“Trump is America’s answer to Kim Jong-un”: Jason Mraz on privilege, capitalism and success

The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter on how he used music to “avoid working for the ‘man’.”

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For someone who claims to “hate” capitalism, Jason Mraz has done pretty well out of it. The two-time Grammy winner – and four-time nominee – has sold over eight million albums worldwide. But “making money”, Mraz says, “was never the end-goal” when he decided to pursue a career in music. “I set out from a very early age not to have a job. That’s the system we’re born into, and I’d already watched my father suffer in his own business and then work for the post office for many years. He got a pension and some social security, but it was only just enough; he was working on a budget his entire life. So for me success was not having a day job, where you didn’t have the time to pursue the things you really enjoy.” 

While Mraz says he would “never view music as work”, he acknowledges the “work-like responsibilities” attached to being on a record label. “It’s very different,” he says, “to when I was just starting out, jamming in the coffee shops.” Java Joe’s, the coffee shop in the Ocean Beach neighbourhood of San Diego that helped to “launch” Mraz’s career in the late 1990s, and was even the setting for his first live album in 2001, represents a recurring motif in much of his music since. “I don’t like to forget where it started, so yeah you’ll see nods to Java Joe’s in a lot of what I do.”

Mraz adds: “I guess what’s trippy now is that even though I don’t need a job anymore because I’ve been successful, I’ve still got to fulfil the obligations that I signed up for [on the record deal]. That puts me in a different spot with different pressures to where I was at before. I’ve still got to put out records because I’ve been contracted to do that, but the challenge now is finding a reason or a purpose for the music, beyond the fact I’m contracted to make it. I’ve still got to find a reason to make the music and I’ve still got to give people a reason to want to listen to it. I don’t want my music to just be a ‘product’ that I’m paid to make.”

Blending aspects of jazz, pop, country, reggae, R&B, and soft rock, all the while retaining a “commitment to wordplay”, Mraz’s sound has undergone several evolutions over the years. That the same artist is responsible for 2002’s jaunty half-rap “Curbside Prophet”, 2008’s soulful funk song “Make it Mine”, or the internationally acclaimed track for couples “I’m Yours” from the same year, is the sign of someone who likes to try new things. Mraz nods. “Every album should be a total departure from the last one.”

But where Mraz has drawn praise for his inventive bridges and creative lyrics – multi-syllabic words not usually expected in songs often appear in his – he has been criticised by some people for a seeming unwillingness to explore more negative subject matter. Most of Mraz’s music could be described as feel-good or upbeat, with the break-up ballad “Please Don’t Tell Her” singled out as an exception to the rule.

“I don’t think I need to legislate for happiness really, I don’t think it needs justifying. Look, in life, there will always be suffering,” he explains. “No matter what the times are, we are always going to have death hanging over our heads and all of us, at some point, will experience pain. And that just sucks. I guess in the last couple of years, there have been more sucky days than usual, especially with [the election of United States president] Donald Trump. Trump is America’s answer to Kim Jong-un, but I think optimism through music can help us to cope with stuff better.”

Would Mraz consider writing more songs about negative emotions? “I don’t know, maybe, but not because I’ve been told to. Personally, I feel like my songs are love letters and pick-me-ups that I write to myself to deal with situations. Whatever I’m conscious of, I use music to further that conversation. I want to write a story that helps me understand the lesson I’m meant to learn. What I’m doing when I write an album is I’m curating the lessons I’ve learned through happiness, through humour or, sometimes, through heartache.”

While Mraz stops short of being openly partisan about his politics, his feelings towards Trump and others like him are clear. He is forthright about his support for women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and the LGBT community, and says that “understanding inherent and systemic privileges better” was one of the most important steps he took in his early 20s. Mraz says: “If you have rights and privileges, someone else getting the same rights and privileges does not mean that you have any less. That’s a good point, isn’t it?” He jokes: “Maybe I should just write that song!”

How important is it for Mraz, though, as a straight, white man, to balance his alliance with different minority groups against the potential development of a saviour complex? He reflects: “I don’t feel like I’m taking on their mantle or assuming their struggle. That certainly isn’t my intention. I just want to add a voice to the people who might not have access to a microphone. If my music can help that cause, then I want it to.”

Mraz’s next album, “Know.”, is his first in four years and arguably his most positive and lyrically adventurous since 2008’s “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” For all the negativity associated with global politics in the past two years – Mraz winces at every mention of Trump and describes his presidency as a “continuous cover of MAD Magazine” – the 41-year-old hopes that “Know.” might be able to counteract that with a “message of hope”. He continues: “Look, 2018 has got some good to it. More people are marching for their freedoms and equality; to be seen and heard. Activism is in style, man.”

“Have it All”, the single which Mraz chose to preview the release of “Know.”, carries all of his hallmarks. Its opening line – “May you have auspiciousness and causes of success” – is not your everyday pop lyric, and is, he reveals, a translation of a blessing – “Tashi delek” – that he received from a Buddhist monk while visiting Myanmar. Mraz explains: “I love to travel. And words are, well, fun. So if I can factor something that has some deeper meaning into my song, and it carries a real message to it, then I want to include that.”

At the time of writing, the official music video for “Have it All” on Mraz’s YouTube channel has close to eight million views and over 13.5 million plays on Spotify. Asked what would constitute success for “Know.”, however, and he remains coy. “For me, it’s already a success. It’s a success because it got made.” Is a third Grammy something Mraz wants? “If I get a third Grammy, I will be dumbfounded. There are so many hard-working musicians who deserve it more than me. If I never get another one, then that’s totally fine. But incidentally, neither of my Grammys were for writing, even though I wrote both songs [‘Make it Mine’ and ‘Lucky’]. So I guess if I was going to be recognised again, it would hopefully be for writing because that’s what I invest the most time into.”

After almost two decades in the music business, a middle-aged Mraz does not look jaded, crediting veganism and yoga for his fresh-faced appearance, and he dresses similarly to when he was writing his breakthrough beats in San Diego. “I managed to find a loop hole,” he says, “to get around capitalism. I’ve been using music as escapism ever since, so I could spread a positive message and avoid working for the ‘man’.”

Whether people view Jason Mraz as a daydreamer blinded by his ideals, or as a singer simply doing right by his platform, will ultimately depend on their own politics, but one thing that is clear from speaking to him: he absolutely loves what he does.

Jason Mraz’s fifth studio album, “Know.”, is available from 10th August 2018.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman