BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS |PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAYME THORNTON
FROM THE OCTOBER 2010 ISSUE OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR
Jason Mraz is a certified international pop star these days, with multiplatinum sales and a string of hit singles, but his heart is in the coffeehouse. For proof, just spin his 2001 album Live at Java Joe’s, which captures Mraz with percussionist Toca Rivera at the storied Southern California venue that also helped launch the career of Jewel. On that small stage, Mraz is in his element—singing and scatting through jazzy pop songs, nimbly grooving on acoustic guitar, delivering rapid-fire lyrics full of verbal mischief, and riffing off the crowd like a stand-up comic. In the years since, his instrumental palette and his audience has grown immensely thanks to songs like “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” the reggae-tinged “I’m Yours,” and “Lucky” with Colbie Caillat, but the basic elements are the same. Strip away the production, and you have a guy with an acoustic guitar who thrives on the no-frills live experience.
Along the way Mraz, now 33, has helped inspire a wave of songwriters playing upbeat acoustic pop colored with light jazz chords and swaying grooves. Few, however, can match Mraz’s brainy wit as a lyricist, tossing off multilayered puns and words like volition and disfigured without missing a beat. In “Wordplay” (from Mr. A–Z), a tongue-in-cheek song about record-biz survival, he builds to a chorus hook of “La la la la love,” briefly echoes “We’re Off to See the Wizard” with the line “the wonderful thing it does because because,” and then tags it by calling himself “the wizard of oohs and ahs and fa-la-las / Yeah, the Mr. A to Z / They say I’m all about the wordplay.” As in many Mraz songs, the puns come so fast and thick that close lyric-sheet reading is required to catch them all.
This year, Mraz is writing and recording the follow-up to his blockbuster We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., once again working with producer Martin Terefe (KT Tunstall) and the Kensaltown Kings, from London. Behind the scenes, one of the keys to Mraz’s creative process is a songwriters’ group shepherded by Bob Schneider of Austin, Texas, in which members challenge each other (by e-mail) to write songs around particular phrases or words—Mraz calls it “community-sustained musicianship.”
At the time of this phone interview from his home near San Diego, Mraz was still stockpiling songs and exploring possibilities for what the new album might be. Mraz’s style has been heavily influenced by Brazilian music—from the rhythmic feel to his use of nylon-string guitar—and shortly after we spoke he headed south to Rio, where he wrote and recorded a song in English and Portuguese with his “spiritual brother,” Milton Nascimento. “Outside of that experience,” Mraz reported back by e-mail a few weeks later, “I danced to new rhythms, tried my hand at new instruments, and picked up a few new inversions to throw around on the guitar.”
You came up through the coffeehouse scene but developed a style quite different from a typical folk singer-songwriter. What were you initially aiming for with your music?
MRAZ I remember going to coffee shops and open mics and songwriter nights, and admittedly there’d be a good number of songwriters where I’d just be bored. I felt like a lot of people were trying to write the perfect song or a hit song, and there’s nothing wrong with that—I’m not making anyone wrong for me being bored. But there’d be a wall between me and that person. I decided, when I do this, my goal, the first thing, is to try not to be boring—whatever it takes.
So what does it take?
MRAZ If you find that the song you just played didn’t really do it and everyone’s yakking, then make up for it somehow in the story you’re going to tell, and just basically create a relationship with your audience that isn’t all about “look at me.” It’s all about “look at us”: we’re all here in this moment, and it’s never going to happen this way again. So it was always a matter of staying present and having a sense of relatedness. I used humor and the awkward and embarrassing moments of my life to create that safe place for an audience to be comfortable and participate in these songs.
I also really admired jazz, and I know nothing about jazz other than I like to listen to it. So I would do my best to mimic it, whether it would be with my voice or just playing a whole series of major-seventh chords that gave it a jazzy sort of disguise. What I loved about jazz is that a certain sort of spontaneity and expression exists that you don’t hear in too many other genres, where you feel like the person taking the lead is talking to you or telling a story or doing something interesting, even if the melody doesn’t repeat itself as often—maybe it doesn’t ever repeat itself. There’s a little acrobatics going on. I wanted to incorporate that into my set. I wanted to offer up pop music and rhythms that people could relate to, but I also wanted to make it a surprise.
Did you grow up a word nerd, playing with language in the way you do now in your songs?
