Jason Mraz, the Grammy-winning musician, former Waitress star, and one-time Mellow Show guest with Ozzy Osbourne, released a new reggae album earlier this summer. And even if Look for the Good isn’t your cup of herbs — like most Jason Mraz songs, it’s the musical equivalent of playing ultimate Frisbee, which is sometimes exactly what you want — the longtime activist has great reason for you to listen. Look for the Good’s streams, sales, mechanical royalties, and other profits are being redirected to Black Lives Matter and other organizations specifically advancing equality for Black lives. It’s a meaningful use of the album’s sales, even as Mraz admits that he now feels a void forming, a need to do and say more.
“There’s this uneventful feeling that occurs,” Mraz says over the phone, “because you’ve spent a year writing recording, mixing, setting it up, promoting it. And now it’s out. Your schedule shifts, and you’re not talking about it. Now it’s up to the listener to hear for themselves and decide if they like it or not.” He adds, “It’s just out in the world.” And given what the singer-songwriter has seen of the world since his 2002 breakthrough “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” the response to what he does is often a total crapshoot.
Mraz talked to Vulture about his nearly 20-year career, highlighting the new album’s most classic reggae moments (Sister Carol!), an awkward encounter with Counting Crows, and more about redirecting Look for the Good’s profits toward Black Lives Matter.
Most bizarre use of “I’m Yours”
We did a cover-slash-parody-slash-sound-alike on Sesame Street. That was surreal, and it was called “Outdoors.” It starts out by going early to the studio and you’re in a vocal booth singing a version of “I’m Yours” with Elmo and the actor who plays Elmo. And then you go onto a live set and you lip-sync basically to make a music video with a room full of adults playing puppets. I wouldn’t call it weird or bizarre, but it is surreal because you grow up watching that program and you believe in it and then you get to be a part of it.
The thing about “I’m Yours” is, for many people, it’s my only song. I was in a weed shop right around the time Look for the Good album came. When I walked in, [the person] checked my ID and goes, “Oh, are you the singer?” I said, “Yeah!” Soon “I’m Yours” was playing over the speakers. I was flattered, you know? And I said, “Well, I have a new song out right now and it’s reggae. It would be perfect for in here.” And they just looked at me like I was speaking another language. They’re like, “What? You have other songs? No.”
You know what, though, I had the same experience with Counting Crows a couple of years ago. I loved the Counting Crows. In high school, probably my favorite band, like the first two albums of theirs. I just loved the lyricism of August and Everything After. Then I went through a long period of time without listening and then I ran into them at a gig. We were both playing at a charity event, and I went, “Oh my gosh! Counting Crows! I’m such a big fan. What have you been up to?” And I said it in a way as if they haven’t done anything for 25 years. They’re like, “We just put an album out.” I kind of busted myself, being a shitty fan to their faces.
Best new song
I love “Make Love.” It’s got this anthemic, just militant yet beautiful feeling to it, and I don’t know that I have a song like that in the rest of my catalogue. It usually for me is weddings, graduations, birthdays, peace, and lovely sunny days to the beach, and “Make Love” is kind of a peaceful protest song. It really drives well to the beat of marching feet. I have not really gone down that lane on a recording before.
I also love “Take the Music,” which is a very long song about the mysticism of sound and music, which is actually based off the information I learned in The Mysticism of Sound and Music, by Hazrat Inayat Khan, who is a Sufi teacher who wrote a book about why music is so freaking cool and in sort of the spiritual context. Everything I gleaned off that went into [this] song. I’ve been tweaking that song for years, never finding the right way to go on it. It’s like seven verses or something. It’s so repetitive. I fear for the listener. Or I should say, I have respect. I really love how it came out on this album because it’s basically a three-chord song but it’s always evolving.
And then my third tie for first place is “DJ FM AM JJASON.” It’s just such a strange tune as well. It’s probably the least reggae of all of them on the album because it swings a little more R&B. And it’s silly. DJ FM AM JJASON is just an acronym for the calendar months starting with December.
