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Life Is Good: Conversations With Jason Mraz and Alexa Ray Joel, Plus Alexa's New Video "Notice Me"

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A Conversation with Jason Mraz

Mike Ragogna: Hi Jason.

Jason Mraz: Hey, what's up Mike? How are you?

MR: I'm pretty good, man. What are you up to these days?

JM: Actually, before we talk about me, I want to acknowledge you for running the first, and what I perceive to be the only solar-powered radio station in the Midwest. That reminds me of when the British were pirating radio offshore, to broadcast in a new and bold way. So, thank you for being a pioneer in that.

MR: Wow, that's terrific, thanks a lot, Jason.

JM: What I'm up to? All kinds of things. I'm in the middle of making a record. Basically, what my life is all about is that search for inspiration. People are always asking me, "What inspires you?" My only answer is usually that only inspiration inspires me or that which inspires us or that which causes that moment of inspiration to happen within us--that moment when we shift our attention back to something that we love, something we love about ourselves, or something we love to do. So, that's what my life is about. It's spirituality, art, and freedom.

MR: With every album, and that includes your live albums, it does seem like there is a big step forward being taken creatively and artistically. For instance, you came off a really fabulous studio album, We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things--and I'd like to go on record as saying that I think that is one of the best titles ever for an album--then you get to Jason Mraz's Beautiful Mess: Live On Earth, and that live project had so much spirit and energy. You were talking about the creative impulse before. Well, you absolutely can hear it on that.

JM: Cool.

MR: So, you have this new EP, Life Is Good. What is going on with that?

JM: It's a collection of songs which includes some of the new songs that we were playing on tour this fall. It had been so long since I'd put anything out--almost a year since the last album--and I needed to share something. I'm in the middle of making a record, and I've got so many songs that aren't going to make it on the record because I only choose about twelve. So, I wanted to put an EP out to share a variety of sounds I'm experimenting with, keep listeners "in-the-know," and also to have an opportunity to get feedback from listeners. To put something out called Life Is Good--it's almost like the record cover has become obsolete or it's been reduced now to just a little digital square that we see on our music devices or computer screen. Seldom do we get to hold an album or CD booklet and flip through it anymore, so we thought that if we were just recreating these little images to blast everywhere. I want my images to say something great and, of course, the backdrop on the cover is the word "love," which was taken from our show.

The backdrop we used was built out of recycled water bottles. We constructed this thing with sixteen hundred plastic water bottles, each plugged with an LED light that created our big television screen behind us. So, I took a photo of the word "love" because I always think it's great to broadcast that word out into the world. You can never get tired of it, and we always need our attention shifted back to it. Then, Life Is Good is just another way to remind people. I truly think life is good. No matter what, we're all going to be okay and we're all going to be taken care of because, one way or another, we're not going to stay here forever. In this lifetime, where everything is made up, why don't you just make up that life is good, and live in that, what you have created for yourself? Lastly, it's also a tribute to Life Is Good, the company that does a good thing inspiring young kids. Most of the audio from the Life Is Good EP was taken from the Life Is Good Festival, which is just outside of Boston, Massachusetts.

MR: I remember when you were doing that since this is like our third time chatting. You are constantly out there playing for benefits and things like that. Would you recap the Life Is Good Festival a little?

JM: It was a festival unlike any other I've been to. It was a festival of politeness. It was a festival celebrating community projects and collaboration, and it was also a festival that was scheduled during family hours. It didn't run late, and there was a huge portion of it dedicated to kids. In fact, the kid's stage had more people at it than any of the other stages. It was my understanding that the promoters were warned not to try to do a festival for adults and kids--it just doesn't happen. But these guys just did it with flying colors. It proves that we can all be in the same place, we can all enjoy the same music, that we can all get down, and that life is good.

MR: Right. I spoke to the event's promoter, Bert Jacobs--we had him on this program. He was so informative, but he also was really proud of the effort itself and also how great you guys were in coming together for this.

JM: It was a no-brainer. I love events that have a good cause behind them, that aren't just to generate money for a promoter or a city, but are truly doing something. And that event is Life Is Good. They have this program that involves these volunteers called Playmakers, who go out there and play with kids who have been in traumatic experiences and kids that need to be reminded that it's okay to be kids. These people go out there and they make a huge difference in people's lives. Also, a lot of the people who got to come back stage and meet the bands weren't just contest winners. They gave access to people who contributed. So, it was also a concert that challenged people to contribute something--to hold fundraisers independently before Life Is Good. It was more than just a one-day event because it was all about the journey leading up to that event as well, and I think that's really cool.

