We talk to award-winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz about paying the bills, being your own first fan and surrendering to the track.
Intro: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say, where Atlantic Records talks with artists about songs they made, songs they like and songs they’d like to have made. It’s an inside look into the craft of songs from the artists themselves.
From busking in San Diego coffee shops, to becoming a household name, few artists have achieved the commercial and artistic success of dedicated artist, gentleman farmer, and impassioned social activist, Jason Mraz. With hits like “I’m Yours,” the number one favorite, “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” “You and I Both,” “Curbside Prophet” and many, many more, you have definitely heard his music.
Recently celebrating the 15th anniversary of his major label debut, “Waiting For My Rocket To Come,” Electra released the album on vinyl for the first time. With eight studio albums, hundreds of thousands of touring miles, and a lead in the Broadway show “Waitress” under his belt, Mraz is now prepping another tour this year.
When recently in New York City, we sat down with Jason to discuss his life and the future of his music.
Tom Mullen: Do you remember — this is memory lane, now.
Jason Mraz: All right.
Tom Mullen: Do you remember your first favorite song?
Jason Mraz: My first favorite song was probably Alan Parsons Project, “Eye in the Sky.” Is that how it goes? Is that the name of the song? “I am the Eye in the Sky looking at you. I can read your mind.” It’s called “I Can Read Your Mind.” “I am the maker of rules. ”
Note: It is called “Eye in the Sky.”
Tom Mullen: How’d you find it?
Jason Mraz: It was on the radio. I was in the backseat of my mom’s green Fiat and she listened to that on the radio and Air Supply and sonically, those songs had rich harmonies and sounds. Maybe they were Rhodes pianos or something that was just warm, and buttery, and colorful that made me want to sing along with it. And yeah, those are my earliest musical memories. That and Mister Rogers and The Muppets, of course, because those were my TV friends. Those are the people that actually cared for me on a daily basis.
Tom Mullen: They were there. You could trust them.
Jason Mraz: Yeah.
Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first song you memorized?
Jason Mraz: The first song I probably memorized might have been “Jailhouse Rock,” or “Wooly Bully,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” or the “Humpty Dance.” And it was probably those four in that order, and that’s because-
Tom Mullen: That’s a good group.
Jason Mraz: …That’s because I did those songs in elementary school talent shows and I needed to know the words because I wasn’t performing them, I was lip syncing.
Tom Mullen: Lip syncing.
Jason Mraz: Yeah. Because that was big. I didn’t even know I could sing in the late ’80s.
Tom Mullen: You didn’t?
Jason Mraz: I was lip syncing.
Tom Mullen: You didn’t know yet?
Jason Mraz: I should’ve sung those songs.
Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first song or album that you bought with your own money?
Jason Mraz: I actually could buy 45s. I am old enough that I bought 45s at Bradley’s, which was a Target of its day in Richmond, Virginia. And they had a 45 section and I remember I got Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” Arsenio Hall put out an album as Chunky A. He wore a fat suit and he did songs. Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson did music together, which I had.
Tom Mullen: Those are some good ones.
Jason Mraz: Those were good. My first CD, 1989, was a tie between an act called Kwamé. I don’t know if you remember Kwamé.
Tom Mullen: No.
Jason Mraz: K-W-A-M-E, I think it were called. They were a hip-hop act. And Deee-Lite World Clique, because the “Groove Is In The Heart.” And Deee-Lite for some reason put out albums on my birthday, maybe every two years, so I felt like we were connected, me and Deee-Lite. They always wanted-
Tom Mullen: Did you get to tell them that?
Jason Mraz: No, but still to this day, they’re one of my favorite acts. Deee-Lite.
Tom Mullen: Was there a specific song of yours that when you finished it, you knew that this is it? “I can do this. This takes me to the next level.” Even it could be an early song. Even one that you didn’t release. Just a moment or a feeling that you’re like, “I can do this.”
Jason Mraz: Oh. It would have to be before my recording career because that’s what gave me the courage, or at least the confidence, to pursue this as a career. So in college, I would just make songs up. Somebody would say, “Make up a song about this candle or this Dr. Pepper can.” Or whatever. And I would just freestyle a song, and I thought that was tons of fun, and it would get a reaction and draw, basically, an audience in. And then I started adapting my journal entries into songs and taking it more seriously. And two different times, I felt like I landed on a hit, but they were never commercial hits. They were just community hits because when I played them, college roommates, suitemates, people in the dorm would come by and say, “Hey, can you play me that song?” They were requesting a song.
