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Surprise! Jason Mraz Scores With A Lyrically Restrained Song

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Tons of songs inspire YouTube cover versions. Everybody from Wayne Newton to Lil Wayne has impelled fans to plug in their USB mics, set up webcams and post videos of, say, their four-year-old nephew rapping "A Milli." But Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" is something different.

The song - a ginormous hit in the U.S., Norway and Sweden, among other countries - has racked up thousands of covers since a demo version hit the web three years ago. There are clips of cute girls playing acoustic guitars in their bedrooms, cheesy guys who look like they spent their college funds on their videos … there's even a ukulele version.

"It's crazy," laughs Mraz. "It's scary, actually."

"I'm Yours" anchors the 31-year-old singer-songwriter's third album, We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. The breezy acoustic tune borrows Jack Johnson's laid-back vibe for a less-caffeinated take on Mraz's usual diarrhea-mouth style. The San Diego-based singer's last album, 2005's Mr. A-Z, was all about his way with words. Its lead single, "Wordplay," pretty much says it all.

When it came time to make We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., Mraz didn't want to rely on the alliterative and rhyming crutches that propped up his first two CDs. "I was writing songs from the heart and about human experiences," he says. "Your work becomes very much about yourself. My second album was very much about Jason Mraz. I didn't want to make an album about Jason Mraz this time. Certainly the material can be personal, but it should be something that people can share."

Part of the reason for the more relaxed mood this time, he says, is that he didn't want to become pigeonholed as the guy who throws 8,673 words into three-minute pop songs. Mraz's 2003 breakthrough single, "The Remedy (I Won't Worry)," pretty much set him up for that. "Words fill in the spaces," he says. "And when there's a deadline, I have to think about that. I didn't have a deadline for this album. About three weeks into demoing these songs, we said, 'Holy shit, this could be an album. We can put this out.' And that's what we did. It felt natural. And I think people can relate to that unhurried kinda sound.

"A song like 'I'm Yours,' someone can sing it from one person to another," he continues. "You don't have to be Jason Mraz to relate to it. I wanted to make sure we kept it simple. I wanted to get back to songs - songs with a great melody, a good feeling and a positive message."

Mraz was born in Virginia. His debut album, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, was partially recorded there. It was released in 2002, but it took several months before his record company, Elektra, was able to do anything with his new-millennium mix of pop, folk, jazz and hip-hop. Once "The Remedy" finally broke the Top 20 (thanks in part to the singer's puppy-dog cuteness and general affability), Mraz became one of 2003's buzz artists. A year later, Waiting for My Rocket to Come went platinum.

In 2005, Mraz released Mr. A-Z, which reached the Top 5, even though "Wordplay" stalled near the bottom of the charts. (Rocket's slow climb never boosted the album further than No. 55.) He opened for Alanis Morissette and the Rolling Stones, was featured in a Gap ad and spent a year on the road promoting Mr. A-Z. "I'm Yours" originated during this period.

Last year, Mraz began working on We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. with producer Martin Terefe, who was all for keeping things simple. "I wanted to act like I never made an album before," says Mraz. "So I removed myself from the music industry, and went back to the coffeehouses where I started and played every Sunday night in front of those intimate crowds."

The album debuted at No. 3 (his highest showing to date), and "I'm Yours" reached the Top 10, also his best outing (it's also been at No. 1 on the Adult Top 40 chart for the past few months). It's Mraz's warmest CD and also his most personal. "Make It Mine," the new single, runs along similarly cheery lines, with playful horns and handclaps punctuating Mraz's beach-chillin' vocals. "Lucky," a duet with Colbie Caillat, is the sort of love song you'd expect from these two sun-kissed artists. And "The Dynamo of Volition" is a rare lyrics-spewing throwback.

But it's "Love for a Child," about divorce seen through the eyes of a grown-up kid, which stands out the most. (At the very least, it busts through the all-fun-all-the-time wall Mraz had built around him during the first five years of his career.) Mraz, whose parents split up when he was four, says the song isn't totally autobiographical, but it's close enough. "It's a vague memory," he says. "It was a long divorce and the song is based on my memories of my parents together. They were unable to communicate. It's definitely a true story, but as a storyteller, you're allowed to change the faces and subjects a little bit so you don't necessarily hurt your subjects."

Mraz is winding down a U.S. tour that started almost two months ago. In October, he published A Thousand Things, a photography book featuring dozens of color pics of people, places and animals he shot with a Polaroid camera. In a way, the book is an extension of his recording career. "It's the music that's taken me all over the world," he says. "But there are no words in the book. It's really just a collection of images. I wanted the pictures to speak for themselves."

It's all about his life, he says, even though the shots of dogs, roller coasters and tree branches have little to do with music and "backstage and randomness." Still, Mraz's landscapes, still lifes and portraits are a reflection of his full-time job … or at least an after-hours look at it. "In between shows, I take walks, go out and see things," he says. "I'll usually write a blog or a poem or a journal entry to myself about these things. But sometimes the Polaroid has everything that I would want in it. It just moves me when everything comes together like that. And that is very related to my music."

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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