Making Musical Magic (with Jason Mraz)
I taught myself guitar by learning Jason Mraz’s songs, so it feels really full circle to be talking with him this week. We chat about going from solo work to collaborating with the band Raining Jane, listening back to his old songs, and why he chooses positivity when performing live. He also tells me about creating his new album “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride” and developing a passion for dance in his 40s.
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Jason Mraz, Elyse Myers
Elyse Myers 00:15
Okay, actually, can you just pretend that you’re listening to a fully complete theme song here, I got really in my head. And I tried to make it perfect. And I couldn’t. So this is going to be the theme song right here. Hello, and welcome to another episode of Funny Cuz It’s True. I’m Elyse Meyers songwriting is something that I haven’t really talked a lot about on this show so far. But for those that don’t know, it’s a really big part of my life. And I was so excited to get to share some of it with today’s guest, Jason Mraz, because he’s a very famous singer and songwriter. And on top of that, he is a really delightful human being to talk to, he shared so much about his process of songwriting and collaborating and how the two came together for his newest album, mystical, magical, rhythmical, radical ride. So two things that are funny because they’re true. Number one, I waited the entire conversation to tell Jason Moran a funny story about seeing him in concert, and I couldn’t really find my opportunity, given the nature of the story. So I kind of just threw it in as he was hanging up, and I hoped for the best. And number two, Jason talks about the first song that he ever wrote, which is very similar to the first song that I ever wrote. And they’re both about our middle school crushes. And you actually are going to hear both of them in this conversation. Alright, let’s get into it. Jason!
Jason Mraz 01:39
Hi Elyse Myers. How are you doing? I’m awesome. How are you? I like your studio. I like your little work room. Ideas on the wall.
Elyse Myers 01:48
Yeah, I had someone come and film in this is my like, actual working office. And I multiple times had to be like, please just don’t film the whiteboard. Because I don’t think about what I’m writing when I write down and I don’t think anyone’s really gonna read it. Yeah, I was like, just cut all that footage up, please. And then is this your like studio here?
Jason Mraz 02:07
Yeah. Yeah, it is. I have a whiteboard as well. You can’t see it in this angle. But yeah, this is a little place I built in my backyard. Back in 2006.
Elyse Myers 02:16
That’s my dream, man. I rent it. Or used to rent a townhouse as my office, honestly, to have a special place dedicated to your creativity where nobody can hear you. It like opened up so much for me. And it was like a really cool experience. And so I love that you have this at home.
Jason Mraz 02:32
Yeah, me too. You know, I kind of figured this out through my whole journey is like anytime I got a chance to visit anybody’s house, especially if it was a songwriter. I was like, how do you live? Like, what do you eat? Do you do? Are you barefoot all the time? Like, I want to know, like, where do you record? Where do you write. And then in 2004, I visited Bob Marley’s house in Kingston, Jamaica, it’s now a museum. The intention was he and the band could live there. And they could record in the backyard. And they had little gardens where they could kick the football around, or they could, you know, grow some herbs and food and veggies and stuff like that. And to me, that’s when it all clicked. I was like, Ah, this, that’s what I want. And that became where I live now. It’s kind of modeled after Bob Marley’s house.
Elyse Myers 03:21
I think that the more I like him in full time, creativity as my job I realized the spaces you have to work in, like, not just the workplaces are important to kind of structure and to grow out and build, but like, places that you have that you don’t do work, you need to, like keep that balance of like, where can you go away when the ideas aren’t there? Where can you rest like you mentally and physically, so that when you go back to the actual work, you are as best as you possibly can be. And I really neglected that for a lot of my time, like, as a creative. And learning that like the rest is just as important as the work is like, it changed the game for me specifically, did you find that for you when you created this standalone space?
Jason Mraz 04:00
Yeah. When I look back 20 plus years ago, and I was in an apartment and my recording space was in the corner of my bedroom that also was great, because that corner was that space
Elyse Myers 04:15
When I was in college and lived with five other people. And I cannot tell you how many times I got photos sent to me from my roommates of me just like hunched over my laptop with my guitar and my mic and my mixer and my keyboard. It’s a very precious time of my life.
