Like many aspiring performers, Jason Mraz graduated from high school and moved to New York to study musical theatre. But, just a year later, he realized he wanted to follow a different path.
"I knew I wanted to drop out of school and pursue original music," Mraz told host Ophira Eisenberg, "so I needed to find somebody who agreed with me."
He found affirmation from a palm reader he met in Central Park. "He kinda went into, like, this trance, and he called me 'youth,' which I loved," Mraz remembered. "He said, 'Youth, you need to avoid the questioner and just go with what you know.'"
That was all he needed; Mraz dropped out of school and made his way to San Diego, California, where he built a successful career as a singer-songwriter with hits including "The Remedy" and "I'm Yours."
Decades later, Mraz has returned to New York—and his original Broadway dreams—to star in Waitress, a musical written by his friend, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles.
"I was just lucky enough to sing the duets on her concept album of this music that she wrote," he said, "and then two years later she called and asked me if I'd want to be in the show."
Mraz plays Dr. Jim Pomatter, an OB-GYN who falls in love with a pie baker. Though he didn't hesitate to take the part when Bareilles asked, Mraz admitted he did feel some slight trepidation before stepping into the role. "I never finished college," he said, "how could I be a doctor?"
Mraz has spent much of his life in recording studios and touring the world. With one album left on his recording contract, he's looking forward to a more peaceful, productive existence. "I want to get out of the competition that pop music can be sometimes," he said. "I want to finish that up and continue to be a performer and a writer, but just do it on my own time."
As part of his semi-retirement plan, he also wanted to live in a more secluded environment. "I decided when I could eventually buy a house I wanted to live out in the country so I could just be as loud and as weird as I wanted to be," he said. The California property he purchased happened to be an avocado farm, and Mraz has since become an avid avocado farmer.
In honor of his newfound passion for avocado farming, we challenged Mraz to a quiz about his favorite fruit (or is it a vegetable?) called "Avoca-Don't You Know."
On becoming an avocado farmer
It's become hopefully something I'll grow into and become an old-man-farmer doing. Was that a real sentence?
On his positive attitude
We have a choice. All of life is a big ol' story. What story do you want to tell yourself?
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Greg Pliska. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's a two-time Grammy Award-winning musician and currently starring on Broadway in the musical "Waitress." Please welcome Jason Mraz.
JASON MRAZ: Hi.
EISENBERG: Welcome, Jason.
MRAZ: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. Jason, before we all knew you as a multi-platinum artist with hits like "The Remedy" and "I'm Yours," you came to New York City to study music.
EISENBERG: And then you decided to leave New York City...
EISENBERG: ...Based on a reading a palm reader...
EISENBERG: ...Gave you in Central Park.
MRAZ: Well, I saw him making the rounds in Sheep's Meadow...
MRAZ: ...Where I was playing guitar and hanging out with friends. And I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to drop out of school and pursue original music.
MRAZ: But anyone I talked to did not agree with that. So I needed to find somebody...
MRAZ: ...Who agreed with me. And so I saw this guy. He's reading people's palms. So I gave him my palm. And he says - oh, Youth - and he kind of went into, like, this trance. And he called me Youth, which I loved. He said, Youth...
MRAZ: ...You need to avoid the questioner and just go with what you know. So I stopped questioning, should I drop out of school?
MRAZ: And I went with what I knew, which is I knew I needed to do this other path, which was write my own content because as a performer, you just need material.
MRAZ: And in musical theater, I was going to have to audition for that material.
EISENBERG: That's right.
MRAZ: But as a composer, I could just create the material. So it was a lot easier.
EISENBERG: Yeah. So you leave New York. And then you make your way, eventually, to San Diego.
EISENBERG: And then you came up in the San Diego coffee shop scene...
MRAZ: Shop scene - yeah.
EISENBERG: ...Which I don't - I mean, that sounds to me delightful. But you...
MRAZ: It is.
EISENBERG: Set the - like, give me what that was like.
MRAZ: I mean, that goes all the way back to, like, Jim Croce - maybe even before him...
MRAZ: ...You know. But in the '90s, a woman named Jewel was there. And so I got there at the tail end of the '90s, and there was still an audience in the seats waiting for who's next essentially. So I could go to these coffee shops and watch great songwriters. And I just found a home there. It wasn't like bars or clubs. It was all ages, people sitting, drinking warm beverage, listening to singer-songwriters.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I mean...
MRAZ: It was...
EISENBERG: And this is before...