One was called “Galaxy,” which was adapted from a journal entry about my best friend, Stevie. And another one was called “The Dream Life of Rand McNally,” which was when I was working in the coffee shops, I’d wrote this sort of epic tale about this guy, Rand McNally, who was a mapmaker. We all know Rand McNally as a map publisher, and I thought, “Why did he make maps?”
Well, because everywhere he went, he would get into trouble and so he had to make a map of that place so he’d remember never to go back there again, and ultimately amassed this huge map collection. And so it was “The Dream Life of Rand McNally,” and when I wrote it, even before I played it the first time, I thought: “This is cool. This is something special.” And of course, when I went and played it at an open mic night, it was a huge hit immediately and it was my first coffee shop hit.
After that, those two experiences, they were like two little eras for me. I said: “I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna keep going and see if I can’t find more experiences like this, or more unique songs like this so that I can continue to get these dopamine hits and get these reactions, and hopefully pay my bills through music.”
Tom Mullen: That’s what I thought. I thought it was a before recording one, because you play it once and that one friend that says, “Play that again.”
Jason Mraz: Right.
Tom Mullen: You’re right. It’s the dopamine of: “Oh my god. This is connecting.”
Jason Mraz: Yeah, this connects. So then the rest of your career is built on those moments, saying, “Okay if I’ve done it once, let me see if I can do it again.” And the way you do it is, first you see if you can just connect with some deep version of yourself so that you are your first fan, so that you can be entertained by the song. And then you play it for your wife, or your best friend, or your open mic and see where it goes from there. And that’s still how I do it today. I write a song, I play it for my wife. If she likes it, I got to the open mic and I play it there. And if I can do it twice at the coffee shop and people like it, then I’ll take it to A&R and see if I can get it into the building.
Tom Mullen: Have you ever been stubborn about one? Or that you loved it and no one else did? Or it doesn’t get past the wife?
Jason Mraz: The problem is, now my wife loves all of them so she’s really difficult. But she will tell me straight up if a song is not good, but usually she likes everything. But yeah, I’ve been stubborn about songs. Like: “Why isn’t this connecting? Why is the label like this? How come when I play this, the audience goes to the bathroom?” So yeah, and I’m still trying to learn why my ego is attached to some songs and why some songs just spiritually get connected. Yeah.
Tom Mullen: Is there a recent song that you discovered that you had to share with your friends?
Jason Mraz: Well, I just make playlists on Spotify. That’s what I do. So if I love a song, I have a couple of different playlists based on different moods, I think. Like I’ve got a troubadour singer/songwriter playlist, so if I come across something that moves me, I throw it on that. And then I just tell people when they ask me, “What are you listening to?” I’m like: “Go to my Spotify. I have a bunch of playlists. That’s what I’m listening to.”
Jason Mraz: That’s what I’ve earmarked that I like, because it’s impossible for me to remember all these different names of songs and the artists, but I do my best to save them.
Tom Mullen: Do you feel that way because there isn’t anything physical?
Jason Mraz: Totally, yeah. And it’s names, and nowadays the names are so crazy. People are using numbers and letters, and they took all of the vowels out of their hipster band names. And they don’t make their artwork the feature, and nowadays I’m starting to see more and more moving imagery show up as artwork, or even a music video pops up, which I appreciate, because I’m gonna hear the song. I’d love to get the visual art in some form as well.
Tom Mullen: Because you remember staring.
Jason Mraz: Yeah, I remember staring, and holding it, and reading it.
Tom Mullen: The whole 45 minutes.
Jason Mraz: Yeah. But I think also, today compared to that, [there’s] a hundred times more creators out there giving us music. And so, I think the technology . . . they’re serving each other, but I think the technology is a way for us to organize all those, allow us to listen and take them in, and hopefully have a place to put them in our pocket.
Tom Mullen: And learning more. Probably taking a lot more in.
Jason Mraz: Taking a ton more in, but almost taking in so much that I rarely get back and listen a third time. I will listen twice, because occasionally . . .
Tom Mullen: Or the track 12 of the record.
Jason Mraz: Yeah. Oh. Gosh.
Tom Mullen: I miss the trach 12s.
