Jason Mraz at middle age? ‘I wanted to make a dance-music album!’ Now, he has

Jason Mraz, in a screenshot from the I’m Yours (Track Commentary) / YouTube

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Now 46, multi-Grammy Award-winner Jason Mraz was born in 1977 — the same year Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jerry Lee Lewis, then 42, released his melancholic country-music single “Middle Age Crazy.”

Almost no one listening to Mraz’s often buoyant new album, “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride,” will be reminded of Lewis belting out such high-octane 1950s rock classics as “Great Balls of Fire” and “High School Confidential.” But there are clear thematic similarities between some of Mraz’s musically upbeat new album and the downbeat “Middle Age Crazy,” on which the now-deceased Lewis reflected: And today he’s forty years old, going on twenty / Don’t look for the gray in his hair / ‘Cause he ain’t got any.

“I thought I’d be done at 40,” said Mraz, who — six years later — has responded to middle-age with a surprise left turn.

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Half the songs on “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride” embrace dance-pop and vintage disco. They were inspired, in part, by such Mraz favorites as Chic, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, The Bee Gees and Jamiroquai. More on that in a moment.

“When I was a little kid, I saw being in your 40s as old age,” Mraz recalled. “As a teen, my 20s were something to aspire to — 40 always seemed just out of reach. I thought I’d be done (with music) by then and the ideal life would be a family, kids and moving on.

“When you turn 40, it’s exciting. I celebrated my 40th birthday performing at the Hollywood Bowl. But when you turn 42, nobody cares.”

Not coincidentally, Mraz muses about having turned 42 in the lyrics to “Little Time,” a lilting ballad from his new album. In the same song, he also ponders what might happen “if I reach 65.”

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The press materials accompanying “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride” make several references to Mraz being in his 40s. Such pulsating, four-on-the-floor new songs as “Getting Started,” “I Feel Like Dancing” and “Feel Good Too” — the album’s opening three numbers — sound like energetic odes to dancing the night away with youthful joy, if not outright abandon.

Or, as this usually sunny troubadour put it in a statement when “I Feel Like Dancing” was released as the album’s first single in February: “Songs appear out of a real necessity, and this song appeared as I struggled with identity and self-worth in my mid-40s.”

Mraz paused for thought when asked if has undergone a midlife crisis.

“I don’t think I’ve had a midlife crisis just yet,” he replied. “But maybe I have — and I haven’t lived long enough past it to see that: ‘Oh, yeah, that was definitely a midlife crisis.’

“I have absolutely shaken things up, over and over, for myself. I can see that pattern reappearing throughout my life. And every time I do, I rediscover myself through the power of songwriting. And I think: ‘I’m okay.’ “

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‘A lot of vanity in my youth’

The pros and cons of aging can differ from person to person, as Mraz readily acknowledged.

Superficial concerns can fade. Wisdom can be gained from experience. But for a veteran artist who has been in the public eye for more than 20 years as music trends constantly change — sped-up songs on TikTok, anyone? — feeling secure about your position can be challenging.

“The older I get, certain worries and stresses just sort of fade away,” Mraz said. “I don’t stress as much about how I look or surface-level things, like fashion. As a young person, I cared about: ‘Do I fit in? How do I look?’ There was a lot of vanity in my youth.

“The cons, as you get older, are that I’m not really in the youth category anymore. Here I am, making a pop album and dance album. In music, those categories are dominated by young people, 18-28, and always have been.

“So, there’s this feeling of: ‘I’m not really in the little kid category any more — or the older group. I’m floating in the middle.’ “

Middle-age is not the only factor that inspired Mraz to write and record new songs specifically designed to encourage him — and his listeners — to party down and shake their collective booty.

He also credits his mother, June Tomes, for encouraging him to make an overtly pop-oriented album. Mraz wasn’t getting any younger, she noted, so he should do a pop album “before it’s too late.” He concurred. The liner notes for “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride” dedicate the album to “Mama June.”

Speaking recently from his Oceanside farm home, Mraz — who married Christina Carano in 2015 and recently announced their divorce — stressed that he specifically sought to make a pop album that embraced old-school music values.

