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In It for the Long Haul
The John Mayer Interview
by Rex Rutkoski

     John Mayer says he is hoping for a long-term relationshipwith you.
     Sure, he may be one of 2002s breakout artists. His major label debut album, Room For Squares, went Platinum on the strength of such songs as "No Such Thing" and the sensual "Your Body Is A Wonderland."
     Yes, the singer-songwriter-blues guitarist netted a four-star review from %Rolling Stone% for the CD, praised as a "travelogue of discovery: of love, identity and purpose," with arrangements reminiscent of the deft pop of Elvis Costello and the Police. His sound, suggests Billboard, could be described as Dave Matthews Band meets David Gray.
     All thats nice, Mayer agrees, as he makes preparations for yet another concert. Its not that hes greedy, mind you. Its just that he wants to be in it for the long haul.
     "I think people right now, the age they are, being 21 and 22, really do want to find a group of bands they can take with them through life," he says. "They see too many bands come and go quickly. They want to get married and settle down with a band if they can."
     He says he would be honored if someone chose him to be one of those artists. "If I could be that band for anybody, that would be amazing. What an incredible life that would be if people not only bought my first record, but bought the idea of me for the rest of my life and kept buying it."
     People are willing to marry a band that speaks to them, he suggests. "I hope when people buy Room For Squares, and it should be called Room For Squares: The First Record, I hope they understand this is the first of a lot of records. Hopefully they bought a gateway to going through life with an artist, not just one CD. Its not, Please let me stay around so I can have a Platinum record each time. Its Please let me go though life with my extended buddies [the fans]."
     Mayer is off to a great start.
     He says he is not surprised at this moment the way he is being embraced. "My surprise came when Rolling Stone gave me four stars when the record first came out. I was surprised when anybody liked the record."
     The Connecticut native who now makes Atlanta his home sees himself as a pretty confident and objective guy. "I dont lie to myself. I like to call it as I see it," he says. "Im not as surprised in going from playing 1,000 seats to 4,000 seats as I was from 100 to 500 seats."
     He says once he realized that people actually did relate to what he was doing, he knew it was just a matter of more people being able to do that. People are pretty much the same, he reasons.
     "If you get half a million, at a certain stage you probably will get 4 million people, if they are able to hear it. The touring thing is unbelievable. It really is amazing from what we did the last tour even to what we are doing now."
     He says that he is growing more comfortable with it all. "Im getting to a point where everything is becoming streamlined in my life. Im learning how to stand onstage for two hours and play in front of thousands of people as if I am completely in the moment every moment."
     Thats new for him, he admits, to be able to let go and not worry about making mistakes onstage and just open up a lot. "The tour is running really smooth right now behind stage. Its designed to give me the energy to make playing that one show each day a real priority." He adds, through laughter, "I feel strikingly domestic. Were in our own world with two busses and trucks."
     Making it all possible is that his music is resonating for people. "I hope that what it comes down to at the end of the day is that people believe that I believe what Im singing. It comes down to being believable. You dont have to be likeable; generally, though, I think I am.
     "It is too easy to watch music coming out of peoples mouths lately and youre not quite sure if it was written with the best of intentions. Hopefully people can see my music is tethered to my brain."
     He wonders aloud if there is a lack of earnest music and troubadours today. "People want to see musicians sing things that come from their own mind and own heart in real time, responding to the moment for them."
     Thats what touring is for Mayer. "Im singing what I want to sing based on the emotion of what that day feels like. Thats what comes out of my mouth and guitar. That impacts people. They know anything can happen."
     He loves being surprised when he takes the stage. "What I enjoy about the live experience is getting onstage, being handed a guitar that is in tune, taking it off mute, knowing that the very moment I want to play a note, I can play it. People are waiting on me and Im waiting on me, and I have no idea what Im going to play. Thats the biggest joy in life."
     He believes he is good at avoiding cliches. Thats very hard to do, he agrees, and he acknowledges that he does not accomplish that all the time.
     "Im not being trite. Im not being a parody of myself, and in finding a new kind of color to adopt for myself, its not this or that: its singer-songwriter, but its also blues guitar player, its also comedian. I feel my shows are like a late-night talk show that we settle down and do every night."
     Its about responding to the previous night and the night before that, he explains. "I like giving people something they dont want to miss the next time. Its a show with little twists and turns and curves. It has me being silly and stupid and compassionate and completely deep. I can make the most tasteless reference at some point and then go into one of my most earnest songs of the repertoire."
     Mayer has demonstrated well that he has control of his words, a facility with the language of music. His describes his songs as emotionally autobiographical. "I dont think I could fake myself out and still be able to write well and true about it," he says. "I need some kind of emotional stake in it to write my lyrics, assuming that place. It might just be an emotion I understand but am not currently experiencing necessarily."
     Mayer says that writing music and having sex are the same thing. "You can create something out of nothing but will," he explains. "There are no other ingredients but the will to do it. In a time when everything can be next day and ordered and put on credit and paid for, music to me is promise, all promise, very little realization. Its the promise of walking into a room with a guitar and not being sure you will leave with an idea that will take, not being sure it wont slip away from you."
     For sure the %Room for Squares% CD didnt slip away from Mayer. He says he wanted to be as lean as possible in making the record, "trim the fat in every way." He continually asked himself, "Is the song good?"
     Melody took precedence. "Its unapologetically melodic. Its melody first. Its melody before cool, before hip. The CD is really kind of a songwriters project in being brief.
     "There are no extended jams on the record. The song is over before you know it because there is no dead weight. Its a concept album in being lean, kind of, and making songs that sound good and giving people the promise of what the next record will be like. It will be less lean and more experimental and take a few more chances."
     Thats the beauty of music, he implies, the beauty of possibilities. "Music is a mirror that is unlike any other mirror in your house. It shows you looking at yourself the way you want to be seen. It has the image of yourself as you would really want to be: emotionally and stylistically. It is the image of yourself that you wish you were and might actually be."
     John Mayer knows he is not there yet.
     "Success is when you reach cruising altitude and the seat belt lights come off," he says. "They havent come off yet. We are still in our ascent."

