Jason Mraz is happy to be “unapologetically positive,” as evidenced by the name of his 2019 “Good Vibes Tour” and by such buoyant Mraz songs as “I’m Yours,” “Have It All” and “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).”
The Grammy Award-winning troubadour is also happy that his irrepressibly upbeat new album, “Look for the Good,” embraces reggae music from start to finish. The album, which opens and closes with the words “look for the good,” also finds the veteran guitarist focusing more on piano and other keyboard instruments.
And he is especially happy that the album’s closing selection, “Gratitude,” celebrates his unabashedly positive outlook, beginning with its opening line: “I’m so grateful, I’m so grateful.” Shortly before its conclusion, Mraz declares: “I’m grateful to gratitude itself (Thank you!) / It helps me look for the good (Thank you!).”
But dig deeper into the 10-years-in-the-making song “Gratitude” — and into Mraz himself — and there’s more than meets the eye and ear to this quintessentially happy-go-lucky singer-songwriter than his all-smiles public persona.
“I am unapologetically positive,” he said. “But it’s only because I’m a pessimist. It’s only because I get so melancholy and down, and because I have thought — for a long time — that the world is out of balance. … I have a pessimistic view of the world, because I’m pessimistic about myself.”
Mraz’s own world was seriously out of balance when he was a teenager. The 42-year-old musician still vividly recalls the slights and harassment he received while growing up in the small Virginia town of Mechanicsville.
He chronicles some of those experiences in the opening verse of “Gratitude,” on which he sings: I thank the boys who kicked my ass when I was 17 / I thank the ones who chose to laugh and those who acted mean / I thank the bullies for all the scraps and accidents and then some.
Mraz being Mraz, he makes musical lemonade out of lemons by thanking those same bullies in his “very autobiographical” song’s next line. They shaped my life, they made me like who I’ve become,” he sings. “They made me love who I am.
‘More to life than this small town’
Why, exactly, did Mraz get beat up? And did being bullied make him more determined to succeed?
“It definitely made me want to leave my hometown … because I thought: ‘You know what? There’s more to life than this small town,’” he replied, speaking from the rural Oceanside farm he shares with his wife, Christina Carano.
“The guys who picked on me were all boyfriends of the girls I was hanging out with. Because I was in show choir, cheerleading and drama club, I was friends with all these girls. I think that created a sense of envy, or something, for their boyfriends. And the only way they could feel better was to put me in my place and slam me up against school lockers.”
Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it for Mraz, who moved here in 1999 after being discovered in Las Vegas by top San Diego concert promoter Bill Silva, who served as his manager for the next 18 years.
“The most abusive situation,” Mraz recalled, “was when I was visiting a girl’s home. We were never in a relationship or intimate, but she had cable TV. That’s why I was at her house; my family didn’t have cable. I was watching MTV with her when her boyfriend showed up from college. He kicked the door in — because he saw my car in the driveway — yanked me out of my chair and ripped out my earrings. He beat me all the way to my car. He was cursing at me to ‘Get the f— out.’ But I couldn’t go anywhere, because my car keys were in the girl’s house. My adrenaline was racing.”
Mraz took a breath before continuing.
“I thought I would try to keep the incident under wraps,” he said. “But I got home and my ears were bleeding. My mom called the cops and, well, that dude should have known better. He ended up getting arrested and (had to do) some community service. (The incident) was embarrassing, but also redeeming and it felt great (the assailant was held accountable).
“After that, I decided: ‘I don’t want live in a town like this. And I’m sorry this situation is giving the town a bad rep. But there’s a more inclusive world out there and I want to be a part of it. And I want to be successful to, basically, show these sorry, envious boys what it means to be in show choir, drama and cheerleading.’
“I was like: ‘Let me show you what you are actually envious of — I’m going to become successful in this field.’ And I did.”
“Hopefully,” he said of his teen tormentors, “they had great lives.”
Bob Marley opened a musical door
Mraz has sold millions of records and headlined concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, New York’s Madison Square Garden and London’s O2 Arena. His 9-year-old Jason Mraz Foundation has given more than $1 million to organizations that support equality and inclusive arts education programs. His Mraz Family Farms in Oceanside boasts several thousand avocado and coffee trees, along with an array of tropical fruit trees.
Given all his success, has he ever contacted any of the people who doubted, or harassed him, in high school?
“I just let the success I’ve had speak for itself, because I’m just always looking forward to where can I go next,” Mraz replied. “The people I do stay in contact with are the people I (still) connect with and can celebrate the success with — the people who cheered me on — not those who doubted me. I could care less about them.”
After graduating from high school, Mraz studied for about 18 months at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. This was followed by short stint at Longwood University in Virginia, during which he decided to devote himself to music and moved to California.
While piano was Mraz’s first instrument as a child, he bought an acoustic guitar before moving to New York. The instrument lends itself well to the rhythmic lilt of reggae music, which he first heard as a boy on one of his father’s favorite albums, the 1984 compilation “20 Reggae Classics.” But it wasn’t until high school that Mraz discovered the Bob Marley & The Wailers’ best-of collection, “Legends.”
