“Every album you go into it thinking, ‘this is going to be the album where I say something.’ And I feel like I did accomplish that.”
“Know.,” the 2018 album from Jason Mraz, is many things. It’s a response to the information overload of the “post-truth” and fake news era. It was crafted three years into a marriage, “a record that’s nourished” by this relationship. And perhaps most simply, it’s yet another top-10 charting release in the career of the storied singer-songwriter.
Explore the album here, along with discovering the fascinating journey of track “Have It All,” hearing about how Mraz wrote 140 songs during these sessions (and how coffee played into this productivity), and finding out why good A&R is so important to the album process.
Interviews: Jason Mraz, David Silberstein (Atlantic Records, A&R), Andrew Wells (Producer), Dan Wilson (Producer, Semisonic).
Jesse Cannon: Hi. My name is Jesse Cannon, and I’ve devoted my life to trying to go deep and figure out what goes into making great records. I’ve produced over a thousand records, written two books and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears. Now I’m proud to present to you Atlantic Records’ Inside the Album podcast. Where we get to go deeper on how some of Atlantic’s artists have made the amazing albums in their catalog. We will hear firsthand from the artists and the team behind them that helped craft these amazing records and get to know the little secrets that go into making an amazing album. In this episode, we’re going to talk about Jason Mraz’s new record, “Know.”
Last year as Jason Mraz celebrated the 15th anniversary of his debut album “Waiting for My Rocket to Come,” he began to ponder his time in the spotlight since getting his start in the coffee houses of San Diego. While amassing a global fan base for his positive message and soulful folk-pop sound, Mraz has earned numerous diamond and platinum certifications for his various releases including his classic singles “I Won’t Give Up,” “Lucky” and the record breaking “I’m Yours.” One of the things that has always struck me about his music that sets him apart from his peers is his sense of melody doesn’t make for background music. His vocals arrest your attention and make you listen. I’ve even observed his songs stop people dead in conversation since what he does is so captivating.
It’s a testament to the generosity of spirit in Mraz’s music that so many people have chosen his songs as the soundtrack to major moments in their lives. And new memories are certain to be made with the songs on his upcoming sixth album “Know.” The bulk of the album was written against the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election and its aftermath. And Mraz found himself writing a lot of frustrated, angry, even sad songs. But he says that was not what he wanted to sing about. Instead he chose to convey an uplifting positive message. For Jason, music has always served as a way to draw attention to the things he cares about, including farming.
For years, he’s been growing organic avocados at his Mraz family Farms in Oceanside, California. He’s and active citizen who attends city council meetings as a driving force behind inspiring other local farmers to covert to regenerative agriculture and preserve land. As he began to release the early singles of “Know,” I sat down with him in the Atlantic studios in New York to discuss the record with him. Here’s Jason telling you about he’s been doing since his last album “Yes” was released.
Jason Mraz: In 2014, I put out my “Yes” album which is one of my favorite albums sonically and collaboratively. For almost 10 years prior to that album I’d been making backyard music with a band called Raining Jane, four incredible artists from Los Angeles. And we would get together once or twice a year, write songs and over 10 years I feel like we came upon our own sound. And we eventually had a catalog worthy of pitching as an album and we got to make that album, it was called “Yes.” We put it out in 2014 and what I love about it is that unlike other albums I’ve made where I would meet a producer and I would throw a bunch of songs at that person and then we would bring in session players, this album was a collaborative experience with a band and I truly feel like it was the closest thing to a sound that I make with my friends.
I’m not trying to devalue my other music but this was just a home spun project that we were given permission to develop. And sonically it had very few ingredients. It was a largely acoustic. Very rich and vocally driven record. I put that album out in 2014, it’s called “Yes.” And we toured it for about ten months all around the planet. We wrapped up in April of 2015, I had gotten engaged the week that album came out and a lot of that album was called “Yes” because it was the marriage of myself and Raining Jane but it was also, the writing was being fueled and fed by my wife who was then my girlfriend. And when the album came out I asked her to marry me, she said yes and it really put this beautiful “yes” undertone to the tour and the project.
In 2015, I told everyone I was going to take some time off to basically move in with my wife and plan a wedding which we did. So 2015 was all about coming together, pooling our resources, pooling our interests, learning about who we were and planning a wedding for our family. Jan. 1st, 2016 I made an intention to sit down and start writing music for a new record. I wrote a lot in 2015, in fact there are songs from 2015 on my new project, which is called “Know,” aptly titled to follow up “Yes.”
Jesse Cannon: I asked him if it was a common thing to set an intention on New Year’s day each year.
Jason Mraz: It’s something I used to do at midnight because I used to have this belief, I shouldn’t say used to, I still do. That whatever you’re doing on New Year’s Eve is going to influence your year. So I want to be playing music, I want to be being creative. It’s said that if you want to be traveling, pack a suitcase and set that intention for yourself and have that suitcase ready at midnight and led the momentum of life and the universe and your intentions guide you to the life you want to live that year. On Jan. 1st, 2016 I made plans to write something awesome and I brought one of my favorite collaborators, Michael Natter, I wrote “I Won’t Give Up” and “93 Million Miles” with him.
I said, let’s write a song today. I don’t know what it is. I said I want to dance, that’s for sure. And I played a Phoenix record, one of my favorites and I said, let’s go for something like this and we did. We wrote a song, long story short, it didn’t make the cut. It did for a long time I was like, wow, I think we just wrote the first song off the new record. That’s how you feel after you write every song. You think, this is the one. Over 2016 and even most of ’17 I would end up writing about a 140 songs, so all your favorites would continually get bumped as new favorites showed up on your catalog.
Jesse Cannon: In case you’re not used to how records get made, a 140 songs is a huge, huge number. So I asked him if that was normal for him.
Jason Mraz: 140 is way more than I have done historically. Historically, I usually cap out around 80. Once I get to about 80 I feel like most of the record’s there. On “Mr. A-Z” which is my second album that I put out in 2005, I probably only wrote about 18 or 19 songs. But I was much younger and I had only put out one album and I toured a lot so didn’t have a work ethic or an understanding of how to really pull those songs together. I didn’t have the experience. My third album I gave myself more time, took a year off, went in lived, went and traveled and took time to write lots of songs. So that was when I got back into the 80s. Same with “Love is Four Letter Word,” wrote a ton of songs for that, ton of songs for the Yes album but ended up going only it the songs I wrote with Raining Jane.
This is all interesting because prior to the Yes record, one of the songs that I wrote was “Have It All” back in 2013 and it didn’t make the cut on the Yes record so much like a lot of my unreleased tunes they just go in a pile in a folder and you turn the page and you walk away and in 2016 when I started writing again, I didn’t look back. I wanted to just keep moving forward. I just assumed that those songs were rejected in the past, they’re probably going to be rejected in the future. “Have It All” ended up coming back into my life in mid 2017 when one of my co-writers, Jay Cash, his wife had become a big fan of that song way back in 2013 and is friends with David Silberstein who’s now my A&R rep here at Atlantic.
Jay Cash’s wife plays it for Silberstein and says, why isn’t this song out? And he says we’ll what song is this? So he calls me, is like what is this song Have It All? I was like, oh yeah, wow I forgot about that. Yeah, that was pretty good. He’s like, no man, I think it’s better than good. I think we should work on this. So I would say most of it was written, the verses were there, the chorus was there, the bridge was not there, the post chorus was not there. So I shared it with Raining Jane who’s still my band to this day and said what would we do today, how would we bring this up to live? Let’s take out anything cringy or incomplete and just keep building it. So together we wrote the new post chorus and an entirely new bridge.
Basically did that by email and iPhone recordings as I was packing my things up and San Diego to move to New York to be in Waitress on Broadway. While I was in Waitress on Broadway, David Hodges who was also one of the co-writers and producers of “Have It All” was originally formed by myself, Jay Cash, and David Hodges. Hodges sent the files, the stems from 2013 to David Silberstein, Silberstein then sent a number of producers the stems and said let’s see what happens and a number of producers sent back their submissions and Andrew Well’s submission really stood out in its organic and acoustic sound. It sounded very classic. It didn’t have synthesizers and very heavy processing. That was very refreshing to me and everyone else on the Atlantic team because it sounded in chronological integrity with Jason Mraz records. And it just had a nice timeless sound of real instruments you could recognize. And I think also contributes to longevity. At least that’s a prediction. I feel that you can recognize an ’80s album because of ’80s synthesizers. So I think, and again this is just my opinion but technology influences musical genres or musical trends. There are more creators than ever today on the planet thanks to computer technology and apps, and loops, and with one finger on a keyboard almost an entire song is generated. And then it’s up to you the creator to manipulate that and create your song out of it. But those programmable possibilities have in my opinion really driven the current landscape of music, at least 2018. Let’s say ’17 and ’18 where if I scan a new music Friday, there are many, many similarities that almost sound like the same producer produce most of those tracks. But I think it’s mostly the technology and not necessarily the people.
When I heard Andrew’s productions I was comforted in that I don’t know when this was recorded. This sounds to me like my “Love is a Four Letter Word” album which we did in 2011 with humans playing acoustic instruments. Guitars, electric guitars, drums, B3 organs, pianos, etc. Things that require human touch. Andrew delivers his “Have It All,” I thought great. Next step is I need to get into the studio and re-cut the post chorus and the new bridge and get Raining Jane in on it as well. So in this very studio that we are sitting on days off from Waitress or I’d come in early before I was due at the theater and Ebony Smith in there would record my takes and I think I did three different takes with different lyric attempts.
Because I think the first bridge attempt I wasn’t satisfied so I came back another time and re-sang that bridge. I also had to re-cut the cadence of the post to lay back a bit and then the third time we came in I brought Raining Jane in and we did a number of different vocal sessions for that in one day. At least I’d say a number of different songs. And by the time Waitress ended for me, I went back to California in February and I believe we mixed “Have It All” in late February of 2018 with Tony Maserati who even in mixing continue to take liberties on arrangement and does a beautiful job at helping us define what the song is going to sound like.
By March, we’d made a music video for the thing and I think we put it out in April. I want to say it happened fast but it really took five years of that song to be written, discovered, workshopped, produced, re-produced, mixed, etc. a number of different steps, a lot of patience. And that’s not the first one of my songs to take that many years to do that. So with “Have It All” it felt like, oh yeah, why are some of my more successful songs required to have this aging process? I think the patience really helps. It also helps to have 100 songs in your catalog and let an A&R person go through them and help curate that set list or the album playlist because as a writer you’re so deep in it that you really can’t see what you have. You’re married to too many ideas. Someone in A&R can really look at that repertoire and go, oh this will connect with this and that and this can still reach you in this. And they can just help put all the pieces together.
Jesse Cannon: Right now is probably a good time to talk to David Silberstein, Jason’s A&R man at Atlantic about exactly what we were just talking about.
