Although Jason Mraz has been releasing records and playing live to rapt audiences for over two decades, he is now taking his own advice and living in the moment. That includes hitting the proverbial reset button.
Sure, the whimsical title of new LP Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride may suggest business as usual for the Grammy winner, but he makes clear in leadoff track “Getting Started” that’s he’s facing a new frontier as an artist and human being:
There is pathos, but Mraz’s signature optimism — something fans have long relied upon him for — cuts through like a ray of sunshine.
Though a veteran of gold and platinum records, Mraz is newly minted when it comes to being a bona fide member of the LGBTQ community.
When he came out as bisexual several years ago (he had acknowledged same-sex attraction in the media as early as 2005 but was largely ignored) he was still in the midst of a heterosexual marriage he now realizes was an error in judgment and symptomatic of deeply rooted personal struggles — something many in the LGBTQ community can relate to.
Now divorced, Mraz is ready to begin anew, play fresh music alongside the classics for his fans and be more open with them than ever before. Hot on the promotional trail (Covid made it difficult to give his 2020 reggae-drenched LP Look for the Good the usual promotional push, resulting in its being overlooked), he is working overtime to make sure his new songs make their way into the world, with a slew of press appearances and eye-popping music videos. The clip for lead single “I Feel Like Dancing”, joyfully choreographed and stylized, has already garnered over two million YouTube views.
The new album is produced by Martin Terefe, who reunites with Mraz over a decade since working together to great acclaim, including on the massive hit “I’m Yours.”
Despite change, some connections endure.
Mraz will take his new tour to Philadelphia’s Mann Center on August 9, 2023, as well as to Queens in New York City for a special one-off concert with the New York Pops at Forest Hills Stadium on August 17.
Mraz spoke to me about his new music, what fans can expect at his upcoming shows and his coming out journey.
The new album is great. It’s probably my favorite one you’ve made in 15 years. I think “Lovesick Romeo” sounds like a major hit, but then what do I know?
Jason Mraz: Thanks!
What a lovely addition to our summer to have such a robust, sunny set of new songs from you. I interviewed Melissa Manchester once and she said something very interesting, that joy is something one chooses consciously to manifest, especially in dark times. How do you retain such optimism in your songwriting?
JM: I maintain optimism because the act of playing music itself, the very simple act of making sound out of silence, making something out of nothing, that turns me from “I am nothing” into “I am something.” It turns me from “I am worthless” into “I am a creator.” And it happens instantaneously.
I mean, as soon as I sit down at a piano and make a sound or strike a chord, my whole nervous system reacts to that. It’s like a sonic version of taking some kind of magic pill, because the sound then envelops you or you hear it reverberating around the room. And that, to me, is this little reminder that what I think of the world can be transformed. I get to experience the optimism of, like, I believe sound will come out of that boom. It did! I believe that I can heal some emotion I’m struggling with through this sound, through this experience of sound, by shaping words or by singing melodies and chords that touch my emotions. So, yeah, it’s the music itself that keeps me sort of hopelessly hopeful!
I like that way of putting it. It seems like it’s a rarity to find positive energy out in the public consciousness. We’re kind of living in a strange era to begin with. Of course, the music industry has changed so much in such a short time. As an entertainer, do you feel a responsibility to sort of inject that levity — a sort of catharsis — for listeners while remaining true to yourself? It’s kind of a high-wire act.
JM: If my optimism springs from being able to create music, what will then happen to me during that process is I get transformed, I get healed, I get uplifted, I get reassured, something happens to me where I start to feel better, and my joy gets strengthened. If it works for me, then that’s what I try to then recreate on stage, or I’ll try to recreate on microphones and then release to the world, because if this was a little experience that worked for me, maybe it’ll work for somebody else. Or at the very least, I’ll get to recreate it night after night on stage, which again, is going to work for me to maintain my joy, following my joy through music.
At the same time, all of us are aware that, yes, there’s a lot of negativity out in the world, and it’s either due to our concentrated focus on that negativity or to hyped media on certain evildoers and our awareness of harmful legislation and climate crisis and the lack of gun control and, you know, fear, fear, fear, fear, fear!