Michael Goldwasser, the producer of this record, had been sending me some instrumental tracks to consider and this one interesting sort of rhythm-and-blues track. And for me, “DJ FM AM JJASON” was a moment when I went, “Whoa.” So I decided I would write some verses to his track, and we ultimately came up with that song. I didn’t think it was going to make the record because for me it was too conceptual and it was almost a bit old school, sort of “Geek in the Pink” self-referential, which I hadn’t been doing in a while. It ended up being one of my favorite songs on the record.
Most classic reggae song on Look for the Good
“Look for the Good” or “Time Out.” “Time Out” has a slower BPM. We’re talking about herbs. We have a feature from Sister Carol, which also helps since reggae is music by Jamaican people. She sings of herbs. She sings of individuality, and she sings of her rising from living in poverty to living as an artist in the West. To me, that is the type of thing that would be in classic reggae, to hear a Jamaican voice.
I wanted Sister Carol on “Wise Woman.” I thought, I have to have a woman on this track, but technically I did write it with two other women. And women are singing all over the track. Raining Jane are all the background voices on almost every song.
Most surprisingly sad Jason Mraz song
There’s a song on Mr. A-Z called “Mr. Curiosity.” That’s pretty sad. On my first record, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, there’s also “The Boy’s Gone.” And I write a lot of sad songs that never make it onto the albums.
I wrote “Mr. Curiosity” on my birthday. I had previously gotten together with Lester Mendez and came up with the piano instrumental, and we were just kind of slipping around on these really sad chords on these various minor chords. And I wrote a song on my birthday as kind of a rule or a tradition for myself, and I just wasn’t feeling celebration. And I even write that in the song: It’s my birthday, and I can’t find a reason to celebrate. Writing “Mr. Curiosity” was this sad moment and even experiencing what I thought was writer’s block and deciding, I’m just going to write about writer’s block and I’m going to write about being sad, and what turned out was one of probably the most beautiful songs in my catalogue, even though it’s still pretty sad.
Then, “The Boy’s Gone” is about death. I wanted to know why we’re here, where we’re going, where we go after this. So “The Boy’s Gone” was coming to terms with just being worried about knowing that I won’t be here forever and being okay with not knowing where we go when we die. A little sad. Not easy to play live. Hard-core fans like it.
Best songwriting trick you’ve learned
The best trick is to first improvise. You go with your first instinct on the instrument and whatever comes out of your mouth. Because that clearly is urgent. It’s on the tip of your tongue. It’s your truth. You haven’t had time to second guess it, or even edit it. It’s improvisation. See what happens when you just sing the song before you’ve even written it. And then I record that and see what’s there. Is there already half of a song there? Are there three-quarters of the song? Is there one line that’s solid and then build off the good stuff from that improvisation?
I try to do that once a week. I have a friend who gives me a prompt once a week. And so I have to turn that prompt, that word or phrase, into a song. That’s my other trick, to have a steady songwriting practice. I try to write at least one song a week. That way, when you do have a genius idea, you know how to sit down and write a song. It’s not something that you haven’t done in months. It’s something that you’re ready to do. You’re always ready to do it.
That I’m able to give beyond my own needs. I thought that choosing this path, I was going to be a starving artist, and that’s totally rock and roll and all good, and I would write songs, and the journey would be so romantic that I would feel rich. That’s how it began. But all of that richness actually eventually became monetary wealth through the popularity of the songs and the touring schedule. Well then, once all my basic needs are met, I thought, Shit, who am I? What do I do? How do I find romance in this? Because now I can just afford to do this dream, you know? There’s no struggle. So my greatest achievement since then is learning how to continue to do this with purpose and still feel romantic.
So it’s starting a foundation, which allows me to take mostly my touring income and put that into this foundation, which then goes to super-serve a lot of different organizations and includes arts education and the advancement of equality. I’ve been doing that for a number of years. And then on this album, I decided to take the streams and sales and mechanical royalties that would normally come to me from BMG and divert those into organizations that are advancing equality specifically for Black lives, being as this is such a pivotal moment in history. It can’t be a moment; it really has to be a movement.
Twenty years ago, if you’d told me I was going to do that, I wouldn’t believe you. I would be like, How? It’s actually quite easy. We’re able to make music and pay all the musicians, and all the writers are still going to get paid. So my proudest achievement is that the music we’re making now serves so many. It’s more than just serving me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.