A Conversation with Jason Mraz
Mike Ragogna: It's Jason Mraz! So you're doing a world tour with Raining Jane.
Jason Mraz: Yep, I'll be taking Raining Jane with me on the road, so we'll be able to recreate this album and obviously, we'll be able to play a lot of our old songs through our new musical filter that Raining Jane and I laid down. I first saw Raining Jane about eight years ago and I loved their musicianship. They're all multi-instrumentalists and beautiful singers. I loved their attitude, how they connect with the audience. I immediately wanted to work with them, so for the last eight years, we've gotten together twice a year to write songs and collaborate, thus resulting in the album Yes!, which is a complete collaboration between myself and Raining Jane.
MR: "Love Someone" is the first single from your new album Yes!, and you performed it on American Idol, right?
JM: We did! That was a very brave American Idol choice, for them to let us come on and do an untested song. It was pretty much a world premiere at that point. It was great.
MR: Seems like you're doing the TV tour.
JM: We were on Ellen with one of the other songs, though. We're just getting our bearings to take these songs out on the road and take them on television shows, but we're happy to share it, that's for sure!
MR: Jason, your album titles have become positive, one-word anthems. Love...Yes!...
JM: I think it's important and I think it's true that our life experience is going to be about our attitude, our thoughts, our beliefs, our speech and our actions. We can transform our life experience simply by changing our language. So rather than say, "I'm not good enough," or "Something's missing in my life," or "I am broke," or "I am suffering"... See, "I am" are the two most powerful words on the planet. Whatever we put after "I am," we're going to become. I've tried to be really specific in my language as a writer to start putting more affirming and heartfelt and thoughtful lyrics in the songs so when you sing along, you're actually getting these tools of transformation and maybe your attitude can shift a little bit, or at the very least maybe your mood can change for three and a half minutes in the song. So I also wanted to extend that onto my stage, I wanted to extend that into my interviews, I wanted to extend that down to my album covers. "Yes" is the mother of all positive words. When you say, "Yes," something is going to be born into this world.
MR: You know, many singer-songwriters have traditionally written socially conscious songs to affect politics or raise awareness. In contrast, your approach differs because it doesn't focus on what's wrong with the world, it's the exact opposite.
JM: Right. I wish I could take credit to thinking that whole-mindedly, but thank you for being something of an historian on that topic because that's a brilliant point. I had not wanted to sing protest songs or songs of "this should be that and we should change this" because I only think about my own perspective and trust that other humans can relate through their human-ness. I sing songs for me that are, "I won't give up" because I don't want to give up. I sing "I'm Yours" because I'm singing to my infinite, that which I sing to, and I say, "Make me an instrument so that I can be yours, I can be of service." I'm hoping that my listeners or fans of this music have similar experiences in that when they sing along to it, they themselves become transformed by it. I can't take credit for everything you just said, but I think that is definitely the goal.
MR: Can you take us through a brief tour of the album, maybe the two or three songs that you feel are the most positive, the biggest "Yes!"-es of the album?
JM: Man, this is going to be a tough one, because it's going to come from my own perspective. I love "Long Drive." I think it best represents what Raining Jane and I do as a whole. It was built around Becky's bass line; Becky [Gebhardt] is also a classical sitar player so we got to utilize that. Mona Tavakoli is our phenomenal percussionist. She really demonstrates her percussion and her drum skills. We have Main Bloomfield who play the cello, which is apparent, and Chaska Potter who's following me on all of the harmonies and together, they're all singing. It's a story that you either live or you dream. It's a lovely escape. I love it musically. I love how it feels energetically. It's one of my favorite songs on the record. I also love "Quiet." To me, it's one of the most challenging songs I've ever performed. It's mostly because of my range, it just falls in a really challenging place, but the song is about overcoming those internal challenges, where we can sometimes be overwhelmed by how fast life is evolving and technologies are evolving. How fast our communities are building and how sometimes we just need to take a deep breath and maybe hold the hand of someone who knows us, who knows where we came from, or someone who recognizes that you're on this journey and through that, we can actually quiet our minds on the struggle. We don't need to add self-inflicted pain to an already painful human.