David Silberstein: I’ve been at Atlantic for about four years now. I was working at some other projects and there was an A&R who’d been working with him for a long time named Sam Reback. And Sam ended up leaving Atlantic to go take another job. During that time he’d known that I’d been a big Mraz fan for much of my musical upbringing. Intro’d me to some of Mraz’s team and at the time it was a possibility of starting to work together but it actually took about a year of it to transpire as Mraz kind of did a bunch of his own sessions and was working with Pete Gambard who I ended up co-A&Ring the record with.
About a year and a half ago Pete called, basically said you should go down and meet Mraz and we went up at a restaurant and just had a great conversation and kind of told me what his vision for the album was and what he wanted to try to accomplish with it and we were on the same page and just kind of started off on that journey off kind of beginning the process of setting up some new sessions and really looking under the hood of a bunch of old things to kind of see if there was any gold there and trying to dig up some great songs of the past to bring back with his album. I think that the truth is Jason had done a lot of writing sessions. And I think for him it was a little bit of maybe too many writing sessions to the point where he might have lost a little bit of focus of what he actually wanted to do. So when we sat down, we kind of just said, I said to Jason what do you want to accomplish with this record? And he was super gracious and amazing. He was like, I really just want to deliver something that’s very positive and up lofting and happy. I’m in a really happy time in my life and I want to deliver that and bring that to the crowds and the fans live and let’s try to accomplish that.
So we kind of circled back with some of his core collaborators that he’s much more comfortable with. Like I said, look back at a couple of his songs that he’d already written and kind of re-imagine them. At the beginning of the process I don’t know that we knew that we were going to end up meeting and working with Andrew Wells on a lot of the production of the record but as it pertains to the subject matter and the writing and just what he wanted to deliver as a message, I think that that actually did come up in that first conversation that we had. So that was definitely his vision, was something very positive and kind of this message of service.
Jesse Cannon: I then pressed David about how they whittled down so many songs from such a prolific writer.
David Silberstein: Jason had written a lot of amazing songs and especially an artist with as amazing of a voice as Jason has, sometimes it’s tough because every song sounds so good because his voice is so awesome. So we really had to dig deep and kind of look at a lot of songs and go through what we thought were our favorite. I think one of the transitional moments was looking back at this song “Have It All,’ which ended up becoming the first single and right after I got the call to come join the project I was actually hanging out with Jay Cash’s wife who’s an amazing publisher and manager. Her name’s Jamie and she played me that song. She said there’s this amazing Mraz song that Jay Cash has wrote with him a while ago. Have you ever heard it? And of the maybe hundred songs that I listened to, that was my favorite song.
I kind of brought it up to Jason and was like, hey man this is an amazing song. What do you think? Jason was like, oh yeah, I really like that one. So he kind of started tinkering around with it and re-vamping it and eventually we brought that song to this producer named Andrew Wells, who kind of re-imagined the production and ended up becoming the core producer for this album. And I think it really then steered at least the production and a bunch of the future writing after that moment to go this new direction.
Jesse Cannon: And now, here’s Andrew Wells talking about his involvement with the album.
Andrew Wells: Basically it was a super weirdly organic process in that I had just gone through a bunch of changes on the management side. I was kind of figuring the business out and a good friend of mine is this guy David Silberstein, who works at Atlantic, who’s been like the biggest Mraz fan since day one. I think he’d been at Atlantic for a little bit and was like who’s A&Ring Mraz? Can I work on that? I had produced one kind of organic project that he’d heard that really no one was too aware but he was like let’s try Andrew to produce this song we’ve had for years just sitting called “Have It All.” My manager’s actually really close with David Silberstein and was working with Jay Cash when he wrote that song with Mraz and it was just kind of sitting, and he was like, hey David what about this song? And she had just started managing me at the time so it’s this crazy kind of convoluted train that eventually led to me just taking a stab at it.
I got sent the files and I called two friends of mine, this drummer Rob Humphreys who’s kind of been like the backbone of the entire album and my friend John Joseph. We took a stab at it, just kind of a shot in the dark of what I wanted Jason Mraz’s first song out in a long time to sound like and that kind of just snowballed into, let’s try another song. He was the easiest and coolest artist I’ve ever worked with. I’d send off what I did and he’d respond, like amazing, I love it. And I’ve never worked with an artist where the chemistry was that, like we’re so in sync like that. Then it kind of really just exploded into the whole album going down to the farm and writing and all that.
There were, I want to say six different bridges written to this song and that had completely different characteristics and he was actually in New York doing Waitress and him and I hadn’t met until “Have It All” was completely finished. Even a couple others were completely done and him and I had never been in the same room. We would just email and text back and forth and there was kind of a vibe but seeing his dedication to, and I’m telling you all the best artists are like this, obsessed as they should be with their music. He wrote this bridge I think I could find five or six different versions and I remember having a folder of so many different ProTools sessions, it was honestly a shot in the dark sending it to mixing but he cracked it and it turned out to what it is now. It’s so cool to see how well it’s doing. All the best artists over scrutinize their work and six bridges later I think it worked out.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked Jason what were his thoughts on how he should shape this album.
Jason Mraz: Every album you go into it thinking this is going to be the album where I say something. And I feel like I did accomplish that. There are nuggets on this record that I’m so proud of. In the song “Better With You” the bridge lyric is, life’s about the people who surround you, and love’s the only thing it comes down to. And those little couplets, those little phrases like that sound so trivial or something that you would see on a bumper sticker or I don’t know how to describe it but when you write again, and again, and again, and again, and again and then you land on something simple that touches you and you know you’ll be able to sing this night after night and say so much with so little, that to me is what makes it so worth it.
