Jason Mraz: The full Q&A
By George Varga
Pop Music Critic
2:00 a.m. February 1, 2009
This is San Diego Union-Tribune music critic George Varga’s complete Q&A interview with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. The published version appears in the Arts section of today’s paper.
QUESTION: I’m curious if you’re any relation to George Mraz, the great Czech jazz bassist?
JASON MRAZ: We’re no relation. I did meet his granddaughter once. She brought me a ‘Best of George Mraz’ compilation she made.
Q: How did you like it?
JASON MRAZ: I loved it.
Q: Your periodic surfing companion, Anna Troy, who is the roommate of your good friend, Aspasia, tells me you can – and I quote – ‘Shred some serious waves.’That brings up two questions: Do you always surf early in the morning and does it ever happen that you come up with any musical or lyrical ideas while surfing?
JASON MRAZ: Yeah, it can. The great thing about surfing is that, sometimes, it’s the non-idea time because you have to stay focused (on surfing). I do go early in the morning; that’s to me the best reason to get up and I can get home by 10 a.m. In the old days I wouldn’t have gotten up until 10. I do it for the physical fitness, to clear my mind, and because it’s the only thing that kicks my ass. It’s serious and it will beat you down. All I do otherwise is sing songs and I need that in my life to continue to make a man out of me. I wouldn’t say I shred some serious waves, but I definitely have fun. It’s been big (waves) this week, so it allows you to show your stuff, if you’ve got it.
Q: To continue, could we talk about your upcoming blues album, ‘I Hate the World and I’m Going to Kill Myself.’
JASON MRAZ: Really?
Q: No. I made that up. But, seriously, your songs tend to make people feel good, kind of like a musical pick-me-up. What role do you want to fulfill as a singer-songwriter and what do you want to give your listeners when they pay to hear you perform live or buy one of your albums?
JASON MRAZ: Comfort, more than anything, I think. I’m certainly not a preacher and I’m a horrible salesman. The last thing I want to do is force people into any (line of) thought. But if (I write) a happy melody and a groovy rhythm that people can sing along to and participate in, and it might be infused with optimism or some inspirational message or Zen philosophy, it can allow people to just be within themselves. I don’t want to say lose themselves, because that’s the opposite.
The more I travel around the world the more I see people want the same thing – to be happy. We wouldn’t be in a monetary system if we didn’t have to work, so if my music can contribute to happiness, then that’s my main responsibility. I write those types of things for my own joy. It’s my own therapy. If I didn’t write (songs) I’d probably be insanely depressed, probably overweight, and who knows where I’d be? A mental institution?
Q: So music is really cathartic for you?
JASON MRAZ: Absolutely. It’s something I’ve relied on, writing, at least since I was 13. When I was in my late teens I started to infuse those lyrics with music and melody. You can make a special souvenir of a time in your life with music and songs. So that’s what I’ve always written (to achieve).
Even now, that I’ve entered the world of competitive music, which is what selling albums has become, I don’t like making albums for that reason. I make music out of a happy moment, a hardship I’ve overcome, a lesson I’ve learned, a love story I got to live.
So, for me, it’s just a chronicle of my life and putting reason to the voices in my head.
Q: Did you have any epiphany in your late teens that inspired you to add music to the words you’d written?
JASON MRAZ: Um, I guess it happened in college. That’s when I first really had a guitar in my hands every day. And what I noticed was that I could make up songs about anything, on the spot, and it became a party trick. People would come over and challenge me with objects or situations, and I would just make up a song about it and get a good laugh and make people really connect.
It was through that connection and gratification that I realized it was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. I (realized): ‘I don’t want to have to compete in the (theater) workshop or audition for jobs. I want to create my job.’
Q: So you kissed college goodbye?
