The Pop Icon is Here for a Good Time on Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride
WORDS BY REBECCA DAVISON-MORA | SAN DIEGO | ALT.ITUDE
JUN 20, 2023 | ISSUE 12
Still from "Pancakes And Butter"
“Sometimes pop needs to still feel like it's on the fringe” Jason Mraz
Jason Mraz would tell you he likes to treat everything as a beginner, and for 20 years, he has been traversing genres across a discography that has had peaks and troughs, never quite reaching the popularity of his 2008 album We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. Yet, he has remained consistently committed to reinventing and repurposing genres and sounds.
Now, in his eighth studio album Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride, Mraz reunites with producer Martin Terefe. The result is an album with its arms wide open, picking from an established cupboard of funk, pop, and soul. One could call this re-invention, or simply a return to the pop that catapulted him to fame. Regardless, the result is the glossy, highly produced album you would expect of a musician with over 20 years in the game. Proficient at developing hooks, Mraz hits all the marks, embedding rhymes into the recesses of the subconscious, so you catch yourself singing them in the shower.
But despite his glossy slick production, 40-year-old Mraz projects an image of a wiser, more aware artist of himself and the world around him. A divorce under his belt, he speaks of the influence of his mom on the album, legalization of marijuana, and the importance of his band Raining Jane. He reflects on coming into his sexuality and interrogating his masculinity, giving the impression of someone searching for authenticity, in the way that is expected of someone in his position at this stage of his career.
One would think that this self-realization would produce a different album than the one we have been given. But ever young, Mraz doesn’t give the appearance of taking himself too seriously.
And it’s fun. The music video for I Feel Like Dancing is a 70s inspired ride through the rose-tinted glasses that only the present can afford the past. With rich costumes, playful sets, and a haze of nostalgia, Mraz succeeds in world building here. There are hints of our geek in the pink with his signature wordplay, at times feeling recycled from days gone by but with the same playfulness ever present.
Mraz’s wishes to play at the ‘fringes of pop’, and his array of influence is a testament to that desire. However, this is not always executed to its full potential. Tracks like You Might Like It make fluffy statements, repurposing sitars and pop formulas that echo the Beatles or Bruno Mars to good, not brilliant, effect. Yet behind it all lies an underlying openness, a joy of making music with people he loves, a desire to have fun and a cyclical journey back to pop like an old friend.
Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride is an album just as at home on a Spotify playlist in 2023 as his original hits were blaring out of my mom’s minivan during the school drop off in 2008. A testament to the longevity of an artist who, even now, is still reaching for reinvention.
Mystical Magical Rhythmical Radical Ride Cover Art
MYSTICAL MAGICAL RHYTHMICAL RADICAL RIDE
sM | The “Beginner” tattoo on the album cover for Mystical was first seen 15 years ago in the video for “I’m Yours” from We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things How has the meaning of that tattoo changed for you?
JM ── Well, it's definitely a state of mind and I may have evolved but the tattoo has not, which is great because I got the tattoo many years ago when I first started surfing. I felt like such a beginner and all the higher level surfers out there were telling me to get out of the way, go to a different wave, so I wished that I'd had a T-shirt that said “beginner” on it. Anytime I did spot the beginners, they were having more fun. And so rather than a t-shirt, I decided I'll just get it tattooed on my arm and do my best in this life to maintain a beginner's mind, which is always a great place to come from in any project. It reminds me to have fun. It reminds me that even though I may have done this before, I've not done it this way before. I've not done it at this age before. Maybe I've not done it in this studio before. By keeping a beginner's mind, there's always ways to view something you've done in a new light.
sM | Your mom, June, had a hand in the way this album sounds. You played her some acoustic demos and she responded with “Yeah, these are great, but y’all need to make a pop album, because you're not getting any younger, and you better do it before it's too late.” Why do you think that resonated with you?
JM ── I don't think there's anyone in the world that you wanna please more than your mother. So when she just laid it out, it was a keen awareness that even though I've been in the pop lane and I've done up tempo numbers in the past, it didn't resonate with my mom that I had truly achieved it yet. And so I took that to heart and I set a new goal for myself to see if I could make something that even she would like, but that still lives in sort of a contemporary dance genre. And she was a great resource in the studio and of course my band knows my mom and loves her. So whenever we'd be stumped or be at a fork in the road, should we go this way or should we go this way? We would basically say, well, what would June do? Or what would June want us to do? And we would always lean in the direction of June's pop request and I think the result was great and I'm really glad we had that.
WISDOM OF THE CROWD
sM | How challenging was it for you to be completely open, putting an album together that anyone, at almost any age, can connect with?
JM ── I definitely like to ask friends, listeners, fans and parents: what do you wanna hear? What do you like about the things I have made or the things I'm currently making? What do you like? With the aid of Martin and a few of our add-on studio musicians: Sterling Campbell, who sat in on drums for a few songs, Nikolai Torp, who loaned us some beautiful keyboard parts, Glen Scott, who played some great keyboard parts and even Oliver Lou, who was our engineer, was just so fresh and scrappy and edgy it added to the fun and flavor of pop. Sometimes pop needs to still feel like it's on the fringe. It needs to be familiar, but it also still needs to feel fresh. And I feel like we had all those right ingredients on this but I don't know that I would've looked for them, had June not really made that request. Thanks, Mom.
Jason Mraz by Shervin Lainez
sM | One of the undertones of this album is a certain freedom of expression, particularly unconfining yourself from traditional masculinity. What’s been the journey for you over the last five years in terms of defining and redefining what masculinity looks for you?
JM ── I don't know that I'm defined yet, and I don't ever wanna be final, but I love being in the flow. I grew up with a lot of Queer friends and I had an amazing manager for 18 years who was a gay man, and many Queer managers inside that office, and through all of those years from high school and into my adult life I wanted to make sure that I'm making art that creates a space to counteract all the opposition we're still experiencing in the world so that queer presence, queer love can still bloom, blossom and flourish in this world.
My own experiences are evolving and expanding. I've always been somewhat of an independent, and I did for many years chase an institutional idea of marriage and it didn't work. And I got a divorce and found myself single again and realized that I was not chasing things that my heart wanted. It took me a very long time to explore that side of myself and to accept that side of myself. And today I find myself as a bi man, sometimes I call myself a cis, pan man because my heart is open and I love making connections with all kinds of people. Sometimes those connections are intimate, and sometimes those connections are just long-lasting, beautiful, pen pals. I'm an artist and I need a muse and I love finding them all over the place. So yeah, I did wanna be a little more conscious about inclusivity going forward in my work, and it's also exciting for me to finally be exploring that in my work, whereas I might have been afraid to do it 20 years ago.