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Modern Music Masters: Jason Mraz

 

Today we continue the brand new BroadwayWorld in-depth songwriting discussion series Modern Music Masters with one of the most successful solo artists of the last ten years - holding the record for the longest-lasting single on the Billboard charts ever thanks to his hit song "I'm Yours", which soon may very well be heard on GLEE - the lyrically smart, mentally acute and musically savvy Jason Mraz. In this comprehensive conversation we discuss the songwriting process in extreme detail, focusing on some of his more theatrical songs and influences, as well as shedding some light on his beginnings in the school choir/glee club and what musical theatre training has meant to him in preparation for a long career in performance and music. Additionally, we discuss both the physical and psychological sides of his process in performing around the world and creating new work constantly while doing so. His brand new EP - LIFE IS GOOD - hits stores today and this is the first interview he has given in which he discusses the new songs on the album and what recording the various live shows the tracks were taken from was like to experience firsthand on this spellbinding series of sold-out arena shows. This is his most thorough conversation in print to date so it is a special honor and privilege to present his masterful talent to those that already know and love his work, and perhaps a few who are new to his musical and lyrical abilities. Thus: BroadwayWorld presents the self-proclaimed Mr.AZ from A to Z.

 

Wordplay Music

PC: I consider you the Cole Porter of the twenty-first century. Your lyrics are incredible.

JM: Thanks for that introduction! Wow.

PC: My favorite song of yours is "Miss Heather & Mr. Gray". Tell me about the song, I love the Aus./Oz references.

JM: Hmm. (Pause.) You know, it's a true story. I was actually in Adelaide, Australia and it was Australian winter time, so it was like summer in New York. I had a pen pal for a good two years - if pen pals do exist - but, I would follow her blog and she would follow mine and we would write to each other, and - while we never went out with each other - she was such a muse for me. She would take pictures with her camera phone and send me images of her Brooklyn neighborhood. I felt really limited because all I had was my Polaroid. So, the song was very autobiographical.

PC: Clearly.

JM: I guess it's just a tale of wanting; of accepting where you are. Sort of: the grass is always greener but things are great if you switch your attention back to the greatness that's before you. I read in one of her blogs that heather gray was a favorite color of hers - her name wasn't Heather at all - but something about the grayness of where I was and hers, and her being where she was, I just loved the idea of it. That's how this heather gray thing came about. I don't know, I think sometimes I question why things are and then I make up a song about it assuming I know what the answer is.

PC: It's raining and gray in the city today. Do you like days like this?

JM: Yeah, I do. But, well, actually, I'm in Interlaken, Michigan!

PC: Oh, no way!

JM: Yeah! It's a beautiful, crisp Fall day. I really lucked out. There's big billowy clouds in the sky and all the trees are changing all the different colors for the season and we're right on the lake. I'm actually quite lucky to be where I am. I feel like I'm on Walden Pond or something. (Laughs.)

PC: I know you just did that Gershwin concert at the Hollywood Bowl and musical theatre has been a big influence on you. Could you tell me about your theatre roots?

JM: You know, when I look back at what musical theatre music and show music meant to me, first of all - more than anything - what it meant to me was work. As I was growing up, I realized that singing and performing was my strong suit. I didn't get accepted to any other academic schools, I only got accepted to AMDA in New York City - American Musical & Dramatic Academy. I knew that in my life I needed to go where the work was, and show tunes - if anything - were standing the test of time.

 

PC: More than any other music.

JM: Yeah, you know, all that's popular goes in and out and there's different genres and phases that come in and out but it seemed like the musical was everlasting. There was always a new musical. What I did not know right away, though, was how competitive that was going to be!

PC: Right.

JM: You know, auditioning for the rest of my life! That's what I got immediately present to when I got to New York. It was like, "Well, I might be able to sing, but can I also act and dance?" - knowing that those two things are also required on Broadway.

PC: Triple-threats.