~*~*~Interview with StarPolish~*~*~

STARPOLISH: So, let's start with the most important question: How's the sock drive coming? (laughs)

MAYER: The sock drive is great [Note: On a recent tour, Mayer lamented that he was running short of socks and fans have responded]. It's actually been a smashing success, and it's actually been sort of called off because I have so many socks.

STARPOLISH: You could sell them on eBay, you know - "John Mayer socks."

MAYER: I don't think I'd get a damn thing on eBay.

STARPOLISH: OK. You've been compared to people such as Sting, Dave Matthews and Jakob Dylan. How has it been being compared to such well-known, established artists? Do you find these comparisons helpful, or do you find that they limit your options?

MAYER: I don't think it's ever limited my options. I was scared of that in the past, when I was in the fetal stages of finding out what my thing was musically. The fear was, what if I was a viable artist, but it wouldn't mean anything if people couldn't get past the certain tag? But I think that even I, when I go to shows compare People have to do that -- it's human nature. And I think that as relatively known as I am now, I'm a lot more confident in what really inspires me. Like Dave Matthews -- I'm absolutely inspired by Dave Matthews, [but] I never would have admitted that three or four years ago. My fear was I would've been stuck. But now I'm more confident with it.

STARPOLISH: Who are your musical influences, directly? Like when you started, was there a performer or style you based [yourself] on exclusively?

MAYER: The first song I ever played was "More than Words," by Extreme. When I first started playing, I played whatever was on the radio or on TV. Then I discovered Stevie Ray Vaughn, the blues, the roots. From that point on I wanted to be a guitar player, I wanted to stand on the edge of a stage and just play guitar all day.

STARPOLISH: It seems like you have a very active website. How important has the Internet been to your career?

