Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz says he was actually looking for a way to stay home when everything shutdown because of the pandemic.
“I do love touring,” he says via phone from his San Diego home. He performs with Southern Avenue at 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 13, at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. “Plus, the other crew members and musicians get to work when I work. But you’re also just chasing a carrot. In the back of my mind, I thought that it would be nice to sit down for a year and think about life. Hey, careful what you wish for. I got to sit down for a year and really think about life.”
He says he still managed to keep busy even though the touring industry was put on pause.
“I did a lot of creative work online and offline and a lot of stuff on the [avocado] farm here that I normally wouldn’t have gotten to do,” says Mraz. “I picked up roller skating, which I wouldn’t have done had I continued to tour. It was kind of a blast. Like many Americans, I got to stay home and watch the news and get an education as well. We all got our hearts broken wide open, and our eyes opened. I think that was a good thing. We needed that.”
As much as his latest album, the decidedly upbeat and spirited Look for the Good, might seem as if it were created to combat the COVID blues, Mraz wrote and recorded the LP prior to the pandemic shutdown.
“We did it in the summer of 2019, gearing up for 2020,” he says. “I had a hunch that 2020 was going to be a transformative year. We had an election coming up, and we hadn’t solved global warming, and we hadn’t solved equality. I thought 2020 was going to be messed up. I wanted to put an album out that helps us look for the good while we embrace necessary changes. Little did I know how necessary and immediate those changes would become. It almost meant we had to take a backseat and wait. We still put the album out [in 2020] because I wanted to have the album out there, but it’s really hard to promote a record in the middle of all that craziness. I didn’t think it was my time to say, ‘Hey, it’s me. Look at me over here!’”
A full-on embrace of traditional reggae music, Look for the Good reflects Mraz’s longtime love of the style of music that Bob Marley and others made popular. The title track commences with a bit of acoustic guitar and Mraz's signature smooth vocals before the reggae beats arrive, recalling the positive vibes of those Ziggy Marley & the Melody Maker tunes from the '80s.
“In 2004, I went to Kingston, Jamaica and visited [Bob Marley’s] house, which is awesome,” says Mraz. “It’s a museum. I got to see how he lived and how he gave food and shelter to his band and crew when they were making albums and between tours. I was really inspired and informed through that trip. I bought a place in San Diego and modeled my home after that style.”
At that time, Mraz wrote “I’m Yours,” a reggae-tinged tune that would become one of his biggest hits when it came out in 2008.
“[At that time], it was in the back of my mind that I would make more reggae one day and be my own side project and something to have at the merch table,” says Mraz. “I love [reggae] for how trippy it is and all the echoes and delays and how everyone is playing percussion. It’s so groovy. Lyrically, it’s always about love, spirituality or revolution.”
When Mraz met producer Michael Goldwasser in 2018, it was Goldwasser's idea that Mraz make a reggae album, so Mraz began to write some songs with that in mind.
“By 2019, those demos were sounding very good,” he says. “We put a band together and made this record. We were influenced by Aswad from England; they’re a phenomenal postmodern reggae band, and ’80s era Aswad is what we modeled ourselves on. Michael [Goldwasser] is a reggae historian and made sure we were doing different styles in a way that people who love record would listen to the record and know that the bass line is a nod to this song and that guitar line is a nod to that song. It was fun to put those Easter eggs in the album. There were a couple of Jamaicans in the band, and they said it was legit, and they were vouching for us.”
The late Mr. Rogers inspired the title track that’s the album’s centerpiece.
“When Mr. Rogers was a child and there would be bad stuff in the news, his mother would say, ‘Well, look for the hero. If there’s a fire on TV, look for the fireman. Look for the good in the situation,’” says Mraz. “That was the seed of the song. Michael G. sent me a basic track of a four-chord loop over the vibe of the song. He titled it ‘Look for the Good.’ I said, ‘I like this.’ It was a collab with Michael G. and some of my friends in Raining Jane. It’s hard to make a song that says do good and be a good person. It’s hard to write happy songs that don’t sound too cheesy. It’s a tricky tune, but that’s the one that said we had a theme song. Every other song fits into that lens of looking for the good. Every song is optimistic.”
For the tour that rolls into town next week, Mraz assembled an enormous 13-piece band. He says he wanted the band to be bigger, but there just wasn’t room on the bus.
“We had to limit it, unfortunately,” he says. “We’re still coming out of the pandemic, so you don’t want to overcrowd the bus. We got everything to make the album’s sound. We got two keys and multiple guitars. We got multiple singers. We got horns. Everybody is a top-notch player, and it’s the stickiest ickiest sound I’ve ever made on stage. I’m so excited.”
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Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]