Cover Story – Jason Mraz

By Joan Tupponce

It’s been 10 years since Mechanicsville native Jason Mraz left Virginia to find his bliss out on the West Coast and seven since the release of his first album, Waiting for My Rocket to Come.

It’s been a journey marked with palm readings and palm trees; cigarettes and avocado smoothies; self-doubt and self-realization; and, of course, plenty of triple-word-score moments for the avid Scrabble player — opening for the Rolling Stones, platinum albums and his first outdoor-arena tour, which will end at the legendary Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 10. And sure, while he’s considered a Little Mr. Sunshine lyrically, a hint of melancholy is creeping in (take a listen to the torch song “If It Kills Me”) and a bit of naughty (the song “Butterfly” is open to playful interpretation).

And then there’s that love-it-or-hate-it tune he wrote.

The reggae-inspired confection “I’m Yours” — written in 2004 but finally placed on last year’s We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. — garnered Mraz a Grammy nomination for song of the year and recently broke Billboard’s record for staying on the Hot 100 chart longer than any other single in its 51-year history.

But right now, Mraz is just two hours away from stepping onto the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage in Columbia, Md., to kick off his Gratitude Café tour in front of 10,000-plus fans who range in age from elementary schoolers to octogenarians and include his parents and aunts, uncles and friends who have driven up from Richmond.

He’s settled into a lawn chair, sporting a narrow-brimmed hat and flip-flops, but he’s anxious about a new guitar solo that he’s adding to the show. Accomplished but self-taught on the acoustic, amplified-acoustic and electric guitars he plays, Mraz confides, “That’s the scariest moment ever.”

Confessional and contemplative, Mraz loves sharing stories, on stage with his audience, on his blog with fans and in his “Grati-Tube” videos on YouTube (the latest shows him nude but for a shower cap, revealing the many sources of songwriting inspiration he finds in hotel rooms).

He’s also a partner in the organic clothing line Blend Apparel, which produces the T-shirts that he often wears on stage. And he’s promoting the documentary May I Be Frank, produced by his friends at the real Café Gratitude in San Francisco.

He wrote a song for the movie, which is about a depressed 54-year-old guy who wants to fall in love again and how for 45 days he adopts a raw-food diet.

Trying to stick to a predominantly raw-food diet since April 2008 himself, Mraz, 32, kicked a 10-year smoking habit four years ago and is now an avid surfer, runner and yogi. He travels with a “joyologist,” who is the tour’s raw-food chef, yoga instructor and Twitterer.

Mraz strives for balance, as much as a self-admitted ham can.

Mraz was only 6 when he started performing.

“I would open his door and see that he had set up an elaborate theater or tent in his room,” says Mraz’s mom, June Tomes.

He also loved the element of surprise. His penchant for catching folks off-guard surfaced in the fourth grade during his first talent show at Rural Point Elementary. He walked onto the stage as Jerry Lee Lewis, lip-synching “Great Balls of Fire.” He did it again in seventh grade, gracing the stage dressed as Aretha Franklin and belting out “Respect.”

Phillip “Doodie” Tomes, Mraz’s stepfather and a former drummer, remembers the first song Mraz wrote when he was just 10 years old. “It was about the owner’s manual of my old Buick,” he says. “I almost fainted.”

He also is the one to credit for Mraz’s signature accessory, an ever-present hat.

Doodie gave Mraz his first chapeau, a Greek fisherman’s hat, when Jason was in the second grade at Mechanicsville Elementary. “Jason fell in love with it,” Doodie says. Mraz begged to wear the hat to school: “I put that thing on,” he says, “and had to get permission from Mom to wear it for a school photo.”

When Mraz was a junior at Lee Davis High School, he shocked his mother once again, having dyed his hair orange right before stepping on stage for an evening choral concert. “I was looking for him and didn’t see him,” Tomes recalls. “Then I recognized him and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! Look what he’s done!’ ”

Mraz’s confidence onstage was offset by his unassuming nature out of the spotlight. “The stage always gave me permission,” he reasons, rubbing his hands together and looking off to the side as he considers his performing persona. “It gave me a purpose. If you’re being a ham in the living room, it’s a little harder to realize what the parameters are for that setting. On stage you are given all the permission to emote and entertain, to get reactions out of people. You are in charge of crowd control. I like that.”

