It takes a certain kind of person to write songs that are so honest and prolific that it not only brings listeners to tears, but gets them to dance, or inspires them, or opens their heart. Jason Mraz is that kind of person. He’s been a large part of the pop rock music scene and vital songwriting of the past decade or so, and his presence is one known only of greatness. I mean, he has four Grammy nominations and two wins under his belt; not to mention that “I’m Yours” has been certified 9x Platinum in the United States alone.
But, he’s not just a talented multi-instrumentalist and spirited songwriter, but also a genuine and humble musician with a heart that shines through every aspect of his work. His latest album, Know., is one of his best albums to date and will fill your own heart with love and joy every time you listen to it. So, you can only imagine what it will be like to hear these songs (and more) live. It was a brisk, rainy New Jersey day when I got to speak to Mraz about the album and his upcoming tour, and the warmth in his voice made the day feel instantly brighter.
Almost exactly three months ago, your latest record, Know., dropped and I wrote a review on it back in August, where I absolutely gushed about it.
Aw, thanks so much!
Oh, you’re so welcome! I loved this album so much. So, on your end, and taking my own perspective out, what has the overall reception been like? Since it has been four years since your last album came out.
The reception has been great! I’ve only heard kind comments on it. You know, I haven’t really been digging for them, but it has been a joy to go out and play these songs live, and I think as an artist, you want to not only be able to live with the song, but be proud of the song in your catalog. Even just in your mouth, when you sing and create a song. They’ve all passed the quality control test that I give to songs. I’m just tickled that a) I’m still going and b) I’m still able to find little avenues to sing about…I guess, well, love. I’m tickled with the reception, I really am.
I would be, too! I’ve only heard great things about it and have only thought great things about it. I was wondering how the whole album came together since it is so lovely. What was the writing and recording process like as compared to, say, other albums of yours?
It was actually a combination of many years of trial and error, but that’s not different than other records. It just took many years and writing of different things and different feelings, because you get older and your perspective changes and your motives change. You try to put your own, true life experiences into them, but while you want to make your songs personal, you want them to be universal. It just takes a lot of trial and error.
With this, it did take me like three years of lots and lots of writing. When you work with a label, it comes with a fair amount of scrutiny, but that’s fair enough, because they want the best out their writers, the best out of their performers. It took quite a while, but what really helped was getting away from the process and going to do Sara Bareilles’ Waitress show to flip my perspective on, and remind myself of, the performance aspect and free my heart up a little bit from the attachment of writing. And when I got out of Waitress, that is when I wrote the rest of the album, I should say. Even though it did take three to four years, the album was finished fairly quickly — in about three to four months. I hope this doesn’t sound so drawn out. I’m trying to give you the concise answer, but there are so many details that go into it, so I apologize for giving you all of that.
No! It is quite alright. I so appreciate all the details, because they really are interesting for someone like me, who is both an avid music lover, as well as a fan of yours specifically.
Oh, why thank you.
Actually, I wanted to ask you what your experience was like being on Broadway and being in Waitress. Is that something that you always thought you would do? How did that all come about?
Well, it came about because Sara invited me to give it a shot! So, I said yes, and I loved it. It wasn’t something I always thought I would do; well, maybe when I was little kid I had thought it was a possibility, you know, I also wanted to perform at my theme park then. When you’re a little kid, you want to perform anywhere. But, as an adult, no. I never thought that I would be on a Broadway stage. I absolutely loved it, though. I felt like I was transformed by it. It freed me up as a performer, because when you perform as yourself for years and years and years, there is an ego to that and a narcissism to that. Your own life becomes your musical, becomes your story, your narrative, your mission, your message.
On Broadway, I got to put myself aside. I got to put on a costume and be a performer. I was so free! That made me free in this new album and touring all summer. I was like, “Yeah, even though I am me, singing my songs, there is still a level of performance art to this.” So, doing Broadway reminded me to have fun and to not be afraid to put on a costume and really crank it up a little bit. Crank up the fun and crank up the humor and the cheese and the comradery with my ensemble. Broadway was really transformative and tons of fun.
That sounds fantastic. It sounds like something that a lot of musicians could really find a home in aside from their music. I think as much as you personally are such a great songwriter, I can only imagine how different it was doing someone else’s songs for once.
It was refreshing, actually, because when I sing my own songs, there is always a part of my brain that is actively saying and asking, “Is this any good? Are people liking this?” And that’s just a mental aspect. When you’re doing someone else’s material, it’s not about me — at all. I just want to make sure that as a performer I am healthy, I am present, and I am singing pretty, but I know that the messaging is already taken care of by the other writer, the producer and director who have approved it. It is really refreshing to sing someone else’s material.
Of course, that makes a lot of sense. Speaking of your own work, though, a large part of your career and your reputation comes from your phenomenal songwriting. How did you get into songwriting? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Well, I got into it because I love singing and I needed something to sing. So, I started writing songs and I basically started making up songs. I felt like I always had a gift to just make up a song really quick or make up something that could be funny or just to entertain a room spontaneously. I decided to practice that and practice what that is and developed that and, well, it became songwriting.
