One of the year’s most endearing duets began when Amber Rubarth couldn’t shake Jason Mraz from her brain.
“I was writing this song called ‘Mirror,’ and for whatever reason, Jason’s voice was in my head the entire time,” she recalls. Surely that’s happened to more than one woman, but she’d once met Mraz through a mutual friend, so she made a rough recording of the tune and sent it with an explanation to the alt heartthrob.
“I thought it was done at that point, but he wrote back,” Rubarth says. “He said, ‘This is so weird.’”
It turns out Mraz was toying with a similar song idea, and the two put their heads together. Trading e-mails, he added a bridge to Rubarth’s lyric, and they came up with the gorgeous opening refrain — one word, “you.” With help from producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon) they completed the track at Mraz’s home studio in San Diego, in time to include it on her new album, A Common Case of Disappearing."
Weirder still, the Maryland home where Rubarth wrote “Mirror” belongs to John Alagía, producer of Mraz’s debut album. She learned after the fact that it was recorded in the same house.
“Freaked me out,” says Rubarth. “That’s probably how he got into my head.”
The collaboration led to a second song (triggered by King), which they played together at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles in October. On Thanksgiving Eve, Mraz invited Rubarth onstage at his sold-out Carnegie Hall show. Two spotlights melded into a glowing heart shrouding the pair as they sang “Rated Ours.” The song is a playful homage to movie love: Mraz sings, “It’s you who put the motion in my picture;” Rubarth coos, “You had me at hello” in response.
“It felt like we were in a movie when we were writing it,” Rubarth recalls.
A roaring Carnegie Hall crowd is just one scene in Rubarth’s own film, and it’s shaping into a blockbuster. She’s worked with Jason Reeves (“Bubbly”) and recently spent time in Texas writing songs with Dixie Chicks Emily Robison and Martie Maguire for the next Courtyard Hounds album.
Her songs leaven themes of love, longing and vulnerability with humor and street smarts. They’re delivered with an engaging voice best described by producer King, also one of the judges who chose Rubarth for the top prize in last year’s Mountain Stage NewSong competition: “When she sings, it makes you smile,” he says.
The California native admires L.A. songwriters like Randy Newman and Tom Waits — Rubarth names Mule Variations as a key influence. King produced the 1999 Waits album, and Rubarth was excited to record with him, an honor that came with the NewSong award.
“There are a lot of great producers whose stamp you recognize,” Rubarth says, “but I really prefer Jacquire’s production style … he really draws out who the artist is and the best way of representing them instead of putting his own thing on it.”
A Common Case of Disappearing contains nine tracks, including one of her earliest songs. Before going into music full-time, Rubarth was a chainsaw sculptor, and “Rough Cut” is written from the perspective of wood being shaped and defined by outside forces — which also reflects her growth as a musician.
“Michelangelo said, art is never finished, it’s just at some point you decide to stop,” Rubarth explains. “I love that idea … one of my favorite ways of seeing sculpture is when it is unfinished. Some important cuts are being made in my life — with Jacquire, Emily and Marty, Jason and Jason, all these people. It feels like I’m getting shaped and inspired in a lot of ways that I would not be able to do by myself.”
Other highlights on the record include “Nothing To See Here,” its percolating arrangement inspired by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the plaintive “How Did This Happen?” and “City Starts to Bloom,” a happy-go-lucky pop song written with Reeves.
Reeves and Rubarth met at the Monday song pull at the Room 5 Lounge in Los Angeles.
“He was the feature performer and both of us just sort of fell in love with each other’s songs and became friends,” she says. The two later played up and down the West Coast, traveling on Vespa motor scooters. “It’s the best tour I have ever been on … we camped out every night and drove on to the next show and it was ridiculously awesome. We started writing together then.”
Rubarth first attracted notice with Paper Raincoat, her duo with Alex Wong, a close friend and early collaborator with whom she shares a unique composing style. “We both have strong opinions,” Rubarth says. “Both of us will feel strongly about doing one thing a certain way, and it doesn’t match. So we have to battle it out, and I think that’s what makes it work.”
For now, Paper Raincoat is on hiatus as both focus on solo projects. Rubarth’s album came out in the fall, and the tireless social networker is giving it her full attention. She’s especially grateful that long-admired artists like King, Mraz and Reeves are now in her orbit.
“I feel lucky and inspired,” Rubarth says. “To be around these people is hugely inspiring, and it’s pushing me to really raise my bar and learn a lot.”