Jason Mraz: I do. I was always a track eight guy, and if I loved eight, I would eventually pair it with seven, and I had to listen to seven, eight back-to-back, because the artist wanted me to have that experience. That happened seldom, so if I’m listening to a station and I come across – like my most recent obsession. I’ll actually tell you the guy’s name here. Give me one second.
Tom Mullen: For Spotify?
Jason Mraz: Yep. And you know what I did the other day is I mixed up my icons, my apps, because someone told me that’s better for your brain. It’s like, once a month, scatter your apps so that you-
Tom Mullen: And also deleting Facebook, that helps.
Jason Mraz: I actually deleted my Instagram.
Tom Mullen: Really?
Jason Mraz: Yeah.
Tom Mullen: How come? Just too much? Too much time? Too many scrolls?
Jason Mraz: It’s television, and if we’re drunk on television, we’re missing life. We’re missing the issues. We’re just missing interactions, in general. We’re missing opportunity to be creative. If we’re being creative on Instagram, we’re making somebody else money. We’re not making us money. We’re creating content for whoever owns Instagram. That’s just my two cents. I will still be posting stuff through there through my social media manager, but I don’t want to be drunk on Instagram. And I admit, I have been.
Tom Mullen: You want to create.
Jason Mraz: I have been. I will find my legs numb on the toilet because I’ve sat there too long looking at stupid stuff. Looking at skateboard accidents. That’s my addiction, is I want to see wipe-outs. Surf wipe-outs.
Tom Mullen: How about fail videos?
Jason Mraz: Fail videos. So I had to delete it cold turkey, and I’m doing really well.
Jason Mraz: So, I came across this guy who I absolutely adore. His name is Leif Vollebekk, and I believe he’s of the Dakotas. I could be wrong. And he put out an album called “Twin Solitude,” and the song was striking enough that I listened to the whole album several times, and I eventually found my track sevens, and my track eights, and my track twelves. So it still happens, but I earmark certain tracks and they end up on playlists. So if you want to know what I’m listening to, go to my Spotify page. I have Mediation Station for exactly that.
Tom Mullen: That’s a good one.
Jason Mraz: I have Troubadours for singer/songwriters and bands that I like that I know are out there on the road slumming it and kicking A. I’ve got Getting It Done, that’s like my up-tempo, high BPM tracks of both rock and DJ style. Yeah, those are my top three playlists, and I’m currently curating new ones. I have one called Live Lip Yourself, which is mostly my reggae and dub-reggae tracks, and tropical grooves.
And then I’ve got the Future Is Female, which any time I hear a rad female artist, I throw her specifically in that category, because I want — sometimes I only wanna hear female voices, because my voice mostly sounds like a female. And I have a theory that people like the kinds of music that they sound like.
Tom Mullen: Interesting.
Jason Mraz: When they speak or sing along. So if you have a friend that sings really poorly, odds are, he likes indie bands that have really weird singers. Odds are. That’s my, yeah. They probably love Bright Eyes, they probably love Decemberists, they probably love “I’m the King of Carrot Flowers.” That type of stuff. Nirvana.
Tom Mullen: What grabs you when you first listen to a song? The lyrics, the beat the drums, the guitar? What’s the first-
Jason Mraz: Gosh, it’s probably track by track. Leif Vollebekk, who I just mentioned, it was the soft groove with noise in the background, with piano, and I was like “oh, that’s a nice sound.” I was lured into the hypnosis of it, and then he started singing, and it was a melody that was similar to my own voice, that was also rapping a bit with — rhythmic in his melody. So it was a perfect storm, it was all the perfect ingredients. The perfect conditions for me to grow into listening.
Tom Mullen: So it’s more than one thing when it begins?
Jason Mraz: It’s more than one thing. And a friend of mine recently said, “Surrender to the track.” And I love that, because we were listening to a playlist, and it was on shuffle, and this track comes on and right away, I wanted to hate it. I just wanted to hate it. It was a disco beat that I wasn’t in the mood for, and my friend’s like: “Hey, just surrender to the track, you don’t know where it’s going. Let’s see where the creator of this wanted to take us.”
Jason Mraz: And three quarters of the way through, it became my favorite song. I was like, I can’t believe how much I love this song, and I wanted to change it two minutes ago. And so I’m really glad of that lesson, because it’s so easy just to skip. Skip, skip, skip, and I wanna be hooked within the first 10 seconds. So, surrender to the track, y’all.