MAYER: Not very important -- just kidding! (laughs) It's been integral to all this stuff. I'm in the van that I'm in right now because of the Internet. I get tons of emails every day saying, "Hey my friend told me to check you out on Napster." That obviously used to be more the case when Napster was actually cool, when you didn't have to search under "ohnjay ayermay" for my songs. Yeah, Napster is the mix tape of the late '90s. It used to be, "Hey, my friend sent me a mix tape with your song on it," and it was a handwritten letter -- or I assume it was. I'm illiterate so I don't really know what it's like (laughs). But now it's an email thing -- Napster and MP3.com have been the substitute of actually having records out. It's the synthesized record release schedule. And I don't really know why I am one of the five or six people who have really benefited from the Internet. In the circle of music I play in, I think its one of those rare things. I think it's stupid - it's just one of those rare things. Like me and Howie Day, and Dispatch, and OAR I don't know why I happened to get stuck with those people. There are plenty of people who start posts for other artists -- check out Abe Rosen or Carl Schmidt -- but what are the variables, whether Carl Rosen gets downloaded? I appreciate it; I just can't tell you what the equation is for that.

STARPOLISH: Before you signed with Aware/Columbia records, you self-released Inside Wants Out. There has been a lot of discussion about the differences between signing with an indie label versus a major label -- is there a trade-off?

MAYER: Yes, there are trade-offs, but I think you trade up. I feel like I am with a great group of people who allow me to make good decisions. I have never felt that I have compromised anything I didn't want to compromise. The misconception is that when you sign [with] a label, all your friends tell you not to compromise. Well, if you don't compromise you aren't going to get anywhere; you're going to be on your ass with all your self-rightiousness intact, saying, "I didn't compromise -- but you didn't do anything, either. The wording should really be, "Don't compromise anything you don't want to." And so there has been compromise, but there is a really nice trust with everybody. So if my manger says, "John, I think we should do this," and I say, "OK, I trust you," then later on we can play off that memory of my trust. And then later if I say I don't feel right about it, then there is more of a value, because there is trust. And that is something that I don't think exists in all major label info structure.

Now with Inside Wants Out, it was completely independent. I don't know if you knew that I painted each one of those CD covers by hand -- just kidding (laughs). But there wasn't a bar code on it, and it wasn't about SoundScan; there was no boutique label name I put on the outside of the record. I just meant to make that record as sort of a demo - well, between a demo and record -- for people, that [they] could take it home with them so the next time they could identify with what I was playing. Just to hear people say "Do you got a CD? I got $20 if you got a CD" makes you want to have a CD. So it just kind of took on a life of it own. And I never expected it to sit in people's CD players, but it does, and it's been great for me.

There is a little bit of a trade-off to starting off acoustic, because I've always wanted to be in a band. Which is what Room for Squares is. It's been a double-edged sword, because on one hand [Inside Wants Out] got people into my music when all I could do was play acoustic, [but] on the other hand, it's kind of difficult for people to think of those versions then, as anything other than the definitive album versions. When people talk about the comparison between "No Such Thing" from both records, people think that the Inside Wants Out version is the version; the Room For Squares version screwed it all up. Well, the way I see it, the Inside Wants Out was sort of the side project to Room For Squares, it was the prequel. "No Such Thing" on Inside Wants Out was like young Anakin -- you know what I'm saying? The cute little kid before he grew up into the shriveled old white man that is...(laughing)

STARPOLISH: So you're saying you've become the shriveled old white man?
I hate to see people who never give themselves the opportunity to play their own songs because they are scared.

MAYER: Yes, please print that: Room For Squares, living with the Shriveled Old White Coot. Let me look at you in my own eyes

STARPOLISH: I have heard you say in past interviews that you don't like it when people play covers if they have their own songs to play. When you were first starting out did you find that you had to resort to covers to create a fan base?

MAYER: Yes and no -- I'm always doing covers. I think what I meant to say in the other interviews is that I hate to see people who never give themselves the opportunity to play their own songs because they are scared. It's not meant to say that I hate to see people play covers -- I just hate to see people who could one day develop into [a performer] who someone else would cover never take that chance because they are scared. There is sort of a relative glory about playing songs that people can dance to; it's just kind of a weird thing, and a choice. If someone wants to be in a cover band, more power to you. I just hate to see people miss their opportunities.

STARPOLISH: You have been headlining a lot of shows lately, which is great, but I know that soon you will be opening for larger acts, such as the Wallflowers. How has this transition been for you? Is it tough to trim your set list so you can still put on a killer show in just 30 minutes? And is it hard to go from a room full of devoted fans to playing for a crowd that may not be as familiar with your music?

