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POP MUSIC

His rocket is precisely on course

November 06, 2003|Lina Lecaro | Special to The Times

"Things are going to happen naturally." It's part of the first verse from the opening track of singer-songwriter Jason Mraz's debut, "Waiting for My Rocket to Come," but for the 26-year-old native Virginian, the swift pace of his success has been anything but natural.

"If somebody were to follow my road journal, they'd see that only a year ago I was a scared little kid just about to go on tour," he recalls humbly.

But Mraz is no babe in the woods, at least not onstage, and that's exactly why his fan base is growing so quickly. That and a combination of diligent touring and promotion.

The nerdishly cute crooner's Web site is as vivacious as his much-talked-about live shows, with the aforementioned journals chronicling his weekly activities and observations, as well as contests to design merchandise, links to his favorite artists' sites (accompanied by personal witticisms about each) and, at the moment, a charity auction for tickets and a meet-and-greet at this week's Wiltern show (with proceeds going to victims of the Southern California wildfires).

"The Internet is huge. Without it I probably would have never been signed," Mraz says. "Early on we noticed the word was out about us around the U.S., and we hadn't even been out there yet. It's an amazing thing. You create a kind of an underground friend base all over the world."

Of course, that's a lot easier when you've got a major recording company, Elektra -- which signed him in May 2002 -- behind you, not to mention videos on MTV and song placement on TV shows such as Fox's "The O.C." Still, Mraz says, people are responding to more than marketing.

"One thing that I've found that I believe has kind of made people stick with us, is that even with the videos and all the media and whatnot," he says, "we try to keep people a part of it. This is a way for you to participate."

Indeed, Mraz, who emerged from the San Diego coffeehouse circuit after a brief stint pursuing musical theater in New York, knows a thing or two about interacting with an audience, even if he hasn't been doing it very long.

After frequenting San Diego open-mike nights for a year or so and hooking up with his current right-hand man-percussionist Toca Rivera, his main haunt, Java Joe's, gave him a weekly gig. The lively night of friends and fans soon became so popular, people often had to be turned away. Within the next year, a local radio station had started playing a demo version of the current single "You and I Both" and, before he knew it, the labels were in hot pursuit.

Mraz did what he calls a "conference room tour" before signing with Elektra and immediately starting work on the debut with producer John Alagia (best known for his work with another guitar-playin' fellow, John Mayer).

Though some fans have said the polished production of "Rockets" sands away too much of Mraz's spontaneous edge, he seemed to enjoy exploring new ideas and arrangements. He cites the rockin' "Too Much Food" and the rhythmic ditty "No Stopping Us" as two tunes he would have never been able to pull off in a coffeehouse setting, and although these catchy cuts do have a fuller sound, it is the laid-back ease of his older, more pared-down material that gleams most.

"He learned a lot making the record," says manager Bill Silva, who's been with Mraz since before his coffeehouse days. "But the live show takes your affection for him to a whole new level."

Hoping to cash in on those charismatic performances, Elektra plans to release a concert DVD in February.

The collection probably will be an even better showcase for Mraz's multifaceted sound, which weaves together folk, soul, pop and even a little ska and hip-hop.

"It's pop music, but I'm easily influenced by every other kind of music there is," explains Mraz, who also cites George Michael, Dave Mathews and Nirvana as favorites. "I hope at some point in my career to incorporate it all."

Lyrically, Mraz's material is equally multifaceted. Whimsical imagery, humorous pop culture references and sensitive-guy romanticisms mingle and jingle in a way that's utterly charming and surprisingly un-cliched.

And though he may be a bit overworked, as is evident by a couple of soft yawns during this interview, his quirky exuberance never seems to dampen.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has a new source of inspiration as of late: He says he's in love.

And if Mraz has it his way, he'll spread the joy he's feeling on to his fans, just as he always has.

"I don't want to write about how I'm tired and the label works me too much or how I haven't been home in a long time or I'm sad about this or that," Mraz says. "I want my music to continue to feel good."

Lina Lecaro can be contacted at weekend@latimes.com

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Jason Mraz

Where: The Wiltern LG,

3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Cost: $26

Info: (213) 380-5005

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