JASON MRAZ                  

Enjoying the creative freedom that comes with multiplatinum success  

“I’m still riding on the success of ‘I’m Yours,’” Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz admits as he winds through the streets of Tokyo. He’s on his way to the airport after promoting his fifth studio album, YES!, in Japan. “Thanks to that song, my bills are paid, I get to travel the world—and now I’m able to make the kind of music that I love.”

More than six years after the ubiquitous, chart-topping tune was released, Mraz, 37, has settled in to a soft-rock sweet spot. For the mostly acoustic set, he partnered with all-female folk-rock band Raining Jane, his casual collaborators since 2006. Aside from a cover of Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” Mraz and Raining Jane—Mai Bloomfield, Becky Gebhardt, Chaska Potter and Mona Tavakoli—wrote every song, alongside producer Mike Mogis.

Since getting his start playing coffeehouses in San Diego, Calif., Mraz has honed his craft over the past 15 years, creating soulful folk-pop with a positive message—and he’s rarely strayed from that path. But despite the huge success of “I’m Yours”—which has sold 7 million copies in the U.S.—and having debuted YES!’s lead single, “Love Someone” on the American Idol season finale, Mraz maintains a laid-back, bohemian attitude.

“I’m happy to be going home,” he says as he nears the airport, adding that if he could find a way to avoid the extensive travel and work from home, “I would definitely appreciate that.”

How did YES! come together?

I hate to use the term “organic,” but it is a very organic album. For the last eight years, my collaborators Raining Jane and I have gotten together once or twice a year, just for the love of creating music. Last year, we made a collection of demos that expressed a vibe similar to what’s on the album. We knew the songs would end up somewhere, and in the back of our minds we thought, “One of these days we’ll make an album together.” So I pitched the idea as a side project, thinking I needed to take a breather from what I’d been doing. But people loved the sound so much that I got the green light to bring Raining Jane into my world.

Do women bring a different vibe?

The only thing that’s gender-specific is the quality and tone of their vocals. As musicians, if you were doing a blind test, you wouldn’t know if it was a man or a woman who was playing an instrument. But I love the vocals they contribute, and I love blending my voice with theirs. As for life in the studio and in our writing sessions, we always share a house and become a family. There’s a lot of love, a lot of laughs, a lot of snacks. It’s a very nurturing experience.

Did you try anything new?

The biggest difference was that I wrote and recorded everything with Raining Jane. That makes a huge difference in the sound. The Janes and I arranged the songs, and then we produced it alongside Mike Mogis. Usually I would sign up with a producer and just let them do everything. But this time, Mike worked with us to re-create the sound we had on our demos. So this is my first handmade album.

How did Mike help flesh it out?

We only spent about two weeks at his studio in Omaha, but he was very generous with his time. We used the demos we made as a template and tried to do nothing more, aside from capturing the natural vibe that comes from our musical strengths and identities. We did our best to keep it simple. Mike’s contributions had a lot to do with the title of the album. He’s a “yes.”

What’s your live show like?

Raining Jane and I usually sit in a circle when we play. On tour, though, we won’t be in a circle—we’ll face the audience. We’ll be letting the audience sit in that circle with us while we bring the album to life. We’ll also be reinterpreting my old songs.

You’re playing theaters, not arenas.

I’ve always loved seeing artists in smaller venues, and as an artist I’ve always loved being on smaller stages—I feel I can be heard when I’m telling a story, and I can see into the eyes of those who are there. Theaters are sacred spaces where music, drama and art unfold. It’s a commitment to quality, really. I want the sound to be cherished and not compromised.

Are you trying to simplify your life?

Definitely. Music has always been a reflection of my journey, and my journey has been taking me home the last couple of years. I’ve been somewhat frustrated with the world at large, where we’ve created a need to have buying power. We have to work and have money in order to get food and water. But my journey has been taking me back to some of those more primitive skills of growing your own food and making your own necessities. I don’t think I’m alone on that journey. I’ve seen it sweeping communities across the world. A lot of young people are excited about getting off their phones and getting dirty again—getting back into real life.

How’s it feel being labeled soft rock?

It’s funny, I listen to all kinds of music, but when I pick up an instrument, a soft-rock vibe comes through me. And I’m totally cool with that. I feel at ease when I’m playing that kind of music. I’m actually very selfish in a way: I want the music to put me at ease, and if it comes out as soft rock, then so be it.

Were you surprised by the success of “I’m Yours”? 

Totally. I disregarded it after I wrote it. I put it aside and thought it was like a nursery rhyme or something. A few years later I started playing it live, and I noticed audiences really reacting to it. Then a few years after that, I decided to put it on an album, and it just continued to have its own life. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by it. I still love to play it.

Do you feel pressured to create hits?

I don’t. “I’m Yours” kind of took the pressure off. Because of the success of that song, I’ve been able to continue making music. If there was pressure to have another hit single like “I’m Yours,” then I probably would have been pressured into doing something other than making an acoustic album with Raining Jane. But I’ve been given a lot of freedom because my team knows that if it comes from the heart it’s going to have the success it deserves. If we try to chase a single, then odds are we’re not going to be coming from a heart-centered place and it’s likely to fall flat. We want to make music that leaves a positive footprint.

What’s next musically?

I have no idea. I have a blank canvas in front of me, so it’s a world of possibilities. And that’s been the case with every record. The day I put out an album is sort of the day one chapter closes and I start a new journey. As soon as this album comes out, Raining Jane and I are heading into a writing session together for a week, where we’re going to lock ourselves in and see what else comes out. So anything goes.

–Katy Kroll

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