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Jason Mraz is feeling the love -- and singing about it, too
Two years ago, while he was on the road and enjoying the record-setting Billboard chart run of his single "I'm Yours," Jason Mraz thought he knew where he'd be going on his next album.
He spoke about having a plethora of material and even making two very different albums, with a variety of collaborators.
Then he fell in love. With love.
The title of "Love is a Four Letter Word" -- which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart in April and is the Virginia-born, San Diego-based singer-songwriter's fourth studio album -- sums up the various perspectives on amore voiced by its 12 tracks. But Mraz says it wasn't songs that drove him in that direction.
"The album kinda began with the artwork, which is unusual for me," Mraz, 34, says by telephone from "the shady little corner of a tall building" in Los Angeles. The image by Atlantic Records' in-house designer Greg Burke showed "these four shapes in a row -- rectangle, circle, triangle, square -- and it looked as if it said 'love.' I knew it was just cleverly placed shapes, but the image of love come in and out of focus to me, and I thought, 'Man, that's so what love is. It's always there for us to see, we just sometimes lose sight of it.
"So that was the 'a-ha!' moment that catapulted me into this project. I wanted to create a love album."
Mraz laughs as he recalls that "at first I thought it would be easy" to create an album using that theme. But he soon learned otherwise.
"See, I always write about love, and every creative act is an act of love. But it was actually quite tricky," says Mraz, who moved from Mechanicsville, Va., to San Diego during the late 90s and came out of the city's coffee house scene, making his recording debut with 2001's "Live at Java Joe's before his studio set "Waiting For My Rocket to Come" went platinum the following year.
"I wanted to bring people's attention back to love," he continues, "but I also realized in that process that love isn't always easy. It can be hurtful. You get a good taste of love, and then it shifts and it leaves you, or you think it leaves you, and it can really bring you down.
"So I discovered and realized that melancholy occurs. Just like the weather on the surface of the planet, clouds come and clouds go, and melancholy does the same thing for us and casts that shadow. I tried in the (songs) to acknowledge that melancholy and let it happen when it wanted to happen and hopefully let it ease by."
Mraz experienced that gamut of emotions himself during the time between his 2008 album "We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things" and the making of "Love is a Four Letter Word." He was for a time engaged to fellow singer-songwriter Tristan Prettyman, but in 2011 he revealed the engagement was broken, which certainly factored into some of the new album's songs.
"We were already split up," Mraz recalls, "but we weren't sure whether we wanted to stay together or get back together. It was just a very odd place to be. It happens to a lot of people; you break up and you don't know if you made the right decision. You feel like you gave up everything or made the wrong decision, so you're in a state of limbo.
"That's how the song 'I Won't Give Up' came to be. I didn't want to give up on myself, and I didn't want to give up on loving this other person even though I felt I needed to go another direction in my life."
Compounding that was the death of three people who were close to Mraz, as well as a pet cat. There was enough tumult, he says, that, "I was in that place with my own career and my own life, 'Do I really want to keep going with this songwriting thing' and blah, blah, blah. I think about that every so often. It's just human nature. But I realized I did" want to continue with the music.
Mraz certainly didn't conduct himself like a man in doubt; he estimates he wrote about 80s songs for "Love is a Four Letter Word," though the paring-down process wasn't difficult.
"Forty of them were weird, dark, depressing -- what I needed to do to work out my problems and to understand who I am and to grow as a songwriter and an individual," he says. "Of the leftover 40, maybe half of them were cheesy. Then you get down to 20 that you think, 'OK, these have some merit and these have some transparence to them, and I hope they can serve come greater purpose in the world than just being clever songs."
Mraz had his taste of that with "I'm Yours." the single peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was his first Top 10 hit, but more importantly it stayed on the chart for 76 weeks, beating LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live" for the all-time longest chart stay. The song sold more than five million copies in the U.S. and was also a worldwide hit, topping charts in New Zealand and Norway.
It was nominated for two Grammy Awards as well, including Song of the Year in 2009.
" 'I'm Yours' was a song that people sang to each other," Mraz says. "They were choosing to use those words to empower themselves, to gift themselves to someone else. That moved me as a songwriter. So the pressure I felt was could I create another album that had songs on it that, when they listener sang it, they were affirming something in the universe, maybe transforming their minute or their day or even their life by singing these songs.
"That really made me want to be more of a conscious songwriter. I had some subconscious tunes on that last album that I saw made a difference in people's lives, so that's what I was going for."
That led to some interesting decisions during the making of "Love is a Four Letter Word" with producer Joe Chiccarelli. Though he wrote nearly everything on the album, as usual, Mraz tapped "The Freedom Song," by Seattle singer-songwriter Luc Reynaud and originally recorded with children at a New Orleans shelter after Hurricane Katrina, as the set's opening track. "I just thought it was an incredible story," Mraz explains, "and I knew if I put that song out on my record, I'd a) have a great time playing it, and the money (Reynaud) would earn as the songwriter would benefit him and his communities greatly."
Another colleague getting a helping hand from Mraz was Michael Natter, a 60-something troubadour in San Diego whose career was not exactly in the toilet -- but that's how he wound up writing with Mraz.
"I had a toilet that needed changed in my house, and I knew Michael, who raised six kids in a one-bathroom house, would probably know how to do that," Mraz recalls. "He came over, and after we did the job we jammed, and I noticed he had all these brilliant ideas...he's been sitting on for 35 years." Natter wound up co-writing four songs on the album, and Mraz says with pride that his collaborator has given up his day job in order to devote himself full-time to songwriting.
"Similar to Luke's story, Michael is another...happy ending," Mraz says.
Mraz, meanwhile, continues to chart his own course towards happiness -- which he claims may or may not veer away from music at some point. Though he says that "I love making music and offering that up and connection with audiences," he says the "salesman" part of the job wears on him. "When you write a song and put your heart into it and then someone asks you to explain it...I think, 'Is this really my highest calling? Is this the greatest choice I can be making?' " he explains. "There's other things I'd like to do out there as well."
Specifically that includes a dedication to organic and sustainable farming. Mraz owns an avocado farm in Bonsall, Calif., and a fruit orchard in Homer Glen, Calif. He received a Clean Water Awards from the Surfrider Foundation in 2010 and also lent "I'm Yours" to the Nature Conservancy for a public service announcement, while his social activism includes work with the Human Rights Campaign, Free The Children, MusiCares and more.
Fearing that "I'm probably the sole reason there's global warming because I'm always in a plane, always in a van, always in a hotel," Mraz has also added green initiatives to his touring, including running his buses on biodiesel, recycling backstage and even planting trees in cities where he plays. And, of course, Mraz would also "like to master a relationship and have a family. Traveling 10 months out of the year, it's kind of difficult to hold down a relationship."
But fans needn't worry; Mraz isn't planning to bring the curtain down on his music making any time soon.
"Those are just some of the things that might make me work about choosing a different career," he explains. "But the more people I talk to, I find everyone things this way. I've talked to brilliant songwriters and producers who, when I told them what I was thinking, they're like, 'Omigosh -- you too?' So I know I'm not alone in these thoughts, which is comforting."
Jason Mraz and Christina Perri perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $59.50 and $39.50 pavilion, $23 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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