Tom Mullen: What’s a song, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, you will stop anything you’re doing just so you can hear it again?
Jason Mraz: “We Are The World” came on the other day, and I was in a broth shop, and I walked in this place right when, “Bop, bop, bop, bop, bop.” The intro came on. I was like, “Ahhh! Is this ‘We Are The World?’” It was like yeah, I think it is. And we just stood there and we sang the whole thing. And when you get about four minutes in, they’re just looping that chorus, and people are just ad libbing, and some people are ad libbing twice.
Tom Mullen: Willie Nelson is throwing in his line.
Jason Mraz: Yeah, Ray Charles ad libs for a full chorus and then goes quiet, and then Ray Charles comes back and ad libs for another chorus. It’s like, wait a second. You guys didn’t plan this, y’all are just, “Anybody who wants the mic, come forward.”
I think it’s one of Bruce Springsteen’s best songs. I say that jokingly, because he didn’t write it, but he sang it like he owned it. Four minutes in, he comes and I recently saw Springsteen on Broadway, [and] I was like, why didn’t he play “We Are The World”? It’s one of his best songs?
Tom Mullen: You didn’t heckle that? You didn’t yell it out?
Jason Mraz: No. So yeah, that’s a song that recently stopped me, and I sang, and I stood there for five minutes listening to the whole thing before I placed my broth order, and left this broth shop.
Tom Mullen: I think people should yell out, instead of yelling out “Free Bird,” people should start yelling out “We Are The World.”
Jason Mraz: “We Are The World.” Even if you don’t play it, it’s a reminder to the audience that we are the world.
Tom Mullen: We are the world.
Jason Mraz: It’s a powerful mantra that we need to remember.
Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs in public?
Jason Mraz: I was in Australia driving on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong side of the car, and my song came on the radio; I was just about to pull into the rental car place to return my car, and the song came on and for a split second. It was “The Remedy,” it was in 2003, I was already touring, the album had been out for a few months, but we agreed not to put the single out until about four months after the album came out. Song comes on, and for a split second I thought, oh I need to pull my CD out before I return the car. I was like, oh wait, my CD is not in the car. This is on the radio! And I looked around and I’m just like wow, I’m on another planet right now and hearing my song, this is so cool. And I probably rolled the windows down and turned it up a bit. Nowadays, if my music comes on, I actually put the windows up because I don’t want people to pull up next to me like, “Check out Jason Mraz listening to his stuff.”
Tom Mullen: So I was in San Diego last night.
Jason Mraz: Yeah, I pulled up next to J at a red light and he’s cranking “The Remedy” still. It’s a good song though.
Tom Mullen: Great song, great song.
Jason Mraz: But I do pull up next to other cars that are blasting my music, and that is awesome. I really grateful.
Tom Mullen: Do you ever say, “What’s up?”
Jason Mraz: Sometimes.
Tom Mullen: Just a little, the horn toot.
Jason Mraz: It does happen.
Tom Mullen: Bonk bonk.
Jason Mraz: But usually if the light’s green and I’m just: “Hey, thanks man. Peace. Hey, appreciate that.”
Jason Mraz: And then I roll, make sure they’re not following me home.
Tom Mullen: And then I roll. Make sure they’re not following you home, yeah. Couple more. Do you ever look back? Just thinking back to the early years, and continuously adapting, making new music, trying new things? Businesses. Is that something that’s always been in you, to always have something different going on, and always have things going on? Because it seems like you’re always busy, no matter what.
Jason Mraz: Yeah. I don’t know how that happened, but I feel better when I’m busy. I feel like I’m more in the flow of life when I have a creative task in front of me. Whether it’s playing the piano, guitar, writing poetry, planting a garden, helping a local fundraiser happen. They’re all challenges that I can put my attention on and feel like my life has a purpose. Because when I don’t have that, I feel drifting, I feel lost, I feel like the world could collapse. I don’t know, it’s a weird feeling. And I also feel like, at any moment someone could ask me to do something, of which I’ll probably get roped into, so if I have a lot of stuff that I’m already creating and doing, then I just feel better about being in control of the possibilities of the outcomes.