JM: I wasn't a great student, so I didn't get too heavy into the composers. Growing up, it was the classics. You know, I loved Andrew Lloyd Webber. I would get more addicted to songs than I did to entire shows or scores. I think, in part, that had a lot to do with my high school music teacher, who would introduce us to this music but rarely in our high school did we ever put on an entire musical. We did a medley, or a revue of show tunes. You know, we would do some GUYS & DOLLS, but in the back half of the show we would be doing LES MISERABLES.

PC: Mixing it up!

JM: You would get the best of; the greatest hits. You know, the TOTALLY NOW: HITS VOLUME 12 of Broadway. You know what I mean?

PC: Totally. So, I assume from that that you approve of GLEE and their promotion of the arts in schools and all of that.

JM: Absolutely.

PC: Have they approached you to do any of your songs? I'm sure they've asked you to use "You And I Both" and "I'm Yours".

JM: Yeah. We've been asked a few times for a couple of different songs and I'll certainly say yes to that.

PC: Oh, that's awesome! I can't wait.

JM: I think shows like that - and even the competitive shows like IDOL and the talent search shows - I mean, I grew up watching STAR SEARCH and PUTTING ON THE LIPS, which was like a lipsynching show! (Laughs.)

PC: Really? I haven't heard of that one!

JM: Yeah, but mostly it's because I feel like they stimulate the young people. People of all ages from all around the country. It gets them out to audition. I mean, when you go out to audition and you go out to sing: you're putting yourself out there. You're becoming a more fully expressed individual.

PC: Exposed.

JM: You're more in touch with yourself. You're worrying if the thing in you - the form - is transformative. I think that no matter how you look at it, creativity is a religion. When you get into it, you will find your life becomes more spiritual. Other people's lives are affected by how you are treating yourself and the way in which you are performing. When people sing along and we're all invited to these shows and love these songs and sing along...

PC: "You have to love yourself," right?

JM: Yeah! Yeah! When we all sing in unison - sing in harmony - things come to us on levels that are much deeper than can be seen by the naked eye. Much deeper than even our subconscious. Things are happening.

PC: The first thing that drew me to you ten years ago was your voice. You have a Broadway quality voice. It's impossible to sing your songs better than you. What do you think of your vocal range and your vocal abilities?

JM: Well, first, I'm touched. And I do take care of it. I work hard at it, I do. I still do my warm-ups everyday. I've never let go of that.

 

PC: Like a Broadway pro!

JM: As you know, I write songs in a way that's full of variety - some of the songs just within one composition have a kind of variety - but, I want the overall show to be full of variety. I want it to be like a variety show. I think all of this - and my musical style - it all goes back to my high school teacher. All of my grade school music teachers.

PC: They must have been awesome.

JM: They did such an amazing job of, A., really giving us the classics - the show tunes and standards - but, they would also really get us locked down in classical music and really knowing how to sing. We really felt like we were trained to sing. I've always wanted to continue that learning - even into my adulthood - and I continue to push myself.

PC: It really shows.

JM: Thank you for that acknowledgement and hearing that what you hear in the music. (Pause.) I really want to be able to keep going and I realize that in some aspects I've got to treat myself like an athlete.

PC: You have to be able to do those amazing two, three hour shows you do a couple times a week! Singing all by yourself, pretty much.

JM: Yeah. I love it.

PC: Tell me about this LIFE IS GOOD EP. What songs are making it on there? "What Mama Says"? "The Only Life You Can Save"? "Catch Up To You"?

JM: "What Mama Says" is definitely going to be on this EP that is coming out. "The Only Life You Can Save" I am really hoping is on the forthcoming album, which is slated for early 2011.

PC: "San Disco Reggaefornia"?

JM: "San Disco" is gonna be on the EP coming out. It was all basically recorded at the LIFE IS GOOD festival in Boston, so we have a little LIFE IS GOOD EP. A couple of live tracks. I think four out of the five tracks are brand new. We just wanted to sneak them out into the world because it's been so long since we put anything out.

PC: Way too long! Two years!

JM: To be honest with you, this new album I am working on has so much material - and it is so varied - that I actually am having trouble in figuring out the direction I want to go.

PC: I'd love to help you! (Laughs.)