MR: These days, it seems like there is more thought going on behind the scenes with regards to the tentacles--things you do in association with the concert--whereas years ago, it was always just about the main event and then they were done.

JM: Yeah, I think we've all gotten present to the journey. When you buy a concert ticket or a ticket to go on vacation, your vacation really begins when you buy that ticket. It doesn't begin when you get to the airport or when you arrive in Hawaii, you get that excitement the minute you buy your ticket. Life Is Good is an example of that because when you buy your ticket, they give you challenges and things to do leading up to the actual concert, and I think that makes you enjoy the experience all the more.

MR: Did you play the Life Is Good concert with the same band that you had on Beautiful Mess?

JM: No, I did not. I shifted my band for that tour. For every album so far, I've had a different group of guys, though one or two might carry over to the next. The hardest thing is calling those guys and saying, "Hey, for the next tour, I'm going to try something completely different." That's always been an incredibly difficult call I've had to make tour after tour. As a solo artist and a guy that started off in coffee shops alone, I'm just constantly trying to seek different sounds, and I'm always learning from different players. So, the Life Is Good CD has an entirely different band from what was on the Beautiful Mess album. I should also say about the Beautiful Mess album that that crew and I had been together for about two years at that point, but for the Life Is Good EP, we've only been together for about two days. So, it's a dramatic difference in the musicianship, but equally great I think.

MR: And you have the song "San Disco Reggaefornia?"

JM: One version of it. I don't know if that song is going to make it on my forthcoming album, but since then, that song has evolved quite a bit as I have rewritten it a few times. Another thing about releasing new material this early is that a lot of those songs were still in the development stages, so it'll be cool when the album comes out to hear something completely different.

MR: I loved what you did with "Coyotes" too. That was one of my favorite songs from We Song, We Dance, We Steal Things--again, best album title in the world.

JM: Thanks. That song was weird for me--it evolved out of a songwriting game I was playing with a couple of guys, where they would give me a phrase that I had to turn into a song. The phrase for that song was, "I wish the wind would blow me." So, I immediately started writing, and I said, "I wish the wild was alive like you. I wish the wind would blow me to another opportunity to approach you." It just started this poetry that I put a beat to, and I developed this little story about the coyotes in my backyard. In that same time in my life, coyotes were kind of running amok in Central Park, and there was an article kind of following this coyote in Central Park. I imagined it was a coyote from my area who was kind of stalking this girl that I liked, who lived in New York at the time, and I just kind of put my life into this allegory. When I got to the studio, a lot of the guys really gelled with it--they thought it was sort of a trippy tune--but I never thought I'd be able to perform it live, and it's become one of our favorite songs to play live.

MR: Other songs on Life Is Good that are "Freedom Song," "Up," and "What Mama Says." Do you want to go into them?

JM: Sure man. That one I actually wrote with Brett Dennen, who is an extraordinary guy.

MR: What a really good artist he is.

JM: He's probably one of the most authentic musicians and authentic people that I actually know. I'd had all these versions, ideas. I'd been keeping notes of things I'd heard my mom say or other moms say or the general jargon, and I thought it would be fun to create a song out of that. I wanted it to be a song that moms could clean to--not to say that all moms work at home and are supposed to clean their house, if you'll allow me to be a little politically correct at the moment. For the style, I just wanted it to be something that any of us cleaning the house would like to listen to. I just think it's a sweet song, and I've had a lot of positive feedback about it.

MR: So, you're in the process of working up some songs for your next album--have you gotten into the studio to play around a little?

JM: I've been in and out of the studio for probably the last year, starting back in December. I'm heading back into the studio on Tuesday and my goal is to wrap it up entirely by December. So, it will have been a year process, from start to finish, of testing songs, writing songs, rewriting songs, and just putting everything I've got into it. I'm going to be sad for the songs that don't make it on the record because as much heart and life went into those as the others.

MR: Well, those are your iTunes bonus tracks or whatever, right?

JM: Exactly.

MR: I understand that you want to record everything because you want to get the most out of every song, but using all of them might not make the right painting.