JASON MRAZ: Yeah. I kissed college goodbye. I was in musical theater school, and said: ‘I have no need for this.’ I didn’t want to stand up in a line every day and say: ‘My name is Jason,’ and sing a song someone else wrote and then go be a waiter (at night). I had a better plan – to go write my own songs. It wasn’t even about making money. My dad always said: ‘Do what you love to do, and that’s it. It won’t feel like a job.
You could stop everything you’re doing now, and just do what makes you happy. And if you did it with passion, everybody would stop and react. And, one day, you’d say: ‘Why don’t I sell tickets to what I’m doing?’ Or put a hat down (for donations)? That’s as far as I thought it would go – ‘If I could just make enough to pay the rent.’
Q: Your latest album, “We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things,” features collaborations with Colbie Caillat, James Morrison and Bob Schneider. What do you look for in a musical partner and what’s more important in a collaborator, good vibes or creative tension?
JASON MRAZ: Yep, good vibes. They’re all people who write from the heart and not from their pocket. Meaning, they’re not just trying to craft a crafty song to sell it. I like writing with people who really get off on it. And Bob Schneider, who did three of those (framed) drawings (hanging) behind you, has the mania.
And Colbie seems to have a little taste of that free spirit. I’ve been able to become more selective over the years. In the old days, when I got signed, I’d write with anybody and everybody, and walk away feeling like I was just raped and so many ideas were just being wasted. I was just looking for real people.
Q: How off the wall do some of the phrases get that Bob Schneider, your sometime songwriting partner, throws at you for inclusion in a song?
JASON MRAZ: Yeah, but the (songwriting) game I play with Bob, when you do get a phrase (from him) that is so, uncouth, I think would be the word, its almost like it’s a nice break rather than put all your emotions in it he’ll send you a phrase (that’s) something a little absurd, and that becomes a little challenge. ‘Oh, good, my challenge right now is to be a goofball!’
I welcome every challenge. Six of the 12 songs on the new album came from the word challenge game I play with Bob and other friends. And there are about 70 plus other songs that came from challenges performed on any and every instrument, or (with) sounds or screams. There are no rules.
Q: Some songs are partly autobiographical, some are inventions, some combine elements from real and imagined events and people. But your song, ‘Love For A Child,’ from your latest album, ‘We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things,’ sounds to me like it’s written entirely from first-hand experience. Is it?
JASON MRAZ: Yeah it is. But it’s based on loose facts, meaning that I did my best to recall my family actually living together. And my few memories are hearing my family behind closed doors, watching my parents sort through a house that was trashed. We got burglarized – burgled? We got robbed and everything was all over the house. And I stood there in awe while my parents stood there arguing and going though everything.
So when I wrote the song, I remembered what it was like. (One) line is from when my parents were busy not talking to each other. I could hide right down the middle (between them). I could tell my dad, ‘I’m going to my mom’s,’ and tell her, ‘I’m going to my dad’s,’ and then disappear for the weekend and learn (things) the hard way.
At same time, I had a great upbringing from two families. And the freedom I had, I’m grateful for. You can’t live the rest of your life carrying a pain because your parents couldn’t get along. I choose to spend my life crafting a joy.
Q: How old were you when this burglary took place?
JASON MRAZ: I was probably 4.
Q: There was a Broadway musical in the 1960s called ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.’ Was that how you were feeling after you came off the road from your tour to promote your second studio album, (2005′s) ‘Mr. A to Z’?
JASON MRAZ: Yeah when I was making my second album, the whole thing felt like a homework assignment. I’d written the songs over a long period and tested all the material in coffee houses (before recording). I think every artist had difficulty with their second album. Your dreams are suddenly coming true, so (you think) ‘What the hell do I write about now?’
But even if your dreams are coming true, you have to pick yourself up to go to work. I didn’t realize that at the time. It was difficult. The second album had some beautiful songs. But it was like cramming or trying to get a project done the night before the second science fair, so it’s no wonder the album slipped under the radar.
Q: Looking back, was it a good lesson in what not to do?
