Lost & Found: Jason Mraz Gets Home
Written by Will Edwards
In September 2006 Jason Mraz came home to San Diego after three years of extensively touring the world in support of his first two major-label records. When he got home, he discovered that his music and identity were confused. "On that tour I lost all sense of who I was." He had released two major hit records and survived the 2004 merger between Atlantic Records and Elektra, his original alma mater. "I had a collapse, a breakdown – done with the band, done with the album [2005's Mr. A-Z]. [We decided] to set an end date." Feeling pressure to keep up his creative pace as he struggled to make sense of the new world in which he found himself, Jason Mraz came home to San Diego to heal and reflect. After a year of living a normal life again, reconnecting with good friends and everyday pleasures, such as raising his cat Holmes, Mraz is poised to release his third full-length album We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things in spring 2008. He seems ready to start all over again. "This time feels like the first time again."
The first time was back on October 15, 2002, when Mraz released his debut major-label record Waiting for My Rocket to Come. It was a glossy compilation of the songs that he'd written as an upstart singer-songwriter working in San Diego and Los Angeles. Rocket performed well, ultimately peaking at #55 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and selling a million copies. Radio hits like "Remedy" and "You and I Both" led to comprehensive touring in most parts of the world, starting with small venues in 2003 and quickly gathering momentum, forcing much larger venues by 2004. Just when it seemed like Rocket had made Mraz a success, he was faced with a bigger challenge: could he do it again?
In January of 2004, Mraz began work on his sophomore effort. His label wanted another hit record from an artist who was in transition. But his label was in transition, too. In February, Warner Music Group (the owners of Elektra Records) decided to merge Elektra with its more financially stable corporate sibling Atlantic Records. Elektra's future became ambiguous, but that wasn't Mraz's biggest problem. He was tired and disconnected as a result of too much touring, and he didn't have the same creative inclinations that had given shape to his first record. Nonetheless, one year later Atlantic was mastering Mr. A-Z for release in the summer of 2005. This record was, for Mraz, a different artistic expression in important ways. "[Mr. A-Z] was like a homework assignment," Mraz says. "[Atlantic said] it's something you need to do and we need it by this date. And we need another hit … something a lot like the first hit that's going to go." Mr. A-Z was released in July 2005 and opened at a commanding #5 with 81,000 sales in the first week!
Before he knew what was happening, the tour started without ever stopping. Performing the new songs felt different and Mraz began losing focus. Touring took even more of a toll on him, and the business side of things became heavily distracting. "To me, the second record [represents] this confused character challenging his own ego. [I asked] how do I recreate these songs of a lost person?" Mr. A-Z captured a specific moment in time, challenging him during its conception and after its completion. "I think there are a lot of great songs on the second album, but a lot of it was me against the craft, me against the company, me against my own head."
After another year of relentless touring, Jason Mraz decided that he'd had enough – no more touring and no more band. "I became a resident of San Diego again." He finished the remaining tour dates and flew home in search of friends and a familiar way of life. "I got to peel [away] all those layers of the business and all that stuff that I'd gotten confused [about]. It took me about two months [and then] I had this amazing sort of awakening and my whole health and attitude about life just shifted." Mraz became a homebody, splitting his time between friends, gardening, and surfing.
What happened over the next year brought Mraz closer to his music and helped him rediscover his local roots. "[I started] playing shows with Bushwalla, working with Carlos Olmeda and Gregory Page [and] surfing every morning." Mraz reconnected with friends that he knew from his days performing at Java Joes, in Ocean Beach, in the early 2000s. During much of 2006, playing as a member of Bushwalla's band, under the name "MC Raz," gave Mraz the opportunity to get out and perform locally without infringing upon the multitude of promotional contracts and business agreements that define where and when he is allowed to perform under his true moniker. He also co-produced Gregory Page's most recent record Knife in My Chest, which won the 2007 San Diego Music Award for Best Local Recording. Mraz was getting time to himself and, slowly, he began to reengage his own future musical career once again.
After witnessing Jason's collapse of interest, his manager and the record executives loosened their grip on the business angle and instead invested in letting Mraz reconnect with his nature and the inspirations that had conspired to affect his original success. Having been granted more creative freedom and the chance to record his next album at home in his own private studio, Mraz began putting pen to paper once again, crafting the next expression of his experience.