Jason Mraz 04:29
But I think when you’re really in the art, you will make it work. You know totally when the art is such a nagging presence in your heart in your mind. You’ll make it work if you eat if you’re living out of your car, you know, oh yeah, like the thing I love the most about having this space that I didn’t have. And when I when I was in my apartment was no one’s on the other side of this wall. Yeah, and so I can be loud. Yeah, and sometimes to write a song. You gotta be loud. I can’t Yeah, necessarily right in silence. I need to sing the song that I’m writing. And that’s the best.
Elyse Myers 05:05
It’s a huge deal. I know that when you were like 22 You went on like a really long road trip, right? You like packed up into a van and you were like, got How long were you on that road trip for? And did you? Is that kind of when you started writing music?
Jason Mraz 05:18
No, I probably started writing music in eighth grade. Okay, I just loved to invent a song. And, in fact, the first song I ever wrote it was, it was probably like, I saw this beautiful girl she was wanting to get in my way. And I wrote it and I recorded it over a instrumental on a bee side of a C&C music factory single.
Elyse Myers 05:45
Oh, Jason, Jason, Jason. My first song was, what do you do when you meet a cute boy? Do you say hi? Do you say bye? What do you do when you meet a cute boy? Do you wear a frown? Do you be a clown? It was a masterpiece. Honestly.
Jason Mraz 05:59
There’s a dance group out of the 90s. And I recorded my song over there instrumental and by using multiple tape decks, and singing my basically karaoke my own song onto this track. And then I took it to my roller rink, and they played it on the Friday night, right? They just put it in the mix. And it sounded great because it was already a dance hit. But it had a new vocal on it. Nobody noticed. But I noticed and I felt that thing of like hearing my song. And that’s when it clicked for me. I was in eighth grade. I was like, this is what I want to do. I want to figure out how to make songs. I want to figure out how to sing my own songs. And I would go on a very long journey after that, through chorus and musical theater. And when I was 21. I packed up from Virginia and moved to California. And that alone was a thing that needed to happen. And I’m so glad it did. But it was so scary.
Elyse Myers 06:58
Okay, time for a break. When we come back. Jason tells us about his process for choosing which songs go into an album and which stay behind. Did you just go to California for opportunity? Or why did that move happen?
Jason Mraz 07:24
I had lived my whole life in Mechanicsville, Virginia. I’d seen it I’d met all the people I could possibly meet. But I’d been reading books, and they all involve characters from the West, you know, and it all involved. You know, being on the road. It was like something about the West is calling. So I packed up and I went out to California. Knowing that look, I may not stay. I’m just going for the adventure. I’ll come back to Mechanicsville, and I’ll write about all of my experiences. Yeah, but luckily, I met people right away, who introduced me to more people who introduced me to more people. And I just within a matter of weeks got swept up by some very lovely friends and fans. And ended up in San Diego. And I’ve been here ever since.
Elyse Myers 08:12
Oh, my gosh, when you got to California, it was all new to you. And did I like how did you get started performing so quickly?
Jason Mraz 08:21
Well, I didn’t know anybody. And that made it so easy. I was the new guy. And nobody knew any of my tricks. Nobody knew any of my songs. So I felt like I had everything to share. Whereas if I’m performing back in Virginia, I know everybody in the audience. They’re all cousins and high school friends and parents and siblings and stuff and I don’t want to perform for them. In fact, I heard you talk about that with Mike Birbiglia. It’s like Jason Mraz is a fan of the show what is happening, you don’t want to invite your friends to the show, you don’t want to invite your parents to tune in. Because it’s so very personal. And being in California, I didn’t know anybody. And I could be very personal. And that gave me I think an advantage. Because people in the audience were like, who the heck as this guy doing in saying all these things. And I felt like that gave me an advantage. And because I knew no one and because I had nothing. I was hungry. And I could and I could just go up and show up at every open mic. Every gig every songwriter night, find coffee shops that didn’t have entertainment, ask them if I could be their entertainment, and basically worked from the bottom up. And when you’re on the bottom, everything is an opportunity. Yeah, so it was it was actually quite easy.
