In July of 2015, Ed Sheeran announced that he would be playing three nights at the historic Wembley Stadium in London. The stadium seats 90,000, and has been sold out by the likes of Metallica, The Foo Fighters, AC/DC, and Madonna in her prime. Sheeran, however, planned to play these three shows completely solo, and while doubts swirled about one man’s ability to fill one of the largest stadiums in the world, they were quickly silenced when he sold out all three nights in just over five minutes.
So, how did we get here? How did one nerdy ginger with a soulful voice, an acoustic guitar, and a surprising ability to blend hip-hop elements into his more folksy base, sell out Wembley Stadium? Many music fans might point you toward the success of acts like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in the mid-seventies, or even earlier, with artists like Bob Dylan finding fame as early as 1962. The most astute fans of folk music may even mention Woody Guthrie who released his first record in 1940. One man, however, doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much as he should in this discussion, despite the fact that he may be the most important piece of this puzzle. One man is almost single-handedly responsible for rescuing a genre that had been relegated to coffeeshops and small bars. That man is Jason Mraz, and this is “Why Jason Mraz Matters.”
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, folk music was just beginning to morph into the coffeehouse sound we know today, and it was finding massive success, album sales wise, on college campuses all over the country. There were a few acts that had risen to the top of the heap, but for the most part, each artist was mostly independent and rarely stayed on top for more than a few months. That all changed, however, in 2002 with the release of Mraz’s debut LP, “Waiting for My Rocket to Come.”
This album was seriously revolutionary. It was catchy, geeky, and above all, fun. Mraz drew from the cheesy, heartfelt love songs of coffeeshop music for “You and I Both,” while infusing hip-hop flows and drums to make hits like “The Remedy,” and “Curbside Prophet.” Still not done, he would toss in some reggae instrumentation for “I’ll Do Anything,” and write an impressively emotional ballad in “Absolutely Zero.” In short, Jason Mraz, on his debut album no less, took one of the oldest genres of music that still exists in the mainstream and used it as a core to fuse with any and every other influence on which he could get his hands. The album went platinum and instantly made the then twenty five year old kid a household name.
He would follow this success with what is, I believe, his best album to date, Mr. A-Z in 2005. While the cleverly titled project was slightly less successful than its predecessor, being one of only two albums in his discography to miss the million sale mark needed for a platinum rating, he’s able to improve on his debut in virtually every respect.
The hip-hop influence is stronger, coming through strongly on “Geek in the Pink,” and more subtly on “Did You Get My Message?” He adds more instruments to his pallet, pulling in a piano to lead “Mr. Curiosity,” and a variety of new guitar styles on “Clockwatching,” and throughout, he endears himself to his audience by drawing from the geeky, self deprecating humor which had been used a decade earlier by groups like Weezer to a similar effect. Overall, this album was considerably less impactful in the music industry, but established Mraz, along with the brand new brand of coffeehouse/hip-hop/folk music which he was pioneering, as a force to be reckoned with. His upward trajectory, however, wouldn’t come to fruition until 2008 with the release of his career defining third record, We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things.
Now, I must admit that this third installment is, possibly, my least favorite of Mraz’ debut trilogy, but its success is likely the most important part of his story, and the qualities which made it such a hit are obvious.
It has fantastic singles, namely “Lucky,” featuring Colbie Caillat and “I’m Yours,” which is certified nine times platinum. In addition, the introduction of the ukulele on nearly every track contributed to the overall laid back feel of the record and made it infinitely listenable. Even the album cover was influential as it would lead to a rash of simplistic, single-line drawings which seemingly adorned every single coffeehouse album released for the next two years.
The album is certified three times platinum, but perhaps even more important for the purposes of this article, it launched a massive world tour on which he visited five continents and even performed with Eric Clapton. While it may be true that he often played these shows with a band backing him up, the fact remains that he alone was the attraction, and he was laying the groundwork which would eventually allow future, similar acts to drop the band all; a number of fantastic live records released over this time period contributed to this as well. In just six years, Jason Mraz had taken a fledgling genre which was just beginning to gain traction on college campuses and pretentious coffeehouses, tossed it into the mixing pot with influences from every popular genre he could think of, and brought this it to the masses in a way that had never been done before.
He went on to release two more albums, Love is a Four Letter Word and Yes!, both of which are quite impressive, but for the purposed of examining his effects on the industry, its these first three projects that really matter.
Today, our billboard charts are consistently topped by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Bon Iver, Passenger, and Hozier, but there doesn’t seem to be enough attention drawn to the fact that, twenty years ago, one man with just his guitar and his voice could scarcely fill a dorm room lobby, let alone Wembley Stadium. Jason Mraz changed all of that, and that’s why Jason Mraz matters.
HEAR JASON MRAZ: https://open.spotify.com/artist/4phGZZrJZRo4ElhRtViYdl