I set out to write any record thinking, yes I’m going to have a huge statement, I’m going to change the world. And my working title for this album from day one was MASTER PEACE. A play on masterpiece. But it was two words, all caps MASTER PEACE. P-E-A-C-E. Because not to call myself a master of peace but really to challenge the listener or the viewer of the album title I think that’s the game here as a human. We’re here to master peace. We know from day one we’re going to die and so we have to spend our whole life dealing with death and art is a great way for us to be comforted. Whether we’re a creator or we’re a receiver of the art. It gives us a chance to celebrate humanity’s song, celebrate humanity’s beauty, vision, and creation and things that were left behind from other generations, gifted to us. Things that we get to gift future generations ourselves. I think art helps us deal with death and yet we’re still masters of war.
Art is a great way to combat that. Art is our greatest weapon in the war against unhappiness. I wanted to create that record that teaches us those things that gives us those nuggets of wisdom and comfort and joy and I had to, and I’m always surprised when I write a record but you really have to have your heart broken open. You really have to deal with rejection. You really have to deal with thinking you’ve written something great to have someone tell you, oh it’s okay. No, I think we can beat that and you have to deal with that. You have to just say okay I’m not attached to that even though I love it and it’s beautiful, it means something to me, maybe the rejection is true. Maybe it’s not as universal as something I could potentially write.
So I have a few songs that I thought for sure were going to make this record. I have a song I wrote called “My Own Shit,” which is just about being truthful about things that I have to deal with and it talks about my parents getting older and things that I want to just come out and say. I wrote a song called “Camouflage” which is about, take my camouflage, I don’t want to hide anymore. I want to put down all my armor. Songs to me that I thought were all about helping master peace. Over 2016 most of ’17 I wasn’t setting any traction, I wasn’t getting any love about the album title or about the songs I was submitting. I had a song called “Undone” and all these songs you can find on YouTube I was playing them live, just trying them out. “Undone” kind of almost lashing out about musical trends and computer music or manipulated sounds becoming hooks and to me as a writer I just was kind of lashing out about that.
But what I realized is you can’t have success at the expense of someone else. So if I’m going to bash someone else or put something else down like that’s a lesser form of art then that makes me a lesser form of art as well. That is not how I’m going to master peace. I learned a great deal in that so I had to write those dark songs for my own personal journey to just let some things go. And that’s a great thing about songwriting, about art in general, is that we can put that frustration on the canvas, we can splatter that paint instead of splattering someone’s blood. We can just get it out in our art form.
Raining Jane and I had always joked about following the “Yes” album with “Know.” That kept coming back into my brain. I said, I know this album isn’t sonically the same things as the Yes record but would you be okay with me using that Know title for my next project. I would love to follow “Yes” with “Know.” And “Know” to me sums up our post truth era that we live in. Post the 2016 election when we were introduced to what is now known as fake news. We’re drowning in information so how do we know anything anymore? This record to me says whatever you want whatever you’re after, whatever you’re looking for, love is still the answer. That’s all I know. That to me is how I master peace, is that I ask what would love do? And that always makes me feel better and this album is sown together with that in mind.
Now being married for three years and writing a record that’s nourished by my wife and supported by my wife with me either traveling or spending long hours in the studio and being three years into this marriage I know I love her. I know why I love her and I know more things now being married to her that I did previously. I’m grounding myself in that “Know” title for many different reasons. I just love the play on words, following Yes with Know. It also gives me a chance to talk about the “Yes” record which we’ve done here today which again is one of my favorite records that maybe didn’t get heard as much as some of my other stuff.
Jesse Cannon: Jason did change something up on this record. It was an interesting new collaborator in the process.
Jason Mraz: Coffee, honestly I stopped drinking coffee in 2004 but I didn’t really know what coffee was. Back then for me it was just milk and sugar and I didn’t drink it but in 2015 my wife who’s a coffee lover introduced me to coffee so this was really the first album I wrote on coffee. And it’s probably why I wrote a 140 songs because it really became a great companion to writing. With that came the dive into the horticulture and the plant life. I love going into nature with music. I think, music is humanity’s birdsong. It’s our unique expression. We all have our unique voice so it’s important to listen in nature and be out in nature and coffee is one of those things. My wife and I, we visited coffee farms, we established our own coffee farm, we planted a lot of trees together. We literally had our hands in the dirt. I became a certified yoga teacher during my time off. I wanted to just get closer to that practice because I travel so much I didn’t want to have to rely on yoga studios.
Plus every yoga studio I went to the teacher would always give me something profound to leave the classroom with. And I always felt inspired to go write it down and create music around these lessons that were passed on by a yoga teacher. So I myself wanted to know more about that. I wanted to be closer to that knowledge and maybe be able to offer that to my audience. I look at a show as 90 minutes to 2 hours, it’s a transformational experience, same as a yoga class. You go into here to do breath work and when you go to concert you go to sing along, that’s breath work. You end up in your heart and you end up awake because to do breath work and to sing you have to be present. You can’t be thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. You can’t breathe yesterday or breathe tomorrow, you can only breathe now. And you can only sing that song now.
So I brought a little earth, a little fire, a little yoga fire into this album. It didn’t surf as much as I would’ve liked to. I actually spent more time on a train looking at surfers on the Amtrak Surfliner as I was taking the train to L.A. a lot and this was the first album where I sent myself to Nashville, spent a month there doing the writers round. None of the songs from that ended up on the record. Not many songs, I went to a writing camp in France with ASCAP which was awesome. None of those songs ended up on that. When you look at 140 songs, most of those songs didn’t make it on this 10 song album.
