The way Jason Mraz sees it, everything in life boils down to people saying yes. “Yes inspires creativity. It’s what allows creativity to occur,” he says. “Yes is love. Yes is what gave us life. We’re all here because two people said yes.” Saying yes has given this singer, songwriter, musician, photographer, filmmaker, and social activist a life beyond his wildest dreams. Since getting his start 15 years ago performing in coffeehouses in his native San Diego, Mraz has brought his positive message and soulful, folk-pop sound to rapt audiences around the world through his recordings, vibrant live performances, and philanthropic efforts. Along the way, he has sold several million albums, 48 million singles, made pop history with his record-breaking classic single, “I’m Yours,” racked up two Grammy Awards among six nominations, won a prestigious Hal David Songwriter Hall of Fame Award, performed in amphitheaters and arenas across the globe, and sold out such iconic venues as The Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, and London’s O2 Arena. Saying yes has been good to Jason Mraz.
So it’s not surprising that he would choose that word as the title for his fifth and first-ever acoustic album, which he wrote and recorded with his friends in the L.A.-based folk-rock band Raining Jane. “The whole album is the product of yes,” he says. “Whether it’s Raining Jane saying yes to our annual songwriting retreats, which led to this collection of songs, or my label giving us the green light to let them become my next album. If anyone on our journey had said no, we wouldn’t be where we are. ‘Yes’ really is the connector.”
Mraz first met the members of Raining Jane — cellist Mai Bloomfield, guitarist Chaska Potter, percussionist Mona Tavakoli, and bassist Becky Gebhardt — in 2006 when they performed on the same bill at a festival at Redlands University. “I loved what they did,” he says. “I loved their musicianship. I loved their showmanship. Afterwards, I asked them if they would consider recording a demo with me. Their influence has been a part of my work for a long time.” One of their co-writes, “A Beautiful Mess,” appears on Mraz’s platinum 2008 album We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things, and Tavakoli is a familiar sight to Mraz’s fans, having toured with him as a percussionist.
In October 2012, after Mraz wrapped the tour behind his fourth album Love Is A Four Letter Word with a triumphant sold-out show at The Hollywood Bowl, he and “the Janes” (as he calls them) met for their yearly writing retreat at his San Diego home, something they’ve done for the past seven years. The songs were so powerful that the group decided to get together again the following February, and again in Hawaii last summer. “I said to my label, ‘What if we put out this acoustic-based album that’s written and recorded with these four amazing women? Just as a little side project,’” he explains. “Everyone loved it. We got a green light within 24 hours, but then they said, ‘This is not a side project, this is your next album. It’s that good.’ Ever since, we put a bit more time and care into the quality of the songs to ensure that the collection stands up to the rest of my records.”
Mraz has always wanted to make an acoustic album. “It’s taken me years to develop the right songs, musicians, and arrangements,” he says. To help, Mraz turned to one of his favorite producers, the Omaha-based Mike Mogis, who is known for his work with Saddle Creek label artists Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley. “I’m a huge Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek Records fan,” Mraz says. “I’m also a big fan of Mike as a musician, producer, and arranger. I like that he can make these supersonic albums that still have the artistic integrity that’s usually assigned to indie music. I wanted that experience.”
Mraz and Raining Jane spent two weeks in Omaha recording the bulk of the album, and finished work on it in Mraz’s home studio in San Diego, sending tracks back and forth to Mogis for mixing. “Mike was a great listener,” Mraz says. “He grounded us. He was able to take an acoustic song and make it sound large and layered so it could stand up as a sonically superior record.” Tracked live, YES! glows with Raining Jane’s radiant, lush harmonies backing Mraz’s pure, crystal-cut tenor voice on songs like “Hello, You Beautiful Thing,” “Long Drive,” “3 Things,” and “Love Someone,” which Mraz feels fits in the same family as his signature hits “I’m Yours” and “I Won’t Give Up.”