“That album really permeated our high school in a big way and influenced a lot of our thinking and attitudes …” he recalled.
“Once I started making music with friends in my college years, then moving into (playing) coffee shops and then into touring, more of my musician friends started to contribute to my listening. My (audio) monitor engineer, Micah Goldfarb, had all the (Jamaican) Studio One, Trojan Records and Easy Star All-Stars albums, and he started passing me CDs that were changing my whole view.
“Then I started to add a reggae style to my songs when we would go on tour, especially for crowds at festivals, where we wanted to reach a broader audience and I noticed that reggae touched a lot of people. Since 2003, I’d dabble and try a song of mine here and there as reggae.”
Tiffany Haddish guests on new album
Folk, pop, soul and light funk have long been Mraz’s musical calling cards. But his career-changing international hit, 2008’s “I’m Yours,” was elevated by its reggae lilt. The song, whose video now has more than half a billion views on YouTube, indirectly paved the way for his new album “Look for the Good,” which will be released Friday by BMG Records and is credited to “Jason Mraz & Friends.”
Those friends include: actor and comedian Tiffany Haddish (who raps with Mraz on the snappy “You Do You”); reggae vocal mainstay Sister Carol (who is showcased on the slow-percolating “Time Out)”; and members of Poway’s Mesa View Baptist Church Choir (who contribute to “Look for the Good’s” optimism-fueled title track).
The album’s songwriting credits are shared by Mraz and a host of collaborators. They include such San Diego music standouts as Abby “MC Flow” Dorsey, Michael and Nancy Natter, Billy Galewood and Jeff Berkley, who also served as the chief audio engineer for the album. It was produced by Michael Goldwasser, whose previous credits include Toots and The Maytals, Steel Pulse, Matisyahu and the Goldwasser-led Easy Star All-Stars.
“There’s no way I could take credit alone for this,” Mraz said. “The musicians are so strong and Michael understands the nuances and (approach) for reggae required to be successful. So it’s a team effort.
“I knew it would be fun, one day, to do a whole collection of reggae songs, (especially) after ‘I’m Yours,’ which was not a reggae song but was certainly influenced by reggae. I thought: ‘The whole world listens to reggae, so how cool would it be to do a whole album of reggae?’ It’s taken me 10 years to do it.”
Mraz and producer Goldwasser teamed up two years ago. Goldwasser broadened Mraz’s appreciation of reggae, introducing him to the music of Sister Carol, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minot and the band Aswad, whose 1981 album, “New Chapter,” Mraz now cites as a favorite.
But he does not claim to be a reggae artist, however much he admires the music. And Mraz readily acknowledges he’s no authority on Rastafarianism, the religious and political movement that started in Jamaica in the 1930s and is foundational to reggae.
“I’m just a reggae fan. I can’t embody the music and culture,” he stressed.
“By doing this album with Michael, I got to know about where this music came from, but reggae is not me. I didn’t dive into Jamaican culture and this album is not about Rastafarianism. I have total respect for that, but reggae is really a fusion of rhythm-and-blues and Caribbean music. And Rastafarianism is a fusion of Christianity and Jamaican culture. …
“I do know I’m treading on sacred ground. But I also feel safe, because of what reggae has historically sung (about) peace and love, comfort and healing. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this album. The authenticity of the music provided by Michael and the band he put together allows me to do reggae. But I’m not trying to be something I’m not.”
Mraz does share some Rastafarian tenets, including his meat-free diet. And, as the lyrics to the song “Time Out” on his new album attest, he is a happy proponent of marijuana, although he does not regard it as a holy sacrament, as Rastafarians do.
“It was definitely a gateway herb for me,” Mraz said. “I was never a big alcohol consumer; I never really liked it. But I do enjoy a doobie every now and again. I like the cosmic drift it provides, and I respect the plant.
“Seeing how potent this one herb can be opened my eyes to a lot of herbs. So, here on our farm, we’ve educated ourselves about common weed and herbs we can grow. We basically grow our own medicine, not just ganja, but also mugwort, singing nettle, yarrow and mullein.”
Mraz has considered launching his own line of pot and other marijuana products. But, he noted, he doesn’t feel fully qualified to do so yet, adding: “I don’t know if being a poster boy for cannabis is the right way to go.”
His 12-song “Look for the Good” album was recorded last summer. He is so pleased with it that he is already laying the foundation for a second reggae album, which he hopes to record in August. While the coronavirus pandemic is preventing Mraz from touring to promote “Look for the Good,” when he does resume playing concerts again, reggae will likely be at the fore.
“We do know if we take a reggae act on the road, there is a lot more material than these 12 songs,” he said. “There are six other albums of mine and some of my back catalog is getting converted through the new reggae machine. It’s a very exciting sound and it’s giving new life to my old songs in a beautiful way.”
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