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A PRODUCT of Mechanicsville, Virginia, who nurtured his musical roots in the coffeehouses of San Diego, Jason Mraz is on a career high these days. His new album, We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., has gone to the top of the charts, along with his number-one hit single, “I’m Yours.” A world tour this year has taken him from the United States to Asia to Australia to Europe, where he took time out for a telephone interview. But his soul is still in San Diego. We Sing, in fact, is a result of a self-imposed hiatus from recording during which he reconnected with San Diego audiences at coffee shops like Java Joe’s, Lestat’s and Twigg’s. A Thousand Things, a personal photo travelogue of people and places encountered by Mraz on his world tours, was published this fall by I Love Books. When he’s not on the road, Mraz chills at his home in North County, near Fallbrook, surrounded by avocado trees and assorted artist friends.
TOM BLAIR: Okay, where are you today?
JASON MRAZ: Sitting in a hotel room in Milan.
TB: On a very long world tour. You started in Australia?
JM: Good question——depends on when you want to say this tour began. I started traveling in February and did a lap around the world. And then we did the U.S. in April. Then we left again in May to go back to Europe. And then we were back here in spring when the album came out. Some people say the tour begins when the album comes out, but I know I’ve been gone since February, and I won’t be back until Christmas.
TB: What’s the best thing about touring, and what’s the worst thing?
JM: The best thing is that you really do get to see the world and to become inspired by your travel——the places you go, the people you meet, the foods you eat, all of it. If you’re touring on the success of a single that’s hot, everybody wants to talk to you, the hotels get nicer, the buses get nicer. I guess the worst thing is that it’s harder to find a sense of community. That’s why I moved to San Diego and love San Diego, because there’s a community that’s nurtured my talent and allowed me to continue to live and work and thrive. On the road, I have to look really hard for that; I have to make my band and crew members my community. I get to stay over and go to bed in Milan tonight, which is rare, but it’s tough to patch yourself into the community in that short time.
TB: You kind of see the world in fast-forward.
JM: Yeah. Exactly. Because you’re here just long enough to hear ciao, prego, arrivederci. And you’re like, “What’s going on?”
TB: Headlining a world tour is a nice leap from being the opening act for The Rolling Stones. Still, that must have been some kick at the time. What was that like?
JM: You know, to say that you opened for the Stones is actually bigger than opening for the Stones. Like, you saying that to me right now sounds pretty good. I met someone last night, and they were asking our opener, “Who else have you introduced?” I thought that was a really nice way to put it: As a support act, she’s introduced Jason Mraz. And I actually had a flashback to The Rolling Stones, and it was like, I can say, “I introduced The Rolling Stones.” But the highlight of that for me was that I got to introduce my mom to The Rolling Stones.
TB: I’ve been listening to your chart-topping single, “I’m Yours,” over and over, and it just gets better and better. In fact, all of We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. is cool. There’s a hint of anarchy in that album title. Where did it come from?
JM: I read those words in the work of David Shrigley——a brilliant artist from Glasgow, Scotland. And I thought, wow, what a profound statement. The concept of “we steal things” had a couple of facets that really intrigued me: We’re always borrowing from past influences and recycling old ideas and borrowing from past generations. As a culture, we’re stealing resources from the plan et and doing what we can for our own survival or betterment. And then there’s a divine element. We steal from the divine energy we live in——that makes our hearts beat. And we don’t pay a tax for this energy that we live in, or have to plug ourselves in at night to access it. It’s life. So I thought it would be great to acknowledge that energy.
TB: We Sing. . . is your third studio album, and “I’m Yours” is your first top-10 hit——number one on iTunes, last time I looked. How does that feel?
JM: Well, we got a little taste of that with “The Remedy” five years ago. But I honestly never expected anything from that album, the second one or this album. I’m just about making music and putting it out there. I have no expectations. But when something like this does happen, it’s definitely kind of mind-blowing. Suddenly you feel a part of something; you feel connected in a way you’ve never connected before. I get to meet people all over the world, and I know we share something——even if it’s only that one song——I know what kind of person that is.
TB: I understand “I’m Yours” is a three-year-old song you recorded, then weren’t too crazy about and sort of let slide. True?
JM: It wasn’t that I wasn’t crazy about it. It was just at the time I had this feeling it wasn’t ready yet. I wrote it in August 2004, and I was getting ready to make my second album, Mr. A-Z. I played it with the band, and it just didn’t sound right. So I thought, “I’ll just keep it to myself; it’ll be an acoustic song I’ll play live and just bring out from time to time.” But over the past three or four years, because of us playing it live, and then putting it on the Web as a free B-side when Mr. A-Z came out, it just started to travel the Internet and circle the globe. I noticed that when I’d go do a show, people wanted to hear that one. In Sweden, in 2007, I showed up at a festival, and when we busted into “I’m Yours,” the place went nuts. It felt like we were playing the Swedish national anthem. There were 10,000 people in the streets singing it——all thanks to this old acoustic demo. So I thought, “I’ve got to give this song a birthday. I’ll shoot myself years later if this song never appears on an album.” So I used it as the foundation for the new album.
TB: Your recording career has taken some sharp turns over the past five years. I guess there was some backlash when you went from a more laid-back, acoustic style to what some might call overproduced music. Is this new album about going back to your roots?
JM: Absolutely. After touring with Mr. A-Z, I just stopped everything. I stopped my communication with the record company. I said, “I’m gonna go home, I’m gonna lie around a little, and I’ll call you guys when I’m ready.” And the first thing I did was get in touch with one of my best friends in San Diego, Bushwalla. I started joining him every Sunday night at Twigg’s and Lestat’s——and got right back into the coffeehouse scene. I probably spent a year starting over. Like: I’m going to act like I’ve never had success, never seen the world, and I’m just going to write songs for me again.
TB: Your musical style is hard to categorize. “I’m Yours” feels like pop, but you slip some pretty cool jazz scatting in there, too. Others have called your style “folk.” What do you call it, and who were your musical influences?
JM: I call it jaunty. Even if it’s going to be slower or sad, there’s always an optimistic or upbeat outlook by the end of the song. That’s always been my goal: to make music that contributes to the comfort of our lives. I guess the whole point of religion, and going after our educations and dreams, is because by the end of this, in life, you just want to be comfortable. There’s no right or wrong way to live life; you just want to be happy. So I find that my music is always directed at that. That’s my mission. When I write a song, it’s therapeutic; it’s for my own happiness. And I want to share, with my music, those life lessons and moments or realizations. When it comes time to dress up a song and produce it, I borrow from every influence I’ve ever listened to. When I was growing up, my dad always had the Motown station on. Doo-wop. I listened, and I wanted to try that. Or I’d hear a jazz tune, or hear Frank Sinatra get down and want to feel what it’s like to be him. I’ve got musical ADD. I want to do it all.