The season may be winding down for the boys of summer, but pop fans have nothing to fear: fall is lining up to be the season of the sensitive jam-rock dude. They’ll be all over the place this September, which brings the release of the first ever Dave Matthews solo album as well as the follow-up to John Mayer’s Grammy-winning breakthrough, Room for Squares (Columbia). Jack Johnson and Maroon 5 have also been getting their share of adult-alternative airplay lately. But the genre’s hottest new star is Jason Mraz, who’s just scored a gold album on the strength of his Top 40 hit "The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)."
Like Mayer, Mraz was discovered working the coffeehouse circuit. A Richmond native who started writing music soon after he got out of high school, he moved to the singer-songwriter mecca of San Diego in 1999. After talking his way into a weekly gig at Java Joe’s in the city’s Ocean Beach neighborhood, he honed his act for a couple of years until his hard work began paying off in the form of sold-out shows and major-label interest.
Many of the songs on Mraz’s 2002 debut, Waiting for My Rocket To Come (Elektra), date back to his coffeehouse days. But "The Remedy" was written after he got signed and moved to LA. "I wrote that song in my car one day driving home from San Diego to LA," he recalls. "I see fireworks going off at Disneyland and I immediately think of my friend Charlie, who was born on the Fourth of July. He always thought the fireworks were for his birthday. At the time he was also going through cancer treatment, and I was like, ‘Man, why is he in the hospital and why do I have a record deal? We grew up together, this doesn’t make any sense.’ The lyrics are basically about what he and I talked about: with the right thoughts, you can cure anything. If we can just embrace the situation and kind of enjoy the fact that we’re experiencing this, we’ll be a lot stronger in the future."
"If you’ve got the poison, I’ve got the remedy," Mraz sings to his ailing buddy on the track’s feisty stream-of-consciousness verse. His breezy acoustic funk enhances the good vibes, and the shimmering electric chorus — "I won’t worry my life away" — is icing on the cake. According to Mraz, the song didn’t click until he hooked up with the then-unknown songwriting team the Matrix, who have since become the talk of the music biz thanks to their chart-storming work with Avril Lavigne.
"They were like, ‘Well, what do you want to do with this song?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m not really worried about it.’ Five minutes later, they’re like, ‘Play your song.’ I played it again, and when it got to the chorus, they came in with the ‘I won’t worry’ part. They took my theme and ran with it. That’s kind of how they work — they’re the easiest group in the world to work with. That was actually the first song we worked on in the studio. Once that song was built, we knew what the tone of the record was going to be. That song has so much: a little bit of rap, a little bit of melody, a ballad feel. It’s a great example of what you can expect on the album."
Released last October to little fanfare, Waiting for My Rocket To Come was recorded largely in the DC area with Matthews/Mayer producer John Alagia at the helm. Mraz himself handles the majority of the writing, and his back-up outfit encompasses the rhythm section from 1990s Richmond jam-rock faves Agents of Good Roots (his favorite band in high school), along with various alumni of Greyboy Allstars and Geggy Tah. When he plays the Roxy this Wednesday, he’ll be accompanied by a six-piece band built around long-time coffeehouse collaborators Ian Sheridan (bass) and Toca Rivera (percussion).
The next single from Waiting for My Rocket To Come is "You and I Both," a melancholy ode to an ex-lover with a loose, improvisatory feel. It’s not the only serious moment on the album: on the psychedelic ballad "Absolutely Zero," he finds himself apologizing to his latest flame for choosing work over romance. But more than Matthews or Mayer, Mraz is willing to mix profundity with just plain fun. The disc’s most aggressive track, "Too Much Food," is a playful jab at his label for pushing him in a more commercial direction: "Stop telling me the way I gotta play/Too much food on my plate." On "Curbside Prophet," he busts an autobiographical freestyle rap over a banjo-happy funk groove; the boisterous outcome sounds like an unholy marriage between Kid Rock and Ani DiFranco.