In 1992, at the age of 15, Mraz landed the role of Joseph in the School of Performing Arts in the Richmond Community’s Dogwood Dell production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He had taken classes at SPARC a few years prior to the performance. “That was a big one for me, to own the stage for a few moments at Dogwood Dell and see what it felt like,” he says. “SPARC lets you get in touch with yourself.” He’s been a financial backer of the organization ever since and plans to continue his support. “My niece is enrolled in it, and that keeps me in it.”

Mraz is also grateful to the arts program in Hanover schools, where he was a regular onstage at Lee Davis, with leading roles in Barnum and Snoopy!!! The Musical.

Most people, including Mraz’s mother, thought he would pursue a career in theater after high school. That seemed to be on the horizon when he left to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, but before leaving, he bought a guitar to take along.

After about a year and a half, Mraz left the AMDA and came back to Mechanicsville. He worked with his father, Tom Mraz, at Hanover Fence and then at the Ben Franklin Frame Shop, followed by stints at a cigar store and as a school janitor for his stepdad. He played at the Cary Street Café and took in bands at The Flood Zone. Then he enrolled at Longwood University.

“Jason always made up his mind as to what he was going to do and then he told us,” his mom says. Not long after enrolling at Longwood, Mraz asked her to meet him for lunch before he headed to New York to visit friends.

After lunch, she noticed that Mraz’s car was full of his belongings. “When we hugged goodbye, I had the sense [the visit] would be longer than a day or two,” she recalls. “The next day, he called me from Arkansas and told me he had made a left turn on the way to New York. He was too far away for me to convince him to come back.”

Mraz was and still is “very independent in his decision-making,” Tomes says. “He certainly has his own idea about what he wants to be on stage and what he wants to do with his music. He gets input from his band and his management, but I think he knows in his mind pretty much what he wants. He’s always been that way.”

San Diego, specifically North County, is Mraz’s home now. He lives in a Spanish-style rancher on a 5 1/2-acre avocado farm. His house is filled with art and several trompe l’oeil murals, some of which he helped to paint. The mural near the front door depicts a chair, coat rack and wall.

After touring for his second album, Mr. A-Z — tagged by many critics as an overproduced departure from his coffeehouse style — Mraz took a year off, from September 2006 to September 2007. “I just got out of the business,” he explains. “I didn’t quit. I played at coffee shops in San Diego. I stayed involved, but I needed out of the spotlight. No interviews, no phones.”

Part of his time off was spent backpacking around Europe. He took a multitude of Polaroid pictures and assembled them in the self-published book a thousand things, launched with a weeklong photo exhibition and featuring a book signing at Charles Cowles Gallery on Dec. 9, 2008, in New York City.

Mraz’s off time now includes surfing, a sport he taught himself and dearly loves. His admiration for the surf scene is reflected in the water bottle he keeps near him on the table. The embellishment reads “save trestles,” a famous California surf spot. The surfing, along with yoga and running, help keep Mraz fit. “I feel that I am getting strong, and I want to nurture that side of me,” he says.

When Mraz first drove off to California in 1999, according to a 2003 interview in Rolling Stone, he kept in mind what a palm reader in Central Park once told him: Stop questioning, start experiencing.

He ended up in San Francisco, where he visited an ex-girlfriend who happened to be dating a friend of concert promoter Bob Silva. That connection got him a chance to play a song for Silva, who was in Las Vegas doing shows with Billy Joel and Alanis Morrisette. Silva remembers listening to Mraz for the first time on April 2, 1999, at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. He didn’t know what to expect. “It was the great unknown,” he says. “There is no question that he blew me away.”

It was Mraz’s “angelic” voice that struck Silva, who remains his manager today. “He had the conviction of somebody who was wise beyond his years. There’s a spirit that moves through this man. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know if this is God talking to me, but I should really listen.’ ”

Silva and music agent Marty Diamond, the founder of Little Big Man Booking, which has represented artists such as Coldplay and Avril Lavigne, suggested that Mraz move to San Diego. “We figured in the short term this was a way to get him up and running,” Silva says. “The coffeehouse scene was robust and vibrant. Singer/songwriter Jewel came out of there. It was the right place at the right time for him to hone his craft.”

