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Interview with Singer/Songwriter Jason Mraz

Aired July 6, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET


SARAH SIDNER, HOST (voice-over): He's the singer/songwriter behind one of the biggest hits of the past decade. It was this catchy tune that in 2008 catapulted Jason Mraz to international stardom. But this was not sudden success.

The American singer had been building a following for nearly a decade. Now at age 35, Mraz is busy crisscrossing the globe, promoting a new album, and talking about some of the causes close to his heart.

JASON MRAZ, SINGER/SONGWRITER: And I have the power now to contribute in a way that hopefully inspires others to contribute.

SIDNER: This week on TALK ASIA, we're along for the ride from the coast of Africa --

MRAZ: My name is Jason.

SIDNER: -- to the waters of Antarctica. Plus, performances from his latest tour coming up on TALK ASIA.

Welcome to TALK ASIA.

MRAZ: Oh, that is hot. Thank you.

SIDNER: You're welcome. You got some tea there.

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: We're going to go back, way back. You were in Virginia?

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: And then, went to New York and sort of studying at the Music Academy, Dramatic Academy there.

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: Why did you leave? Why did you leave school?

MRAZ: Well, in the field I was studying, musical theater, I found it was very competitive. You know, in addition to singing and to dance and act, and I thought I'd be auditioning for the rest of my life, just thought I could be a water. But my strength was in singing and songwriting, which was a new discovery for me when I was 18. And I decided if I pursued songwriting, which is what was closest to my heart, then there would be no competition. I would just live my life being myself and living my dream.

SIDNER: Was it rough on you to have to sort of do what everyone was asking you to do? Did you have to sing and act? Did you do all that?

MRAZ: Oh, absolutely. And I did it a lot when I was a kid. And it was the best. You know, to be part of a big cast and be other characters. It's a great way to learn how to express yourself and live on your edge, I guess, and spontaneously.

So I was able to use those tools in my own work later, but I much enjoyed not -- I just -- I enjoyed writing the own -- my own musical for my own life.

SIDNER: Is that imperative now that people who are in the music business also write their own songs? So it used to be way back, someone would hand you a song and say sing it.

MRAZ: Absolutely. You know, there's still a lot of great songwriters out there who hand in songs. And there's a lot of brilliant singers and performers out there who sing other people's words. I enjoy doing both. Growing up as a singer, and a cast member, and now as an adult, a songwriter, I get the luxury of choosing the kinds of songs that I want to sing, because I'll write, you know, hundreds of songs. Even though only 12 appear on the album. That's 12 that I've chosen to sing of my catalog.

SIDNER: Let me ask you about when you did leave Virginia. I read that you packed up your stuff, and you got in the car, and you headed to California.

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: What was that like?

MRAZ: Oh, it was the scariest thing I've ever done in my life, because it was the second time I was dropping out of school. It was -- I was leaving everything, my job, everything behind that was secure and going to this unknown coast. I had no contacts. I had no idea what was going to happen in the industry. I had, you know, one friend that was going to let me live on her coach. You know, and that was it. And but something, it was like a magnet, something out there in California that was really calling me. And I just thought it was going to be experience. In fact, that's what it has been, experience. I just wanted to go and have something stimulate all of my emotions and senses, so that I could write something great. And I thought it would be a short trip. And it turned out to be, you know, a lifetime.

SIDNER: When you were in the car, were you thinking about, you know, what am I doing? Should I turn around? Did you ever have a moment where you thought I can't do this?

MRAZ: No, no, I kept going. And my car broke down twice on the way. And that just added to the excitement. Even when I first got on the freeway leaving Virginia, I was even saying out loud, oh, my gosh, I can't believe I'm doing this, knowing that I had, you know, 3,000 miles ahead of me.


SIDNER: All of us, for some reason, I don't know what it is, but that song gets stuck in your head and will not leave. Is there an art to that? Because there are a few songs that really do that.

MRAZ: Sure.

SIDNER: They just won't leave your head.

MRAZ: Yes. I call it sacred geometry. When everything's just right and it feels really balanced, so that when it unfolds to the next part, you feel totally familiar and at ease within the song. I don't yet know exactly how to do it every time, even though you can look and see there's a formula to it, but I think it's also a message of right place in the right time when a song like that connects with, you know, either an individual or, obviously, the masses.



SIDNER: Did you ever imagine that your music and your talents would take you to where they have? I mean --

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: -- you're known globally now.

MRAZ: Thanks to you.

SIDNER: I don't know. I think it's thanks to your music.

MRAZ: Well, you know, it's been a long, beautiful ride so far, you know, 13 years performing in public places. And every year, our radius seems to get just a little bit bigger. And I don't know why that is. I'm not a virtuoso on an instrument. You know, I'm not always singing in pitch. I laugh sometimes my way through the shows, but I'm an honest songwriter who's always tried to bring the audience with me on my journey in hopes that they see their own lives reflected in the work.