Elyse Myers 09:45
Did you ever have a point where when you were performing where you felt like maybe this wasn’t the right move, or has it always felt right to you?
Jason Mraz 09:54
I’m still filled with doubt Believe it or not. Yeah, I mean A lot of my optimism and positivity in my music comes from this other side of me. That’s like, man, you should give this up. You have no idea what you’re doing.
Elyse Myers 10:10
That was not a fart, by the way. That was my elbow on my desk. Well, okay, you definitely can’t hear the squeak of my elbow listening back to the audio. And I definitely didn’t need to make a disclaimer that wasn’t a fart. So now if anything, it sounds like it was a fart because I felt like I had to explain that it wasn’t. So that’s just how it goes. So okay, your positivity, yes.
Jason Mraz 10:37
Yeah, I, my, my music or I feel like sometimes I’m pigeon holed as like this really positive guy, or my music is optimistic. And that’s because I’m constantly thinking about quitting. I’m constantly thinking about I need to try something else. I’ve used all my gimmicks. I’ve used all my tricks. I’ve said all I could possibly say, if I keep going, people are going to discover that. I don’t know what I’m doing. I still can’t read music. So there’s these, these certain challenges that are always recurring.
Elyse Myers 11:10
You do everything by ear?
Jason Mraz 11:11
Yeah, and I do, but I know how to like, you know, I know where a, b, c, d, e, f g, I know where those things are. But if you put down sheet music, you wouldn’t say it would take me all day to like, every good boy does fine. All Okay, what if a, c, e, like, I’m still at that level in music theory.
Elyse Myers 11:31
That is wild, because you’re so talented.
Jason Mraz 11:35
Thanks. I think a lot of it is though, because I play my own songs. You know, if I were to cover someone else’s songs, I think you would then be able to measure my talent because like, oh, I can compare it to the original song, versus how he’s covering it. But if I’m doing my own songs, there’s nothing else to compare it to. But at its core, you know, I can read really basic guitar tab and I same on piano, just basic chords tab.
Elyse Myers 12:02
I can’t tell you how much I relate to that. Because I the way I got into writing music and then recording it myself was because I was I was too afraid to tell anyone at this music school. I was like attending that I didn’t know what I was doing because I do everything by ear. I played Viola when I was a child from like grade school all the way through, I still play viola. So I can read alto clef, that has nothing to do with like guitar and piano. So that doesn’t translate at all, except for the ear, like a tradesman. So when I was in college, I had to chart write, and record EPS for like our that we didn’t have tests that was like our test every semester, I put it out. And I was like, Well, I can’t ask anyone for help. I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m doing. So I’ll just do it myself. And that ended up creating all of these skills that when people hear it, they think like, you must know exactly what you’re doing. And you’re like, No, I just have the patience, and the frustration and the pride to like sit here long enough to figure it out to where it sounds like something you might want to listen to. And so I just hearing that is like really encouraging to me, because it’s like, okay, there is more than one way to do it. And it’s not, I’m not cheating. And it’s not like, I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s just a different way to do it. And it’s really cool. I think that’s really cool.
Jason Mraz 13:19
Yeah, it’s you’re putting feeling first. And that’s the best. And I think if we put technical first, then it’s harder to weave our feeling into it.
Elyse Myers 13:30
Do you listen back to the stuff that you made like earlier in your career and make you feel good that you’re like, man, I’ve grown so much, or is it like I am, I’ve always been perfect?
Jason Mraz 13:39
No, no, yeah, I it’s a little of everything. It’s yeah. Sometimes I listen back and I’m thrilled. I’m like, wow, I never would think to do that today. But look what I was doing then. Totally forgot that I used to do that. But yeah, sometimes, if I cringe it’s lyrically.
Elyse Myers 13:58
In 2011, I went through a really big Lady Gaga phase, and I accidentally ended up rewriting word for word Love Game by Lady Gaga. And then I was so excited about this new song, I wrote that I took it to my friends and I was like, listen to this banger, I just wrote, and they’re like, that is so good. Also, that’s love game by Lady Gaga. So I understand.