MAYER: It's great -- playing a 30-minute set and playing in front of new people are both wonderful things. It's nice for me to have a short set every once in a while so I can get that kind of encapsulated feeling on stage. I have a very short attention span, and I promise you there isn't a place in this world other than a stage that I could stand for an hour and a half and not go anywhere else. So to do that for 45 minutes or a half-hour and not feel the need to go anywhere else, it makes for a really fun stage experience, and it changes -- in a good way -- my perception of being on stage. It's sort of like a cleanser. It's a very good experience to put on my belt, because being on stage has a memory of the last five times you are on stage. To sort of improve that memory by being on stage for a short time, and having it be a great great time, is good for getting up the next time.

In terms of playing in front of people who have never heard you before, the only way I can describe it is have you ever seen a movie you have seen before -- and I know I am asking you if you have seen a movie that you have seen before, bear with me - and you have seen it like 15 times, and you giggle at all the parts that are funny, but you don't laugh as hard as you did the first time around? But then you see this movie with someone who has never seen it before, and you laugh harder because they are laughing, and you look over at them and anticipate that this is a part that they might think is funny? It's more fun for a room full of people who have never heard it, because I know that every line I am singing is new to them, and that makes it kind of new to me in a way.

STARPOLISH: How have the bands that you have been opening for treated you? Do you enjoy it more than going solo?

MAYER: It's just different. I love the variety of it. There have been bands that have been really cool to me, and some that have been nice to me. No one has ever been an asshole to me. I mean the thing is, bands have a choice how they want to be to other people. There is an art to everything in music -- who do you want to be? Who did you look up to when you were a kid? It's really nice, and a luxury and a blessing, to be in a course of a month both the headliner and the opener. Because you can be on the shit end of a stick, realize what you would never do to someone else, then fulfill that a week later. I know how to make Howie [Day, who recently opened on several gigs] feel good. I know how to make him feel welcome, because he is. But I know how other people have made me feel -- either welcome or unwelcome. I just want to be a nice guy.

STARPOLISH: What advice might you have for some aspiring artists out there, given that fact that you became successful very rapidly? You got signed to a label much faster than most, and you blew up.
I think there is no right way to do it, and there are so many variables that go into being successful

MAYER: Yeah, I blew up -- isn't it stupid? It's all bling bling. No, you know, one thing I want you to print is that when someone becomes successful, they get a little too caught up in thinking that they had more to do with it then they actually did. I don't have as much advice as people think I have, only because --well, of course I'm going to have some advice because I am moderately successful, so of course I'm going to think that everything I did was right -- but really, I think there is no right way to do it, and there are so many variables that go into being successful, that I don't ever want to feel like I have the formula down. Because there is no formula, and who knows, if any of this had happened on a different day, I could have totally fucked it all up. I don't want to come out of the box being like, "Here's how you do it." There are things I think along the ways that have helped me -- first of all cocaine, it really keeps you awake at night and makes you much more creative - no, I'm just kidding (laughs).

The best advice I can give is to be self reliant on your own musical world - [your] musical world being that if you have eight or 12 songs you play on stage, to not rely on anyone else to tell you that's where you are, or that's what you do. To be a musician before anyone pays you for it. To be smart about it, to really be your own guide in all of it, and to just sort of create your own world before you let anyone else do it for you. And realize that you can do anything you want to do. Nothing binds you to anything except yourself, unless you're in jail -- and that would be a horrible, horrible experience, because they don't have studios in jail. You would end up recording somehow with a toothbrush, razorblade, shank(laughs). I see a lot of people with talent sit, because they are scared. As long as you are alive you can screw up 150 times and still pick yourself up, if you are smart about it and if you don't go so deep that you just start hurting yourself. Also, you have to be kind of insane to you have to print that: "John Mayer says you have to be kind of insane." Because there is a certain kind of insanity at a line of people standing outside a door saying, "Don't go in there, it's really not gonna work, just don't walk in this door," and then being able to do it. You just have to be ready to jump. You just have to be ready to go broke for a while; you can't be scared of the bottom. I think that's really it -- how deep the bottom is, relative to how much you take care of yourself. We can capitalize on anything - we're Americans, that's what we do. If you're broke, figure out what you can do. Put something up on MP3.com -- realize that you are as self-sufficient as you want to be.