Lyrically, Mraz found himself returning to territory that he’s covered on his previous albums, which in addition to those mentioned above, include his 2002 debut Waiting For My Rocket To Come and 2005’s Mr. A–Z. “The songs are about healing,” he says. “They’re about love. They’re about faith. They’re about our role in the environment. They’re about acceptance, compassion, and letting go. They’re new tellings on things I’ve written about for a long time.”
In creating the song sequence on YES!, Mraz wanted to present an album with a clear start and finish. “There was a lot of thought put into the way the story and the songs unfold,” he says. The intro song “Rise” leads into “Love Someone” and takes the listener on a journey that builds toward an emotional upset with “Out of My Hands,” a song Mraz says was inspired by the breakdown of a friendship. That song is followed by a cover of the Boyz II Men classic “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.” “The album wraps up with a song called ‘Shine,’ which has this explosive energy that ends as sweet as the album began,” he says. “It’s about how the healing continues and how we get back to shining our light on others. To me, the beauty of this album is that it’s intended to be taken as a whole. All the songs matter and I’m delighted with it.”
Mraz is also looking forward to touring behind YES! this year, having made a conscious decision to play smaller, more intimate venues this time around rather than his customary amphitheatres and arenas. “A theater is where good music is best experienced,” he explains. “This is where the real conversations can happen unscripted. When we can talk with the audience and share more than just what’s in the song. I’m also committed to playing in venues where the sound is impeccable, where everyone has a good seat, and where everyone has the chance to interact in the show, whether it’s singing along, shouting out requests, or just being seen. It feels like a sacred space. I know that’s important to a lot of people who go to my shows.”
And, of course, Mraz will be on the road with Raining Jane. “These women are my friends,” he says. “I’ve known them for so long and now we’re getting the opportunity to take the album on the road and share our passion-fueled hobby with others.” The cover art for YES! captures the communal spirit in which the album was recorded, featuring five birds flying in a V formation. It’s an image that Mraz says is highly symbolic, in part because the Roman numeral V, or five, represents his fifth album, as well because “we’re really taking off now in a way that we never imagined we would as a five-piece,” he says. “Even though I’m in the front of this group, we’re all doing it together. I’m there to help them fly just as much as they’re there to help me fly.”
Love Is A Four Letter Word
A few years ago, Jason Mraz released a song that would change his life: “I’m Yours” — a buoyant, reggae-flavored love song from his 2008 best-selling album We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. The song captured the hearts of people around the world, selling six million downloads, setting a record for the longest-running song in the 51-year history of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart with 76 weeks on the chart, and adding two Grammy Award nominations —including “Song of the Year” — to Mraz’s six-nod tally (which includes two previous wins). “I’m Yours” was also named ASCAP’s 2010 “Song of the Year” and led to Mraz being given the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s prestigious “Hal David Starlight Award,” which is presented to songwriters who have made a significant impact in the music industry with their original songs.
Though “I’m Yours” had a major effect on the public and the music industry, it had the biggest impact on Mraz himself, propelling the Virginia-born singer and songwriter to international stardom and creating touring demand across North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand — a sweet invitation for this socially conscious and environmentally minded artist whose mission is to celebrate music’s lasting power to inspire change and help others through global citizenship.
Mraz spent 22 months on the road promoting We Sing, which followed on his previous studio albums, the 2002 debut Waiting For My Rocket To Come and 2005’s Mr. A-Z. “The tour was a blast and a whirlwind,” he says. “I got turned on to the power of the voice and the power of the melody and it created this desire in me to do it again immediately. Being able to inspire people and take a very simple message global gave me a preview of what that can do. I got home from the tour and thought, ‘How can I spread love to the world through this new platform that I have.’ That became my starting point for this new album.” That album, Love Is A Four Letter Word, is a heartfelt, uplifting collection that explores all of love’s ups and downs, or as Mraz puts it: “What one does in love to make it work, and what one does in love when it’s time to let go.”