That’s always present. Knowing that, I feel it’s a creator’s opportunity to create something that counters that negativity as an alternative for someone’s time and attention. Because, you know, my song may not change the world, but it might be able to change someone’s moment. And sometimes we just need a moment to take a breath and go get re-inspired so that we can continue to, all of us as creators, find ways to counteract all the negativity in the world.
Yes, people always leave your concerts with smiles on their faces. I remember crowds were especially excited by “I Feel Like Dancing” last summer — it’s great that it’s the lead single from the new album. The video is fantastic.
You previewed several songs from the new record last year live. When you do new material in concert, what is your process? Does the audience, in a sense, tell you where the songs are going?
JM: Yeah, for sure. For example, “You Might Like It”, which is on the new record; we were playing that on tour in 2019 and we tried it again last year, each time getting a little further with it. Audience reaction is often a clear indicator of what they don’t especially like, because you’ll hear kind of this nice, quiet applause or, you know, silence. But then there will be these other songs where I might think “Gosh, people were moving, but then they kind of got bored by the third minute, so what can I do?” Or maybe we got bored on the third minute, like we didn’t know yet how to end the song for the audience. So yes, performing live is a great way to research and develop some compositions.
You also are well known for sprinkling surprise cover tunes into your shows. I once saw you open with a memorable version of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac after thunder and rain nearly canceled the show. You’ve also put several great ones on record, like your fantastic version of [Seals and Crofts’] “Summer Breeze.” You’ve done Great American Songbook tunes as well. Could we ever expect a covers record at some point?
JM: You know, I think there’s a time and place for it. I never felt like I did a cover [song] justice, you know… [they’re] already great. It’s hard to live up to them. But, like, in the case of “Summer Breeze,” I had already been performing it in coffee shops, so I kind of came up with an arrangement that had a lot of scat in it, and I was lucky to be able to record that version. So yes, I could see myself doing that – I just need to collect enough covers that I believe in, where I can also connect my voice to them [because] I need to believe the lyric as well, like it’s coming from me.
Right. The Ella Fitzgerald thing.
For this album you’ve enlisted Martin Terefe as your producer for the first time since your considerable success together in 2008. Was it just like old times?
JM: Martin and I have been friends and collaborators since 2001. We enjoy making up songs and fresh sounds together, and a couple of those collaborations resulted in albums. So, because we are friends, I can’t say there was really a long hiatus, but my band [Raining Jane] and I invited him to join us for our recording sessions last summer as we were renting space in his new New York City studio.
Our friendship evolved naturally into another collaboration and production. Without even vetting other producers, Martin became the perfect fit for our exploration and musical goals. He encourages uniqueness, funkiness, and fun, which I’m sure every artist is hoping to achieve. We were venturing down new rhythmic and sonic paths, and Martin’s experience helped us to organize the chaos, capturing our joy on tape and curating a sequence of songs that makes up this exciting new album of complex material.
For the uninitiated, or even those who’ve seen you play live many times already, are there any surprises coming on this summer tour? Any hints you can give us?
JM: Let’s put it this way: I am bringing my super band. They give me super powers because they allow me to to do things that I don’t normally get to do. Raining Jane is a part of that band They are, of course, my co-writers on this new album. The Grooveline Horns are back, too. They are a big brass section from West Texas. [And we’ll be] tapping into older songs that I think resonate with the themes of the new album, along with a video aspect this time around, so people who are maybe sitting in the back, they’ll be able to watch the show on a more close-up, intimate level, [which is] something we’ve not carried with us for many years, so we’ll have a strong visual presence at the show. Also, our openers are exciting, both Monica Martin and Celisee. They’re already out there doing it, and we’re excited to be sharing the night with them as well.
I wonder as well if you might have some wisdom to share about what it means to stand embodied in your truth. Of course, you’ve been very open in recent years about being bisexual, and you’ve talked about the struggles of incorporating that into your public persona. Many of our younger readers don’t know what it was like 20 years ago, when you scored your first hit — it’s a different world now. What have you learned since then about embracing your authenticity?
JM: You know, I grew up on a conservative street, and I used to say I grew up in a conservative town, but I can’t pin [my whole experience growing up LGBTQ] on the town. I actually lived in a pretty progressive city in the middle of a red state. But there were a few on my street that I guess [at a young age] made me nervous enough about my thoughts and feelings that I just shut the Fuck up for [so much of] my life. And identifying as bi was tough as well because it was almost like I was in denial. The times when I was doing gay things [felt difficult to acknowledge alongside] a hetero romantic relationship. That made it feel like [I was leading] a secret life, which I didn’t feel was part of my musical story or public persona. And being in any relationship [in the public eye] is hard because there are expectations, comments about it, photos… it becomes something for public consumption.
So after many failed hetero relationships I said, “Maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s a reason these relationships are failing. Maybe I’m not being fully real with myself, or real with the public.” So I felt it was important to just start sharing about this in a way that, hopefully, doesn’t cause harm to anyone I was ever in a relationship with.
To be transparent, especially in a time when it seems the walls are closing in on people in the LGBT community, I think allies are needed more than ever. Everybody deserves to have the same rights. There’s a decades — if not centuries-long fight for independent autonomy and equality so that each of us can just live our fucking lives and imagine a world [in which] we are mystified by this planet and respect every human being we see. It’s a fucking miracle that we get to have this brief experience of consciousness; whatever our lifespan is is a freaking miracle.
And that’s why I think it’s important — as a storyteller, as a creator, as an entertainer, as a people — to be out and proud with anything that we love and are mystified by so that we can inspire everyone else to be out and proud and mystified by, and if not out to still be proud and feel whole and complete within our life experience. Life is already so hard; we learn that at such a young age when [we] discover death and suffering. Why make it harder on each other?
So [for a long time] I kind of just stayed in the closet where I thought I should and in a way overcompensated on my hetero romantic relationships publicly, as if to say to those boys I grew up with, “You don’t need to pick on me.” But those days are over.
What would you say is something you’ve learned you wish you’d known then?
JM: I realize [one particular childhood bully] was in a tragic household and turned to drugs and probably because of the enormous amount of pain and suffering they were experiencing. When someone is suffering, then they’re going to pass that suffering on to someone else. So I would treat him with more compassion and forgiveness if he were still around. That’s an important lesson in life: if someone is coming at you with anger and suffering or causing you suffering, it’s [likely because] they themselves are being attacked somehow. They themselves are suffering for that exact same reason, and it’s being projected outwardly onto others. And so to learn how to be more compassionate with others, with even our haters, is a big life lesson and it may take a whole lifetime to learn it.
And to have that compassion for ourselves as well.
You found your place in a whole new community a few years ago when you joined the run of the Broadway musical Waitress and gained new fans. Might we see you again on the New York stage?
JM: Yes, I would consider Broadway again! Absolutely.
I remember my phone ringing and Sara Bareilles was on the other end and she said, “Hey buddy, want to come out and be Dr. Pomatter for a couple months?” I couldn’t believe it. I felt like a contest winner; it’s something I’d always wanted to do. I loved going through the stage door and being part of a cast and singing amazing songs eight times a week to a captive audience. And I didn’t have to make a set list, I didn’t have to worry about what I was going to wear; I got to put all my narcissism aside and be someone else, and it was a real treat. So yes, I would gladly do it again if it was the right show and the right songs and I felt like I could be that character.
Do you have a message for those coming out to see you this summer?
JM: Well, I am aware that audiences go through a lot to get to a show, from purchasing the ticket, commuting to the venue, parking, and becoming part of five to 10,000 people. It’s tough on the nervous system, so I try to acknowledge that and recognize it. I view the show as a [sort of] yoga class. It’s sometimes hard to get [to a show], but now that they’re there, [let’s get in the mindset of] let’s forget about the rest of the world for the next 90 minutes to two hours.
Let’s breathe together. Let’s sing together. Let’s tune our awareness to the things we’re grateful for, the people in our lives, the experiences we’ve had. And I view this opportunity, the concert opportunity, as a transformational experience to come and, again, be mystified by your own life through these songs and through this experience.
And so that’s what I hope the audience can get out of it, is that they leave a little different than how they came in and that they take with them tools for a continued mystical, magical life experience.
Ticketing information can be found at JasonMraz.com