JM: Exactly. I've just been chipping away and chipping away at this thing, and there are so many different configurations for the songs--it's infinite. Each way that you arrange the songs you put on there totally paints a different story, so the main deciding factor is what story do I want to tell with this work. I know that I'm going to tour for all of next year, so what songs do I want to take with me every night? There may be a ton of great songs that sound great, but are they going to be something that I can stand behind, believe in, and that I think people are going to relate to? I truly, truly want to provide a sense of relatedness--I think the most important thing an artist can do is create something that the viewer or listener can see themselves in the work. We all love movies because the situations in them relate to the things in our lives, so I'm trying to create those moments within songs.

MR: Before we go any further in this conversation I feel like I need to ask you our traditional question. How is the avocado ranch doing?

JM: It's thriving. It's doing so well. It's actually one of our best years. I've lived there for six years and the trees are thirty years old, so I really don't do too much to them other than water them and learn new ways to water them because we're in a water shortage. And we're transitioning to organic, so there are definitely different processes that it takes to do that. But they are thriving man, thank you.

MR: Nice, and you're transitioning to organics because that's one of the things that you're into.

JM: Yeah, it seems like a no-brainer. The more books I've read and documentaries I've seen about food, where it comes from, and the things we spray on food or the soil, it all goes into the food. I just don't want to be eating that, and I don't want to be offering that. When my avocados get sent to the market, I don't want to be offering eighty percent avocado and twenty percent pesticides, I want to be delivering something great. Here in California, it takes a three-year commitment to no chemicals in the soil, and that's a big thing because it's more than just what you're doing to your trees, it's how you treat your home. Do you put things out to kill the mice or rats? What kind of chemicals do you use in your home? What are the neighbors doing to their soil, and is it running into the soil? There are a couple of things to think about, but overall, the main concern is just health.

MR: Right. And I have another traditional question for you, one that I asked you first at the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame a couple of years ago. What advice do you have for new artists?

JM: Be yourself. The world wants more of who you are. Who you are, by yourself, and then you following your bliss and your true individuality is going to gravitate eyeballs and ears to you. You're going to attract an audience because you're having such a great time being you that people are going to admire that and want that. You're going to be offering them a sweet wine of love, spirituality, bliss, and whatever your message is that you're expressing. I say that so that if you see a band you like or song you like, don't necessarily emulate it entirely because you think that's what the world likes right now. It's all shifting and changing because individuals show up. So, if you're a new artist, be yourself and be an individual. If you're looking to get into the business, create the business around you. People aren't going to come knocking on your door, and record companies aren't looking for singers to put in a band--they're looking for artists who are doing the work, and they're going to want to get involved with you. So, find a local coffee shop, a street corner, a YouTube channel, basically any outlet for your expression, and just be yourself. Have a great time doing it, and odds are an audience will envelope you.

MR: Beautiful. You know, that's one of the best answers I've heard, so thank you for that.

JM: Hey brother, my pleasure.

MR: Thank you for taking the time and for saying those nice words about solar powered KRUU-FM. It's always nice when the artist has an opinion about that because we're out here being the little engine that could in a lot of ways, and it seems that in places like the Southwest...I don't understand why everybody isn't trying to get to solar power or something that's alternative energy because we're kind of at that point now.

JM: We are at that point now--the technology is available to us. I run my home on solar power as well, and the first thing I did was invite all of my neighbors over to check out how cool it was because I wanted to inspire them to do the same thing, so thank you for broadcasting that message loud and clear. I think it's time, you know? The oil spill that happened this summer may contribute to the end of civilization as we know it--it just might. We have this opportunity now to harness energy a different way, and to run machines on a different kind of power. It's right there over our heads like a light bulb that's on, but nobody recognizes that it's an idea up there. I encourage everyone to take that leap of faith, invest in the equipment, and enjoy. Enjoy having no electricity bills because the gadgetry will pay for itself, trust me.

MR: Nice. Let's talk about one last song.

JM: "Up," I love "Up." It's just about not having feelings on things. Sometimes, we're in a relationship or we find ourselves doing something, and there's a certain limit we have, like, "Okay, I'll only play this bar." I wrote the song about the fact that there are a few things in life where there really is no ceiling--we'll go as far as it takes, and we'll do anything for that person. So, thanks.

MR: You're a good egg, Jason.

JM: Thank you my brother, you are too Mike.

MR: I appreciate your calling in, and please come again when the new album is ready.

JM: I certainly will. I want to be there in person to see your photovoltaic system.

MR: You've got it, come on by. Thanks again.

JM: Rad, thank you brother.

Tracks:
1. Freedom Song
2. San Disco Reggaefornia
3. Up
4. What Mama Say
5. Coyotes

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A Conversation with Alexa Ray Joel

Mike Ragogna: Hi Alexa.

