Before he was an international music superstar, an activist, arts education advocate and a Broadway actor, Jason Mraz was just a good-vibing guy, playing clever songs on his guitar. Before the start of his big summer tour, he returns to those acoustic roots for a string of intimate solo dates, including one Friday at the Kravis Center.
“I’ve gotten to do Broadway, and big band shows, where I get to travel with some of my best friends. As a performer, it’s like getting the best of all experiences, the best of both worlds,” says Mraz, known for hits like “I’m Yours,” “The Remedy,” “I Won’t Give Up” and “Lucky,” his duet with Colbie Caillat.
“My solo shows are very free. I can change the set list in the moment. I can tell a story. I really love that. Also the arrangement can change, or I can do a medley. When I’m alone, there’s a lot of freedom there. I’m spoiling myself in all the different ways I get to perform.”
For a guy like Mraz, who started his career on the coffeehouse scene in San Diego, making music, no matter in which of those different forms, is key. And Broadway, which he got the chance to do in the cast of the stage version of “Waitress.” It wasn’t only “a guaranteed eight shows a week with a built-in audience (because) as a performer, you just want a gig…I wanted to do it, largely because I had never done it before. My intro to music was with musical theater movies like ‘The Muppet Movie’ or ‘Annie,’ and growing up in public schools we were always singing revues from musicals. It’s something I always felt I might do, and when the phone rang and I was asked to do it I said ‘Definitely.’ It’s always fun finding new ways to work.”
Mraz, who got to finish his run in “Waitress” acting alongside fellow singer-songwriter and show composer Sarah Bareilles, says that he’s not immediately considering a return to the stage but “I would answer my phone if it rings.” He’ll “be plenty busy,” he says, finishing his upcoming album, doing some charity shows and then heading out on the “Good Vibes” tour with his full band and special guest musician Brett Dennen in July.
He may be successful now, but Mraz says that his busyness is all part of the same skill you have to have to get gigs, be they busking on the corner or on Broadway. That hasn’t changed for him, and he’s proud of it.
“You have to be skilled with hustle. Any musician, to survive, has to hustle in some form. It doesn’t matter if you’re hustling for gigs, or if you’re managing all these different releases and tours,” he says. “It’s all relative. You’re always making sure it comes together. It’s required, as we don’t live in a country that values artists of music education, as others do. You have to hustle, be even more creative so that you can sustain. I’m very pleased that I’ve done really well, and I want to keep doing well for a little bit longer, and that’s why I’m a contracted major label artist.”
The trick, Mraz says, is to use that success not only “to keep gas in the bus,” but to do good, like sustainable farming, or working to restore the kind of programs in school that had him singing show tunes so long ago. “Unfortunately, we don’t have those kinds of programs anymore, and I don’t think we have enough programs that cultivate peace and kindness. When I’m talking to really young kids, I tell them that (music) is my joy, what makes me happy, and what has made me happy since second grade, because of the effect that it has on the listeners and me. But I also say to that young kid that anything can be your language, maybe painting or math or building things.”
One of the things that has set Mraz’s music apart from that of some of his contemporaries is its evolution from just funky acoustic beats imbued with his signature clever wordplay - “Wordplay” is, indeed, the name of one of his early songs - to songs about hope, connection and the sort of love that springs from those concepts.
“I’m pleased to have landed on the kind of music that hopefully brings one into their heart and the value of their own life and gratitude,” he says. “It’s positive music,. I didn’t start out like that, but it happened. And I really love it. I feel like I get to be a musician in service through the song. It’s not just hooking up in the club, look-at-me, look at how cool I am. I wanted reflect the light given to me back on the listener, and share in the experience of live art.”
The song that brought him to that place was “The Remedy,” from his first album “Waiting For My Rocket To Come,” the 15h anniversary of which Mraz celebrated last year. In the middle of honest love songs and nimble jams was an anthem-like open letter to fear and disease, with the chorus “I won’t worry my life away.” It turns out that the singer had second thoughts about even including it on the album.
“It was inspired by my best friend, who had cancer at 21,” Mraz says. “I was afraid of exploiting him, and abusing the intimacy we have in our healing. But what happens is that it resonated with people because it was so personal. That was the one that transformed me, that opened my eyes to how songs could be of service.”
So now, 15 years later, the singer says he’s content in his path to make people smile and think while they sing along.
“To me, I wanna keep hustling. There aren’t enough Mr. Rogers,” Mraz says. “It’s important to have those figures, and I want to be one of them, who helps people tap into their feelings, remember to be kind to themselves and others. That’s another reason I hustle.”
IF YOU GO
When: Friday, 8 p.m.
Where: Kravis Center, West Palm Beach