Biography: Jason Mraz
Having already released four albums, Jason Mraz has a large and loyal following of fans who bought almost a million copies of his first record largely on the strength of word-of-mouth marketing. The singer-songwriter combines a smooth voice, meaningful lyrics, and a little hip-hop twist in his singing style. Although he got his start singing in coffeehouses, he has since performed at classical venues and on the PBS network, as well as in popular concert halls.
Mraz, whose name rhymes with "has" and means "frost" in Czechoslovakian, grew up in Mechanicsville, Virginia, the son of Tom Mraz, a local postal worker, and June Mraz. As a child, he heard a great deal of pop music, mostly on the oldies station his father listened to that played 1950s and 1960s soul and Motown. As he grew older he became interested in hip-hop and dance music. When he was in high school he was influenced by singer-songwriter Dave Mathews, and realized he could write songs that told stories, and then sing them. "Through Mathews, I started listening to jazz because suddenly there was a saxophone in my life," he told Fred Shuster in the Los Angeles Daily News. He added, "I really love writing lyrics. I love words and internal rhymes. I think of lyrics as a very rhythmic instrument and to twist a message around in there is fun. That's where I really get the most pleasure."
He starred in school musicals and got his first professional gig when he was 13, playing in a local R&B band called Dressed to Kill. The other members were all in their twenties; Mraz, whose voice had not yet changed, sang all the high parts. He recalled to Marisa Laudadio in People, "My hair was like Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block, and I wore big shoulder pads in my jacket."
After graduating from high school, Mraz went to New York City to study musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, but his plans changed when someone gave him a guitar. "I dropped out of school and spent my days in Central Park learning to play from whoever was out there," he told Rob Brunner in Entertainment Weekly.
After spending time in New York, Mraz moved to San Diego, where he played in coffeehouses and earned a weekly gig every Thursday night at Java Joe's, the same Ocean Beach coffeehouse that had hosted a young Jewel's early career. After he had sung there for six months, his performances were sold out for the next year and a half. "It got to the point where I was like, "Joe, can I live here?" he told Brunner. He slept in a booth in the back of the store, and spent his free time hanging out at the beach, playing pool, and drinking coffee.
Mraz's demo disc earned airplay on a San Diego radio station, and he was soon being courted by recording companies, signing with Elektra in 2002. The label's vice president of marketing and artist development, Dane Venable, recalled to Fred Shuster in the Los Angeles Daily News that the company held its first showcase for Mraz at the Mercury Lounge in New York City in 2002. "We thought there'd be 50 to 75 company people and that would be it. When we got to the club, the entire front of the stage was filled with college-age fans who knew every single word to every single song." The fans had learned of the performance through e-mail. Venable said this experience taught him how loyal Mraz's fan base was, and how effective word-of-mouth marketing was for him.
Mraz teamed up with Elektra producer John Alagia and released his first album, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, in October of 2003. Mraz backed up the album with relentless touring and an energetic live show. The album soon took off, largely due to his touring efforts and to one track, "The Remedy (I Won't Worry)," which became a top 40 single. He wrote the song after one of his close friends, Charlie Mingroni, was diagnosed with bone cancer. Mingroni told Mraz that he would live through it, and he did go into remission. Mraz later used the money he made from the song to pay the rent on an apartment in Los Angeles that he lent to Mingroni. Another song from that album, "You and I Both," also became a top radio song. By June of 2004, the album had sold almost 800,000 copies.
In the Palm Beach Post Christa Nieminen wrote, "Mraz has a pitch-perfect voice. His voice both soothes and smiles and nicely complements his laid-back guitar playing." In the Florida Times Nick Marino compared him to singer-songwriters John Mayer and Dave Mathews, but noted that "Mraz's twist is his percussive vocal phrasing. When he gets into a groove, his songs traffic between the coffee house rumblings of Ani Di-Franco and the white-boy hip-hop of G. Love."
Mraz has continued to tour and promote his work to an exhausting degree. His father, Tom, observed to Rob Brunner of Entertainment Weekly, "He got into this business because he didn't want to have a day job. But now he's working night and day." On a visit to New York City, Mraz chatted with the cast of the show Rent, who were fans of his work. According to Brunner, Mraz asked them, "You guys do the same show every night. How do you re-create that passion?" He listened gratefully to their advice: "Some days it sucks and you just want to cry. But there are so many people who are watching it for the first time. Even though it's old to us, it's new to them. You have to honor that."
Mraz's folky, easygoing style led him to cross over to unexpected venues and audiences, and in the summer of 2004 he took off on a solo acoustic tour, along with blind guitarist Raul Midon and Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Makana. He was the first pop artist to perform at Disney Hall, a classical music venue in Los Angeles. Shuster commented, "Mraz's tuneful, syncopated delivery and slyly autobiographical songs fit the bill." For the event Mraz performed without his band, using just a singer and his guitar. He told Shuster, "I'll have the freedom to tell stories and talk to the audience. It'll be a complete change of pace."
Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the music industry publication Pollstar, told Shuster, "Jason's doing a lot of things right. He developed organically before radio started playing him so he wasn't rammed down everyone's throats." For his second album Mraz took the bold step of releasing a recording of a live performance. Tonight—Not Again: Jason Mraz Live at the Eagle Ballroom was recorded at a show in October of 2003 at a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, venue, with guest appearances by Blues Traveler frontman John Popper. The CD came with a DVD showing interviews and backstage action, as well as the concert itself. Mraz told Gary Graff of the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer, "I'm really proud of it. It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking nights on the tour; we tried to make it just like any other normal day, but it wasn't, with the audience all lit up and the cameras coming from all angles. We were all sweating and nervous, but it came out great. It's a great representation of what we did last year and earlier this year."
Mraz is notably modest and low-key, and has not adopted a big-star persona. While on tour, Mraz brings a stuffed animal named Foster along for good luck. Foster, a chicken, was tossed up onto the stage during a concert, and Mraz noticed that he looked almost exactly like "Binky," his childhood security toy. "I honestly believe Foster is a reincarnation of Binky," Mraz told Laudadio. He told Doreen Arriaga in Teen People, "My dad told me it's important to love what you do. I feel like my wish is granted." Of his chance to live a wild, rock-star life, he said he wasn't interested: "My dream is to live in a house by the sea with a cat."
In July 2005, the songwriter returned with the sophomore studio effort "Mr. A-Z" which entered the Billboard 200 album chart at number 4 and in December, the album earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, while its producer, the prolific Steve Lillywhite, received a nomination for Producer of the Year. Mraz's friend and former roommate Billy "Bushwalla" Galewood also collaborated on the album, co-writing "Curbside Prophet" and the album's third single, "I'll Do Anything".
Mraz began his long-running tour in support of Mr. A–Z at the San Diego Music Awards on September 12. The tour featured a variety of opening acts, including Bushwalla and Tristan Prettyman, with whom he had co-written the duet "Shy That Way" in 2002. Mraz and Prettyman dated, ending their relationship in 2006. They also co-wrote the song "All I Want For Christmas is Us". In November 2005, Mraz opened for the Rolling Stones on five dates during their 2005–2006 world tour. Also in 2005, Mraz was one of many singers featured in the fall advertisement campaign for The Gap entitled "Favorites". The music-themed campaign also featured other singers including Tristan Prettyman, Michelle Branch, Joss Stone, Keith Urban, Alanis Morissette, Brandon Boyd, and Michelle Williams. In December 2005, Mraz released the first part of his ongoing podcast.
In March 2006, Mraz also performed for the first time at a sold-out performance in Singapore with Toca Rivera as part of the annual Mosaic Music Festival. In May 2006, Mraz toured mostly small venues and music festivals in the U.S., along with a few shows in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The tour included a May 6, 2006 acoustic show with P.O.D., Better Than Ezra, Live, and The Presidents of the United States of America. Mraz was featured as a headlining guest of St. Louis's annual fair and performed a free concert at the base of the Arch on July 1, 2006.
In December 2006, Selections for Friends, the live, online-only album recorded during the Songs for Friends Tour, was released. Selections for Friends features Jason's favorite songs from the Schubas Tavern and Villa Montalvo shows he played in July 2006. Jason Mraz began 2007 by debuting his new single "The Beauty in Ugly", an earlier track penned by Mraz entitled "Plain Jane" that he rewrote for the ABC television program Ugly Betty. The song was featured as a part of ABC's "Be Ugly in '07" campaign. He has since released a song in Spanish entitled "La Nueva Belleza (The New Beauty)".
Mraz released his third studio album, "We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things." on May 13, 2008. The album debuted at number three on the Billboard Hot 200, giving Mraz his highest charting album to date. In true Mraz style, the 12 tunes are wrapped in clever, observant lyrics and strong, engaging pop melodies, but this time they are inspired "by these moments of self realization, self empowerment and self improvement. I was happy to be able to write an album at the same time I was coming back to earth."
Highlights include first single, "I'm Yours," a warm breeze of a song about finally giving into love and life's possibilities set to lilting island tempo. A demo of the song leaked out into the world a few years ago and has developed a cult following. "I didn't realize how powerful it was until we went to Sweden last summer and 6000 people sang every word," Mraz says. "I'd never been to Sweden in my life. I thought, it's already got a life of its own from the demo, let's give people a great version of it. I feel like we finally got it right on this album.[...] I considered it my happy little hippie song and wanted to share it even when it was fresh and new. Over the years as we performed it live, it became the song people sang along to at the loudest volume. And they sang it to each other. That's when I realized I needed to give it a home on this new record." "I'm Yours" has since been certified 4x platinum and made history as the first song ever to top the charts at four pop radio formats: Hot AC, CHR/Top 40, Triple A, and AC. The song holds the record as the longest-running song on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart in the chart's 51-year history.