“I always really wanted to make a dance-pop album, but not an electronic (dance) album that leaned on computer programs and drum machines,” he said.

“I wanted to make human dance music. So, sonically, that’s what our effort was. And thematically, I noticed that what was missing from my shows — year after year — was that I didn’t have enough up-tempo songs that could turn the show into a dance party for my audience and myself.

“How would I rate my dancing? Right now, about 3 out of 10. But I want to be better. And that’s how a song like ‘I Feel Like Dancing’ finds its way through my subconscious and lands on the page. Because I try to generate experiences I haven’t had yet, or want to have, and songs can help.”

For at least half the selections on “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride” — whose title comes from the lyrics to “Disco Sun,” a song on the album — Mraz takes a deep dive into the music of the 1970s and early 1980s. To cite one case in point, the slinky grooves, sleek instrumental work and deftly executed higher-register lead vocals on “Feel Like Dancing” evoke the music of Boz Scaggs and Michael Jackson in their respective primes.

“Boz probably subconsciously — I’ve got a few of his records,” Mraz said.

“Michael? I definitely had his posters on my wall growing up. Probably the first song I ever danced to was something on his ‘Thriller’ album, when I was 4 or 5, and was asking my family what dancing was and where the beat was.

“So, yeah, Michael has always been an influence. But making this album, I didn’t really study those albums by him or Boz. I found myself listening to Nile Rodgers’ records with Chic, Giorgio Moroder’s ‘Flashdance’ soundtrack album, Donna Summer and The Bee Gees. I was trying to understand how great dance music was made.”

Nine of the 10 songs on “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride” were co-written by Raining Jane, the four-woman Los Angeles band Mraz first collaborated with in 2007.

“There was a concerted effort to make this in tandem,” he said. “And I love giving Raining Jane credit, because they were in the studio with me, they were part of the writing process, and they will be on my summer tour.”

Mraz’s new album reunites him with Sweden’s Martin Terefe, whose recording production credits range from Train and Mary J. Blige to Yungblud and Coldplay.

Weed and mushrooms

Terefe produced Mraz’s 2008 album, “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” It includes two of Mraz’s biggest hits — “I’m Yours” and “Lucky” (the latter featuring Colbie Caillat) — and remains his biggest-selling release with sales of nearly 5 million.

Mraz has made five albums since then — including 2020’s reggae-inspired “Look for the Good” — and his sensitive singer-songwriter persona has remained intact. “Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride’s” well-balanced mix of thumping, unabashed dance-pop songs and earnest ballads could be just the right combination to propel him back to the upper reaches of the national sales charts.

“This is the first album since ‘We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.’ that feels the most like a sequel to that album,” Mraz said, “more so than anything I’ve made since then, because of how …”

His voice trailed off.

“I don’t know,” he said a moment later. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just happy this album is out. It feels new and yet familiar, like something I would have done in 2008 but it happens to be in 2023.”

In the lyrics to his new song “Disco Sun,” Mraz favorably references “weed and ‘shrooms.” He provided a very specific response when asked what role weed and hallucinogenic mushrooms play in his creative process.

“I call them portals, if you will,” he said. “They are portals to another dimension, like opening a gate to a garden, like going to visit somewhere. So, a toke of weed or a dose of mushrooms will take you into another state for feeling things or seeing things I may have suppressed, things I need to atone for, relationships that need to be (improved).

“Weed and mushrooms will help me (address) some thoughts that need attention. And they’ll also — if I’m lucky going inside one of the portals on a dose of mushrooms or cannabis — will (enable me to) resonate with something I’m listening to. Or I’ll hear a melody I hadn’t heard before. And I’ll try to bring that back through the portal to a sober state.

“It’s nothing I rely on. But I enjoy experimenting with it as a portal, visiting a place to have an experience, like a museum or a magical garden.”

Cigar store day job

A Virginia native, Mraz was heavily into musical theater growing up and was active in his high school choir, drama department and cheerleading squad. He credits his stint working in a cigar store in the late 1990s for providing time to study the craft of songwriting by learning to play classics by various artists.

“Virginia is tobacco country and I worked at Stogies Fine Cigars. I sold cigars, cigarettes and humidors,” recalled Mraz, whose grandfather worked for Philip Morris.

“Here’s the best part of that gig: I sold cigars and cigarettes during the time the (anti-smoking) Truth Initiative campaign was first getting a lot of attention. People were quitting smoking and establishments were (implementing) non-smoking policies.

“That was great for me, because it meant we had so few customers I could bring my guitar to work, practice songs and do deep dives into Nina Simone, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young. We had a stack of CDs and Bob Dylan is who I mostly listened to. Then I’d pick up my guitar, write my own songs and try to emulate them. It was a great gig! We probably had one customer an hour and I got to do that for a couple of years, until I had enough songs that I felt confident enough with them.”

Wasn’t Mraz a smoker?

He sighed.

“I was, unfortunately — from 18 to 28 — like some (would-be) rebel. I saw the ‘cool kids’ smoking in movies and occasionally an artist smoking in an interview on TV, and I thought it was cool.”

Following his graduation from high school in his hometown of Mechanicsville but prior to his cigar store gig, Mraz studied for about 18 months at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. He then briefly enrolled at Virginia’s Longwood University before moving to San Diego in 1999 to get his start as a singer-songwriter.

Mraz began performing at open mic nights at Java Joe’s in Ocean Beach, where he was befriended by top San Diego troubadour Gregory Page. The two have collaborated off and on ever since.

Under the guidance of his then-manager, concert promoter Bill Silva, Mraz honed his craft here. He signed an album deal with Elektra Records in 2002.

“Waiting for My Rocket to Come,” his Elektra debut album, featured Mraz’s first hit single, “The Remedy (I’m Lucky).” In 2005, he opened a string of U.S. shows for the Rolling Stones on the band’s “A Bigger Bang” tour. A year later, Mraz’s song “Geek in the Pink” was a Top 10 hit in Hungary.

His career reached an even higher level following the 2008 release of “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” The same year saw him co-headline an outdoor concert with Eric Clapton at Hyde Park in London, where Mraz sold out the famed Royal Albert Hall three months later.

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Mraz toured relentlessly — 11 months in 2008 and 10 months in 2009, a year that saw him earn two Grammy Awards. The success of “Lucky,” “I’m Yours” and other Mraz favorites that brim with optimism cemented his status as a feel-good troubadour whose songs — including 2014’s “You Can Rely On Me,” 2018’s “Love is Still the Answer” and 2020’s “Gratitude” — provide an aural balm in troubled times.

Willie Nelson’s key example

The fact that he has released three albums since turning 40 suggests Mraz’s career should extend beyond middle age. He performed May 6 at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium on a double-bill with Jimmy Buffett and will be on tour for much of the summer with the group Mraz bills as his Superband. Their itinerary includes a July 22 concert at Fivepoint Amphitheatre in Irvine.

“I was really surprised to get to my 40s and still be generating songs and ideas, and to be diving deeper. I kind of woke up one day and realized this is what my life would be,” he said.

“I had the pleasure of sitting with Willie Nelson four or five years ago — when he was 85 — in Maui. It was just the two of us and all he wanted to do was play demos for me! He was like: ‘Hey, want to hear a new song I wrote?’ He played one CD after another of his new songs for me, and he was 85 or 86 at the time! He’s 90 now, still recording and touring.

“It occurred to me at that point, sitting with Willie: ‘Why would we stop doing what we love doing? Why would we ever consider retirement, or think our ideas would dry up?’

“That was really inspiring. It made me realize that I’ll probably do this my whole life. The playing field may change — musical trends, who my colleagues are, or what the perceptions of me are — all those things will be in flux.

“But I can rest assured knowing I’ll wake up every day with interesting new music ideas, or a new idea accident that will happen on my instrument that will lead to new song. Every heartache will lead to a new song, every celebration will lead to a new song.”

Mraz let out what sounded like a sigh of relief.

“That has been one of the pros of getting older — the excitement I still get from music,” he concluded. “I still feel young, without the stresses I felt when I was younger. I’m less concerned with: ‘Am I good enough, or cool enough?’ Those things don’t matter to me anymore.”