MRAZ Yeah, I remember being in English class and creative writing class and always trying to outdo the last entry in my journal. There was something romantic about keeping this relationship with the diary and seeing your life unfold on the page. I took that on as quite a young man. When it came to songwriting, then it just opened up even more possibilities. I loved to see what kind of odd words I could squeeze in, to make the listener go, “What? Did he really just say that?” or find a way to place one word with multisyllables across a really beautiful phrase. That’s when it really becomes craft, and it becomes a little riddle or a code to crack. It’s kind of mad scientist—there’s a mania that goes into it as well. And it’s fun to sing.
Would you agree, though, that in most pop music the words fall pretty low on the list of what make songs successful?
MRAZ I do. Say I’m listening to Brazilian music and the singing has this crazy, great rhythm to it, and I don’t understand a word they are saying—not a lick. It’s strange sounds and syllables, yet it speaks to me. Part of me thinks that you don’t have to speak English to feel the songs that I write, because there’s an intention, and most of the songs are created through an expression of just singing sounds and syllables. Even a song like “Dynamo of Volition” could have started out with “za-ba di-ga dom, zi-ga-di bom ba, za-ga-di-ga ding da . . . ” and that type of feel, just mouth scatting and chanting a rhythm. And then I go back and fill in those sounds and syllables with the words I think I’m hearing, and let the story evolve through that.
Aside from the words themselves, you often use unusual phrasing and rhymes that fall in unexpected places. Is there music you seek out that helps you break away from conventional patterns?
MRAZ Hmm [long pause]. I don’t listen to a lot of songwriters, and I don’t listen to a lot of pop music, which is funny because I’m a songwriter and I write pop. But there’s a cosmic law that says a dealer shouldn’t [use] his own drugs. And so for me to get off and for me to feel fresh, I listen to instrumentals—classical or jazz or Brazilian music, everything from the classic ’50s and ’60s bossas to some of the more progressive bands. I love electronica, downtempo . . . my favorite genre is this skater/surfer instrumental kind of rock jazz. The Mattson 2, Ray Barbee, Tommy Guerrero—these guys are making some really cool albums, and their phrases speak to me. When I go to write a song, my primary instrument is my voice, so when I get a little groove going on the guitar, my mouth starts to emulate the tones and the styles of the instrumentalists that I was listening to for the last couple of hours. So I guess the secret to not falling into the trap is to avoid the trap.
Was Brazilian music an inspiration for playing the nylon-string guitar?
MRAZ I purchased the guitar [a Taylor NS72ce, in 2004] because I’d made up a song in my mind that had a Brazilian feel.I liked having the guitar around, so I brought it on tour. I found once I had it in my life, it was the guitar I preferred to play. There was something mellow about it, a really warm vibration, but I could also strike it with my nails and still get that kind of kicking, jarring attack but without the steel-string clatter, which sometimes got in my way.
You’ve written many songs as part of a songwriting group. How does that process go?
MRAZ Six of the 12 songs on my last record came out of playing this game. It’s not like a competition; it’s more like a songwriter support group, where one songwriter says, “I wish the wind would blow me” and then you have to use that phrase in the song and the deadline is Tuesday night at midnight. The whole idea is that you just write the song you feel inspired to write, and don’t think about if it’s going to be a single or if anyone is going to like it.
So “I wish the wind would blow me”: That phrase for me showed up [in “Coyotes”] as, “I wish the wild was alive like you / I wish the wind would blow me through / To another opportunity to approach you.” So you can do whatever you want with the phrase, and I find it to be tremendously helpful. It creates this demand for more songs. A record label could certainly be asking where the next songs are, but when you have real songwriters, guys who are doing the hustle just like you, guys who want to live romantically with words and music and leave something behind, then you feel like you’re in a safe place and a noble place, an honored place to write music. So it works for me. It also gives us all an opportunity to write a lot of crap and get that out of the way, because for every great song you’ve got to write a hundred really shitty songs.
Is the game always based on a lyrical phrase?
MRAZ It is. It could be a word. One time it was brown. The word trash: that ended up being “A Beautiful Mess,” the last song on my most recent record [with the line, “It’s like picking up trash in dresses”]. I recommended one time we used a gibberish word. Bob [Schneider] said, “You mean like gumanema?” I said, “Exactly—like gumanema.” Gumanema became a lot of people’s titles, or people found a way for the character in their song to have to say “gumanema.”
Does the game help you write outside the box of your personal life?