SIDNER: Is there any difference between an audience, for example, in Korea than there is from an audience in L.A.?

MRAZ: No, there isn't. I mean, the only difference in the show is I'm going to say kamsa hamnida at the show in Korea. And in Los Angeles, I'll say, you know, thanks, amigos or whatever. I have a very awesome seat in the house every time I play. When the lights come up, and the sound turns on, I'm playing for a roomful of human beings. And geographical and political borders just all dissolve. And we unite through rhythm inhalation. I mean, I'm so grateful that, you know, audiences around the world connect to English music.


SIDNER: How much time is spent really forming the music that you eventually play?

MRAZ: I get my most creative sort of energy after a show. So I love to go back to the hotel and compose new material. Generally in a rush, exactly. I have to get it out somehow, otherwise I can't sleep, you know. So I spend a lot of time. It's -- my touring isn't about collecting souvenirs and always being on the go. It's -- my souvenirs are writing in my journal and creating new music, because that stuff fits so easily in your backpack when you're traveling around the world. And it's something I think I can share later with either more fans or future family members that I may have.

SIDNER: Does music and does writing music kind of bubble out of you? Or do you struggle sometimes? You know, a lot of people talk of writer's block or feeling that pressure from the company to get --

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: -- you know, a song out.

MRAZ: I've experienced, you know, block and pressure, but that's your own fear of letting it bubble out. It's like trying to cap something that's already incredibly carbonated and -- but if you just let it bubble out, it just tickles you. And you can't stop laughing. And you can't stop creating. And just like some of these dancers, they just can't stop talking.

SIDNER: That's good.

MRAZ: Got to let it flow.

SIDNER: Let's talk about fame for a minute, because at some point, you know, a lot of people say it's not real, but it's certainly present and there. What does it feel like to have this kind of recognition?

MRAZ: Well, in one of my songs, I say fame is nothing more than loving someone. So I'm grateful every day that there's so many fans of people out there that love my music and feel they're connected to me through that.

SIDNER: Does it bring hassles though? People, a lot of paparazzi out there, a lot of people kind of --

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: -- trying to see into your life.

MRAZ: I don't necessarily want to call it a hassle, because it's a luxurious hassle to have, but there have been a few occasions where, you know, every minute or two minutes, certainly in airports and some hotels, someone wants to stop you and have their picture with you. And occasionally, someone doesn't even make eye contact with you. They just want to stand next to you and get a picture. So you feel more like a sitting than an actual interest of theirs or a friend. So after enough of those back to back, you just sort of feel taken advantage of. So I do my best to ask what the person's name is. Wait, what's your name?

SIDNER: Yes, so you're making direct eye contact.

MRAZ: Great. (Inaudible), cool.

SIDNER: What are some of the things that you dislike about the music business? Because there's the artist side, and then, there is -- there has to be a business side, or you wouldn't be able to travel as much as you do.

MRAZ: Yes.

SIDNER: What do you not like about the music business?

MRAZ: I mean, I've tried to make the best of the business. You know, I guess what I don't like about it is that it is a business. And in a business, that means there's going to be competition or standard, or there's going to be committees or boards that occasionally will have a say in how the art is conveyed or distributed. But, you know, I've been very fortunate to work with great teams all around the world, and focus on the business where I can create my own foundation.

SIDNER: What are some of the causes that you have -- did you go to the Antarctic with Al Gore?

MRAZ: I did.

SIDNER: What was that like?

MRAZ: I did. I met Al Gore -- he and I are both on a talk show. And I met him. I shook his hand. And I said, well, I love your work, I love your presentations. If you ever need, you know, a musician to help you rally or anything, let me know. And sure enough, I got a call about six months later. He was taking a trip to Antarctica. His first return since he was a senator in 1988 to show 150 entrepreneurs, entertainers, scientists, researchers firsthand the stark realities of climate change.

It looks like a movie set when you're there. It's a pool with nothing but Styrofoam walls around you.

SIDNER: Cold Styrofoam.

MRAZ: Yes. And it was on my flight home that I became incredibly confronted that, OK, I'd just gone to this beautiful place, but our boat burned 40 tons of diesel and now I'm on an airplane in business class. And they're handing me this fresh fruit. And I can't even imagine where the fruit came from, the journey it took, and what chemicals might have been used for it. And everything just kind of flooded on me. It was enlightenment, but of the dark kind.

SIDNER: It felt bad?

MRAZ: It felt pretty bad. So I came home and I worked with my team to start a tree planting project. So in an effort to raise awareness about our impact on the planet, and do my best to sequester and offset (inaudible).


MRAZ: I don't think I ever met a real hero until I came here. And I got to work alongside real heroes, real modern day abolitionists, real modern -- real active, doing the work to end child slavery.


SIDNER: Child slavery?

MRAZ: Uh-huh.

SIDNER: Particularly in Africa.

MRAZ: Uh-huh.