EISENBERG: ...You had to, like, promote yourself on Instagram or whatever.
MRAZ: Yeah. We did have the Internet.
MRAZ: But it was very basic. I mean, you had to hook it up to a phone line, but it worked. And I did have to hand out flyers. So it did require real legwork. Eventually, the Internet came and helped us.
EISENBERG: It helped everyone.
EISENBERG: Your songs and your public persona have always been about happiness and good vibes. So are you really that happy, like, right now in your soul?
MRAZ: I am. I am. I mean, we have a choice. All of life is a big, old story. What story do you want to tell yourself?
EISENBERG: But does this happiness ever feel like a burden?
EISENBERG: Here's what I mean. Like, people come up to you, and they expect you to be happy, you know. And so then you feel like, you know - what? - I'm never allowed to have a rough day? I'm never allowed to be like, no, I don't want to take a picture with a fan? I just want a coffee. Or...
MRAZ: Yeah, kind of. I mean, I learned early on that if I - let's say - dis a fan or if I'm not in a good mood when I meet someone, they could be as proactive against me as they are supporting me.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's true.
MRAZ: You know, they could be, like, I love that guy. I love the guy. But they meet me on a bad day, and they're like - you know what? - I hate that guy. I hate that guy. And the rest of their life, they tell everybody I'm a jerk. So I had to make a choice. Like, when I meet people, just - my wife even reminds me. She says, say to yourself - oh, what fun.
MRAZ: And then it just happens. In your head, you're like - oh, what fun. Yes, we're here. We're talking, and now we're taking a picture.
EISENBERG: Best - the best.
MRAZ: Yeah, I have to be of service.
EISENBERG: So now you star in the Broadway musical "Waitress," which is based on...
MRAZ: Yes, "Waitress" fans. It's a great show. It is a great show.
EISENBERG: So the musical "Waitress" is based on a movie. Keri Russell starred in this movie about a gifted, pie-baking waitress who falls in love with her gynecologist. You play the gynecologist.
EISENBERG: You actually had a connection to the music of this piece, as Sara Bareilles is the singer-songwriter who wrote the lyrics. A few years ago, she...
MRAZ: Right. I was her gynecologist.
EISENBERG: And she said, could you write a song? And you were like, you know, it's funny you ask.
MRAZ: No, I was not her gynecologist. I was just lucky enough to sing the duets on her concept album of this music that she wrote...
MRAZ: ...As the doctor character. So that was two years ago. I thought, wow. And then I got to watch the show grow, and it was - became a huge success. And then two years later, she called and asked me if I'd want to be in the show.
EISENBERG: Now, at the time when you sang the duets, were you thinking - God, I'd love to hop on stage?
MRAZ: I did not think that. I'd never thought that would happen. I felt like maybe I was too young or too naive. I never finished college. How could I be a doctor...
MRAZ: ...Onstage? It'll never pass, you know. So I didn't even think.
EISENBERG: So how did she rope you into it?
MRAZ: She just asked.
EISENBERG: That's it?
MRAZ: Yeah, no rope required.
EISENBERG: And you said absolutely.
EISENBERG: Now, your wife, Christina, is a excellent pie baker, I have read.
EISENBERG: So did this help you get into the headspace of what it was like to fall in love with a pie baker?
MRAZ: It's - perfectly. Because as I was learning the character, he basically stumbles upon this waitress, who - she looks familiar to him, and he's disarmed by her. And his professionalism - he puts that aside to learn more about this person. And that's exactly who my wife was - she is. She ran a breakfast and lunch place. She was the baker there and the head barista, and she knew everybody's names. And so when she gave you five minutes of her time, you just felt so special at this restaurant. I had to go there for the free Wi-Fi...
MRAZ: ...More often than necessary...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right.
MRAZ: ...To get to know her better and eventually ask her out. So yeah, she's my Jenna Hunterson.
EISENBERG: So in 2014, you mentioned in an interview that you had one album left in a contract and as soon as you finished that, you were going to maybe retire.
EISENBERG: How's that working out?
MRAZ: Pretty good.
EISENBERG: Is this your retirement?
MRAZ: No, but this is like a Broadway retreat...
MRAZ: ...En route to that. And I think retirement for me was, I want to get out of the competition that pop music can be sometimes. So I said, wow, this has really become a job. So I want to finish that up and continue to be a performer and a writer but just do it on my own time.
EISENBERG: ...Whenever you want to create.
MRAZ: And without so much expectation as well.
EISENBERG: Sure. Maybe open a coffee shop?
MRAZ: Well, we planted coffee on our farm two years ago.
EISENBERG: How's it going?
MRAZ: It's going great. So California coffee is on the way, you guys.
EISENBERG: Mm, Mraz Coffee.
EISENBERG: I like it.
MRAZ: You like that?
EISENBERG: I like - that's a good - Jason Java? I'm working on your coffees...
EISENBERG: This is good.
EISENBERG: But this is a good segue into...
EISENBERG: ...Your challenge. Are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: Jason Mraz, everybody.
EISENBERG: So you just mentioned that you grow coffee. But on the Mraz family farm, you grow avocados. You're a successful avocado farmer.
MRAZ: Yes, yes.
EISENBERG: So how did you get into avocados?
MRAZ: So for many, many years, I lived in an apartment. And it's challenging to write a song when you can hear your neighbor watching TV, so they can hear you writing a song. And so it would drive me crazy. So I decided, when I could eventually buy a house, I wanted to live out in the country so I could just be as loud and as weird as I wanted to be. I moved out in the country. And lo and behold, it was an agricultural area. So I basically bought an avocado orchard without really knowing it.
MRAZ: I mean, I knew it. But I didn't know that I would fall in love with it. And before you know it, now, we went from a monocrop of Hass avocado to now having over 40 different varieties of fruits. It's become, hopefully, something I'll grow into and become an old man farmer doing. Was that a...
EISENBERG: Wow. That was - no...
MRAZ: ...Real sentence?
EISENBERG: ...That was fantastic.
MRAZ: Growing, farming, doing.
EISENBERG: So your quiz is called Avoca-don't You Know (ph)?
MRAZ: I bet I do.
EISENBERG: If you do well enough, Becket Duncan (ph) from Springfield, Mo., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
MRAZ: Whew - oh, my gosh.
EISENBERG: And if you need a hint, our puzzle Greg Pliska is standing by. So here you go. Is an avocado a fruit or a vegetable?
MRAZ: I'm going to say it is a fruit. It is more related to the berry.
EISENBERG: Yes and yes. Bonus points for the yes and the yes.
EISENBERG: All right. Fill in the blank. In some parts of the world, avocados are known as blank pears.
MRAZ: Alligator pears.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
EISENBERG: And they're always planted in pairs, avocados. Is that right?
MRAZ: Yes, for pollination.
EISENBERG: They are a...
MRAZ: Oh, in pairs - yeah, in pairs.
EISENBERG: In pairs.
EISENBERG: All right, we have a couple more for you. The Hass avocado tree is named for Rudolph Hass, who supposedly grew the first variety of it at his home in Pasadena. What was Rudolph Hass' main job?
MRAZ: Whew, I do not know. Can I ask the puzzle guru?
GREG PLISKA: I can give you a hint. Yes, his job involved delivering things to people.
MRAZ: I'm going to say he was a mailman.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
MRAZ: I vaguely remember that. And my dad was a mailman.
EISENBERG: But he did not do any avocado farming.
EISENBERG: No farm?
MRAZ: ...Our trees died in our yard growing up, yeah. We had apple trees, but they died.
MRAZ: My dad was busy delivering the mail, I guess.
EISENBERG: That's right. He had a job.
EISENBERG: This is your last clue. According to the Hass Avocado Board, in 2016, Americans were expected to eat 278 million avocados during the week of what major televised event?
MRAZ: That would be the Super Bowl.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. Yep.
MRAZ: Guac (ph) 'n' roll.
EISENBERG: Do you have a recipe that you covet?
MRAZ: I do. And it's the more famously known chocomole (ph). And that would be guacamole that has been converted to a chocolate pudding.
MRAZ: Yes. So imagine you're mushing up your ripe avocado. It turns into a very pudding texture. But the avocado has a very neutral flavor, so whichever way you go flavorwise, that flavor will be the dominant flavor. So sweeten to your liking with, say, agave nectar or dates, add in raw cacao, and the whole thing turns into a rich, delicious, chocolatey pudding to delight all your dinner guests. They will not know that they are eating avocados.
EISENBERG: Oh, good tip. Yes.
EISENBERG: Well done.
EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Greg Pliska, how did our special guest Jason Mraz do?
PLISKA: Jason, you got them all right.
PLISKA: So you and Becket Duncan have won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
MRAZ: All right.
(APPLAUSE AND SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: Jason Mraz is starring on Broadway in "Waitress." Give it up for Jason Mraz.
MRAZ: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.