Alexa Ray Joel: Hello.

MR: Your first album is going to come out soon, right?

ARJ: Hopefully, yes. I'm such a perfectionist that I am not going to let anything get released unless I feel really great about every song and every song is where it needs to be. So, hopefully, early next year, yes.

MR: And you have a new single.

ARJ: I'd love to have as many people as possible hear the song "Notice Me" and then put out a second single. I really want to build with radio right now and get my name and music out there.

MR: Of course. This is a great single, lots of fun, and there's a video that goes along with it. There's quite a cast of characters on there.

ARJ: Yeah, there's a definite cast. There's my band--the guy who plays my, I guess you would say, "love interest" in the video is my guitarist, and his name is Cass Dillon--a really cute, nice guy, and a great player. Some friends offered to show up to play backup singers, and it was just kind of a random crew.

MR: This song is catching on, too. It was one of the hottest songs on subscription radio services.

ARJ: Was is really? I didn't know that.

MR: Yeah.

ARJ: Oh, my gosh.

MR: I think it was because of your line, "Why are you being such a 'dick' about it?" (laughs)

ARJ: Oh well, of course that causes a little controversy. I was really, really surprised about that. I didn't know that you weren't allowed to say "dick" on the radio. To me, I didn't think of it as a curse word, really. So, I was kind of surprised there was so much hoopla over that. I just thought it was a fun line for the song, and I wasn't really thinking about the aftereffects of it.

MR: I think they have to update George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say..." because I think every human says all of those words every day.

ARJ: For me, it wasn't like, "Let's add this in because it will add some great shock value." People say a lot more shocking things than that. The girl is frustrated--the girl that I'm trying to convey in the song--and she wants the guy to notice her. It gets to the end of the song and the end of the story, where she's frustrated. The guy is playing too many games and it's basically, "Okay, stop being a dick." Girls say that to other girls all the time when they're talking about a guy that they're frustrated with or they don't think is treating them well. To me, that's just the way people talk when they're frustrated. I tried to balance it out because I also put some pretty big vocabulary words in there too--"disarming," "reclusive." She's like a sassy but brainy chick in the song.

MR: Now, you decided after a stint at NYU that you were going to go out there and be a singer-songwriter, so you started touring, and you've written a lot of songs. And I've read you've been writing since you were fifteen?

ARJ: I would say I started seriously finishing songs and really committing to them when I was about eighteen. For a while, I studied classical piano, but I don't think I really committed to the art of songwriting until I was about eighteen, and it just kind of grew from there.

MR: You also went to Berklee for a five-week stint. What was that like?

ARJ: How did you find all this out? That's so crazy.

MR: (laughs) I do some homework.

ARJ: You certainly do. Honestly, I was so young--I was fifteen when I went there. So, as great of a program as it is, I was just so excited to be meeting new people and feeling less shy around boys that it was more of a social experience than musical for me because I was so distracted by the social element of it. For me, piano lessons--which I started when I was twelve--was what really got me into songwriting and was the platform for the melodies and ideas I would come up with.

MR: Being the daughter of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, was it at the urging of your parents that you started piano lessons or were you already heading in that direction?

ARJ: Totally. Honestly, I was so shy about it and always afraid to try new things, but I was always very musical. I had a good sense of pitch from a young age, and I think my parents picked up on that. I would put plays on with my parents from a young age, and my mom would get me all dressed up to play Whitney Houston, or Jasmine from Aladdin, and all these different characters. My mother knew that there was a real love of music in me, so she specifically encouraged me to study piano. I was terrified at the time and she fought me kicking and screaming. So, I do kind of have to credit mom for the piano lessons. Dad didn't really push me. I would say that dad was a little more lax, a little less strict, and mom was definitely more of the butt-kicker parent in the family.

MR: Since we're in the family tree, there are a couple of songs that your dad wrote either for or about you, however you like to look at it. One was from Storm Front, "Downeaster Alexa," which was an opportunity to use the name "Alexa," but it was about a boat. What is the story on that?

