The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses the challenge of making an album of love songs, how he hones his craft as a songwriter and the backstory of the title of his latest CD, “Love Is a Four Letter Word.”
Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz
Tavis: Jason Mraz is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who’s out now with a long-awaited follow-up to his popular 2008 CD.
His latest is called “Love is a Four-Letter Word.” He’s also announced a tour that will take him to both Asia and across North America – not bad for a guy who used to perform at a coffee shop in San Diego called Java Joe’s. From the new project, here’s some of the video for the single, “I Won’t Give Up.”
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Jason Mraz: Thank you very much.
Tavis: I was asking you where home is. I knew home was in San Diego, given the Java Joe’s reference. But you’re still in San Diego.
Mraz: Still there, yeah.
Tavis: So you just hopped on the train and came up today for the conversation.
Mraz: That’s it, yeah.
Tavis: Wow, wow. Is Java Joe’s still there?
Mraz: Java Joe’s is opening a new location right now, yeah. (Laughter) So he’s still around, he’s still in San Diego.
Tavis: He’s still doing his thing.
Mraz: Yeah. I still use the coffee shops down in San Diego as a way to try out the new material. In fact –
Mraz: – the first time I ever performed “I Won’t Give Up” was at Hill Street open mic night in Oceanside, California, down in San Diego. That’s where I go, man. It’s – the coffee shops, for me, it’s still easiest and most accessible stage that I can get to, and it’s real community and it’s real songwriters cutting their teeth on new stuff.
Tavis: Wow, even now, still.
Tavis: So at this stage of the game, what’s the takeaway from performing in those locations? Do you talk to folk afterwards? Is it about gauging their rhythm? What do you take from it?
Mraz: Yeah. Well, say if I have new material I take it to those places, and I can get a good sense of is there an arc to the song, is there real magic in this, do I want to perform it again, and get the reaction from the folks.
When I finished performing “I Won’t Give Up” for the first time, I opened my eyes and I think there was maybe six people in there when I started, and when I finished there was about 30 people, all standing around with their jaws dropped in complete silence.
I said, “Okay, I think this song has some power to it.” So coffee shops work for me.
Tavis: What stars do that nowadays? Who would be willing to expose themselves –
Tavis: – particularly in a crowd that size and that locale, who exposes themselves to that kind of stuff when they’re trying stuff out?
Mraz: I don’t know, man. Hopefully many. Hopefully many, because it’s the real world.
Tavis: “Love is a Four-Letter Word.” When I first saw that, I was like, “Duh.” (Laughter)
Tavis: But then I thought about it. That can be, like, a double-entendre. Tell me what you meant by “Love is a Four-Letter Word.”
Mraz: Well, I’ll tell you, the whole album started with this artwork. I saw these shapes in this order and I saw the word “love” in that. I was impressed with that, because it doesn’t really say love, it’s just shapes, but I’m choosing to see love in this image.
Tavis: Got it.
Mraz: So if that’s the case, love is a choice. I should also be able to see love in someone else, or see love in the mirror or in the world around me. So that was my ah-ha moment and I wanted to create this love album looking at what this thing is that’s always available to us, but we sometimes choose to have it, we sometimes don’t.
At the end of the process, I still think how can I define love in 12 songs? I can’t. It was quite a daunting task, so I thought it was quite clever to call the album “Love is a Four-Letter Word,” because just like stubbing your toe sometimes, you say a few choice things. Love does the exact same thing to us.
Tavis: So now I feel stupid. (Laughter) I was being silly, and I got a deep, philosophical response.
Mraz: Well, I’m a songwriter; I’ve got to do that.
Tavis: No, I respect that. That’s why I love artists, man, because you all see things and you feel things and you process stuff in ways that we don’t, and that’s why I’m always welcoming of artists on this particular program.
So since love is so inexhaustible, as you just described now, how do you go about doing a project of 12 songs, trying to put some context to what love is or what it feels like or what it ought to be?
Mraz: Well, for me, what I’ve learned at the very end of this, love is sharing, and I think that really is, for me, the best place to go to experience love, is sharing. I got to share a lot of myself and a lot with others and from others in the making of this album.
For example, I wrote a couple of these tunes on here with a gentleman by the name of Michael Natter. He’s in his sixties. He’s been playing his guitar for 40 years. In fact, he plays a ’60s Martin guitar that he bought off the shelf. Guys would kill to have a guitar like this; he’s been playing his whole life.
Well, he’s also been playing some song ideas for 40 years, but he’s never done anything with them. So through our sharing of ideas and music we were able to create some songs that have ended up on this album, and I learned from him also – he’s raised six kids, he has 13 grandchildren, all in a one-bedroom shack up in the mountains in San Diego.
So he becomes a mentor for me on how I can raise a family and how I can use my gifts to help others, and now through the songwriting it’s going back to contribute to his life, and now in his sixties he’s actually working as a professional songwriter through our relationship.