For nearly three years, Mraz had a Thursday-night gig at Java Joe’s, building a band and a following throughout San Diego and on the Internet. In March 2002, Mraz signed with Elektra records and released his first studio album that year including “Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” a track he co-wrote with well-known songwriting team the Matrix.

The inspiration for “Remedy” was Mraz’s high-school friend Charlie Mingroni, who was dealing with Ewing’s sarcoma cancer. “He found out Charlie had cancer about the time he moved to San Diego,” recalls Tomes. “He couldn’t believe so many good things were happening for him and Charlie was going through such a rough time.” The fireworks Mraz saw when he was driving to California reminded him of his friend, whose birthday is on the Fourth of July. The thought appeared in the first lines of the hit.

Mingroni remembers the first time he heard the lyrics. He was getting chemotherapy and shivering even though he was under several blankets. “The song lit me up like I was on fire,” he says. “I was so impressed. I felt so good about life.”

Mraz has never mentioned to his friend (who is now cancer-free) that the song was about him, nor has Mingroni ever mentioned to Mraz that he knows the song’s origin. “We’ve been best friends for 15 years, and there are some things that just aren’t spoken,” Mingroni says.

“You don’t have to speak, you just have to know.”

Rick Alvey knows. Alvey is the owner of Mechanicsville Music, where Mraz purchased his first guitar — a red Washburn — before leaving for New York City. The two have remained friends ever since. Alvey has a replica of Mraz’s gold album for Waiting for My Rocket to Come in his store. Mraz sent it to him shortly after receiving the original. “Jason hasn’t changed over the years,” Alvey says. “He’s special, and he makes you feel special by being around him.”

Because Mraz was never taught the technique of songwriting, he says he finds collaboration to be a real learning process. “When I work with other songwriters, I notice my skills improve,” he says. Writing alone is more personal and passionate. “Doing it alone gets spiritual. It gets like a mania, like a mad scientist doing his thing.”

His wordsmithing skills are challenged by Austin songwriter Bob Schneider, who sometimes sends him a deadline and a single word to write a song about. Mraz is also addicted to Scrabble. He plays online, met a former girlfriend that way, and his mother just gave him a board in Spanish, a nod to his fall South American tour.

Mraz’s songs reflect his life. “I have a hard time just making things up,” he says, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table in front of him. “I try to connect truthfully with my feelings without being preachy. I try to inspire, uplift and make music that hopefully people can relate to.”

The song “Love for a Child,” another co-writing effort, relates to his parents’ divorce when he was 8. “I didn’t want to write it,” he says, adding that he couldn’t stop thinking about the song. When he finished, he was surprised at what he heard. “When I listened to the playback, I said, ‘This is a love song.’ When I look back at my life, I was loved through and through. It was a powerful song for me and to share with [my family].”

This June, Mraz’s songwriting abilities were recognized with the Hal David Starlight Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame 40th Anniversary Gala. Past winners include Rob Thomas, Alicia Keys and John Mayer. “It was crazy,” Mraz says. “I never felt like I had technique or formula for this. You never know if you’re doing it right.” Mraz was taken aback by the praise from the songwriting community. “I am really humbled by that.”

Reflecting on his success, Mraz jokes, “I think, ‘Really, is the music industry suffering that much that they are giving something to me?’ ” But seriously, he says, “There are so many great artists out there. Everyone deserves acknowledgement.”

He’s still a musician in awe of the singers he listened to growing up, artists like Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Dave Matthews. He’ll get the chance to appear with all of them in October at Farm Aid 2009 in St. Louis. “That’s huge,” he says, smiling. “I’m really excited.”

Before he heads to a meet-and-greet with fans at Merriweather Post, a few jitters bubble up about the Hollywood Bowl show.

“I’m in awe of that space,” Mraz says. “I will be thinking that I am playing the Hollywood Bowl each night until I play it.”