What inspires me is…You see, to practice songwriting, you can’t wait for inspiration, so you give yourself topics and you write about everything. By doing that, you can keep your pencil sharp and your instrument close enough that when an urgent message or a raw emotion comes through, where your mind is talking to you so feverously, that you’re able to capture it and tell a really potent story. That is what I strive for, but it takes practice. I might write a silly song about how kids shouldn’t get tattoos on their face in an effort to also be able to write a song that pulls me out of depression.
I’m easily inspired. Movies inspire me, other songwriters inspire me, books will inspire me, science inspires me. I’m easily inspired. I’m always trying to keep an ear out for an interesting word or an interesting philosophy that could be laced into a song or a song can be developed around that concept.
As a writer myself, I understand that wholeheartedly. I understand the whole keeping of a pad and a pen nearby so you can always jot something down and then draw things from that.
I actually felt that a lot when I first watched your music video for “Might As Well Dance,” when you included video footage from your own wedding. This might sound cheesy and sappy, but I found that so absolutely outstanding and I garnered a lot of inspiration from that, so much that I actually wrote a small poem about it, because, to me, it was just so moving. I was just wondering if you had planned to take the footage and accompany it in the music video or if that is just something you thought about like, “Oh! Let’s just put that in there!”
That is what is was, because it had been almost three years and nobody had seen that footage. It was really just for us and our family. But the song was written for my wife, written on a business trip that I had sent her on her voicemail and so when we were looking at maybe making a video — and we didn’t really have the time or the budget to make a video at the time, because videos can be a real pain in the butt — we thought, “Let’s honor the song with maybe some footage we already have!” which is the wedding video. My wife and I talked about it and we thought of it pretty much together and at the same time, we decided that we would share it with the song.
Then, all we had to do to pull the video together was one shot, one pickup shot on the farm, dancing with Toca on the truck and Molly on the farm, but the rest of the video was already shot. The same director, Jeff Coffman, who filmed my wedding and has shot tons of stuff for me, so he came down to my house and I put on my wedding clothes and did a little song and dance together. It was definitely an afterthought, though, because we never thought that we would share our wedding footage. It just felt right and being as a theme of this album was kind of a chain of love letters written over a couple of years.
I think that it worked out so well, I have to say. It really came together beautifully.
Thanks! I’m truly touched that you were able to get a poem out of it for yourself. That’s really great.
Yeah! Little things like that, like you said. You have to pull on things that affect you in the moment. You can’t forget about those things.
Exactly! When that narrator comes alive in your head or in your heart, you as the writer have to be present to capture it — whether it be on a notepad or a note on your phone or you can sing it into something really quickly or play an instrument really quickly. You can’t trust that that narrator and that voice, that divine voice, is going to come back later and give you that same message. You have to be ready.
Yes, exactly! Touching upon things that are moving, such as lyrics, when your fans sing lyrics back to you — whether it be songs that everyone at your show knows like “I’m Yours” or a new song like “Might As Well Dance” — that feeling of them singing these meaningful lyrics back at you. I can only imagine how dynamic that aspect of the song is for you. What is that feeling like?
Ugh…it’s like you have a crush on someone and you don’t know if they like you back, so maybe you write them a letter. I don’t know, but saying something like, “I really like you, let’s spend more time together.” And then you don’t hear from them for a second, but then all of a sudden, they reciprocate. They show their love for you back and you’re just like, “Oh! Oh my gosh! They like me, too! This is going to work!” That is what it feels like. For years I have performed “Let’s See What the Night Can Do” unreleased and this summer the audience started singing it along with me. It just felt so good, like, “Oh my gosh they know this song now?! I’m not alone in this love. You’re with me.” It is such an awesome feeling. It is feeling of love. That is what it is.
That sounds so lovely. I know that for the audience, it feels the same way.
Aw! I hope so.
Speaking of these live shows, with six albums, an abundance of hit songs, and all of these stops around the world; What can fans expect this time around now that you have a new album out and are still out there doing what you love?
Oh, yeah. Well, Toca Rivera is coming over today, as a matter of fact. We’ve been rehearsing and learning new songs and old songs, and he wasn’t with me during my Raining Jane season, so he is learning the Yes.songs. Right now, we’re trying to find what is going to bring us joy as a duo, singing it this holiday season around the country. I honestly can’t tell you what fans can expect, other than what drives me and what keeps me going, which is a constant search for newness. I want, in every show, to feel like I am doing something that I haven’t done. That could be in how we tell a story or how we weave certain songs together or how we perform certain songs.
Although, I do anticipate that this show is going to be very lighthearted. It’s going to embrace the themes of the season, which are gratitude and giving. It’s between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we want to really embrace those attitude and behaviors. I will say that there will probably be some new songs in this fall show, because I continue to write and I continue to want to move forward. I don’t think people just want to hear albums, but I do want to acknowledge that I have some very loyal fans who also want to hear some of their favorites that Toca and I have done in the past. It’s an effort to accommodate many, many interests — including our own, and we are still working on that right now. It should be a fun night with laughter and beauty wherever we go.
See Jason Mraz performing live on back to back nights, Nov. 27 and 28, at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, N.J.