There’s songs about relationship with my family. I lost my aunt during the process of this album, which made me really want to tribute my granddad. That was kind of our connection. Obviously there’s intimacy, that’s a big part of love. There’s also a look at oneself, to really dig inside and see what you’re made of, what are your strengths and your limitations.
So to create an album of love, I really had – I thought it was going to be easy, because I’ve always written love songs. But I thought if I really want to make a love album that contributes, that actually means something, I’ve got to go deep.
Tavis: You’ve said a couple of things I want to go back and get now. In no particular order, number one, is there any instrument more suitable to talking about love than the acoustic guitar? I’ll let you answer, but it just seems so perfect to me. The sound that that thing – you tell me, but I love love on an acoustic guitar.
Mraz: Thank you. Well, I was actually going to say the human voice.
Tavis: Yeah, well, I take that. There you go, one-upping me again.
Tavis: You’ve got to stop this, man. Do you want to come back again? (Laughter)
Mraz: Yes, I do.
Tavis: This is Jason’s last time on the show. You can’t keep one-upping the host. Just teasing. No, go ahead, I take that.
Mraz: But that guitar is the perfect companion to the human voice. You rest it against your gut, against your heart, and when you strum it the vibrations go outwards for all to hear, but the vibration also hits you on your body.
So that, for me, as a singer, I want to add my sound to those chords in what space I’ve been given to sing my harmonies and melodies and my words. Yeah. The guitar is a great companion.
Tavis: I take that.
Mraz: And you can take it on the train.
Tavis: I see. (Laughter) The other thing I was going to ask, given what you said a moment ago, is about your songwriting. I read somewhere where you and your songwriting buddies kind of play a game with each other. Is this a true story?
Mraz: It’s a true story.
Tavis: Tell me about it.
Mraz: It still happens.
Tavis: Yeah, okay. Tell me about it.
Mraz: Due every Friday night, and it’s mainly a game about integrity. It’s not a competition by any means. But basically, one person in the group will give us the phrase. This week’s phrase was “spider windows.” Very bizarre. But you have to turn “spider windows” into a song.
There are no rules to it. The only rule is that you turn it in by Friday at midnight. If you don’t, you’re out. It’s a game about integrity, and the whole point is for a songwriter to just stay in your practice of writing. For no reason. Don’t think about your singles, don’t think about your hits, don’t think about your management or your publishing.
Just write because you need to practice it, and then by staying in the practice there comes those rare occasions when your emotions and your deepest realizations come through at that same time that your pen is ready, and you actually create something brilliant.
But for me to create an album of 12 songs, I’ve got to write about 80 songs. Half of those are totally weird and rubbish. But I get to some really good stuff after a while.
Tavis: But why 80 to get 12? That seems like – the ratio is pretty –
Mraz: I know.
Mraz: I don’t know, but that was the way it was for my last album, “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” I looked back at my work at it was about 80-some songs. So I figured I needed to do the same thing and make this one happen, and it was right. The more I wrote, the better I got.
Tavis: I guess the ultimate question now is are you going to make the deadline for spider windows?
Mraz: I did.
Tavis: You did?
Tavis: Okay, because I’m like, where are you going to go with that?
Mraz: I went with a spoken word, actually. I went with spoken word, and then I created this little kind of weird, I don’t know, remix of weird sounds and stuff. Because I have to do a lot of it in my travels, on my laptop on airplanes, stuff like that.
Mraz: It was very cool.
Tavis: Before I close our conversation by reminding people about the new project, is there an “I’m Yours” on this project? That song was such a huge, huge hit, man. (Laughter)
Mraz: Yeah, well, I can’t predict what songs will do to the collective consciousness.
Tavis: What were you feeling when you were writing “I’m Yours?” What were you feeling, though?
Mraz: I was just trying to stay out of my own way. I was having a good time, I was thinking, I’m sure I was feeling love in my heart, I was feeling the rhythm in my soul. “I’m Yours” was written effortlessly in about 20 minutes’ time, and I honestly thought it was more of like a kids’ song, and I didn’t do anything with it for years.
I wrote it in 2004, but we didn’t release it until 2008. I think because it was written so quickly that I just thought, well, maybe this doesn’t have any weight or merit, but I think because it was written effortlessly, that it came straight from the heart and that it needed to be born. So there’s a few on there, on this album, that were written that quickly, yeah.
Tavis: Well, he’s a wonderful artist and I love his spirit and I love his gift. His name is Jason Mraz, as you well know. The new project is called “Love is a Four-Letter Word,” and now when you buy the project you’ll know what it’s all about and how those images turned into a project. Jason, good to have you on.
Mraz: Tavis, thank you so much.
Tavis: My honor, sir. Good to meet you. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching PBS and keep the faith.
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