Jesse Cannon: I thought it was interesting that he wrote all these songs with other people but most of them didn’t make it onto the record. So I asked him if he learned anything from these writers though that had an impact on the music of the record.
Jason Mraz: I learned just the writing ethic more than anything. That also allowed me when I was home to go to my desk at 10 o’clock with my cup of coffee maybe a book that I might have been reading at the time. I read a lot of yoga books, How Yoga Works is a great one because that’s more of a novel. Some Dave Eggars who I love. Just his descriptive storytelling. So anyway, I would take myself to my desk and I would just write songs. And I would hack at it until my wife called me into dinner and then I could just put the song away and be with my wife and have a normal 9 to 5. That’s what I learned going to Nashville. That’s what I learned going to L.A. and writing with writers. Occasionally I would pick up, oh a new plug-in or a new sound on my keyboard I could use or shortcuts in production techniques so that when I wrote song and made a demo I might already be halfway to the final of that song.
For example, the opening track of this record is called “Let’s See What the Night Can Do.” And I wrote that in February of 2016 at my house with John Green and he had just come from Joshua Tree but he’s from England. So I was very influenced by that Southern California beauty and the desert and what it feels like to escape. That’s actually where my wife and I go to camp and escape. We have a fondness for that region. I can’t remember what his prompt was. It was actually the piano bounce in that song which is a little frantic and I probably can’t even sing it to you. That’s what he came in with. He said, I want to do this piano thing over a waltz and I thought that was very cool. I started emoting things about getting away to the desert and the song was formed relatively quickly.
We were able to take a nice avocado toast break thanks to my wife delivering us snacks. That’s one thing that my wife did so generously during this album process is we’d be working feverishly in the studio but she’d always come down and make sure we were fed. And that food energy just kept us going as well as the coffee. John is a producer in his own right and did a phenomenal demo of that song. Enough that pretty much from February 2016 even though I went through A&R reps during that period of time all three of those A&R reps loved “Let’s See What the Night Can Do.” That was probably the first song we knew for sure would and should be on a record. And when sent the stems to Andrew Wells later in late 2017, very little needed to be done. We re-recorded things but the essence of that original demo is really still what we did. In fact, my original vocal from that demo is still the album version. I only had to sing that song once on demo day back in February 2016 and it still sounds great. The groove changed a lot but it’s still a driving waltz and I love that song so much.
Jesse Cannon: Next I wanted to get into how the record was actually recorded so I turned to Andrew Wells to talk to me a little bit about the details of that.
Andrew Wells: It’s interesting because I had, literally was in the middle of finishing Meghan Trainor’s new album which was like the complete opposite, it’s just such a big programmed pop thing and I worked so much in that world, coming to the Jason Mraz album it was a conscious effort to be like we’re not going to use a single drum sample, programmed loop, anything that you hear on this album was a person playing it and recorded live. And that was such a big part of making this album and the approach of it and it was all about how organic and real can we keep this. And as far as song choices it’s just most of the sounds on here we committed. We would be recording with one mic over the drums that’s distorted and going through a gate and that would be, any time you hear a drum fill even like on “Unlonely” the fill going into the last chorus is like just this one super trashed up mic.
And I wanted to explore sonics like that maybe producers hadn’t done with him in the past. And even though we were keeping it super organic, how can we distort some stuff, how can we really use the gear in the studio. And we made it at East West which is my favorite studio in L.A. where all the gear works, everybody knows how to use it and it was really just a live, super kind of woody organic approach to the whole album. And I think we kind of nailed it and I’m really proud of sonically. Because I come from that background initially. I just want to be an engineer mixer not doing, approaching an album like this is such a crazy opportunity for a producer today. Go back to the way things used to be recorded but how can we modernize it and how can we make I feel like a new Mraz album that will hold up in 20 years sonically? Won’t feel dated.
It’s honestly a trip. When we were blocking off time to really track out the full album at East West I’m like, cool we’ll do these three days for vocals, and of course those three days come around and we do one pass of the first song, I’m like, cool that sounded pretty phenomenal. Should we do another? He’s like I think we got it. And of course we did and most all the vocals we hear are line one pass down. There’s really no vocal comping to be done with him. He’s such a ridiculous singer and every mic sounds good on him. There’s songs, like “No Plans” is one where it’s literally him singing and playing guitar into one mic and that’s what you hear and it sounds like we used all the mics in the world because of how crazy his vocal is. But it was pretty mind blowing that most of the vocals you hear when artists today need comping and tune, there’s no tune, there’s to no comping if any. It’s really just him singing the song.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s how Jason saw the recording process go down.
Jason Mraz: I thought this record of a long time was going to be multiple producers because I was working with a lot of different producers and writers over a three year period really. We did end up with I think four, maybe five different producers on this record. Most of it through Andrew Wells just in case there was a consistency that we needed some songs to have and or just organize the stems before they went to Tony and Tony Maserati mixed this entire record and he did such a beautiful job. It was wild and inconsistent for a long time because I did of that whirlwind writing tour which I honestly hadn’t done since my first record. When you sign up to label as a new artist and you’re still developing odds are they’re going to put you through the writer’s circuit which isn’t a bad thing because you’re going to learn so many different techniques and tools but also you’re going to meet songwriters and see how they live their lives.