Jason Mraz 14:17
Okay. Well, I was, you know, late teens early 20s. So yeah, that was my attitude then. But your awareness changes as you get older, your, your just mindfulness evolves or expands. And so I some songs I just can’t even sing anymore because a different ego wrote those songs. But that’s okay.
Elyse Myers 14:41
You said that you’re known for your positivity. Do you ever feel like you can write music that expresses exactly how you feel? Or do you feel pressure to write music that is mostly happy?
Jason Mraz 14:52
Well, in order for me to write an album of say 10 songs, I have to write 100 songs and the 10 make it on the album are going to be the ones that I had, as I had, I succeeded in some kind of personal transformation from darkness back into light. And so those happy songs, they actually work, they worked for me. And that’s how they end up on the record. And I will write dozens of downtempo sad songs that get me through the week. But I don’t think they’re going to get me through the year, I don’t think they’re going to help the album get through a tour. So as much as I might fall in love with a song that truly reflects maybe my anger or disappointment, or my sadness, whatever I might be processing, it’s hard to then take those themes to the stage, or it’s hard to then recreate those themes in the studio, just because they are so heavy, and they served a purpose for me at a time. But the thing that really makes it to the stage is where I have triumph over that darkness. Or, you know, it’s the next song that I wrote. After that, you know what I mean?
Elyse Myers 16:06
So do you feel like the goal is the light, then, and that’s what you share with people?
Jason Mraz 16:12
For me it is, because it makes the stage time so much more enjoyable. Because when you hit the stage, or even if someone’s listening to your album, they’re giving you their greatest wealth, which is their time and attention. So now that I’ve got someone’s 45 minutes of time, or if they come to a show, I’ve got maybe two hours of their time, how can I best use that time, if I’ve got a downer song, I’ve got to ask 2000 people to come with me on a time when I fell in come with me on a time when I was ungrateful. And I, here’s a song that I wrote that, that I wrote on a bad day, you know, it’s really hard to do that, I may have done it early in my career, and I’d watch people go to the bathroom, you know, I was like, that, isn’t it. That’s not how I want to spend these two hours. Like, to me, an album, or a concert is like a yoga class. It’s like, you want people to come in and feel different when they left feeling like oh, my gosh, I have dreams that I want to pursue. I have magic in me that I want to share. That’s the feeling I’ve always want to leave people with.
Elyse Myers 17:22
I think that like sharing the down and the dark moments, it’s a fine line, right? It’s like, you don’t want to be a bleeding wound on to everybody around you that are giving you their time. But also, I find personally that when there are those songs that really relate to you, and you aren’t feeling great, like it gives you words to emotion that maybe you haven’t been able to put words to. So there have been so many songs where it’s like if I listened to it and a happy time, I’m like, Yeah, holy shit, that’s really sad. I don’t know, isn’t that right now. But when you do when you are in that place, when you hear it expressed through somebody else, you’re like, number one, I am not the only person that feels this way. That’s amazing. Number two, like maybe I can just latch on to this idea and this song. And it can help me process things to get to that light. But it’s such a hard balance to find. And I think that people that can do it. Well, that’s what makes them really successful in in letting people heal through their creativity. And I think you do that very, very well. It’s just proof that like, with some artists, like you do have to share more of the darkness. And with some artists, like it’s more of the light that you show on stage and both get to the same place. And so I think that you have balanced that very, very well. Time for another break. When we come back, we hear about how important collaboration is for Jason. I’m curious what the difference is for you between, like writing collaboratively with people versus writing alone? does that process look differently for you?
