The ever-upbeat Jason Mraz is the perfect pop star to inaugurate the Twin Cities' first major amphitheater.
Jason Mraz has worn many hats -- San Diego surfer dude, pop music's Mr. Sunshine, pickle boy at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival (really) and now guinea pig at Mystic Lake Casino's new 8,357-seat amphitheater.
"I like being the guinea pig. It makes you feel like a pioneer," said Mraz, who will play the first of nine shows in Mystic's outdoor concert facility Sunday. "Whenever I'm backstage at a venue, I often feel and sense who sat where and whose dressing room was what. Did Jerry Garcia take a [poop] here? Pardon my language. It's going to be a unique experience to be in Minneapolis to feel this virgin dressing room and virgin stage. I'm kind of honored."
Mraz is playing only three other shows this summer: Milwaukee's Summerfest; a San Francisco sequel to the 1979 Musicians United for Safe Energy concert (with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Morello and others) and a surfing-and-music fest in France.
His Twin Cities gig will take him to a part of the metro that he's familiar with. Some college friends persuaded him to hang out in Chaska and Shakopee one summer -- 1996 or '97, he thinks -- and perform at the Renaissance Festival.
"One of my friends is a veteran pickle boy; he'd probably done it a dozen years. He walked me right in, got me the gig and I learned from the best. 'I'll trade you my dill for a bill,'" said Mraz, who grew up in Virginia and attended a music and drama college in New York City. "It was a blast. It was extraordinary, such an immersive experience. You really get to go to a different time."
Maybe Mraz needs to get out more. He used to tour extensively, but for the past year he's been toiling on his fourth album.
"I spend long, long nights on this project," he said last week, sounding weary. "It's exciting but it breaks my heart that an album can only have 12 to 15 songs. Right now we've got just shy of 100 songs. For me -- and I'm probably making too big of a deal out of it -- I really want it to stand for something. There are songs that address environmental issues and the love of our planet and our homes and our families, and there are songs that address addiction and songs that address love and songs that address death. It's trying to figure out the right combination.
"My goal is to have it done by the end of August. The first couple of weeks of September I'm heading over to France."
Another complicating factor is that Mraz, 34, recently broke up with fiancée Tristan Prettyman, the singer/songwriter he dated for several years. "The last couple of months have been a hailstorm," he said, his voice becoming soft and flat.
That doesn't sound like someone who is usually cheerier than Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
"I'm only sunny in the world because I have darkness in my life and I use music and writing and performance and community as a means to bring my presence back to happiness," he said. "People told me when they listened to the last record, they just got happier. They hear the sunshine in it. That's really my goal."
It's epitomized by the 2008 hit "I'm Yours," an infectious reggae-tinged ditty that spent a record 76 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100. Why did it last so long?
"The answer is authenticity," he said. "When audiences hear this song, they dance a little different. They just let go. Every lyric in that song is practically an affirmation, like a little fortune cookie, if you will. When you sing along to a song like that, it just kind of transforms your moment. I'd certainly see that happen in the audience. People would shift their attention from me and start singing to their friends or to themselves."
"I'm Yours" also sounded different from everything else on the radio (it opened the way for Train's simple, sunny "Hey Soul Sister" and Michael Franti's "Say Hey"). It's spare with a familiar-sounding melody.
"I call that sacred geometry, which a lot of nursery rhymes have," he said. "Really easy-to-remember melodies and you can almost anticipate where the resolve is going to be. It might be predictable to some but it can be quite comforting."
Then Mraz stopped with the analyzing and wallowed in his current recording dilemma.
"I don't know, man," he said. "If I really knew what did it, I'd write a few more of those."