MRAZ It does, because the personal life might be my trap. I’m always writing about [something] seen from my eyes or the beliefs and attitudes from my own brain, and I don’t always want to reflect that. So the game does give me an opportunity to get away from me, and I credit that as what made the last album really successful. You know Mr. A–Z, my second record, was titled after my last name. So with [We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.] I wanted to make something that was accessible to a world audience, for anyone to relate to, and the game gave me the opportunity to write about stories and situations out of the newspaper or someone’s life as I followed their blog.
“Love for a Child,” which deals with divorce, seems like a very personal song, so I was surprised to learn that it was co-written. How did that come together?
MRAZ I made that song in the studio with Martin Terefe and Sacha Skarbek, the guys who produced my record. Working with those guys is amazing because they sort of set me up. We all work together on an arrangement and an instrumental and all these melody possibilities, and then they kind of wind me up and set me off to do my lyrical fill-in-the-blanks. With that song the first thing out of my mouth was the first verse, which is my favorite way to write a song: just open your mouth and see what happens. And I thought, well, that’s kind of cool, but it’s dark and weird—I don’t know what that is. [“And when the house was left in shambles,” Mraz sings, “Who was there to handle all the broken bits of glass / Was it mom who put my dad out on his ass or the other way around / Well I’m far too old to care about that now.”] I kept putting it off and trying to write a million other things. After two days the guys came back to me like, “How’s the song coming?” “You know, I’m still stuck on the story with my parents, and having not really a breakdown but maybe a breakthrough.” It came time to just demo the song and move on, so I said, “I’ll sing what I’ve got,” and “Love for a Child” was what we ended up on. I think some songs are just meant to be written. I was really surprised by that song. I didn’t expect to write it, and it kind of wrote me. My collaborators were there to support me and validate that what I was writing was OK.
So have you been holed up in the studio working on the next record?
MRAZ Not exactly. I record most everything at home. I might workshop songs during the day, and then I spend my evenings out there [in the studio]. I think the term holed up would come from a traditional studio, where there may not be any windows and you might feel like you’re buried or in the den of a wild animal. Ours has lots of windows, and we leave the doors open; you feel the breeze and hear the trees rustling. It’s quite a joy to be in there.
What do you mean when you say you workshop the songs?
MRAZ That means I’m either writing a new one or revisiting an old one or something I love but never quite made it. I go into the songs and see at what point do I stop listening, at what point do I get stopped in the story. And so I use the time to try new ideas, and then my favorite part is I do my best to play all the instruments and create a template for a track—what the groove could be like, what the overall vibe could be, how the harmonies could be stacked. I have fun with the technology for a moment before I bring in real musicians who correct me and play it more simply or succinctly.
What is that technology?
MRAZ It’s Pro Tools, plain and simple. I keep everything set up so every instrument is always miked and ready to go. I can play the engineer by hitting the record button, and then I run into the live room and put the headphones on and get it going. If the track is already built, I give myself enough lead time to run into the room, or if I’m doing a drum take, I put on loop record and play the thing a hundred times until I get a clean take. I prefer not to punch in. I like for everything to feel human from top to bottom.
Do those parts ever wind up on the record?
MRAZ That’s a good question. On the last album there were bits and pieces that got used. And then we also put out acoustic EPs that kind of equated the whole record if you put them all together. The EPs were all the acoustic workshops and demos that I made of the songs before they became album tracks. So I record and save everything, never really knowing where it could end up being used.
Can you characterize the new songs, or are you too much in the middle of the process?
MRAZ I’m definitely in the middle of it. I don’t want to use the words “more of the same,” because that doesn’t sound good at all, but I can’t stray too far from what I’ve always done, and I guess zoomed out it’s the jaunty, positive, upbeat, optimistic major-seventh chords [laughs]. Stylistically, I want it to be accessible to the ear: it’s guitar based with horns and some sick keys and strings, and everything has a natural quality that you can place. I remember after we had done “The Remedy” there were like 90 tracks; I could never play that song live in its actual album state. I’d need 18 guitar players.
Although you can still get that song across with one guitar, or just guitar and djembe.
MRAZ That’s another thing that lets me know whether or not the song can go on the record. A lot of songs, you can use the technology and piece it all together and then realize it’s impossible to play—this line overlaps that line, or this was written on a totally different instrument. There’s a lot of dance music where you take away the beat and the lyrics aren’t really going to tell you much. That’s always a test: can this song be performed [solo]?
Do you like the recording process, or does it make you itch to get back onstage?