"Quiet" is a really strong entry in that category. I'll say "Shine," as well, which is the finale of the record. It's based on a thirteenth century poem. It originally said, "Even after all these years the sun never said to the Earth, 'You owe me,' and look what happens with a love like that; it lights up the whole sky." I wanted to embellish upon this poem, and I created this story of the sun and the moon and how the moon actually didn't have a light of its own, but it was still going to work at night to light the sky and borrow light from the sun. The closing verse to that is, "If you forget that you're special, just remember that wherever you go and however you move that light shines directly to you." We can experience that when we're looking at the moon on water or when we look out of our car and the moon is following us. In our own thoughts we can choose to feel that we're loved and we're being watched over and that we matter. Those are important things as humans who often times fall victim to our thoughts and feel like we're alone and that we can do no good.
MR: In the Vedic tradition, the full moon is supposed to fill humans who observe it with beauty, especially on a full moon. It's interesting that you had a perspective that aligns with classical thought.
JM: How about that. Thanks for sharing that.
MR: Jason, what advice do you have for new artists?
JM: I would just say get out there and play. If you're a new artist, practice your art and share it. Set up shop somewhere, whether it's a street corner or a coffee shop. I got my start in a coffee shop that didn't even have live music. I wanted to play in coffee shops that did have live music, but I didn't have an audience. I didn't really have anything to offer those coffee shops, so I went down the street to a place that didn't have live music and I said, "Hey, can I bring some speakers and some music on Friday night?" They said, "Sure." By the end of the Summer, it was packed every Friday night. You couldn't even get in. That's what I try to encourage artists to do, make a home for yourself where it's easy for the community to find you and by playing often you'll improve as a writer, as a performer, and you'll develop a loyal fan base. I think these days, new artists have a tendency to try to cut corners. Maybe they want a Kickstarter campaign and have an audience pay for their album. Well, you can also go out there and play enough gigs and earn money for that album and the music will probably be better and your listener will probably be stronger because you've actually spent more time on the road and in the venues. I think it's important to earn your fan base and not just try to immediately advance to the top. If you ride to the top quickly, you're liable to fall as quickly. Take your time. It's a long journey ahead of you as an artist. There's nowhere that you're supposed to be other than right now living inside of your art.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
JOE BONAMASSA'S "DIFFERENT SHADES OF BLUE"
According to Joe Bonamassa...
"When [producer] Kevin Shirley and I started talking about what kind of record we wanted to make next, I knew it had to be something different - a new challenge. We agreed that a record of all original songs was something that has been long overdue. So I went to Nashville to write with James House, Jerry Flowers and Jonathan Cain. When James sang me his idea for 'Different Shades Of Blue,' I thought the title was perfect, especially for the type of artist I am, and for the type of album we were writing. It says it all. At least it does for me. I hope everyone enjoys it."
A Conversation with Marc Broussard
Mike Ragogna: Marc, I just finished listening to your album A Life Worth Living. I think it's your most personal one yet.
Marc Broussard: No doubt about it!
MR: You mention family members, your relation to God, Hurricane Katrina... What motivated you to put a project together in this way?
MB: Being honest. I think the motivation stems mostly from my record label releasing me from the strictures that were in place with previous record deals. When you're on a major label like Island Def Jam or Atlantic, there can be a lot of pressure to perform and to put out a product that is going to be successful commercially whereas Vanguard told me not to worry much about radio and just to go make a record that I wanted to make. That's why the record sounds the way it does.
MR: Although the production gets intimate, there are also rockers on the album and some other big production numbers. I feel like it's the caliber of the lyrics that really unify A Life Worth Living the most.
MB: I do a lot of co-writing, I've always done that for my records and this was no exception. But I wrote with a bunch of different writers. For the past several records, I stuck with a similar stable of writers. This is no knock on them, but being put in situations with new writers opened me up to a different process in a sort of way. Most important was my desire to be brutally honest whenever possible. That stems from hearing a particular song by a particular artist named Blake Mills. There's a song called "Don't Tell All Our Friends About Me" that I found on YouTube through a friend of mine, and it hit me right in the gut, man. The blatant honesty that was on display in that song was jarring. It made me realize that I had avoided being as honest as that for fear of offending my wife's sensibilities for a long, long time. As noble as that may be, it definitely prevented me from connecting with the lyric in a way that I really desired to deeply.