How you can sustain yourself as a songwriter, how you can pay your bills as a songwriter. That’s one of the great things about the writer’s circuit so I wasn’t sure how this record was going to come together. It was honestly the foresight and confidence of David Silberstein who helped me organize all of this. Because I was throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick. Things that I thought were great sure enough a month later weren’t as exciting. Most of this record’s vocals were recorded at my house. “Have It All,” of course was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York City. “Sleeping to Dream” vocals and maybe probably three songs vocals were recorded in L.A. maybe four. A lot of my vocals were recorded at home where I cut a lot of demos.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked him to clarify if they’re using the demo vocals and just putting that into a finished track of if he’s going back and re-singing it after they’ve found the song.
Jason Mraz: It’s a little of both. There’s demo vocals on this record like “Unlonely” is the demo vocal. “Might As Well Dance” is the demo vocal. But a song like “Making It Up” was originally the demo vocal but then after we produced it the demo vocal was just too tired and too slow so I went back and re-recorded it but I did that at home and I had time to play that song live a lot so I was able, I had the freedom to go back and thanks to digital recording I can do that. I can ask for a new bounce of the current production, just a stereo instrumental, throw it on the machine, I’ve got my vocal chain matching things that Andrew might be using or other producers might be using in their studio so I cut the vocal at home, send the file back on my hot spot and by the next morning the vocals mixed in. Or if I want to add harmonies the same way so I’m very blessed that I can do most of it a home.
But we did a lot of stuff at East West. Anything we did with Andrew Wells we did it at East West either in the Pet Sounds room or right next door in studio two which was a really beautiful space and a really cool studio. When you step out the back door that studio there’s a clear shot through the alley of many buildings and many blocks of the Hollywood sign. It’s just an alley, nothing special but just that glimpse of that green mountain to the north with the Hollywood sign still makes you feel giddy even after 15 years of recording and being in L.A. and New York and all over the planet. You know there’s just still like, I’m in it. There’s an 18 year old kid in me that’s stoked like you’re still going and still doing it in the town where it happens.
So that was cool. Andrew used top notch session guys. Rob Humphreys on drums, Sean Hurley on bass who’s a monster, Andrew himself is a great guitar player, played a lot of the guitars in this record. I was able to bring Toca Rivera in who’s a life-long collaborator with me, vocalist and percussionist. Raining Jane is on this record in many different capacities. They would show up here in New York, they’d show up and L.A., they’d show up in San Diego so this album is really pieced together from a lot of different sessions. So David Hodges had done sessions on some songs at his place, Dan Wilson produced a lot as his house. He produced “Love is Still the Answer” and I co-wrote that song with him. He was very much a champion of my MASTER PEACE concept and his, I want to say assistant, Yaz is a graduate of Tesoro High School who recommended her high school choir to be the choir on “Love is Still the Answer.”
Ironically I had just met the choir teacher at the Music Cares Grammy Foundation event a couple of weeks prior to her suggesting that so I thought it was serendipitous that she’s recommending a choir teacher that had been on my mind. I wanted to use this guy’s talents. So Keith Hancock, I reached to him for this song and I went to their high school, Tesoro High School with Martin Terefe actually who produced “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” And he helped me record the vocals of this choir I want to say mid 2016, late 2016. I honestly can’t remember the date. Maybe it was early 2017. But anyway all those files ended up going to Dan Wilson, he puts them all together. He has strings that are recorded I believe in Minneapolis.
So things are happening all over the place, I had strings recorded at the library in Nashville for a song that’s going to end up as a bonus track called surround me which another irony to where we’re sitting is on that piano behind you kind of put it all together with Raining Jane here in the studio on an iPhone before we actually developed the production of the track. This album took years and almost an inconsistent zigzag pattern all over the country but luckily just collecting information on a hard drive. Just collecting it and sharing it and that goes back to one of the lyrics I said earlier in the podcast is life’s about the people who surround you and love’s the only thing it comes down to.
I attribute a lot of my success not just on this album but my career, to surrounding yourself with talented people who share your vision and how want to play the game. And I trust them. I trust Andrew Wells, I trust David Silberstein at Atlantic. If you allow them to paint with you then more things are going to happen than I could do myself. That’s what the album cover is. That’s what our single covers are. We’re like one flower, a rose has 90 pedals on it. The album is a rose and I can’t take credit for that. We are 90 individual pedals that all come together to make the thing possible but luckily I get to put my name on it.
Jesse Cannon: You just heard Jason talk about Dan Wilson who you may know from his old band, Semisonic and has also written huge songs for artists like Adele. I talked to him about what it’s like to work with Jason since he’s worked with him a ton over the years and he talked about his part in this record.
Dan Wilson: I won’t tell you the long story but I think I first worked with Jason in 2003. We wrote a song called “Did You Get My Message” which came out on “Mr. A-Z” and we wrote a couple of songs after that. We worked on Details in the Fabric. I guess we have sort of an ongoing, songwriting, hanging out, talking about life type of relationship for a long time. It’s interesting with Jason and me, this happens sometimes but he and I are repeat offenders or maybe it’s actually the best possible outcome which is sometimes we end up talking about life way more than we end up writing a song that I think turns out to be okay and a good thing to do. We had done a couple of sessions before we started working on “Love is Still the Answer,” where we had written songs that felt sort of like pop songs but somehow they weren’t hitting the mark in the sense of being really, really from the heart. Really, really full of soul which is I think what we wanted to somehow get to in all of our songs.
I think the way “Love is Still the Answer” came about is that Jason had that title kind of ready to go and I think probably he had a sense of that lilting 6/8 meter being the good groove for it. So I think those two things were pre-existing when we wrote the song. I do remember that the idea of “Love is Still the Answer” was something he was talking about and I think it had to do with maybe this sort of relentless negativity of the way ideas are presented and the world right now. He’s such a positive person and I think he wanted to find a way to make a really positive statement that was still a call to action or engagement or not just drifting away.
The writing of this song is kind of a blur to me because it felt almost like a conversation and there was a lot of moments where I felt like we were laughing because it was the obvious thing to say and yet also worked as the lyric. So the first lines, the question is why, why are we here. What a completely blunt thing to say in a song where you’re trying to talk about the largest reasons for our lives. And so I think when those lines happened then I remember which of said what parts of them or whatever but it was so obvious that it was going to be a really, really straightforward but soulful and hopefully really honest song about life.
Jesse Cannon: I then asked him how they wrote this song. If it was music first or lyrics first.
Dan Wilson: We really wrote the song without a track, without thinking about the track. I think it was pretty obvious what, we were kind of strumming two guitars or playing the piano back and forth. I think it was pretty obvious what the groove was going to be so I didn’t really worry about creating an arrangement for it or working on the record yet and I think Jason really, really wanted to make sure that we put all of our energy and effort into digging as deep as we could with the lyrics. There’s something about getting to a simplicity and honestly and straight forwardness in lyrics that’s like really hard. It’s harder to do than being clever or interesting. I think about John Lennon and how he would say the bluntest things that would get laughed out of a writing session and I think Jason and I kind of needed to almost hypnotize ourselves to relentlessly pursue that kind of simplicity.
We knew it had to be kind of funny. We knew that the word play had to be an effect. It couldn’t just be pure earnestness the whole way. But we still had to get to that really honest place. Perhaps we did it, the writing in a day, maybe two but I think it might have been two days. Literally just singing back and forth. I think we had too many words, too many verses. We had to make some painful decisions about what to remove. That was probably good. Jason said, hey can I come over with Dre, my bassist, sometime this week and we can make a demo. So one evening a few days later the two of them came over and they basically just, I recorded them playing bass and guitar. For the first two tries at the song, I played piano with them. For some weird reason, partly because I’m fallible but also I’m not sure why I kept making mistakes on the piano and distracting ones and I think in the end I kind of ended up firing myself from the piano job on the tracking.
I kept making these terrible clams, literally the demo was Dre on the bass and Jason playing guitar and singing at the same time on the same mic. The track just totally got out of hand because we just kept adding things and I sent it to Andy Thompson in Minneapolis and he recorded a nine piece string section on it and it just started to become epic and it all came from that first really passionate performance of the two of them.
Jesse Cannon: You heard Andrew Wells talk before about his work with Meghan Trainor but coincidentally she’s also featured on this record. So I wanted to hear about how that happened.
Jason Mraz: We had already mixed our record and I believe we had to extend or master deadline. Our master deadline I think was due May 11th or something and we were getting a lot of pressure from the product team here at Atlantic because they were like, look if you don’t give us this record by May 1st we’re not going to be able to print it and get it to all the DSP, digital service providers, in time for summer release. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But we had this opportunity to hook up with Meghan Trainor the first week of May. So after the deadline, so let’s just master the record and who knows. If we can write a great song with Meghan we’ll bend the rules and see if we can’t mix it and master it overnight and squeeze it on to this record. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I’d met a lot of writers and you spend the first day just talking.
Meghan is such an incredibly talented and driven young artist and flattering. I walk in we flatter each other because I think she’s a little bit James Brown, a little bit Justin Timberlake, a little bit Adele. She’s just got so many different brilliant qualities. She’s got a little bit Ella Fitzgerald, she’s just she’s awesome and she’s also a producer and a great writer so she knows what she wants and I think she also knew we had a limited amount of time and that we wanted to have success in this short amount of time. So she and I and Andrew Wells manning the guitar and manning the recording equipment helping us anytime we had an idea, he was making sure he was capturing it on the microphone and building a track around us.
And she said, flattered me with I want to write something as adorable as “Lucky.” And that I can do because I love simple and adorable. Something my wife says which is super adorable. My wife just has really adorable lingo. It might be dyslexia but I just think it’s an adorable lingo of her own and one of the things she says is “more than friends” as an adjective. It’s like, honey do you like our coffee? More than friends. I think that’s super cute and I actually tried to write more than friends with John Green back in 2016 and we came up with a version of it and I played it live and it was funny. But it was sort of low brow coffee shop humoresque song. So I shared it with Meghan and Andrew and like, yeah okay, concept is great. Let’s make it a little more adult contemporary. Just start riffing.
And she immediately has just that very modern style of singing writing where it’s simple and sounds effortless and a lot of it is driven by the quality of her voice. She knows how she wanted to sing and she knows the melodies and the riffs that she wants to sing. It’s almost like the words fill the need because we knew we were aiming at more than friends we could really be playful with that and it was almost like the punch line already written for us. I’d say within two hours we had the song written and then in about an hour we recorded the nuts and bolts of our vocals to a basic track. That night Andrew had session guys come in, record the backing track, I want to say it was the next day that everything went to mixing and the day after that everything went to mastering.
And the song got shared with the label, they said wow, this is a really great last minute addition to the record and it is. It’s a gift. It’s a gift to be able to work with someone as in demand as Meghan but also as talented as Meghan because this record was already set to come out, it had its track listing and then to be able to add potentially another hit to the record at the last minute is a real gift and a real blessing. I’m grateful for her and I’m grateful to Atlantic for giving us that time to take a chance at this. And I’m grateful to Epic allowing Meghan to appear courtesy of Epic Records. And that’s how that came out. Really quick and honestly we haven’t been in the same room since. That was a few months ago but I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.