STARPOLISH: What musicians are you currently into right now? What's playing in your car, since you are currently traveling all over?

MAYER: Most recently I'm listening to the new Rufus Wainwright CD; he is very theatrical, very gay. I like David Mead. I'm sort of getting into more unknown obscure artists, such as Pete Yorn, although he isn't that obscure Martin Sexton. Scotty [Crowe, tour manager] is getting me into Ben Harper. The women think he is a fly guy. That's about it right now. I'm totally excited for the new Ben Folds record.

STARPOLISH: A lot of your fans are drawn to you specifically because of your songwriting talents. You write very honest and beautiful lyrics. What goes into your songwriting process?

MAYER: This is a very easy question to answer because it is always the same. It starts with guitar. I play guitar, and I imagine the song is done -- it's complete fantasy role-play; I just start playing it like it's done. It's got to be fun for me, because if anything seems like work, I quit. "Are you coming in for work today, Mr. Mayer?" "No, I quit." (laughs) So when the song actually starts to happen, I have everything done. There are two sides to what I do -- lyrics, and everything else. First I do the everything else, and the songs are done before there are lyrics. But the lyrics have to be totally the same as the music -- what I think makes [for] really strong, memorable songs is when the lyrics say the same thing the music is saying. So everything is done but the lyrics, and I have tons of songs that I hope someday will be done when I can find lyrics for them. It's just a matter of not being afraid to say things that other people won't understand. Because I have come to realize that there are lines that I have written, when I wonder if anyone will get what I'm saying. When I was writing "City Love," a song on Room For Squares: [he sings] "dinnertime shadowing" I was like, "What is 'dinnertime shadowing?'" Is anyone going to understand what I'm saying? But in those two words there is a hell of a lot more than I could ever have said in more words. I'm really into describing situations based on small details. I'm not into "It was a cold rainy night"

STARPOLISH: You seem to have a great chemistry with your audience -- was it always so easy for you to interact with a crowd? Or is this something that constantly touring has made easier for you?

MAYER: I have no stage presence, so I capitalize on my awkwardness, and I think that the audience appreciates that, that there isn't someone getting up on stage, and rehashing the whole "Hello, New York, how do you feel, give it up, yeah yeah!" thing. I think it would be weird if I wasn't real, and I'm glad I never tried to be anything but me. I'll come out and break some strings, I'll screw a lyric up, and the thing about stopping if you mess up is if you can do it in the right way, if you can do it without making anyone feel embarrassed for you, than you can still walk out of the show as a success. Being on stage, my emotions are such an important part of how everyone else feels. My emotions and demeanor express to the crowd how they should feel. If I break a string and I laugh about it, people are going to laugh -- there is a way to play it off. But if I seem flustered, and seem like I really messed things up, people are going to sort of gnash their teeth together and be like, "Ugh, this is weird." A room full of people is a room full of energy that can very easily be swayed; you can instantly make a crowd feel funny. So I think that the response from people to my songs and my shows gives me more confidence to be even more honest the next time around. Like I have a song called "John's Tiny Penis." It's a confessional, it's about a minute to the inch - it's two minutes long (laughs). Why do you think I write songs called "Your Body is a Wonderland?"

STARPOLISH: Are you looking to collaborate with any artists in the future?

MAYER: Absolutely! If you had asked me what the future might hold for me, it would be to do collaborations. I would like to first and foremost write and record a record with Charlie Hunter - he's a great jazz instrumental guitar player. I just flipped out when I read that he wants to do a record with a vocalist. I would love to do a hip-hop record, to play on The Roots, or D'Angelo. Oh, god, I would love to play guitar with Outkast. I would love to collaborate with Ben Folds. I have a few fantasy duets. Bonnie Raitt, actually, is my only real fantasy duet. And I would love to do a six-song EP with Sarah McLachlan -- just the guitar, piano and our voices .... and our child, haha (laughs). I definitely thrive on collaboration, or the thought of what the next thing might be.
   

 
 

~**~Straight From John~**~