MR: So that song moved you into wanting to go to that level of revelation?
MB: Exactly. It moved me so much that I had a talk with my wife and said, "Look, babe, this is going to be a different record. This is going to be some heartache and some heartbreak and I don't want you to focus on the words of the song, I want you to focus on how we are together and then just let me as an artist get this stuff off my chest. That's what happened. It helps that some of the heartache that's on this record isn't about her. For instance, "A Life Worth Living," the title track, is a song about my grandmother passing away. "Give Em Hell" is another gut-wrenching heartache song but once again it's about death, the death of a friend of mine. Even "Hurricane Heart" sounds like it's about a relationship. But truthfully, it's about a male friend of mine I had a falling out with.
MR: Sometimes the brotherly bond is a harder one to wrangle with.
MB: No doubt about it. In love as I am with my wife, and in love as I am with my life, I felt really compelled to dig a little deeper into the nitty-gritty that I had been avoiding for so long.
MR: When she finally heard the album, were there any moments of wincing?
MB: No. I think she's been well aware of this process from jump, so she never questioned me. She really gave me the freedom to do this thing.
MR: I'm guessing it was a cathartic process creating this project?
MB: One of the first songs I wrote for this record is called "Honesty." My wife tends to avoid confrontation, and I tend to want to hash things out pretty regularly. I'll do it right on the spot while she wants to wrap her head around things first. That song really set the tone for the rest of the process. I tried to write that song with several different writers I work with and finally when I met Paul Moak who produced the record, we sat down and wrote that song. Not only did I know that it was the right mood and the right tone for the album but I knew that Paul was going to be producing the record from that point on.
MR: What does this do for your future as far as how you're creating music? Was this a game changer?
MB: I think it is. Personally, I feel very strongly that this record put my best foot forward. This is my sixth studio album and I think that the writing speaks for itself. The production speaks for itself, and I'm looking forward to the next album, I really am. But I'm focused on this album right now. Every project is quite different. Who knows who I'll be next year or what I'll learn by the time I get back in the studio for the next project. All I can do as an artist and as a writer is take those experiences and help inform the writing process.
MR: This is not meant to be rude, but these new performances seem night and day compared to anything you've done before, except, of course, "Home."
MB: I tend to agree with that simply because the previous albums were an attempt to do something that I knew I could accomplish technically. However, connecting to the lyrics of the previous records is not the easiest thing to do, especially a song like "Hard Knocks" from Keep Coming Back. There are certain songs that I've written and recorded along the way that I really had no business singing at the end of the day because I didn't have those experiences growing up. I was raised by a middle class family in a small town outside of Lafeyette, Louisiana. I had lots of really poor black friends growing up, but I never lived through that. My parents are still together after forty years. My family is blessed in a lot of ways. I think most important was that I sought out at the beginning of this recording process to be really honest and true to myself. I've gravitated more to rock 'n' roll instead of R&B and soul. Modern R&B and soul really doesn't touch me in the same way that it used to, or in the same way that the old soul still does. Classic rock and guys like The Black Crowes and the Foo Fighters are having more of an impact on me musically these days than ever before, as well as guys like Blake Mills who I've only recently discovered. Blake's album was a big influence on this record. HIs writing was the watermark, if you will.
MR: Was there any song on this album that was difficult for you to write or perform?
MB: Absolutely. Both the song about my grandmother and the song about my friend were extremely emotional experiences, mostly because I felt more like a conduit than a writer of those songs. I wrote both of those songs on my own. The lyrics really weren't coming to me, they weren't divined from within myself, they were grabbed from somewhere else. That process can be really difficult, not because you want to do the song justice, but because you realize that once you surrender yourself and allow that next lyric to come in, you realize how devastating it's going to be, emotionally, for yourself. Surrendering to that process is a very emotional, very difficult process.
MR: And I'm going to throw "Home" out there again because I feel like that came closest to the emotion of your new recordings.