JASON MRAZ: Sure, absolutely. I realized then that, for my third album I was going to go back to my original setting (for writing). I certainly don’t like what happens when I’m influenced by the music industry and all I eat is food from room service or an airport. Room service doesn’t provide music for the soul.
I learned a lot from that (‘Mr. A To Z’) tour. When it was done, I said thank you to everybody from the band and label. (Then) I took a year off, but I was busier than ever. The first thing I did as sign up every Sunday night for (open-mic night at the music room next to the University Heights coffee house) Twiggs, which – sadly – is no longer there.
And then the Mueller College of Holistic Studies (across the street) loved the show so much that they said, ‘You guys can come anytime on Saturday or Sunday (and play here).’ So I did that for a year, just working on my songs. I wanted to surf, work on this (home recording) studio and this house, and get away from what the record business can be.
It can also be fun. (But) I wanted to get away from the pressure or negative side. I don’t know if I could’ve gotten the third album without the second, so it was definitely required.
Q: Now a few very serious questions, beginning with: Any truth to the rumor that, when you opened a few concerts for the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards tried to give you a wedgie?
JASON MRAZ: Nope. Didn’t happen. We barely got to interact with those guys. We got about two minutes with the Stones. Luckily, I had my mother in tow and I kept her in front of me. I kept her in front because it’s her who listened to the Stones in her college years and had a crush on Mick, not me. I’m grateful I got to see them now – they are rocking more than ever. It was more fun to watch them charm my mom, Mick and Keith.
Q: Is it true that Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and the ghost of Rick James are recording a version of your song ‘I’m in Love with Mary Jane’?
JASON MRAZ: That would be nice, but I haven’t heard it.
Q: If I order a ring-tone for your song, ‘That’ll Do,’ will I be embarrassed if it goes off the at my book club meeting during the risque lines?
JASON MRAZ: You mean …? (Mraz says the risque line, which refers to 10,000 people with an oedipal complex.) I had no idea. You mean like you can actually download the ring-tone? Well, that’s cool. Is it monophonic? I wonder if it sounds like the recording?
Q: Don’t they have to get permission from you before they use it as a ring-tone?
JASON MRAZ: Well, they do have to get permission, but they don’t have to use your recording. A lot of times they use really cheesy recordings. They emulate the song, but it’s Japanese programming. I’ll have to download that.
Q: Your first Grammy nomination was, I believe, in 2005, for ‘Mr. A-Z,’ and you now have two nominations for your song, ‘I’m Yours.’ What does a Grammy mean to you, and did the Grammys have any resonance for you when you were growing up?
JASON MRAZ: Not so much. Every now and then, if I heard of a band I liked, I’d tune in. But growing up (in Virginia), we didn’t have cable. Watching the Grammys was like tuning into ‘Saturday Night Live’ – ‘I’ll get to see a live band.’ I attend the MusiCares (pre-Grammy all-star concerts) quite a bit, but I’ve never been to the Grammys. I’ve had to go to the press rooms (backstage) a couple of times, but I never attended the Grammys. I don’t know why that is. A lot of years, I’m just out of town. It’s just not on my list of ‘to do’things.
Q: How about this year?
JASON MRAZ: I’m going to go this year because I’d like to at least say ‘thank you’for the acknowledgment. And I’m taking my mom. I got to meet James Taylor in September (at a Los Angeles fundraising concert) and we had a great conversation. If I can at least introduce my mom to Taylor then I’ll score some big points. I met him at the ‘Stand up to Cancer’ event that all of Hollywood put on. James was walking by me, and I said, ‘I’m a fan of ‘Money Machine,’ a crazy disco song from his (1976) album ‘In the Pocket.’
Q: Was he taken aback?
JASON MRAZ: He LOVED that I brought up that song and told me he was trying to go for a ‘little disco dance flavor.’ I said, ‘Dude, that’s what I try to go for with my songs.’ I think he realized then that I wasn’t a little Jonas Brothers (fan). Then, the conversation started rolling and we started showing each other our tattoos.
Q: What kind of tattoos does James Taylor have?
JASON MRAZ: He’s got – was it a peace sign? It was some sort of celestial thing on his arm that he got instead of his sister getting it. You couldn’t even make out what it was anymore.
Q: At the risk of digging a hole and falling into it, when I listen to your singing I get the feeling you’re an admirer of the music of Graham Nash and Michael Franks. Are you?
JASON MRAZ: Funny you should say that. I was at Graham’s house two days ago in Maui. We had lunch. It was actually the first time I’d met him, but he worked on my photography book (2008′ ‘A Thousand Things’). He curated the book and wrote a really nice forward. And Nash Editions did the book. We worked on it but never got a chance to meet (before). His home is inspirational and got me jazzed up about my home here and the reasons we write (songs).
And then Michael Franks, who I’ve never met, is probably my idol. I didn’t hear him until I moved to San Diego. I got his (1976) album ‘The Art of Tea,’and that’s probably the only album I listened to for a year. I was so blown away by it, the playfulness and the melodies. It’s pretty awesome.
Q: Yeah, he’s a San Diego native. His album ‘Blue Pacific’ was inspired by his growing up here. Back to the Grammy Awards for a moment. If you were the producer of the Grammy telecast, what would you do to improve it?
JASON MRAZ: Um (long pause). It’s a good question. I’d probably recruit local acts from all over the country, acts that still load all the gear in their cars and try to fit it on stage, acts that are really going for it and are entertaining. They can remind the viewers at home that there is so much good music out there that you don’t just get in the music section at Best Buy, or hear on the only radio station left.
Get people inspired that there’s music, in the same way people like to watch ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ People love watching that because it’s real people, and it gets young people jazzed up about their talent. I think that would be cool. And then for all the (music) industry types that are there, it’s a reminder that, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of great talent out there – and remember the days we did it for free?
Q: ‘American Idol’ has trounced the Grammys in viewer ratings each time the two shows have aired at the same time. What does that say to you?
JASON MRAZ: Well, I think it’s the story ‘American Idol’ tells. If you tune in at the beginning of the season you can pick your favorite (contestant), see the small towns (they come from) and watch them develop. And there’s really a human story there. The Grammys, I haven’t seen them in a few years but it’s all about the red carpet and people showing off their bling. Those (all-star) musical mash-ups (they have on the Grammy show), a lot of times those people meet at soundchecks, so there’s no way they’ll sound good. ‘Give us some legends!’
But I’m not surprised. ‘American Idol’ tells stories and the Grammys show Kanye (West) some more.
Q: I see that you have a framed poster here in your studio promoting a lecture by Swami Yogananda. Have you ever read anything by Baba Ram Dass?
JASON MRAZ: His book ‘Be Here Now,’ yeah, absolutely. I guess my experience with Ram Dass is only ‘Be Here Now.’ And I’ve tried that avenue of Zen, that psychedelic avenue.
Q: How’d that work for you?
JASON MRAZ: Well, it works for about the 8 hours that you are occupied with any and everything. But what I’ve learned through my own experience is that nirvana isn’t all trippy, it isn’t a gooey place. Nirvana isn’t a place where you’re unable to operate a motor vehicle. Instead, you can experience that bliss – what I learned is (based on) ‘How can I have that state of euphoria in my everyday life?’ Good lessons, but (Ram Dass is) certainly not my guru.
But for many years I’ve dug many wells in different spiritual terrain, trying to find, to tap into, something – the art of happiness, what life is. I’ve always been an existentialist, through and through.
Q: Going back to (the writings of existential godfather) Jean-Paul Sartre?
JASON MRAZ: I want to know why we exist and what I can do while I’m existing. Basically. it’s learning how to exist, wholely, consciously. Growing up on fast food and television shows, you can easily forget to exist. You can even be treated as if you don’t. So, I think that’s why man’s eternal quest for – it isn’t necessarily spirituality, but just in my own lifetime, I’ve watched the fall of Christianity. Not the fall in that it’s gone, but (more) the fall of Catholicism and more people seeing how they themselves can still have the Christ consciousness and still be divine beings, without (following) a particular religious practice.
Q: How does music play into that for you?
JASON MRAZ: You can filter out what you want. It’s pretty direct. I’ve always used my (recording) studios to give me comfort and assist in my realizations. If I stumble upon a great realization I can’t wait to include that in a song. And a lot of times, I think people are listening to my songs and may not realize that it’s infused with Zen Buddhism or the teachings of Yogananda and Sathya Sai Baba, and many different avatars from the last 2000 years.
Q: Given all that, how important is humor in your music and your life?
JASON MRAZ: I just think that’s the most important. Humor first in all things. Because, otherwise, people say, ‘That’s not right, that’s not real.’ Providing comfort (through music), you give people a reason to laugh and make them think nothing is that important or serious, even death is not a serious subject. It’s so natural, to think we can cling to our lives and own it.
In Buddhism, they say attachment to anything only leads to suffering. So when we laugh, it’s our way of saying, ‘I’m unattached to that.’ You’re tickled by it, it makes your lobes do something on their own. So humor is very important to me. I always take that to the stage first. It originally appeared (in the stage patter) between the songs. Then as the shows got a little longer and my experience in music developed, I found it was just as effective to put the humor into the songs.
It’s the best thing, it’s the best medicine. It’s why people take drugs, it’s the easy way to laughter.
Q: I’m not familiar with your hometown in Virginia. What was the population in Mechanicsville when you were growing up?
JASON MRAZ: Maybe 50,000. It was a suburb of Richmond, so I’d say that the county we were in, just north of Richmond County, probably had 50,000 to 60,000. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 200,000 people there. More and more subdivisions are being built, more TGIF, Best Buy and Jamba Juice stores, and the city doesn’t have any sidewalks, so you get hit by cars (if you’re on foot). People who locally own restaurants or music stores can’t get people to see them, because there are no sidewalks to connect them. You have to drive your big-ass car to get anywhere and you feel like whoever’s developing these places probably doesn’t even live there.
They put a million town homes and tract homes in with no regard for the people living there. The schools are packed, the teachers retiring are not being replaced. My high school, according to my cousins who still go there, is now known for its Meth problem. I had never heard of Meth growing up. So it’s really unfortunate. But sadly I don’t think it’s just Mechanicsville. I think every other small town in America is headed there. But we could correct that if people stopped watching TV.
Q: From a musical and creative standpoint, did you find it was an advantage to grow up in a small town, in that you could develop on your own and make mistakes, without being in a highly competitive environment?
JASON MRAZ: I would agree with that. We had to go out and play. Growing up, my brother and I – before we got into instruments – we had a video camera and that was the greatest thing ever. And, even before that, my baby-sitter would give us plays and we’d have to act out scenes. So we found out at an early age that our own creativity was so much a better friend then any TV or anything like that.
Q: How much do the Grammys matter to you?
JASON MRAZ: It doesn’t matter a whole lot, but I’m grateful. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea just by going and saying thank you to whoever is there, just for the acknowledgment. But as an artist, the accolades that are coming from the Grammys is for work I did four years to a year ago. ‘I’m Yours’ was written four years ago-plus, and the studio version was recorded a year ago. So it’s not like I’m sitting around waiting to be acknowledged. I’m grateful, but I’d rather keep living life and writing meaningful songs.
You know, I’ve also been one to say I’d love to know what it’s like to be in a recording session or a creative – what’s the word – writing session with Paul McCartney. What’s it like to be creative with Paul McCartney? And maybe by going to the Grammys – and he’s going to be there – that might be my in.
When I was buying my house (here in Oceanside) 5 years ago, all I was listening to was (McCartney’s 1971 solo album) ‘Ram. That was my inspiration. I wanted to be in a place where I could make an album like ‘Ram.’
Q: I notice that you have several gold albums and other awards in the bathroom here in your recording studio. If you win a Grammy, is that where you’ll put it?
JASON MRAZ: It’s probably going to go in the bathroom. That seems to be the one spot where all of (my) sales awards seem to be stored.
JASON MRAZ: I mean, it is deliberate. I do think they are fun to share, but I certainly wouldn’t hang them anywhere else in my house. They are not THAT fun. They don’t need to be in my main house.
Q: So, after the Grammys, what do you have planned for the rest of 2009?
JASON MRAZ: We’re touring from Feb. 1 to mid-May, all over the world. And then June-September, you’ll probably see us touring the U.S. again, at great lengths, outdoor (venues) touring. And I’m hoping by September or October that we finally pull the plug and finish writing and recording the new record. Any time in between will be spent here (at home) and in between waves. And we’ll be working on the garden this year. We’re committed to getting the house off the grid.
Q: All solar?
JASON MRAZ: All solar. We get sun in abundance here. And, to me, there’s no reason the house should be cold in the winter or that my pool should be cold. We have so much sunshine, an abundant resource, and (let’s) stop feeding the crude oil business.
Q: You’re only 31, so you have a long way to go. But how would you like to be remembered?
JASON MRAZ: Hmmm. How would I like to be remembered? That’s a good question. (He pauses and eats from a bag of raw nuts.) Hmmm. I’ve been been hanging out with Bushwalla (singer-songwriter Billy ‘Bushwalla’ Galewood) for 14 years now. And anytime we have to go out and work or earn a little money at something, we’d always look at it as, ‘This is funding the adventure.’
We don’t do this for money. But when money comes in, it funds the party a little later. So if I’m to be remembered, it should be for, ‘He paid for this party, thank you.’ ‘He bought the train tickets that took me there.’
I’ve had 6-7 roommates since I’ve lived here. I never charge rent; the only thing you have to do is contribute creatively. Right now, we have a few a really good organic chef and a crazy clown rapper. I’d like to be remembered for my generosity, in hopes that it inspired other people to be generous. What good is anything, if you’re not going to share? What are you going to do with it?
Q: You’ve mentioned your mother and brother. what are their names?
JASON MRAZ: June and Chris. My brother gave me the sweetest Christmas present ever. He found a tape I had made. I used to be a janitor at an elementary school and my brother would meet me there at night. He’d bring his sax and I’d have guitar, and we’d jam on Dave Matthews and Bob Dylan songs, and record them. Well, he went and had that tape mastered and put it on a CD so you could hear the conversations. That’s what I got from him last year.
It was really trippy, because I could hear the room at the Liberty Christian elementary School in Mechanicsville. I was the guy who cleaned up the Kool-Aid – and all the paste and glitter.
Q: Do you have any other family members who are still in Mechanicsville?
JASON MRAZ: A younger brother and older sister. They are all there, in the same spot. My grandma lived in the same house for 55 years, where my dad was born, and he lives a mile from there; my mom 6 miles. But they love it here (in Oceanside, oh, boy!
Q: How old were you when you worked as a janitor?
JASON MRAZ: Twenty, 21. It was one of the last jobs I had before I moved (away), which is funny. The more musicians that I meet, the more of those jobs I hear that they had. There are tons of janitors in the music business! Tons of construction workers or people who had jobs where you show up and move something, a ‘do-as-you’re told’ job.
It’s funny to me when you see fans, and people put artists, or actors, or whoever, in a higher position. You know, if they hadn’t got this movie or record deal, they may very well be the janitor you ignore or the person serving you a daily special. (So) I don’t think of myself as special in any way, because I’m one job from being a janitor (again).
I named my company Mraz Discount Janitorial Supplies. It’s on my credit card, too. So, when I check into hotels (and) they say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Oh, I’m in town for a convention.’ People always need their floors waxed.
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