Jason Mraz 19:03
Yeah. I mean, the thing I love about collaborating with others is it’s almost like you’ve got so it’s like you’ve got a spell checker or an autocorrect er, you’ve got an editor in the room with you, which is really exciting. You’ve got musical midwives in the room with you. Because if you’re working on a verse, and you’re looping some chords to get the verse, you might spend an hour singing versus let’s try this verse over and over and over and over. And you just have to feel okay with the person that you’re collaborating with. For them to sit there and stare at you and go, No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it. No, and just keep singing verses until that person who’s now your audience goes, Yes, that’s it. Sing that again. You want to find those people that you can collaborate with that you can do that. And in the case of Raining Janes, four fabulous artists that I’ve worked with 2007 They are that some are more lean more towards the music and some lean more towards the lyric. Some are already working on harmonic background vocals, and some are already working on a bridge section. And I’m always trying to like, be some kind of director and like weave it all together and how can I as the singer then take this idea and that idea and this idea and take the best of all five of us best of our ideas and turn it into something. The thing that I also love about it is you know where I might where I said earlier, I’m always have a lot of doubt, like, Am I doing this, right? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just inventing this, when there’s four other humans in the room that are in agreement, then I don’t really have the doubt. What I what I now have is extra confidence that I can then shine back to my collaborators so that they can shine even brighter.
Elyse Myers 20:56
Personally, I never feel less confident than when I am in the presence of others. I am so good at lying to myself when I’m alone.
Jason Mraz 21:04
Remember, since then 2007, we would get together once or twice a year for ladies weekend, sit in a circle and we’d write songs. In 2012 we hit a streak where everything we were writing was potent. And so we turned that into an album called Yes, we put that out in 2014 One of my favorite albums we ever made. And so after that we thought we’re never going to stop doing this. We’re going to do this to old and wrinkly. But it’d be nice to make another album someday maybe something less acoustic a little more dance. And that’s where we’ve arrived at right now in 2023 with this new album that’s about to come out it’s another album that I wrote in tandem with Raining Jane recorded in the studio with them. And we’re pushing ourselves to go a little more pop disco with it.
Elyse Myers 21:51
Is this the mystical magical?
Jason Mraz 21:58
Yeah, I love it. The mythical, majestical, dramatical, comedical, less tragical.
Elyse Myers 22:07
When was this? Was this? Like, did you take this on in a different with a different sound to challenge yourself? Yeah. Or was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Jason Mraz 22:17
Yeah. always challenging myself like, because at the core, I can write a song on a guitar or piano and by itself, it needs to be great, right? Yeah, but the challenges were like, Let’s dress this up. How can we dress this up? In a way we’ve never done it before. You know, I did a reggae album. Just prior to this, because I’ve always wanted to dress up songs in a reggae style and fashion. And so I did the entire album in reggae. But this time, we wanted to go more pop more disco, more dance, not necessarily electronic. But we wanted to. We wanted to dance. And that came from both seeing our audience want to dance. And it came from my mom’s request of us making a pop album before it’s too late. Before we’re too old. For people that want to dance to our music.
Elyse Myers 23:10
Wait, so your mom was like you have to do this. You can’t do it.
Jason Mraz 23:14
Yeah, she literally said that. She said, I think y’all need to make a pop out. And before it’s too late, you’re not getting any younger. You’re not gonna look any better than you do now.
Elyse Myers 23:26
Do you feel like and this is genuinely a question like, Do you feel any amount of imposter syndrome? Like in your 40s Making a pop album? Does that feel like radical to you? Or you’re like, no, this is right.
Jason Mraz 23:41
There were a few moments in the writing and in the demo process where yeah, the imposter syndrome would make an appearance and think and I’d say to myself, This isn’t working. And but that may have been because my production techniques weren’t getting the song where they could be. Yeah. But, you know, through a lot of work and a lot of demos we eventually got, you know, we were starting to see the possibility that we could pull this off. We decided to record in New York City where we could be encouraged by the beat of the city by the energy of New York and reunited with producer Martin Terrell Fay who I made we sing we dance we steal things with 15 years ago. He would be in the room with us also pushing us to try new things and try tempos that we weren’t trying to simplify certain grooves. Luckily, his expertise is really what helped us get it over that line where we were no longer imposters but we were really we really believed it.
Elyse Myers 24:50
What did that feel like when you were like I went from feeling that way to like, this is right. What did that transformation in you feel like?
Jason Mraz 24:58
It feels like okay, Now we can go get some ice cream.
Elyse Myers 25:03
That’s really relieving.
