Jason Mraz and the Freeing Power of Pure Imagination

Jason Mraz
Jason Mraz Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of Ashley White PR

Lately when he sits at the piano to write or rehearse, Jason Mraz said he'll often find himself playing the melody to "Pure Imagination," the song from the 1970s film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. There’s a line in the song which goes, “Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There's nothing to it,” and it’s a line the multi-Grammy winning singer-songwriter has obviously taken to heart. He's best known for a long career in music, but he's also a one-time theater kid who made it to Broadway. He's turned a hobby into a successful farm business. He’s a passionate philanthropist and is donating all proceeds from his latest album, Look for the Good, to organizations like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ initiatives.

When Mraz returns to that particularly brilliant song while noodling at his piano, he’s also coming back to a philosophy that has worked for him in life. Now Mraz, whose first tour since the pandemic stops at White Oak Music Hall July 31, is working to ensure others who haven’t had the same opportunities get a chance to see where their imaginations take them.

“I think it just came from the gift of music, having been able to make up songs as a kid and kind of see a room transformed by that, by my improvisation on piano or guitar making up a song, and I eventually drove that into a career path and said, hey, can I just be a performing songwriter and continue to sort of delight people in a room with this gift?” Mraz said of his own path. “And that just seems like something I shouldn’t be paid for, it just seems like something I should be gifting because it was a gift to me. So, because of that, I always make sure I’m using my superpowers for good and that I’m always bringing a good vibe. I don’t wanna necessarily bring my sad songs to the stage, certainly not too many of them, and I don’t want to bore an audience or bring ‘em down.

click to enlarge Mraz is donating advance and subsequent profits from his latest album to various non-profits - PHOTO BY SHERVIN LAINEZ, COURTESY OF ASHLEY WHITE PR
Mraz is donating advance and subsequent profits from his latest album to various non-profits
Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of Ashley White PR

“I want to continue to uplift the vibration and hopefully through this experience it awakens the dreams or the potential in the audience or the listener to go, ‘Oh, I could do this,’ or “I could pursue my dream,’ who knows what it is – could be carpentry, could be painting, poetry, could be parenting. I don’t know. It’s not mine to choose that, but it is my job to continue to be grateful for my gifts and use them for good to hopefully inspire other people to use theirs so we’re all living in this world where everybody’s using their gifts and everyone’s being generous because everyone has access to living their dream.”

Living the dream, for Mraz and those in his circle, includes taking those happy feelings to the masses. The Look for the Good Live! tour kicks off in Austin and Houston is the second stop on the way to two dozen U.S. cities this summer.

“I have the distinct pleasure of playing in front of human beings and an audience that, when the lights go up and the music comes on, it’s like all the geographical borders, all the political borders, anything that might define us, they just kind of melt away and we just get to be humans in the room agreeing to a rhythm and a tone and melody and lyrics. So, I could be in Houston or I could be in Korea and it’s a very similar experience. And that’s a cool feeling.

“I love the fact that I can hire a bunch of musicians and coming out of a pandemic when a lot of musicians had to sit quietly at home or figure out new income streams, I’m bringing out a 14-piece band,” he noted. “That’s a real pleasure, to be able to give all these musicians and singers, guitar players, keyboard players, give them a job. We’ve had a chance to do a couple of gigs and kind of warm up and see how it feels and just those couple of gigs already were incredible. Not just the sound but the feeling of being back together.

“My goal is to bring that good feeling of reunion, that good feeling of employment and celebration of music that’s happening onstage, to let that trickle into the audience because I’m sure the audience is having a similar experience where small groups of friends are gathering and families are gathering and for many people, they’re probably gathering in public or a large venue for the first time,” he continued. “We want the feeling of celebration and safety and reunion and honoring our friends and family and honoring our own health, I want all of that to be celebrated. So, that’s kind of what I’m aiming to achieve with this show, just the mere fact that we’re here to celebrate life because we all just survived something that never in our wildest dreams we’d have to do.”

Mraz said last year’s social justice movements gave him a different perspective on whether pure imagination can create unfettered possibilities for everyone.

“Pre-pandemic I was probably naïve to ‘Oh, everyone can do this,’ and then during the pandemic – a lot of what happened during the pandemic politically and culturally really woke me up to the fact of how many people really still don’t have access to their dreams or haven’t yet had a chance to explore those,” he said. “Whether it’s equality issues or living wage issues, you know, I really got a big, big education – I think we all did – over the last year. So, while I still want to go out there and uplift and bring a good vibe, it’s more important now to really walk that talk, more than just saying, ‘I want y’all to go live your dream!’ but how can I infuse in my doing something that will actually help others live their dream?

“One way that I do that, in addition to curating songs and just checking in with the audience, I take a buck twenty-three out of every ticket I sell and I put it into non-profits that are actually helping to advance equality, specifically I also make sure we’re supporting inclusive arts education. That, to me, is the lane I came up in and it’s a good medium to help communities that have been disenfranchised or underserved. Been doing that for a few years but it just became more obvious to me that it has to be done more often. Time for me to not just share the music but share the wealth.”

