Every creative act is an act of love: Mraz
BACK in 2010, while he was on the road and enjoying the record-setting Billboard chart run of his single I’m Yours, singer and songwriter Jason Mraz spoke about having a plethora of material in the works and speculated about making two very different albums with a variety of collaborators.
Then he fell in love with love.
Love Is a Four Letter Word, which debuted at No 2 on the Billboard 200 chart in April, is the San Diego-based Mraz’s fourth studio album, and its title sums up the various perspectives on amore voiced by its 12 tracks. Mraz says, however, that it wasn’t the songs that drove him in that direction.
“The album kind of began with the artwork, which is unusual for me,” the 34- year-old Mraz recalls, speaking by telephone from “the shady little corner of a tall building” in Los Angeles. The image, by Atlantic Records designer Greg Burke, showed “these four shapes in a row, rectangle, circle, triangle, square, and it looked as if it said ‘love.’ I knew it was just cleverly placed shapes, but the image of love came in and out of focus to me, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s so what love is. It’s always there for us to see, we just sometimes lose sight of it.’ “So that was the ‘aha!’ moment that catapulted me into this project,” he says. “I wanted to create a love album.” At first, Mraz recalls with a laugh, he thought it would be easy to do an album around that theme. He soon learned otherwise.
“See, I always write about love, and every creative act is an act of love,” says Mraz, who was raised in Mechanicsville, Virginia, established himself in San Diego’s coffeehouse scene and became a star when Waiting for My Rocket to Come (2002) went platinum. “But it was actually quite tricky. I wanted to bring people’s attention back to love, but I also realised in that process that love isn’t always easy. It can be hurtful. You get a good taste of love, and then it shifts and it leaves you, or you think it leaves you, and it can really bring you down.
“So I discovered and realised that melancholy occurs,” he continues. “Just like the weather on the surface of the planet, clouds come and clouds go, and melancholy does the same thing for us and casts that shadow. I tried in the (songs) to acknowledge that melancholy and let it happen when it wanted to happen, and hopefully let it ease by.” Mraz experienced that gamut of emotions himself during the time between We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things (2008) and the making of Love Is a Four Letter Word. He was for a time engaged to fellow singer and songwriter Tristan Prettyman, but in 2011 the engagement was broken off, which surely factored into some of the new album’s songs.
“We were already split up,” Mraz recalls, “but we weren’t sure whether we wanted to stay together or get back together. It was just a very odd place to be.
It happens to a lot of people. You break up and you don’t know if you made the right decision. You feel like you gave up everything or made the wrong decision, so you’re in a state of limbo.
“That’s how the song I Won’t Give Up came to be,” he says. “I didn’t want to give up on myself and I didn’t want to give up on loving this other person, even though I felt I needed to go in another direction in my life.” Compounding that was the death of three people who were close to Mraz, as well as of his pet cat.
“I was in that place with my own career and my own life, ‘Do I really want to keep going with this songwriting thing?’ and blah, blah, blah. I think about that every so often – it’s just human nature – but I realised I did.” His doubts certainly weren’t the result of writer’s block: Mraz estimates that he wrote about 80 songs for possible inclusion on Love Is a Four Letter Word, though he adds that the winnowing process wasn’t difficult.
“Forty of them were weird, dark, depressing,” he says, “what I needed to do to work out my problems and to understand who I am and to grow as a songwriter and an individual. Of the leftover 40, maybe half of them were cheesy. Then you get down to 20 that you think, ‘OK, these have some merit and these have some transparency to them, and I hope they can serve some greater purpose in the world than just being clever songs.”’ The yardstick for Mraz was I’m Yours.
which in 2010 peaked at No 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was his first Top 10 hit. More important, it stayed on the chart for 76 weeks, beating LeAnn Rimes’ How Do I Live (1997) for the alltime- longest chart stay. The song sold more than 5 million copies in the United States and also was a worldwide hit, topping charts in New Zealand and Norway, and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
“I’m Yours was a song that people sang to each other,” Mraz says. “They were choosing to use those words to empower themselves, to gift themselves to someone else. That moved me as a songwriter. So the pressure I felt was, could I create another album that had songs on it that, when the listener sang it, they were affirming something in the universe, maybe transforming their minute or their day or even their life by singing these songs? “That really made me want to be more of a conscious songwriter,” he says. “I had some subconscious tunes on that last album that I saw made a difference in people’s lives, so that’s what I was going for.” Though he wrote nearly everything on the album, which was produced by Joe Chiccarelli, Mraz tapped The Freedom Song, written by Seattle singer/songwriter Luc Reynaud and originally recorded with children at a New Orleans shelter after Hurricane Katrina, as the opening track.
“I just thought it was an incredible story,” Mraz says, “and I knew, if I put that song out on my record, a) I’d have a great time playing it and b) the money (Reynaud) would earn as the songwriter would benefit him and his communities greatly.” He also turned to Michael Natter, a 60-something San Diego troubadour whose career was not exactly in the toilet – but that’s how he wound up writing with Mraz.
“I had a toilet that needed changing in my house,” Mraz recalls, “and I knew Michael, who raised six kids in a onebathroom house, would probably know how to do that. He came over and, after we did the job, we jammed and I noticed that he had all these brilliant ideas he’s been sitting on for 35 years.” Natter wound up co-writing four songs on the album, and Mraz reports with pride that his collaborator has given up his day job in order to devote himself full-time to songwriting.
“Similar to Luc’s story, Michael is another happy ending,” Mraz says.
Meanwhile Mraz continues to chart his own course toward happiness, which he says may or may not veer away from music at some point. He loves the musicmaking, he says, but grows weary of the need to constantly sell himself and his work. “When you write a song and put your heart into it and then someone asks you to explain it,” he says, “I think, ‘Is this really my highest calling? Is this the greatest choice I can be making?’ “There’s other things I’d like to do out there as well.” That includes more work on organic and sustainable farming. Mraz owns an avocado farm in Bonsall, California, and a fruit orchard in Homer Glen, California, and also lent I’m Yours to the Nature Conservancy for a public-service announcement. His social activism also includes work with the Human Rights Campaign, Save the Children, MusiCares and more. Fearing that “I’m probably the sole reason there’s global w a r m i n g , because I’m always in a plane, always in a van, always in a hotel,” Mraz has added green initiatives to his touring, including running his buses on biodiesel, recycling backstage and even planting trees in cities where he plays.
And, of course, Mraz admits that he’d “like to master a relationship and have a family. Travelling 10 months out of the year, it’s kind of difficult to hold down a relationship.” All of which said, he isn’t planning to bring down the curtain on his music any time soon.
“Those are just some of the things that might make me think about choosing a different career,” Mraz says. “But the more people I talk to, I find everyone thinks this way. I’ve talked to brilliant songwriters and producers who, when I told them what I was thinking, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you too?’ “So I know I’m not alone in these thoughts, which is comforting.” (Gary Graff is a Beverly Hills, Mich.-based freelance writer.)