Since December of 2009, Mraz had been writing steadily, creating more than 80 songs that he eventually pared down to the final 12 that appear on Love Is A Four Letter Word. Recorded at Hollywood’s legendary Sunset Sound with producer Joe Chiccarelli (White Stripes, Christina Perri) and a line-up of all-star session musicians, the album’s clever arrangements and rich musical textures cushion the diamond-cut clarity of Mraz’s pure tenor voice. “I feel like it showcases a variety of moods, from soulful baby-making-jams, to colorful new-jazz, to love-fueled acoustic-guitar-strokery, to rhythmic sunshine-pop,” Mraz says. “And lyrically, I wanted the album to have a balance of the sacred and the silly because I want listeners to have both experiences. I want them to be able to go deep, but not get stuck there. I want them to have sunshine, but not get sunburned.”
What ties the songs together is their theme. “I had this vision that the album was going to be called ‘Love’ and I was going to talk about love and share love in one way or another,” Mraz says. “I thought it was going to be easy because everything I write comes from a place of love, whether it’s a new understanding of it, or a retelling of it, or a reawakening to it. But the more I looked at the subject, the more I realized that love almost can’t be defined and who am I to define it anyway? So I went on a journey to try to define the word and be an expression of it in the world.”
That journey led to such songs as first single “I Won’t Give Up,” an emotional acoustic-driven declaration that has already connected with the public, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Digital Songs chart and topping the iTunes “Top Songs” and Hot AC radio charts. “It’s about the experience I had with someone in which I had to go dark and let go of a lot things in order to see that I had everything already,” Mraz says. Another movingly reflective moment is the hushed song of longing “In Your Hands,” as well as “93 Million Miles,” in which Mraz finds peace in the realization that you can feel at home in the world no matter where you are.
Fans of Mraz’s upbeat, groove-fueled work will appreciate the feel-good “Everything is Sound (La La La),” which Mraz says was inspired by his love for Kirtan — a form of devotional call-and-response group singing in Sanskrit. “I had been going to several Kirtans around L.A. and wanted to write something with a bit of a chant in it so that people could just lose themselves,” he says. “I like the idea of sneaking some of that ‘hallelujah’ into contemporary pop music.”
Other highlights include the breezy “Living In The Moment,” the earthy story-song “Frank D Fixer” (inspired by Mraz’s grandfather), and the album’s horn-driven opener “Freedom Song,” which was written by Seattle singer-songwriter Luc Reynaud. “Luc composed this song with some kids in a shelter in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina and it was released on a CD called Harmonic Humanity and sold by homeless people as a way to raise money,” Mraz explains. “When I heard it, I wrote to him and asked him if I could sing it for everyone I knew because it’s important to keep the message going.” During Mraz’s 2010 trip to Ghana to work with anti-slavery organization Free the Slaves, he sang “Freedom Song” at a school where many of the students are former child slaves. The group has adopted it as its theme song.
It’s that crossroads where music, love, hope, and giving back intersect that makes it all meaningful for Mraz. Having worked with the Surfrider Foundation, Free the Slaves, and the True Colors Fund, as well as actively supporting VH1’s Save the Music, Free the Children, the School of the Performing Arts in Richmond County, MusiCares, and Life Rolls On, Mraz recently established the Jason Mraz Foundation to help sustain organizations aligned with his pillars of service, including working to end human trafficking within the human rights arena, environment preservation, restoration of school music programs, musician assistance, and work with those who have suffered spinal cord injuries and youth empowerment.
“My mission is simple, it’s to shine a light through music, which can easily be applied to why I sing these songs,” Mraz says. “Often times that light is on the very obvious subject of love. This album represents my view of the world and the realization that I am an important part of it in how the choices I make affect other people. But a little bit of love goes a long way, especially on a planet crowded with individuals struggling with seven billion different versions of human triumph and human suffering. When I remember to simply enjoy being where I am, it makes a world of difference.”