He started off recording stripped-down acoustic tracks. He recalls the tepid reaction from Atlantic Records. "It was working for a second, but then the label began to think we would shock our listeners." They wanted to shift gears slowly and make sure that loyal fans would remain loyal. In the quest for some more upbeat numbers, Mraz started working out ideas with producer Martin Terefe, eventually blazing an entirely different trail that resulted in a dance record they lovingly called San Disco, CA. They were excited, but the label wasn't. "The label hated it and pulled the plug on us… no more money." Regrouping and left to their own resources, Martin and Mraz kept at it, determined to find the creative middle ground that would satisfy both the executives' and the artists' aspirations. "We told all the musicians and managers not to worry – that these new recordings would prove worthy and we'd be back on track." They took the best material from both records, added some all-new compositions and found the sweet spot, winning back the label's blessing.
One especially strong track from the new album miraculously became a hit, before even being released. Mraz originally recorded the song, titled "I'm Yours," as a demo before it was leaked on the Internet. The song became a huge hit without ever getting a single radio rotation. "‘I'm Yours' was actually cut on Mr. A-Z a few years ago," Mraz explains. The song was removed from the final master prior to release because the powers that be couldn't agree on the final version. Now, with the pending "re-release" of "I'm Yours," consensus still seems to be hard to achieve. "I was in New York and [we were] listening to two different versions of ‘I'm Yours.' They're the exact same version, but there are two different drum takes. So, we're listening to one [then] we're listening to the other [and] people are commenting. This has been going on for months. In the meantime, [that] little demo of mine just got out and did more wonders for us than any recording I've ever done."
Mraz left the final decision on "I'm Yours" up to the finicky executives and flew home. On December 8, 2007, Mraz recorded the final takes for We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things here at home in San Diego. Mere hours since his return from London (by way of New York), where he spent most of the fall recording with Terefe, Mraz was leading a spirited gospel choir in a pop-spiritual recording of one of the new album's songs. "Live High" is an uplifting track that mirrored the mood of the songwriter – buoyant and purposeful. Mraz has chosen to use varied vocal ensembles on his new record in order to create a broader sound palette, ranging from a chorus of children (playing the part of a pack of coyotes) to local "Girl MC" MC Flow (on his pre-release Internet hit "I'm Yours") and even his own mother! She was ushered into the studio along with Mraz 's other Thanksgiving guests to add their piece to the musical puzzle that will become his third album. "I've never recorded with my mom and that was a pretty cool thing," he says, laughing. Mraz also looked to his personal collection of oldies but goodies for creative direction. "I'd just keep going back to [Bill Withers'] ‘Lovely Day.' A lot of it, honestly, for me is guesswork. I build it up and build it up and then if I feel like I've built too much of it, I just take it away." Keeping with his original stripped-down approach, Mraz wanted these new songs to follow a less-is-more philosophy. "I've gotten lost in the past. I've tried to get a little too crazy with the melodies and the words. This time I'm just going to let things breathe."
Mraz is a poet and a commodity, a homebody and a tour junkie. He is an entertainer whose voice would make a canary feel self-conscious, but his approachable nature disarms the mythic proportions of his celebrity. Unexpectedly, he becomes more impressive as he becomes less mythic. Performing locally has made him more accessible to his fans and helped him reconnect with his original passion in music. The demo for "I'm Yours," a left-over track from his Mr. A-Z sessions, became as big a hit as any of his radio-ready productions, proving that his craft stands on its own, even before the studio wizards do their hit-making magic. Furthermore, as the recording industry struggles to make sense of the rapidly changing retail market, Mraz is grounding his success with solid, old-fashioned live performances that keep audiences engaged.
Over the past seven years, he has grown in multiple dimensions – personally, musically, and occupationally. The new album represents Mraz's experience of coming home and getting back to basics. "It has to do with having had a year off to live again like a normal person in San Diego. Shopping at Henry's, tending a garden, building a deck, [and] raising a cat." With tour rehearsals starting as soon as this month, Mraz is facing another busy year. "I've tried to make a deal with the powers that be. I told them when we start touring again, every sixth week I [need to] come back to San Diego. I want to feed the cat, I want to surf in the sea, [and] I want to eat a burrito. I just want to see the stars [and] smell the air." Provided that his wishes are received, Jason Mraz may finally achieve a balance between the demands of his prosperous career and his personal need to live in the moment. For now, he appears ready and willing to swing the pendulum in the other direction. "I'm anxious to put the band back together and go out and sing these new songs. I feel like I've had a year off and I don't think I want a holiday ever again. I'm ready to do this."
Huge mraz fan. I've heard most of the new songs off of this album, if you like old school acoustic mraz (java joes), you are going to like this album