California Dreamin'


By Shana Naomi Krochmal

Jason Mraz is a sassy, soulful hippie singer-songwriter with a voice as clear as a bell. He did his time playing acoustic coffeehouse gigs in San Diego before seeing his debut album, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, go platinum, mostly on the strength of its catchy single, "The Remedy (I Won't Worry)."

But after four years of nearly non-stop touring to support that and Mr. A-Z, his Grammy-nominated second album -- bootlegs of almost all of his improvisational, free-form live performances are available online -- he unplugged, checked out and stayed off the road.

Out recently spoke with Mraz, 30, about We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. -- the cool, California rockin' result of his spiritual sabbatical -- his dream retro tour and his dirtiest gay experience he's not sure you really want to hear.

Out: You're a very wordy songwriter. How do you balance being clever with keeping the underlying emotion?
Jason Mraz: I don't always get it right, you know? But I definitely think cleverness is important to songwriting -- especially because since songs are being mass-produced now. I hear a lot of the same songs. So I challenge myself as a writer to say, 'I'm gonna tell this story, and it's been told a million times. How can you make it new?' I use the infinite possibility of word options. I've always wanted to be a not-so-predictable writer and combine sounds and syllables that are pleasing to the ear. It's really just a lot of trial and error and a lot of work.

Is there a song on the new album you think manages that well?
I think 'Butterfly.' It's kind of a dirty tune. When I first wrote it I got a couple of comments by people who actually said, 'I think you're more clever than that -- maybe you should re-write it.'

Because it was too obvious?
Because there were a few obvious things. But at the same time it's very playful and it's just flirtatious -- you know what I mean? I wanted to get raunchy, to get sexy, but still keep it light, and funky, and family. Ultimately I won the argument.

This album really made me want to go listen to Carole King. It's got this very cool, California rock feel, but you grew up in Virginia. What were you listening to there? What did you think California was going to sound like?
I didn't know. I didn't even know that I'd ever see California. All I listened to was the radio, everything from Guns N' Roses to Michael Jackson and Madonna. I didn't know what California rock was until I visited San Francisco in 1999 and took home Joni Mitchell tapes. The last two years when this album was being written, I spent a lot of time at home listening to Neil Young and the Allman Brothers -- the jingle-jangley acoustics of '70s rock and the melodies of Bill Withers. [Sings a little.] I don't know how to describe it -- my musical descriptions are all horrible usually.

It's 1974 and you're going out on a big festival tour to support this album. Who's the big headliner? Who opens for you?
Can I take anybody from the present era? Or do I have to stay with the '70s artists?

Start with the '70s artists, and then you can take one person in your time travel machine.
I think the Bellamy Brothers would be opening up. Do you remember them? They sang, 'Oh let your love flow like a mountain stream.' And that's the only song they would sing. I'd like to think I'll be the middle act opening up for like the Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan. And I'd bring Brett Dennen to do the duet. He's California rock straight out of the '70s, but he's living in the now. His voice sounds like Nina Simone, but his band and his whole vibe sounds like the Grateful Dead.

What's your big closing cover song?
What about -- what year did 'Listen to the Music' by the Doobie Brothers come out?

It's got to be close enough. [It's from 1972, it turns out.]
Yeah, that's a wicked track -- until they start singing, 'Ohhh listen to the music,' like a hundred times. They do the chorus like 17 times out. You hate it by the time is over -- but for some reason when the song starts everybody wants to dance.

I hear you were the most famous high school cheerleader in Virginia.
Well -- I've gotten famous in the last couple years about cheerleading. But I was one of only two guys at cheering camp one summer.