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.
What made you decide you wanted to be a cheerleader?
I was already hanging out with the girls in the show choir and the drama department. They all did cheering and it just seemed like, Hey, I'll do that too. There were a couple of guys who had just graduated and the squad needed some more dudes. So I said, I'll do it. I don't care. And I knew that it would give me the chance to hang out with some of the hottest ladies in town!
That's a good reason to be a cheerleader.
It's a great reason. I don't know why guys get so much flak for it.
What kind of flak did you get?
Oh, I got derogatory names called to me. I'd walk into the cafeteria and I would hear fag thrown my way a million times. I'm like, I don't get it! I'm hanging out with chicks! It was just insecurity from the jocks -- that's really all it was.
Describe your sexuality -- not using the words gay or straight.
[Long silence] Awesome?
That is an awesome answer, thank you. I saw a quote where you talked about being bisexually minded.
When I was in high school, one of my best friends came out, and he became a magnet for [me to have] more gay friends. When I moved to San Diego in '99, the first guy I met -- who championed my career -- was a gay guy, who turned me on to my manager, who's also gay. I just have this community of gay friends. You can't help but just be in love with your community regardless of who there is straight or gay. Seeing all the love in my gay community, it's always made me wonder well, maybe... Who knows who's out there for me? I go back and forth between being single and not single, and certainly when I'm single I keep my options open -- although I've never had a gay relationship. Only a couple of random, random, quick gay club experiences.
Wait -- what is a quick gay club experience?
Well -- [Laughs] There's been truth or dare night when everybody's just kissing everybody and you just go for it, you know? There are some dirtier things that I'd rather not talk about, because they're kind of gross and awkward. Here's the quick version -- no, I can't even tell you. It's pointless.
I'll tell you, and then you have the right to choose not to put it in your magazine. It was a typical Ecstasy night. Everyone passes out. And I pass out with a friend spooning me on the couch and I wake up at six o'clock in the morning totally sweaty, and I'm like, This guy is a little close. The sun is coming through the window, it's hot -- I've got to just get out of here and take my clothes off. So I went to my room and changed, because I was really just gross. And then about a month later I'm at a different party. The same guy passes out in the middle of the floor. And I'm like, Yo, should we put this guy in bed? And [my friend says], Nooooo! When he mixes drugs and alcohol, he cannot control his bladder. And I just flashed back to that night on the couch, and I realized he had peed all over me.
That, uh, definitely qualifies as a dirty gay experience.
Yes. That definitely qualifies.
Who's cuter: hippie boys or hipster boys?
Hmmm. I'm gonna go with -- that's a tough question. I definitely appreciate the hygiene of the hipsters.
You've been on an intense spiritual journey over the last few years. What's the most important thing that's changed in your daily life?
It's about taking time daily to just check in with myself. When I had time off, and I was on my little quest for awareness or an awakening, I did a million little things each day that kept me grounded and kept me present in every moment. Surfing definitely helps that -- you have to be present, you have to watch what's coming. You have to be going the same speed as the wave to be on it. And so I bring that with me on the road. Some days it's just getting up and going to the gym, or it's doing yoga or just a silent meditation for 15 minutes at any point during the day and just focusing on your breathing. Sometimes we just get so caught up in our schedule -- this Need to do! Need to do! We keep giving ourselves excuses for not just calming down. And in the past on tours I've done just that -- I've allowed my schedule to control me, and I've done just what other people tell me. Now in my daily life I take time. I just take my time. I make sure I'm checked in and that I'm cool with where I'm going and what I'm doing. If things get busy, I take a little break. It reminds you of the hard work you've been doing to become a conscious person and a happy human. So that's what I do.
We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. (Atlantic Records) will be released May 13.