MRAZ I love the process, but as soon as the song is born and really on, I can’t wait to get on the road and perform it. Plus, the more I perform the song, the better it would be recording it. Sometimes you write a song and record it immediately, and that’s the version that gets released. Like “Love for a Child”: that version on the record is the first version we ever made, before I performed it anywhere. And now on the road it’s totally taken shape; the story has gotten tighter, and musically it’s stronger. So I do itch to be on the road, and what I’ve started to do now, while we’re still kind of early in the process, is go play some gigs, go back in some coffee shops, test out the new material and see how it feels.
So do you still feel the need to connect with the coffeehouse scene?
MRAZ Yeah. It’s where I started and where I should always be. You can’t really turn your back on the community and the original field where they let you play. So I love going back and seeing what’s going on there, plus everyone just treats you like you’re the same old guy. That’s a good feeling. So yeah, I get a fair amount of local playing in. I’ll play with other people or I’ll sit in on guitar, which is actually quite nice—something I never thought I would do is be in someone else’s band playing guitar, holding down the fort. That’s been a great exercise as a player, and it gives me the opportunity to be back in the coffee shops and in the local clubs but without having to necessarily show up and turn on a Jason Mraz night.
How He Plays
Jason Mraz’s guitar style is very much shaped by his conversion from steel- to nylon-string guitar. Before he began playing nylon-string in 2004, he was restlessly experimenting with right-hand technique. “Some songs I’d play with a pick, and then the next night I’d play the same song with my fingernail and kind of palm the strings and get a totally different feel,” he says. “And I was never happy, I was always looking—well, what’s the right sound for this? By the end of the night, my fingernail would be down to nothing, and my knuckle would be all bloody.”
A turning point came when Mraz toured with Raul Midón in 2005. “We shared a bus for a month and he taught me so much about the possibilities that exist in playing with your fingers,” says Mraz. “He blew my mind. After that I really wanted to learn more about what I could do with my hand and not have to reach into my back pocket or the little pick holder and grab picks. I still feel like a beginner on the guitar, so I want something that’s going to work with my natural instincts. And playing percussively over nylon strings, which are quite forgiving when you really lay into it, worked out great.”
For the most part Mraz focuses on rhythm, often using barre chords and closed jazz chords up the neck instead of what he calls the cowboy chords in open position. He finds that he adapts his playing to different performance settings. “If it’s just the duo, I tend to stick with the chords and make sure I’m covering the low end,” he says. “When I’m with the band, all these other elements onstage are covering the basics, and it gives me the chance to find little riffs or touch on a chord sweetly rather than play the whole thing. I can be a little more adventurous and attempt to solo once in a while. But my solos are always rehearsed. I haven’t yet gotten to that place as a guitarist to step out to the front of the stage, close my eyes, and just sing with my hands. I’m still doing a lot of math and kind of map making on the fretboard. I’m still in Fretboard Logic, Level 1.”
What He Plays
Acoustic guitar: Jason Mraz plays a prototype of the Taylor JMSM, his signature model nylon-string, which is essentially Taylor’s NS72ce with custom fretboard inlay. The guitar has a Western red cedar top and Indian rosewood back and sides. Production versions of the guitar feature Taylor’s own ES-N electronics, but Mraz’s prototype has Fishman electronics. “If I’m out traveling solo or just with a percussionist, I’m not taking anything more than the one guitar, because if I need more than that, then the songs aren’t strong enough or the show is not good enough,” he says. “I don’t want to have to rely on gadgetry or the technology to help tell the story.”
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Other instruments: On band tours Mraz sometimes brings an electric guitar and a baritone ukulele built by his Southern California neighbor and surfing buddy Andy Powers (andypowersinstruments.com). The electric is a stylized version of Mraz’s 1965 Fender Jaguar, with custom pickups by Lindy Fralin and Mraz’s fingerprints inlaid as position markers. The uke, tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, is made of quilted Honduras mahogany and has an L.R. Baggs pickup.
Strings: D’Addario EJ32 Folk Nylon, with silver-plated bass strings, black trebles, and ball ends. Mraz especially likes this set because “when the strings are fresh, you can actually get a little bit of a steel-string edge.”
On Amp: With the band, he uses a Fender Acoustasonic amp and Moollon pedals for occasional delay, compression, overdrive, wah, and other effects.
On Accessories: Mraz uses a capo but is not attached to any brand. He is, however, very attached to his guitar straps, custom-made with recycled fabrics by Jean Derby (madebyjeanderby.webs.com).
Contributing editor Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (jeffreypepperrodgers.com), a grand-prize winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, was the founding editor of Acoustic Guitar.