Mraz and his song "I'm Yours" were nominated for Song of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 2009 51st Grammy Awards. The album "We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things." was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical in 2009.
Another highlight is "Lucky", a simple, endearing duet with new platinum singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat. "I got word that she was a fan and wanted to work together, so I immediately demanded her phone number," Mraz says with a laugh. He sent her segments of a love song that she and her guitarist Timothy Fagan completed. Caillat then joined Mraz in a London studio where he recorded the album with producer Martin Terefe, best known for his work with Coldplay and James Morrison ( who guests on the intricate "Details in the Fabric").
With "Make It Mine" and "Lucky", Mraz won two awards for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals at the 2010 52nd Grammy Awards.
Terefe, along with songwriter/pianist Sasha Skarbek (who co-wrote James Blunt's "You're Beautiful"), also played a hand in co-writing some of the tunes with Mraz, including "Love for a Child," a searing autobiographical tale of Mraz's parents' split when he was five. "I don't usually care to share the crafting of the lyrics," Mraz confesses. "Sasha and Martin did a wonderful job introducing me to melodies and textures, while pushing me to sing my instincts. In the case of 'Love for a Child,' my instincts kept leading me back to getting complete with my parents. I was nervous about it as it isn't your typical love song, but I think that's why it resonates with so many. Whether or not you're in a relationship, we all have one with our parents. And until you acknowledge them, it's hard to practice unconditional love or act with integrity in the rest of your life."
While Mraz and Terefe deliberately kept the music stripped down, they added flourishes that distinguish "We Sing" from standard pop fare, including a gospel choir on "Live High" and operatic embellishments and a children's chorale on "Coyotes".
"Martin is an extraordinary artist," Mraz says. "He holds space for whatever I choose or choose not to express. Putting his producer image aside, he supports the artist. So in my case, both fervency and humor get to be represented. A fine example is his willingness to bookend "Details in the Fabric" with the ridiculous voice mail messages left on my phone one afternoon by my good friend/writing partner Bushwalla."
The album takes its title from a piece of art by Glasgow-based doodle artist David Shrigley that Mraz saw in Scotland while traveling. "What I love about mankind is that yes, we sing and we celebrate and we dance when we're foolish and we steal things," says Mraz, who asked Shrigley to design the album art. "It's hard to have a new idea in music, in fashion, the land we walk on. It's all recycled. I think to say we stole it is a lot more fun."
While on tour in Australia a couple years ago, Mraz opened his heart and soul to the little miracles that take place every day. "I was in Australia and a package was left for me at the hotel, full of books and CDs: Books on Buddhism, books on the Bhagavad Gita, on Christianity, Sai Baba's teachings and 'Autobiography of a Yogi.' All these sort of worldly religious books just appeared, no note—other than 'when you finish reading them, pass them along.'" Mraz dove into the books and world music, which led to his going to India and "just writing things I never thought I would write. To this day, I have no idea who sent me the package. This was one of the many major coincidences that caused me to say, 'This is who I am and this is why I have taken the time off the road and this is what I'm supposed to be writing about.'"
For an artist who is so well known for his clever, inspired way with words, it should come as no surprise that many of the songs for "We Sing" were born from a songwriting game he plays with a number of other artists, including noted Texas-based songwriter Bob Schneider. "Bob gives us a topic or a phrase and we have to turn that into a song and email it to everyone." The impressive verbal torrent that spills forth on "Dynamo of Volition," and once again shows Mraz's unmatched ability to sing at the speed of sound, came from being tasked to use the phrase "blind man's bike." Similarly, "Coyotes," "Butterfly," and "Lucky" all sprung to life after starting from songwriting challenges. "The game is like a support group. It's a way for writers to encourage each other, to stay active in their craft and not get too heady and where their song might end up."
Mraz's songwriting talents were recently recognized when he received the Songwriters Hall of Fame's esteemed "Hal David Starlight Award" at the organization's 40th anniversary gala. The award-given to gifted songwriters who are making an impact in the music industry via their original songs-has previously gone to such artists as Rob Thomas, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, and John Legend.
Lessons now learned from sages and prophets in all forms, Mraz is confident he won't lose his way again. "This album, I'm so excited to share it with people," he says, but adds, "I can't see myself getting too lost out there on the road. Every couple of weeks I'm going to go home for awhile and I'm going to squeeze my cat and do my laundry, say my thank yous and then I'll go out and do some more. There's certain new rules I'm playing by and a new me."
"For me, music is the closest I may ever get to realizing what God is. Music is an awesome invisible force that gets under your skin, makes you dance and has the power to transform you. I'm the most at ease when I'm wrapped up in a song or deep inside the mania of the creative process. Success to me is the exploration of sound and vibrations and the freedom that exists when you dwell in those spaces. Awards and recognition are always encouraging and nice to receive, but they're just a pageant show compared to the real reward that music gives. Therefore, I'll be writing songs and setting stages for a long time to come. I'm hooked on it. And I'm grateful."