ARJ: You know, I don't really know. He bought the boat, which was so long ago I don't even remember because I must have been four or five years old. I don't know if you've seen the boat, but it has a very unique coloring of salmon and dark green, and it's just gorgeous. I just think it was such a special boat, and, of course, at the time, he named it after me. Around that point, I think it might have been a few years later, he wrote "Downeaster Alexa," and it was about something completely different--it wasn't about me at all. Obviously, the song is about the struggling fishermen of Long Island, and a day in the life of a fisherman on the sea trying to support his family. He's been really connected to that cause for a long time, and it's kind of a cool song. But I think people think it was inspired by me. He's written songs for me, like "Lullaby." But this was really about his cause, and a day in the life of a fisherman-type thing.

MR: Like you said, "Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)" is about you.
ARJ: "Lullaby" is. You know, even I get confused. Some people would think I wouldn't because I'm his daughter. But do you know the song "Baby Grand?"

MR: Yes, with Ray Charles.

ARJ: Exactly. If you listen to the lyrics, it's like, "She will always be there..." It's a very loving song and it has an intimacy to it, so I thought it was about me--my baby grand, my grand baby. It ended up being about the piano, obviously, and I just found that out a few years ago, and I was kind of taken aback. I had gotten kind of a big head, thinking it was about me the whole time. Even I get confused.

MR: (laughs) That "Ray" in your name is in honor of Ray Charles, right?

ARJ: It absolutely is. I get annoyed, actually, when people spell my name R-A-E because it doesn't look as right as R-A-Y, but yes, it's after Ray.

MR: Thank you so much for sharing some of your family stories with us, but let's get back to you. This song, "Notice Me," is a "Not Fade Away"-type song with a lo-fi approach that goes a little Blondie, a little Gwen Stefani--not too much, just a little.

ARJ: A little bit, yeah.

MR: And its video--basically a "staged" stage performance--features a "fashion" storyline, I guess setting up the wardrobe that you would have worn to get "noticed," right?

ARJ: Totally. I was going for a very vintage look, and if you look at the video, which is on YouTube for those that haven't seen it, it's cool because I'm dressed in all these vintage throwback looks. In one scene, I have this kind of sexy librarian look, then in another, it's like an old school Billie Holiday look--like a jazz singer at a club. Cass, who is the love interest in the video, is always looking modern, so it's kind of a cool play on fashion. We wanted it to be hip and cool but still have that throwback element to it.

MR: Nice. Now, to promote this new single and video, you were on Howard Stern. How did that go?

ARJ: That's funny because so many people have heard it and asked me about it. It went really, really well. Everybody was asking me if I was nervous going on there, did it get crazy, and whether or not he asked me anything weird, but Howard is totally respectful and cool--he and my dad are friends. Yeah, he was a little flirty and got a little raunchy at times, but that's to be expected. So, I kind of went in there knowing that he would be a little edgy, and that it wouldn't be your typical interview, so I was totally prepared.

MR: And you also appeared on Rosie O'Donnell, right?

ARJ: Rosie was two weeks ago, yeah, and that was really fun. She's a cool person, and she's exactly like you'd expect her to be--easy to talk to and down to earth. Of course, I'm a fan of hers because I've seen a lot of her movies, so we were discussing that. I've always been a fan, so it was definitely cool to meet her.

MR: We have to let everybody know that you're going to be in a series of Prell Shampoo commercials, just like your mom was in '86.

ARJ: Yes I will, and it's very exciting. If you haven't caught it yet, the Prell Shampoo commercial is on TV, and I'm going to be doing a commercial for the conditioner soon, which is really cool. Honestly, for all you girls out there, Prell Shampoo really works. No kidding, I use it regularly, it makes your hair smell amazing, and it's really awesome.

MR: What about guys?

ARJ: Guys too! I just figured that guys don't...all the guys I know don't really think too much about their hair, but I know girls are always looking for the new, good product.

MR: And new artists? No, do you have any advice for new artists?

ARJ: I'm still learning, I'm far from perfect, and I'm still making my mistakes, kicking myself, and going, "I probably shouldn't have made this move." Not to be preachy at all, but my dad always says this: "Don't take any s**t from anybody." As someone who has always been overly polite and doesn't want confrontation, I've worked with people who have kind of walked all over me, and when something didn't feel right musically, I didn't say anything. It's so important as an artist--your songs are your babies, you have to protect them, and you cannot let anybody tweak them or finish them in a way that you feel isn't right. So, I would say be really, really protective of your own material, and I guess, don't take any s**t.

MR: (laughs) Beautiful. I imagine mom and dad are proud?

ARJ: They are. I hope so. I think so. They better be.

MR: I really appreciate your giving me the interview, all the best, Alexa Ray.

ARJ: It was awesome, thanks Mike.