JM: (Laughs.) You know, do we want SAN DISCO REGGAEFORNIA and make a sunshine disco dance record? Or, do I really want to tear my heart out and launch a tour of something different, a little more introspective.

PC: Decisions, decisions.

JM: I'm trying to find that balance and, to be honest, this LIFE IS GOOD EP is kind of a way to buy me some time and see the reaction of the listener and see what they are responding to.

PC: That live album you did for MR.AZ is your best album. It's incredible. Tell me about "10,000 Motherf***ers" and "Childlike Wildlife" from that album. I've heard you say they were sequels or somehow interrelated in some way.

JM: Well... (Long Pause.) Honestly, all the songs are the sequel to the next one. But, at the same time, they're like postcards: you just write ‘em and send ‘em, not knowing where they are going to end up.

PC: A great canvas. Or moment-captures. Or both.

JM: "Childlike" was in reference to my old clubbing days when I lived in New York City. Instead of going to school, I was the guy cruising around on roller blades delivering weed to all the other students. I would spend my weekends locked into some of those New York City clubs and I wouldn't emerge until ten A.M. It was my childlike wildlife. It was the first time I was free from my Little Village in Mechanicsville, Virginia; unleashed on the big city. It was a very inspiring time. It definitely introduced me to a lifestyle and stories and a narrative in my head that I wanted to pursue.

PC: And the other song?

JM: "10,000 Motherf***ers"... well, that actually... (Pause.)

PC: Isn't it about religion, really? In a way?

JM: That was written several years later. It was more just about... I don't think "10,000 Motherf***ers" is connected to "Childlike" in any way. It's more presence in yourself, in ourselves. And our voices. (Pause.) Our voice.

PC: I get it.

JM: Yeah, it's about what makes us so damn unique. You know?

 

PC: Yes.

JM: It's what all religions say, "In the beginning there was the word." Or something like that. You know what I mean?

PC: Totally.

JM: And the word is God. What that means is that we have this ability to manifest our thoughts: to actually say something and express what our feelings are. That, then, transforms the world and puts something into action. The song is about paying attention to that and using our voice for good and unifying all our voices - if we can - to try to sustain life here.

PC: "All Dialed In" is astonishing, too. That should be a huge hit when you record it. I hope you include it on the new album.

JM: Thanks, man. It's not slated right now for release, but I think that's because I'm waiting for something to happen in my life that completes that song for me. That happens a lot. You know, I write a song and it might take an event or a certain dream and I'll have to grow into the song. That one, it's still there - still one of my favorites - but something about it feels like it's still missing a few pieces. A few specific puzzle pieces got swept under the couch and I just haven't found ‘em yet.

PC: What's the newest song you wrote? What's the title?

JM: Hmm... (Pause.)

PC: I loved that song you premiered at Wrigley Field, the one about the people that taught you lessons growing up.

JM: Right. "They Shaped My Life."

PC: Yeah, dude! Great song.

JM: Kindness and gratitude all rolled into one!

PC: What's your desert island disc?

JM: (Pause.) Oh, wow. I wish I knew that answer. I tend to get so bored with what I have on my iPod.

PC: I usually ask: if you are trapped in an elevator for three hours and you can listen to silence or an album or two (or three), what would they be?

JM: I would probably listen to Radiohead. I love the KID A album. I love the OK COMPUTER record.

PC: Great choices.

JM: There's something about Thom Yorke's vocals that I don't understand a word he says - or I catch little fragrances of what I think he says - but, between that and the compositions, I am always just moved. Moved and energized by what they do.

PC: I love his duet with Bjork on the DANCER IN THE DARK soundtrack. That's a great movie musical.

JM: Oh, that's just beautiful. Bjork is another one. I could listen to her albums all day long.

PC: It seems like the composer and the lyricist inside you are two separate people. Could you define collaboration between the two within yourself. Is there that duality at all?

JM: Between composer and lyricist?

 

PC: Yeah. Do they ever fight each other? Do your lyrics ever fight your music?