Jason Mraz 25:06
I’ll have some version of self-punishment until I get something right. Like, it’s usually ice cream is like, Look, I’m not gonna go have ice cream until I get this, right. Because ice cream is gonna make me feel a certain way. And it’s usually gonna make me feel like taking a nap. And I’m not ready to do that I’m ready to keep working until like, I’m hungry until I’m just hungry. I’m telling, I feel until I feel thin by the experience because I’ve worked so hard at it. So yeah, we had a lot of ice cream in New York, it was every day felt so good. Because all of our demoing and all of our touring and all of our rewrites in everything we had done up to that point was the work so that by the time we got to New York, it was just clicking, it was all it was all working.
Elyse Myers 25:57
I feel like it’s so beautiful that you feel that at this point in your career, you’re still starting something new. And the fact that you are doing this like pop like, album that you’re like dancing and like, it’s, it’s so inspiring. It’s so inspiring.
Jason Mraz 26:16
I mean, I dabble in dance, but I didn’t like just like music theory. I don’t know what I’m doing and dance. Sure. It feels good. It feels great. And when I dance, I honestly I love to dance in a way I’ve never danced before. So I’m thrilled. And I’m wondering if this this, this is probably going to contribute to some future life where I’m on Broadway dancing, or some future life, where I’m in a movie dancing. I don’t know what it is. But I know that I’ve needed dance in my life. And it’s been an area that I’ve not focused on. And so having this dance album, and these dance theme songs is no accident. It’s my subconscious screaming at me from within saying, kid, you’re a dancer, get up like, you don’t need to hide behind the guitar, you don’t need to hide behind your jokes. You can move your body it’s okay. So, my music has always been the medicine that I’ve needed. And surprisingly, it’s dance right now. And I’m loving, loving it.
Elyse Myers 27:23
I was gonna tell you when you came, and I didn’t know when to say this because it felt weird. But when you came on tour in I think it was 2018, you were in Omaha. And you were performing on the stage. And every foot I went to your concert and every photo I have the two billboards like next to the stage haven’t gotten changed in like 10 years. And they are erectile dysfunction.
Jason Mraz 27:54
On both sides of the stage?
Elyse Myers 27:58
In every single picture, I have that cut between it’s always made me laugh. And so I wanted to find some way to share that with you. But I was like, There’s no way to like casually bring that up and have it make any.
Jason Mraz 28:12
I love that. Hopefully that’s that way for every concert at that venue.
Elyse Myers 28:17
It is, that venue has never it’s like an outdoor amphitheater in a casino. And yeah, it’s never changed. And I went to a concert a few years ago that I ended up performing with my friend Ben Rector on stage and I, my husband was laughing because he was like, same photos you got of Jason Mraz, and now you’re in those […]. There were so many ways I imagined ending this conversation and telling that story was none of them. It says so it’s yeah, as anyways, that’s a little tidbit of information as we close here. But Jason, thank you seriously, so much for just giving me your afternoon and your recording and time and it was so good to meet you. You are just a big inspiration to me. And so this feels like a dream.
Jason Mraz 29:02
Thanks, Elyse. And likewise, I love what you’re doing. I love how you’ve changed the game. It’s really refreshing.
Thank you so much. All right. That’s it for my conversation with Jason Mraz. Make sure you keep an eye out for his new album, mystical, magical, rhythmical, radical ride, which is out June 23 2023. If you liked this show, give us a rating and a review. It helps people find us okay, I’ll be back next week bye. There’s more Funny Cuz It’s True with Lemonada Premium get access to all of Lemonada’s Premium content, including my five questions with Julia Louis Dreyfus, which came out last Friday. Subscribe now and Apple podcasts. Funny Cuz It’s True is a Lemonada Media and Powderkeg production. The show is produced by Claire Jones, Zoe Dennis and […], our associate producer is Tiffany Buoy. Rachel Neil is our senior director of new content and our VP of weekly production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Paul Feig, Laura Fisher, […] and me Elyse Myers. The show is mixed by Brian Castillo and Johnny Evans. Our theme song music was written by me and scored by Xander Singh.