After all we’ve been through in the last few years, we ask Mraz what a world might look like where everyone looks for the good. What would a utopian mindset mean to art, which so often is born from and addresses struggle? Mraz’s interest in philosophy came through as he pondered such unlikely events.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever lived in a place where everything is just all right all the time and even if it was, we would still have just being human to deal with,” he noted. “Being human has a clock and that will always cause some kind of suffering. So, even if everything was all right, we’d still have songs to ease our suffering.”

Mraz has been described as “relentless positivity,” the Ted Lasso of modern music. He pondered that description for a second.

“My relentless positivity is that one day anybody growing up here who has a dream can take the classes and take the shot at living their dream,” he said. “That dream doesn’t have to become a career move but it’s something that you could afford to incorporate into your life.

“And, to be able to afford that kind of time would be to make sure we have living wages, to make sure we have health care taken care of so we don’t have to spend so many of our wages on private health care,” he added. “I think there’s still ways we can improve it so all people who have a dream can pursue that dream. I’m someone who got to do that. I had a dream, I could take the classes for it, I could go out and do it and not a single person told me it was crazy. Not a single person told me ‘Oh, you’ll never do that, you should get a different job.’ It just seemed like the path was always set up for me to go for this and that’s why it’s so easy for me to be generous and try to help others along the way because I don’t believe that the path is set up for everybody.”

“If I’m relentlessly positive, I feel like we could kind of create a world where no matter what your dream is, paths are paved to help you get there, no matter who you are,” he concluded.

click to enlarge The re-issue of Look for the Good includes re-imagined versions of Mraz classics - PHOTO BY SHERVIN LAINEZ, COURTESY OF ASHLEY WHITE PR
The re-issue of Look for the Good includes re-imagined versions of Mraz classics
Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of Ashley White PR

What dreams remain for Mraz to chase, we wondered? He’s written one of the world’s best-loved songs, “I’m Yours.” The 2008 pop juggernaut was recently named to Spotify’s “Billions Club,” an exclusive playlist of every song with over 1 billion streams on the platform. This month brought a deluxe re-issue of Look for the Good, which topped Billboard’s Reggae Album chart when first released last year. It includes re-imagined versions of Mraz classics, including a ska version of the Grammy-winner “Make It Mine” and an update of “Lucky” featuring Emily King. He’s donated more than $1 million to non-profits through the Jason Mraz Foundation. His farming hobby morphed into Mraz Family Farms, which supplies avocados to Chipotle. That relationship allowed Mraz to become a mentor in a program Chipotle created to work with agricultural entrepreneurs.

It seems, as the song goes, Mraz wanted to change the world and then did so.

“Eventually, I’d like to try to slow down,” he said with a laugh. “Even during this last year I’ve stayed pretty busy and creative and just continued to bring in opportunities and suddenly I had deadlines again and had to figure out ways to pull certain things together during the pandemic, as many of us did. I think the thing I’ve yet to figure out is how to just slow down and not make a big deal out of everything.

“I turned my backyard into a small farm business and that is a constant chore. I think I just saw it as, oh, it’s going to be this beautiful thing and it’ll be a great quality of life and I’ll get to work with the trees and the wildlife, but what I didn’t realize is I could easily busy myself from sunrise to sunset on farm chores.

“And I do that with a lot of other stuff, music projects and writing projects, so I think the thing I’ve yet to experience is can I get real peace out of slowing down and doing nothing and not trying to be so important?” he said. “That was a big lesson over the last year as well, am I that important? There’s so much going on in the world, so many things are vying for our attention, so what am I doing that’s going to take someone’s attention away from something else that could be more important?

“I’ve started to unwind that machine and slow down from just trying to be some brand that’s in your face but just try to be human, try to do good with my superpowers and slow down. It’s probably not a great answer for agents and companies around me to hear but that’s a challenge,” Mraz continued. “And maybe it’s a challenge for many. Can we really just have peace without things to occupy and entertain us, without looking at our phones or looking at TV? Could I really just sit on my front porch and read books for the rest of my life? That’s kind of a dream.”

Everyone has a dream and that dream need impetus, something to put it in motion. For Jason Mraz, it all seems to come back to a message in a song of particular brilliance.

“It’s a melody that just keeps showing up in my life and the lyric – you can imagine the world you wanna live in – is pretty much sounds like the conversation we just had,” he said. “Anytime I sit at the piano, it’s the first song I play and I don’t know when it got in there, a couple of years ago, but no matter what keyboard I’m at I’ve just got to play ‘Pure Imagination,’ there’s something about the melody and maybe it takes me back to my childhood and the permission to dream and my belief in a better world.”

Jason Mraz brings the Look for the Good Live! tour to Houston Saturday, July 31. With special guest Southern Avenue. On the lawn at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. Doors at 7 p.m., $50.50 and up.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.