But I didn’t plan it at the beginning, I never did. And, to answer your question, I still feel like I am back there, I don’t feel like I’m looking back at what my life was before I had a career. I feel like the page is blank, that the path still needs to be machete’d, and figured out where we’re going. I still go back to the coffee shop that my career began in, and I still test my music out there. And I feel like, if my entire music business were to crumble for some reason, my foundation is that I can go to that coffee shop and play songs, in exchange for that money at the door, and take my wife to dinner, and our bills would be paid.
That was the foundation of my career, was not have to have a day job, but be able to go somewhere and play my songs, and pay my bills. That’s the American dream, right? We just all wanna be able to do our talent or our joy enough, so that our bills are met, so that we’re not working for the man. And I was lucky enough to just continue to get opportunities where I could show up and play my songs, in exchange for trade so that my bills are paid. And luckily, when all my bills were paid, I was able to start to share that with my community, create a foundation, create small businesses, help start-ups so that these people who have talents can do exactly what I did with music, but they’re doing it in food. Or they’re doing it in a non-profit. They’re taking people with disabilities and freeing them from paralysis, because they’re giving them a new quality of life. All because that’s their joy, that’s their talent. That was all an extension of someone giving me the opportunity to do that, in that coffee shop. Does that make sense?
Tom Mullen: Mm-hmm.
Jason Mraz: So I still feel like I stand at that threshold, or on that foundation.
Tom Mullen: Using it for good.
Jason Mraz: Yeah, using it for good. Because I was rewarded so early, I was 21 when I got my coffee shop gig and money started coming in the door, literally, of the coffee shop. “Hey, we sold 100 tickets tonight, here’s your cut of the door.” “Holy cow, I’m going home with $1,000? What?” No job I’ve ever had paid me $1,000 in a week, right? I worked for the Post Office once, and in two weeks I remember I got a $800 paycheck. I was like, oh my gosh, I’m loaded.
But I was suddenly making this little bit of scratch here and there at these coffee shops, and I felt like I had a tremendous blessing. And for all the people who took me to dinner, or took me to movies, let me borrow their car, let me sleep on their couch so that I could get to that place, I felt like it was my duty once I got somewhere, to continue being that for others.
What I have learned as a hustler from the coffee shops, and as a small business owner, it’s important to — yes, educate yourself as much as you can, but also diversify your talents. Play the coffee shop, play the online games, the services, get your art out there to every capacity you can, and also continue to think outside the box. Where can you do something that no one else is doing it? Whether it’s a certain street corner that they don’t have music being played. Who can you wow with your art?
Tom Mullen: Or, you’re a filmmaker, and you’re taking film on the road, and then you make a doc, and you learned how to do that, so then you do that for someone else while you’re doing music. Those things happen when you’re just-
Jason Mraz: Exactly. I love that you brought that up, because that steps outside of music. That talks to all creators, and the more you can learn about the entire scope of creativity, the more it will contribute back to each and every part of the assets that you create. So, if you know how to make music, but now you’re venturing in film, that music understanding, that production, is gonna add to film. And who knows what those projects allow you — who you’re gonna meet.
And one day, next thing you know you’re probably the film executive. Follow your joy, and I think make realistic choices, too. I’ve met people that are: “Listen to my songs, listen to my songs, I’m ready. I want you to …” And I’ll listen to the songs, and I don’t think they’re ready. I think they have a passion for it, and I think they have a gift, but I think they need to keep working, and maybe start at a more local level, rather than just wait for some big huge international payday.
I think there are realistic goals that you can meet, that will train you and get you ready, so that when that “Despacito” moment comes up . . . is that what the song is called? “Despacito”? And the whole world is ready to embrace that song, then you’re also ready because you’ve put in the time to manage yourself, and your musicianship, and your credit. So small, realistic goals I think is also important for songwriters.
Put in the time, do the work, write a thousand songs. Nothing wrong with that. It’s not wasted effort, trust me. Plus, Sting said, “Music is its own reward.” So even if nobody ever hears that song, you heard it, and you got to commune with the divine while you were making that song. You got to birth something that’s magical to you. Maybe your cat heard it, maybe your wife heard it. And that’s enough, really.
Outro: Thanks again to Jason Mraz for coming on What’d I Say. Stay up-to-date with Jason at jasonmraz.com.
Our theme music is by Max Frost. Be sure and catch up on all the Atlantic Records podcasts, at atlanticpodcasts.com. Thank you for listening.