“Being cool isn’t who I am,” says Jason Mraz, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter best known for what he calls “wedding songs.” His most popular hit, the snuggly “I’m Yours,” spent 76 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 beginning in 2008, a record at the time. In 2012, he attempted to rough up his image by “living dangerously”: “I surfed bigger waves. I upgraded from a scooter to a motorcycle, but I was scared all the time. I grew my hair out and got mistaken for Kenny G.” He shrugs. Now, he says, “I just want to be a reminder that everything’s OK.”
It’s a sweltering July day, and Mraz, 41, is sitting outside a Los Angeles photo studio, sipping a homemade elixir of herb-infused oat straw. He looks boyishly handsome, having traded his signature fedora for a baseball cap. Ever since he broke out of the San Diego coffee shop scene with his 2002 reggae-inflected “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” he has stewarded a quietly massive career — nearly 7 million records sold, according to Nielsen Music, and 1 billion total on-demand U.S. streams — by being almost defiantly wholesome. He likens his live show to a yoga class. He has never released an album that didn’t feature at least one song with “love” in the title. He’s an investor in Café Gratitude, a California-based vegan eatery serving plates named Humble and Evolved.
But his kryptonite, as Mraz discovered while struggling to finish his forthcoming sixth album, Know. (out Aug. 10, his first since 2014’s folksy Yes!), was coping with America’s suddenly toxic political and cultural climate. After Donald Trump’s election, he admits, “I grew despondent.” Mraz experimented with a moodier vibe that reflected his unease, churning out “teenage rebellion songs” with titles like “Undone” and “My Own Shit,” which he debuted live to baffled audiences. “Nobody wants to get their bad news from Jason Mraz,” he says, smirking. “Nobody wants to hear Jason Mraz having a bad day.”
His label, Atlantic, rejected most of the new material. Discouraged, Mraz, who married former coffee shop owner Christina Carano in 2015, debated quitting music. “I started to feel a little ridiculous,” he says. “Like, ‘Why am I up here onstage saying, “Look at me”?’ I didn’t have that moxie anymore.”
But his Broadway stint in Waitress earlier in 2018 restored his enthusiasm for performing, and Mraz decided he “could be of more service as the voice of optimism.” His new single, “Have It All,” is the sonic equivalent of a commencement speech, the kind Mraz would like to give students who protest gun violence. “May the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows,” he offers, accompanied by hand claps. Elsewhere, “Unlonely” whistles in the face of music critics’ dismissals with unapologetic schmaltz. “That song is hard corn,” declares Mraz.
“Jason’s not walking around with a big ego,” notes Meghan Trainor, who says his love song “Lucky” is her favorite ever. She collaborated with him on Know. standout “More Than Friends.” “I just knew we would crush at writing an adorable pop song.”
Mraz was raised by divorced parents in Mechanicsville, Va., and dropped out of performing-arts college to do janitorial jobs before relocating to California. His pursuit of happiness included dalliances with Scientology and Landmark Forum, but his relentless positivity belies a surprisingly somber worldview. “I mean, life sucks,” he says. “I came from a working-class family. My dad put his hand on me once or twice.” He adds that the two are still close. “We inherit a gnarly history. Everybody wakes up in this world totally fucked. Unless your parents have a billion dollars, in which case you can screw people over your whole life. And then become president.” He takes a deep breath.
Mraz is passionate about myriad topics, from the environment to capitalism. In June, he wrote a poem celebrating Pride Month for Billboard.com, which closed with the line “I am bi your side,” stoking speculation about his sexuality. “Honestly, I didn’t realize it was going to be so telling,” he says. “But I’ve had experiences with men, even while I was dating the woman who became my wife. It was like, ‘Wow, does that mean I am gay?’ And my wife laid it out for me. She calls it ‘two spirit,’ which is what the Native Americans call someone who can love both man and woman. I really like that.”
When he’s not touring, Mraz and his wife like to stroll the five-and-a-half acres of their organic avocado farm in nearby Oceanside, which supplies a small portion of Chipotle’s guacamole-destined haul. They graze and try to discourage “caffeinated squirrels” from hoarding the beans of newly planted coffee trees. “They’re getting hyped,” says Mraz. (The coffee will be processed and sold through a company called Frinj, possibly as early as 2019.) He employs only one person, his friend Justin, who used to drive him to open-mic gigs back in 1999. “I need to offset my farming habit with music,” he says, smiling. “I dream of a life where I don’t have to put out any more records if I don’t want to. I’ve loved it, I’m stoked I’m still doing this, but when it’s done, I will be on that tractor.”
This article originally appeared in the July 21 issue of Billboard.