JM: Oh, yeah, they fight sometimes! Just, sometimes, the lyricist in me is saying, "Hurry up!" because the composer in me is playing the same old thing or is having trouble making breakthroughs musically or melodically. You know, I'm a self-taught musician so how I read music is kind of very weak and I kind of read my own version of tablature, I write my own crappy reminders on what I'm playing. Because, as a lyricist, it's when I have a breakthrough in music and I hear the melody in my hands: that's when I get compelled - something in my gut just has to rise up and sing and put something to that. So, there is often a duality.

PC: Right.

JM: Sometimes I won't sing for weeks because I am just playing and playing and searching for something and searching for something. Lately, to speed things up, I've been pairing up with keyboard players. One of my neighbors has been in my band for the last six, seven, eight years - Eric - and he is this brilliant, brilliant composer who doesn't sing. We just thought it was kind of ironic that we were neighbors and he is a composer and I'm a lyricist. We really want to join forces somehow and bring something to life.

PC: Hopefully a musical! Or a concept album!

JM: We've had great luck with one song so far together that hopefully will be on the next record, called "Who's Thinking About You Now?"

PC: Have you done it in concert yet?

JM: I've done it a couple of times. It's probably on YouTube by now. "Who's Thinking About You Now?"

PC: Yeah, it is. Or was.

JM: It's the result of sitting down with a keyboard player who can just throw a totally new sound or pattern at me that totally wakes me up. Like I said, as soon as I hear something like that, I just wanna roll. I just want to find things to sing and say over it. That helps me improve as a musician, as well. Then, the next time I am on my own, there is less of that duality and more of an excitement.

PC: Fresh blood.

JM: Yeah. Songs that I do write all on my own - a song like "I'm Yours", for instance - was when the composer and the lyricist in me are making sweet love together! (Laughs.)

PC: "Butterfly"! (Laughs.)

JM: They're combined as one to the point where I'm not thinking of anything. It almost requires no thought whatsoever, you just become the conduit for both music and lyrics.

PC: Speaking of co-writing, I love "Personal Ads" and your duets with Bushwalla. Will you two ever do a duet on an album? Or a whole album together?

JM: Umm, I think so. See, the thing about Bush is, he's been my best friend for fifteen years.

PC: Of course. Rock brothers!

JM: So, he'll always be coming on the road. We'll always be making music. We've made albums together over the years that we've never released because they're so vulgar and bizarre and twisted.

PC: The Mraz/Bushwalla Holy Grail!

JM: Yeah. (Laughs.)

PC: What's the title of the new album?

JM: I don't know yet.

PC: What song are you most excited to release into the world? Everyone's waiting, you know - "I'm Yours" was on the charts for two years!

JM: Yeah! Hmm... (Long Pause). I'm really excited about this song called "The Fixer".

 

PC: Tell me about it.

JM: It's not an "I'm Yours" - it's not that. It's more like a "Love For A Child" type of thing.

PC: OK. Introspective.

JM: It's not about me, necessarily, though.

PC: Tell me more!

JM: It's just about... it's about the generation before us. You know, men who could fix their own cars and their own appliances. They grew their own food. I'm really sort of specifically singing about my granddad.

PC: A legacy.

JM: There's something in that song - we've played it a couple of times live now, and, even the way it sounds on the record - and it just has a nice, very real thing. It reminds me of the man in the sky, in novels. It's kind of... I guess, in a sense, I connect with it because I want to grow up to be like those guys.

PC: Your authenticity comes true in all your songs. You're the real deal. I can't wait to review your new EP.

JM: Great!

PC: Is your show sold out tonight?

JM: Yeah, I think so.

PC: Your Wrigley show last week was amazing. This tour is already such a success. The shows I've seen have been spectacular.

JM: Cool. Thank you.

PC: Thank you for doing this, Jason, it means a lot.

JM: OK, Pat. Thanks a lot, buddy. It was fun.

The LIFE IS GOOD EP is available in stores, on iTunes and at JasonMraz.com. All tracks from the album are streaming live on his official site, as well. Expand your horizons and check it out - you certainly won't regret it! Spread the love!

 


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