Jesse Cannon: Next, I wanted to talk about the song “Sleeping to Dream,” which has a really great story.
Jason Mraz: There is on song on this record I wrote in 1999, in the summer of ’99 with Peter Stewart. He had a band called Dog’s Eye View in the ’90s. Great songwriter, one of the first co-writers I ever worked with and we wrote a song called “Sleeping to Dream” and for many, many years that was a live song. And it has appeared on a live album that we released in 2004 and it appeared on a live digital album that was released in 2005 but other than that it never had a home. And David Silberstein at Atlantic said, hey what about this song? Why didn’t this song ever make it on a studio record. Similar to the story of “Have It All,” it’s like I don’t know, we tried on my first album, it didn’t make the cut so I never looked back. We played it live, it made it on some live stuff but again I never looked back. As a writer you’re always looking ahead. What other probably can I solve? What other beauty can I discover about myself or about the world that I can reflect on?
So Silberstein had the idea of let’s try it. Let’s take it into the studio and that was inspiring because honestly I had never really finished writing “Sleeping to Dream.” The bridge I always mumbled and in a live show I would use it as an opportunity to improvise and try to re-interpret but I’d never had a lyric for it. So that occurred to me the day I was cutting vocals for “Sleeping to Dream” it was like, oh my gosh I can’t mumble this or make this up right now. This needs to be a definitive lyric to help me finish this song. So I told Andrew, I said, hold on one second. I just had to force myself but honestly having been through the songwriting process with I want to say 75 songwriters over the last two years at least because I’d say half of this 140 songs I wrote were with other people.
I said okay, if I were in a situation like that and I were asking for help or looking around the room for a suggestion for this bridge, I didn’t have anyone and I didn’t want to reach out. You have it in yourself. What is this song about? And what have you always been trying to say in the bridge? So I said, okay Andrew I got it. And I sang what the message of that bridge should’ve been all along and it felt really great to me, so I got inspired by the trust and encouragement of Silberstein on this record probably more than anyone on this record you need A&R. You really do. And he inspired me again and again to either re-think a situation or dive deeper. And I was also inspired by the 75 writers that I crossed paths on. A lot of writers who, we wrote some brilliant stuff that may never be heard. Writers like Steph Jones, Amy Cooney, Sean Douglas to name a few. I’m sorry there’s many out there obviously that I didn’t mention but have inspired me as a writer and brought my game up. So in that moment in “Sleeping to Dream” I was able to finish writing that song and it finally has a home now on a record. To me, that was a really inspiring part of this record as a whole, this album as a whole.
Jesse Cannon: And here’s Andrew Wells talking about the song.
Andrew Wells: It was honestly such an easy process. The one thing, I don’t even know if I’d call it a struggle, that I took very seriously is like there’s songs on this album that he’s played live for the past 20 years, for the past 15 years, that his fans know so well that for whatever reason has never really made it on to an album. There’s one song like “Sleeping to Dream” in particular that has been a fan favorite live and then there is a certain pressure of me coming in and being like, I’m going to help him record this for the first time and the fans already love it, so it’s like we can’t make a version that he fans don’t love as much as the live version they’ve heard for so long. I think we nailed it and it ended up being one of my favorites on the album.
Jesse Cannon: I always think it’s interesting to talk to the people who work with an artist about what makes them unique. So here’s Andrew Wells talking about what makes Jason unique.
Andrew Wells: Literally everything about him. I truly don’t know anyone like him. And that was honestly the highlight for me of the whole album was spending some time with him on his avocado farm. He has the most gorgeous studio at the center of it. The frequency at which he lives his life down there is amazing. I’ve never worked in a studio where you step outside and it’s just silence, nature and he’s at the heart of it and I feel like for that it has an impact on his life and he chooses to live at this complete other frequency that I feel like it’s so obvious he’s figured it out. There’s truly no one like this dude and that made it such an easy process to make this album. He lives his life at another frequency and one that I think many could use to do as well because it’s just stress, there was none of that in the room. It was just smooth and I’m recognizing now that I don’t think I’ll work on another album for a long, long time that was as smooth and easy and fun as this process was with him. Because of the kind of person he is.
Jesse Cannon: And now here’s Dan Wilson talking about Jason’s unique traits.
Dan Wilson: Well, Jason’s a really unique person. First of all, he’s a really kind, funny guy. And what you see is what you get but there’s a thing about him where he doesn’t always respond to things quickly. The processing power in his brain, it takes a few seconds sometimes for him to respond. So there’s a whole different rhythm with just hanging out and talking with him because he’s no glib. Everything goes through the whole computer and comes back out so it’s a different tempo of conversation and among the artists that I know, he’s one of the very most kind of socially engaged He has a real sense of purpose. He wants to have fun, he wants to enjoy making music with his friends, that’s obvious, but he also wants his music to have a net positive effect in the world and he wants to use his platform to influence people to do things that are healthy for the work and for other people.
He’s very intentional about that and most artists these days are very cautious about their platform, they don’t want to say anything that’s going to alienate anybody. And people are so cautious that they not willing to, the world of trolling is so intense that if you said, we need to save the earth. Then you would be instantly made a mockery of and magically with word play be turned into a villain by the internet and the trolling world out there and so artists are really, really cautious about losing their platform by stepping out in any way. Jason completely goes against that. He just completely speaks earnestly about what he thinks would help the planet and help our society and help each other co-exist and it’s inspiring. It’s great.
Jesse Cannon: Thanks so much for listening. To find more of our podcasts, head to atlanticpodcasts.com. Jason Mraz’s “Know” is out now and streaming on all services.