MB: Once again, this whole record was about connecting with the lyric. I had a producer, the first producer I ever worked with, Marshall Altman, during the records we made together would constantly tell me, "Sing the lyric, sing the lyric" and I never really understood what he meant by that until this project. What it means is connect with the lyric, understand the words that you're saying and try your damnedest to mean them. Actors are trained to do this on a regular basis, they're trained to get into that character. When you finish writing a song, that day, it's really easy to connect with the lyric. So often I have to go back and listen to demos and try to find that character again. This whole record was really focused on connecting with those lyrics and making sure that I was in the right headspace to sing every one of those songs.
MR: Speaking of headspace, perhaps your unconscious was nudging you into writing these lyrics.
MB: It was different in so many ways. Every record after my very first independent release I had hundreds of thousands of dollars at my disposal to record records, whereas with this project, we had a shoestring budget, but we were highly motivated. Everybody involved felt really strongly about the material we chose to record. It was a really easy process in that regard, things came together pretty quickly over the recording phase. We built the tracks from the ground up for the first half of the record, the vibe-y stuff like "Honesty" and several other songs. We recorded five or six songs with just myself, Paul Moak and an assistant engineer Devin Vaughan who also happened to be a drummer, just the three of us building those tracks from the ground up. Then the stuff that we needed the band for, we called the band in and we knocked it out in four days or something like that. It was a really swift process as opposed to an extended process like I've had in the past where we've set up in a studio for six weeks and take our time.
MR: I think sometimes a long process recording creates an environment for overthinking everything.
MB: Absolutely. Almost every time. When you're recording a record you're trying to catch lightning in a bottle. You're not going to be able to do that by spending eight weeks or three months trying to make a record. It just doesn't happen that way. It's got to flow naturally, it's got to happen naturally. Limiting yourself with the time, I think, is actually quite wise.
MR: And it allows you to bring your thoughts together in a way that the process is efficient and not overindulgent.
MB: It also harkens back to some of my favorite recordings of all time, songs like "I Love You More Than You Know" or "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and Al Green's "Love & Happiness." That was an era where entire records were being cut in a single day. We try to take our cues from the predecessors that have cut the path before us.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MB: The first thing I would say as a business person is "Get a good lawyer." Always get a good lawyer. Secondly, spend a significant amount of time thinking really hard about what you want out of this business. When I first started, I thought that I wanted to be the biggest star in the world. I no longer have that desire at all. I like the anonymity that I have. The money could always be better, but I am blessed and I do lead a very comfortable life. My wife and I are truly blessed in that way. Spend an awful lot of time thinking about the trajectory you want your career to go, and then most importantly, don't be afraid to work your ass off. And be nice. There's no reason to be a dick.
MR: I imagine you'd also tell people to connect to the music in the same way you did here.
MB: Yeah, being true to yourself, as well. I made a record for Island Def Jam after Carencro. It came out after Lyor Cohen left the label and L.A. Reid stepped in, and that record never came out, it never saw the light of day because L.A. Reid, when he head it, called it "too urban." What that really meant, in my opinion, was that I was too white to sing the songs that I had sung for that record. It left me bitter for a little while, but in retrospect, he was probably right in a lot of ways. There were songs on that record that I just didn't have any business singing, and there was no way for him to market it successfully with me as the guy singing those songs.
MR: That happens often, guys singing with big, soulful voices though they haven't exactly perfected their "instrument" and don't really know what their talent is about.
MB: I really spent a lot of time thinking exactly about that, what my instrument was and what my role is in delivering songs to the world. The bottom line is if I'm not being true to myself and I'm trying to do things simply because I think they're going to be successful or that they're going to sound cool, that's no way to connect with my fans. That's no way to connect with a lyric. Once again, the idea was really just to be as honest as possible.
MR: Beautiful. What's coming down the pike with your socially conscious efforts?
MB: There are some great things happening. I'm actually part of a nonprofit project to address the problems of poverty and homelessness as well as address healthcare issues the world over. It's going to be called the S.O.S. Foundation and essentially, I'm looking to record S.O.S. records every other record cycle and have those records be a fundraising apparatus to partner with various groups that we choose to work with over the years. Our first partner is a group called City Of Refuge out of Atlanta. I'm trying to launch a new festival next summer that will be a big partner with the S.O.S. Foundation and I'm looking forward to getting on tour behind this record and hopefully see a bit more success and continue to progress as a writer.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne