It was almost exactly five years ago that Jason Mraz last stepped on a Lexington stage.
At the time, the folk-pop songsmith was beginning to wind down after a year of touring that introduced his relentlessly sunny tunes by way of a hit debut album titled Waiting for My Rocket to Come.
The performance was offered as a freebie at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall for students during what is commonly called "dead week," the brief purgatory between the end of classes and beginning of finals. But the students cheered on the music that night as though summer was at hand. Judging by the bright vibes emanating from Mraz's music, the season already had begun.
On Sunday, Mraz returns to UK. He's a much bigger deal now with a wildly popular third album called We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things and an inescapable, tropically flavored radio hit in I'm Yours.
Needless to say, Mraz will be playing a vastly larger room this time, too. Instead of Memorial Hall, he is headed for a sold-out performance at Memorial Coliseum.
But the mood of the music will be the same. In a phone conversation last week from Melbourne, Australia — a region where We Sing conquered the charts as readily as it did in North America — the singer confessed he sings his songs the same way he lives his life: with a ton of sunshine.
"It's a reflection of my own demeanor because that's how I choose to live," Mraz said. "I practice gratitude for every little thing that I can. But it is a practice. It's a challenge. I'm human. So some days you do wake up with the blues and you've got to figure out how to fix that.
"It's through those life practices that I keep positive and upbeat. This is what has trickled into my music. If I discover something that helps me stay refreshed and loving, then I can't wait to put that into my music."
A break from touring
A Mechanicsville, Va., native of Czech descent, Mraz, 31, briefly studied musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York before moving to Southern California. After settling in San Diego, he began showcasing songs in local coffeehouses. Waiting for My Rocket to Come was released in 2002, with Mr. A-Z following in 2005. With those recordings came touring. Tons of it — so much, in fact, that Mraz disconnected for nearly a year from the road before making We Sing.
"I was basically on the verge of, well, boredom from having toured so much," he said. "I also wasn't sure what I was going to be writing about next. Tour life is great. But I feel I need real-life experience if I'm going to be making a new record. I didn't want to write like a songwriter who exists only in the music industry. So I took that break so I could go live my life somewhere, somehow.
"But I also went back to the coffeehouses I used to play in San Diego and began playing there again every Sunday night for that entire year off so I could still keep music in my life and keep the challenges as writer and performer present. The rest of the week I was writing, recording, surfing, working on my garden, raising my cat and enjoying everything I worked for."
Topping the charts
But before work began on We Sing, Mraz considered reworking a song he had issued in 2005 on the EP disc Extra Credit. As reflective of the sunny optimism that pervades his music as any tune Mraz had cut, it already had become a concert highlight. The song was an acoustic-based reverie called I'm Yours. During the course of a year — from February 2008 to February 2009 — it topped or nearly topped almost a dozen different music industry charts.
"For me, when I analyze it, I can hear myself letting go on that song," Mraz said. "The whole song happened in a spontaneous moment — probably in about 20 or 30 minutes. Then I recorded it quickly. I refer to still it as my happy little hippie song. So I said, 'This is nice. This will be fun to play live.' And that was it. I left it at that, and it just grew.
"What I was able to watch from the stage every night was that people would sing it to each other. That's when I knew it was much bigger than me. Wherever those words came from, the song resonates with a lot of people. It's not a song that you have to be a Jason Mraz fan to understand."