathartic and therapeutic purposes, but also as a way to entertain people and perhaps even heal someone else’s broken heart. I’m so moved by that—I’m almost addicted to that experience of songwriting and creation. I felt like it didn’t serve me or the world for me to be a night janitor or a mailman, so I quit all my day jobs and I went for it.
How do you usually write?
The process for all the songs is slightly different. Usually it begins with playing chords that move me enough to want to open my mouth and emote all over the guitar or the piano. From those sounds will come a feeling. I’ll try to get down to whatever bare emotion it is, that raw thing. Is it love, is it fear, what is this song for? And then, like a little sprout, it will grow. It’ll wind itself around the chords and around my throat and dictate where the story is going, where this little beanstalk is climbing. I just try to stay out of the way and follow it with the pen or recorder, emoting freestyle and letting it grow. I try to write more than is necessary, then peel away the parts I don’t need. You can never write or improvise too much. You never know whether where you’ll land next is going to get you to that higher frequency, to that vulnerable place people end up connecting with the most.
Is it scary to be that vulnerable?
Not anymore. I was a little nervous in the beginning. When I first started writing, I would try to put it in a secret code. I knew I was saying all these personal things, but the audience was only getting a portion of it because it was so wrapped up in poetry. I think that was fear-based. Over the years I’ve tried to be more transparent. If that’s what the song is about, then that’s what the song is about. But I don’t use people’s real names or point fingers—I don’t want to change any listener’s experience of the song. I’d rather let them have their own connection to it. I feel once the song is out there in the world, the public has every right to make it their own. This is a song they can put on their mixtape for their lover, or the song they can use at their wedding, or the song they play at the gym that gives them strength. It has nothing to do with who the hell Jason Mraz is.
Do you always write on guitar?
I’ve done a handful of songs on piano, and a few using programs, loops and samples and things. But everything else is guitar. Hundreds of songs on guitar.
What are your demos like?
These days I just put down a guitar and vocal on a little Dictaphone. Sometimes I’ll sing through the [Telefunken] 251 mic and plug my guitar into something that sounds nice, but I still try to keep it guitar and vocal. I might stack the vocals to see where the song can go vocally, and sometimes I’ll add a second guitar. But if I go any further than that I’m just entertaining myself, or trying to learn how to play bass. (laughs)
How did you know you were ready to record?
I didn’t know, but I knew I had a lot of material. So once I had eight that were certain and 20 that I had no idea about, we said, “Let’s go for it and we’ll figure it out as we go.” And we did. Songs that I thought would work didn’t work in the studio, and songs that I didn’t think would work suddenly sounded great.
Are you tempted to try for hits?
No. I think about what I want to do, and what songs I’ll want to sing every day. Who am I being in the world with this song? The pressure isn’t about commercial success but rather is this song going to make a difference in somebody’s life, if only mine? Is it going to be from the heart? Are these words going to empower someone? If I write a song because I think it’ll have commercial success, it probably won’t. It’s going to suck, because money can’t applaud your music. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington aren’t going to be crying if your song is emotional.
Have you tossed coulda-been hits?
Occasionally I write a song that you would think, “Oh, this is going to have huge commercial appeal.” As a songwriter I might agree with you, but as a performer maybe I don’t want that to be my expression. So I shelve a lot of material that could very well be commercially successful. I have a mission, and I don’t want to put every cheesy thing that I write up onstage with me. If it’s from the heart, then it will have a fair amount of success. It will have the amount of success that it’s supposed to have.
Do the songs change much onstage?
Yeah. “The Remedy” changed over and over and over again—with every record that came out, it got switched up. When that song was written and produced it was during that late-’90s, turn-of-the-century pop push, so it’s important to update that song. I found that the lyrics work over a variety of rhythms, whether I’m singing it slow or over a reggae beat, so that’s changed a lot. “I’m Yours” is taking a bit of a turn on this new tour—it’s a little more mainland America versus Hawaiian-islands America. It’s still got that groove, but it’s got a little more cowboy swing to it right now, which I love.
That must help the songs stay fresh.
Definitely. The minute I start singing a song like a robot, I know something’s wrong. It’s not going to make me happy and it’s not going to make the people who paid money to come see me sing them happy. So it’s important for my own sanity to hit that stage every night and absolutely be inside of that song, be on the journey that song is on. That’s another reason I’ve had a different band for every album and tour. The best way I can learn and grow, develop and unfold, is by playing with other people. I didn’t go to music school—although I had amazing music teachers in public school, and I’m very grateful for that. But in my adult life, my only training has been putting myself in the middle of great musicians. Some days I break up laughing hysterically in the middle of a song, because I just can’t believe how amazing it sounds. I can’t believe my luck that my songs are being interpreted by these musicians.
Do you have a goal in mind?
Yeah, I’d like to find me a nice gal and settle down. (laughs) I’m going to be on tour for the next 10 months, and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for dating. So I’d like to figure that out. I’ve yet to master the art of the relationship, and I feel that’s the final frontier for me. Once I do that, I can move into a new chapter in my life.