Jason Mraz recently sat down for a Q&A with Rolling Stone‘s Jenny Eliscu to discuss everything from his single “I’m Yours” to Buddhism to getting busted for criminal behavior at Bible camp.
You participate in songwriting challenges?
The songwriting game is great, because it came to me by Bob Schneider, a brilliant songwriter based out of Austin, Texas. Basically he says, “Here’s a word or phrase — the word is ‘trash.’ You have until Friday at midnight.” There’s no win or lose, you’re not competing against other writers or working with other writers. The only thing is that you just have to write it, and the worst that’s going to happen is that Bob’s going to say you’re a pussy. But what it does is it takes your ego away for a second and says, “Don’t be so precious about this, just write the song.”
It must have been a strange twist when you found yourself in a situation where people only wanted to hear one of your songs, “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).”
Very. And even right now, it’s happening with “I’m Yours.” Especially when you’re just doing radio and TV, you’ve only got time for one song, and of course, it’s going to be “I’m Yours” right now.
What lessons did you learn about how to deal with that paradox as a songwriter, that you’re supposed to write as many good songs as you can, and if you get a big audience, they mostly want to hear just a couple of them?
I didn’t really take that into consideration. I’ve always been grateful to perform just in a coffee shop, and I honestly thought that “The Remedy” was going to be a fluke and that I would return to the coffee shop. Even my second album, which didn’t have any commercial success, still allowed us to play in some beautiful theaters all over the world, so our audience has been loyal from the start, and they sing everything. For this album, in order not to think about, “Is this going to have radio success, is the label even going to put it out?” I just decided to get away from the music industry altogether. I played the songwriting game for a year, and I went back to the coffee shops and played every Sunday night, and I got to a place where I was writing from a human experience, and I had almost no contact with the label at all. The thing about a single is that it’s meant to be the advertisement for your album. So what ended up happening is I wrote a song about writing the single; I wrote a song about the single process, which to me, was the easiest thing to do, because that was the only thing going on in my life.
It sounds like you tried to totally free yourself of industry concerns.
Absolutely. My only goal, was “I just want to be happy while I’m doing this.”
You got into Buddhism.
Buddhism is this month. Right before I took my big break, I had asked the universe for some guidance. I was like, “I am totally bummed out. I’m off my path, I’ve lost my way on the spiritual path, I need some help.” Pretty much the minute I asked for it, I received a big box of books and CDs, books on Hindu and Christianity and Buddhism. There was all kinds of world music CDs.
It didn’t say, it just said, “Enjoy these books, when you’re finished with them, pass them on, because they don’t belong to you, they belong to the world.” I thought, “Holy hell, what a gift, the universe is listening.” I always felt that, but this was like a real obvious drop.
Did you grow up with religion?
I did grow up where Jesus was a household figure. I went to Bible camp. People always ask me, because of the album title, We Steal Things, “What things have you stolen?” Funny enough, the only thing I ever got busted for stealing was I was 13 and I was at Bible camp, and it was at the beach. We went into a surf shop and at that age, you want to see what you can get away with. I threw a T-shirt in my backpack, and we got halfway down the street and the guy grabbed us and threatened to call the Bible camp. He let us pay twice as much for the shirt and we never got caught. I think we were more attentive in Bible studies the rest of the week.
In general, your songwriting is known for being optimistic.
I write my miserable songs. I write songs about disgust and self-pity, things that would be deemed negativity. That’s not the stuff I choose to share. Not all of it, anyway. The main reason is because I tour so much and I love performing live and recreating these songs. I love the reaction, to see the reaction on people’s lives and on people’s faces, have people sing along. The last thing I want to do is have a show and ask people, “Hey, everybody, I want you to come down with me for a second while I bum you guys out.”
Who do you listen to?
I listen to Bob Schneider, I listen to Bushwalla. Oddly enough, I listen to mostly instrumental music when I want to be uplifted. I listen to Air, lately it’s been a variety of electronic or jazz, whether it’s M83 or the Bird and the Bee. I’m always loyal to Belle and Sebastian.