Nancy Miller
July 29, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The lanky guy sporting black-rimmed glasses, a wool sweater, and an overstuffed backpack doesn’t look like the doe-eyed heartthrob whose 2003 hit ”The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” made teenage girls everywhere hopelessly lovesick. Nope, this Jason Mraz looks more like a Revenge of the Nerds refugee as he slides into a cozy booth at a West Hollywood café, thumping his dog-eared dictionary onto the table. ”These help you to concentrate,” he says, holding up a plastic baggy full of brain-enhancing vitamins. ”Want some?”

Hell, yeah. When you’re facing off with pop music’s biggest word freak in a Scrabble scrimmage, you need all the help you can get. The title of his long-awaited second studio album, after all, is MR. A-Z, and its first single is ”Wordplay.” ”Just warning you, I like to invent my own words,” says the 28-year-old singer-songwriter. ”My girlfriend and I recently came up with dillions. It’s the one after gazillions.” That kind of verbal playfulness and his folk-pop sound are what drew millions to his quick-witted platinum debut, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, and garnered instant comparisons to Dave Matthews, Bob Dylan, and John Mayer. ”I’m more John Mayer-meets-Eminem,” he jokes. ”No, I’m more Color Me Badd.”

All kidding and self-deprecation aside, Mraz’s post-Rocket ride was a bumpy one. ”I was on the road and didn’t write at all for almost a year,” he recalls. ”I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if I never write again? What if I’ve lost it?”’ But he reclaimed his early open-mic-night mojo nine months later, in early 2004, by ”just sitting in a room with old friends and playing the goofiest songs we could.” After another half a year, he went into the studio with Überproducer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Rolling Stones) and turned those slaphappy tunes into an album of catchy, highly caffeinated jams destined for radio and MTV (a 20-plus-date tour kicks off in September). ”I’m more comfortable with someone calling me a recording artist now,” says Mraz, surveying the still-blank board — a casualty of some intense conversation. ”This album feels like a stepping-stone to something great — I’m already thinking about what’s next.” That’s easy enough to spell: S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Score 11 points for EW.

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