SIDNER: Is that a sort of a shocking thing to you that in 2012, that this still goes on? Slavery still exists?

MRAZ: Yes. Incredibly shocking, which is why I make it one of the beneficiaries of my foundation, that issue, to raise awareness and to help provide resources for those who are actually working on the ground. When I went to Africa, and I worked alongside a gentleman named James Kofi Annan, who was once a child slave, and when he was a kid, he just wanted a rescue boat to come and take him off the boat and out of these harsh conditions that he was forced to fish in for about eight years of his childhood. And I've been helping the organization, but I was able to go first hand and see how my money was actually putting gas in that boat that he now operates. So he now is a rescue worker, a real life Indiana Jones, in my opinion. And after seeing that and learning about this issue, I felt that we can make a huge difference using the powerful tools that we have through Internet and television today.


SIDNER: I'm going to have to ask you about surfing. If you had the choice, sort of in your dream of dreams, would you choose to, you know, do you get a bigger rush out of surfing a huge wave off the California coast, or playing for an audience in say Shanghai?

MRAZ: I'm going to go with playing for an audience in Shanghai.


MRAZ: Because I'm probably not going to die on stage in front of an audience. Sometimes when I'm surfing, all I'm thinking about is survival. And I think that's the rush. I prefer to surf waves that are just more fun and you can have a conversation with your friends. But occasionally, there's that big wave that just scares the pants of you. So I do prefer being on stage, but I got to surf. It's something that just -- I guess because they're almost so opposite. My job -- my hands remain so soft. My job is so non laborious, that when I'm off the road, I like to do things that really push me a little bit harder than I would typically do on tour.

SIDNER: When you think about, you know, sort of, other people kind of coming up in the business, is there anything that you would say to an aspiring singer or songwriter as a bit of advice or a bit of experience from someone who's done it and been there?

MRAZ: I always tell people to sing their own story, sing their own truths, because each of us are born unique and are going to have our own experiences. And when we speak our truth and reveal our vulnerability and we allow ourselves to be transparent in front of an audience, that audience gets to see themselves in the work.

And then if you're really beginning a journey through the business, don't wait for the business to find you, would say. Create it yourself, even if it's your own backyard. And obviously, we have the Internet these days, where you can film yourself and create your own channel. And that's great. When I started, that channel was putting up posters and saying meet me at this coffee shop on Thursday night. And --

SIDNER: It's changed, hasn't it? The world has really, really changed.

MRAZ: Yes, the world has really changed. Yes.

SIDNER: But for the good? I've got to ask you about India, because I noticed a certain someone on your cup and beads around your arm.

MRAZ: Right.

SIDNER: India, tell me about --

MRAZ: Well --

SIDNER: -- going there and experiencing that? And how much -- it's obviously had some effect on you?

MRAZ: It did. Many, many years ago, I lost the plot, let's call it. I just finished touring my second album. And I wasn't sure where I was going in my life or my career. And someone left for me anonymously at a hotel "Autobiography of a Yogi", brilliant book about -- written by Paramahansa Yogananda, which is hard to believe it's someone's actual life when you read it. It reads more like a Harry Potter. There's crazy characters with super powers. And I read it. And I just felt really drawn to it and felt a deep connection with it.

And turns out it was written in San Diego, where I, too, had made a pilgrimage in my life, and decided I would pursue more I guess yogic philosophy in the practice of yoga. And I -- shortly after reading the book, I got invited to visit India. That never happens. And I just continued to have profound experiences on this journey.

And I just felt, OK, the universe is trying to tell me something to put me on this path for a reason and turned me on to new ways of being and new attitude about life.

And obviously, then, after that, my music went global. And I just felt there was a certain peace and understanding that I found, I would say, thanks to India and what India produces for the world.

SIDNER: Do you hum your own songs? Because we all hum them. Do they get in your head as well?

MRAZ: I do, but I'm always humming for new ones. So while you're still humming the old ones, I'm trying to think of some new ones for you.

SIDNER: OK. If you were not doing music, if you did not find what you were looking for, success in music, what do you think that you would be doing?

MRAZ: I think I would at least be trying. I think I'd still be trying. I might be doing other things to pay the bills. The last job I had before this was I was assistant manager at a tobacco shop. I just worked behind the counter and sold cigars. And for that, I worked as a janitor in elementary school. And I was a mailman for the United States Postal Service.

And -- but all of those jobs, I would just rush home and play my guitar. And even though I was doing those jobs, I always felt like a musician. So I think even if this gift hadn't given me what it has, I would still be trying.

SIDNER: I bet there's a lot of people out there that wouldn't know that the person who is cleaning the elementary school is now sitting on stage with thousands of people?

MRAZ: Yes. You know, most musicians are usually one song away from being a janitor. So I always musicians for that. You look at them on stage and that's a talented janitor up there.

SIDNER: Right. Very good. Thank you. Thank you very much.