The album’s most lighthearted cut is the coffeehouse mating call "I’ll Do Anything," which fuses an easygoing reggae verse with a dark, Radiohead-style chorus. "I based that song on my friend Billy Galewood, who used to flow with me at the coffee shop," Mraz explains. "He was the king of one-liners. He’d stroll up and be like, ‘Yo, are you in the mood for some dude?’ I just thought that was the funniest thing. One night at the coffee shop, he was just rolling on all his one-liners, so I wrote them all down and made the song. I was copping his style, so I gave him a writing credit."
Mraz isn’t afraid to poke fun at his ladies’-man image: the cover of Waiting for My Rocket To Come is a photo of him talking to a rooster. "A lot of people assume that’s my identity, and I don’t mind. For the album, sure, I’ll roll with it. On stage, people freak out when I say I’m single. It’s a fun part of the show, but I was worried it was going to bring out a certain cockiness on the album. That’s the reason I brought the rooster into it."
And though he’s grateful for his success, after a solid year on the road, he admits to being a little homesick. "When you’re a little kid and you’re singing in the mirror to Michael Jackson songs, you do wish for stardom. But once I got into the coffee-shop world and I was playing all the time and I didn’t have a day job, I had made it right there. The coffee shop was a block from the beach, we were playing great music, there was a lot of lovemaking — honestly, I had no expectations to go any further at that point. But once the opportunities started to come up, the idea of making a record sounded nice. My goal was to make a cheap record and take the show on the road, but the album came out much bigger than I expected. I wake up every day going, ‘This is as far as I can possibly go,’ only because I haven’t experienced anything greater. It’s really quite a trip."
EARLIER THIS MONTH, Mraz’s good-luck streak landed him at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, where he opened a two-night homecoming stand for Bon Jovi. Joining him on the undercard at those shows was Pete Yorn, who prefers scruffy roots rock to Mraz’s jam-band groove but otherwise shares a heartthrob singer-songwriter status with his Richmond counterpart. Raised in Jersey, Yorn moved to LA after college and earned his buzz with a residency at the Hollywood hot spot Largo. On his 2001 debut, musicforthemorningafter (Columbia), he and primary collaborator Walt Vincent teamed up with seasoned producers Brad Wood and Ken Andrews and courted radio without dumbing the songs down. The album went gold on the strength of the modern-rock hit "For Nancy (’Cos It Already Is)."
Earlier this year, Yorn returned with Day I Forgot (Columbia), scoring a plum opening slot on the East Coast leg of the upcoming R.E.M. tour, which hits the Tweeter Center on October 5. Once again working mostly out of their LA home studio, Yorn and Vincent brought back Wood and Andrews for the new disc and also enlisted famed R.E.M. producer Scott Litt. The latter’s skills are most apparent on "Crystal Village," a jangly adult-alternative single on which Yorn, who plays most of the instruments on his albums, channels Eddie Vedder on vocals and John Bonham on drums. "It was good in the beginning," he sighs, calmly eulogizing a promising love affair that never quite made it off the ground.
Day I Forgot made an impressive Top 20 debut in Billboard when it was released in April, but it hasn’t shown the staying power of its predecessor. That’s probably because its grungy lead single, "Come Back Home," wasn’t quite as good a fit at youth-oriented rock radio as "For Nancy." Maybe it’s too sappy, despite a surging chorus: when Yorn sings, "And you know you’re hard enough," he’s talking about addressing the emotional consequences of returning to one’s old stomping grounds after a long absence without getting into a brawl.
The disc’s other rock highlight is "Burrito," a lovestruck rave-up about hanging out at 7-Eleven. "Long Way Down" is almost as catchy as the Goo Goo Dolls hit of the same name; the rustic weeper "All at Once" could be the great lost Pearl Jam ballad. Rock fans are notoriously tough on singer-songwriters, but if Yorn can learn to play down the Bon Jovi aspects of his delivery while emphasizing his Dave Matthews knack for crisp hooks and melodies, he should have no problem joining Mraz as one of the new breed of coffeehouse superstars.
Jason Mraz performs this Wednesday, September 3, at the Roxy, 279 Tremont Street in the Theater District; call (617) 338-7699. Pete Yorn opens for R.E.M. on Sunday October 5 at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield; call (617) 423-NEXT.
Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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