John Mayer: Restoring An Image, And An Instrument
John Mayer is one of the biggest-selling artists of the last decade — and with love interests like Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston, one of its most pursued by the media. In 2010, he gave a pair of interviews to Rolling Stone and Playboy that shocked readers with sexually aggressive and racially insensitive language. Mayer seemed to be self-destructing in full view of his fans.
The blowback was intense, and Mayer pulled way back from the spotlight, rejecting almost every interview request. But this spring, he's started to come out of his shell to promote his first album since the controversy: a tender, introspective collection called Born and Raised.
Mayer has been dealing with other problems in the meantime. Last year, he developed a nodule near his vocal cords called a granuloma. While not cancerous, it required surgery and a long recovery process — and several months ago, it returned. It's caused him to cancel his upcoming tour.
"I'm not in recovery now. I'm actually just in a holding pattern until I can get the wherewithal, the endurance, to go through a six-month period of extreme self-discipline," Mayer tells NPR's Guy Raz.
"There's no talking for the first month — and then, there's whispering. But really what this has to do with is diet, because acid reflux is as much a contributor as overuse is," Mayer says. "Basically if you made a list of all the things you enjoy eating or drinking, you can't do those things. Doctors have said, 'You just live like a monk.' "
Performing is clearly out for Mayer while his recovery is under way, but he says the condition might also threaten his writing process.
"The way that I wrote this record was by singing. I didn't sit down and compose this on a piece of paper; this was composed into a microphone, with a ProTools file that was four hours long," he says.
"What I have to do as an artist and as a person is to just sort of re-purpose this," Mayer adds. "There's not a ton of different colors I can paint with here, but I have to figure out a way to re-purpose this time so that it's not purgatory."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's time now for music and a man whose disastrous choice of words sent him underground for the past two years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING ON THE WORLD TO CHANGE")
JOHN MAYER: (Singing) We keep on waiting, waiting, waiting on the world to change.
RAZ: John Mayer was one of the biggest selling artists of the past decade. And with love interests like Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston, he was relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi. Then in 2010, he gave a pair of interviews to Rolling Stone and to Playboy that shocked readers with sexually aggressive and racially insensitive language.
John Mayer was self-destructing in full view of his fans. The blowback was intense, and Mayer pulled way back from the spotlight, rejecting almost every interview request. But John Mayer's starting to come out of his shell just a bit. He's promoting his first album since the controversy. It's a softer and more introspective collection called "Born and Raised."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN AND RAISED")
MAYER: (Singing) And all at once, it gets hard to take. It gets hard to fake when I won't be...
RAZ: John Mayer has dealt with other problems too. Last year, he developed a noncancerous nodule near his vocal chords called a granuloma. It required surgery and a grueling recovery process. A few months ago, the granuloma returned, and it's caused him to cancel his upcoming tour and start all over again.
MAYER: I'm not in recovery at the moment. I'm actually in a holding pattern until I can get the wherewithal, the discipline back again, the endurance to go through a six-month period of extreme self-discipline.
RAZ: Which means what? What, no talking or, I mean, talking (unintelligible).
MAYER: Well, yeah. Well, there's no talking for the first month, probably.
RAZ: Oh, wow.
MAYER: And then there's whispering. But, really, what this has to do with is diet. Basically, if you made a list of all the things that you enjoy eating or drinking, it's not a - you can't do those things.
RAZ: You should do your recovery in a Tibetan monastery.
MAYER: Right. It's that - I mean, doctors have said: You just live like a monk. Because I've done it once before, you know?
RAZ: Yeah, you've had this surgery before.
MAYER: We did the whole thing. And it's - you know, I say it's sort of like doing a cross-country trip from New York to L.A., getting to L.A. and realizing you forgot something in New York and getting back in the car and driving to go get it, you know? You may want to spend a couple of (unintelligible).
RAZ: I'm sorry to be laughing about this because it sounds miserable.
MAYER: No, it's - well, it's not - the problem is if I were to decide it were miserable, then my sentence would be being miserable for the next eighth months. So what I have to do as an artist and as a person - but I think I have the ability as an artist - is to just sort of repurpose this so that it's not purgatory.
RAZ: How does this sort of affect you when you, say - I mean, when you were recording this record, "Born and Raised," I mean, did you suspect anything while you were in the studio? Did you just sort of suddenly think: Something's wrong.
MAYER: Oh, yeah. No, I knew it was wrong because I'd gone to a doctor back in April and saw this thing on the scope. But I also, the way that I wrote this record was by singing. I didn't sit down and compose this on a piece of paper. This was composed, you know, into a microphone, you know, (unintelligible).
RAZ: You're saying that you didn't sit down and - with pen and pad and write the lyrics down?
MAYER: No. This record was all about like, it's sort of improv. And so I would, like, enter this kind of trance - I know it sounds a little bit highfalutin - but I would enter this sort of trance. And sometimes it'd be an hour, sometimes it'd be 90 minutes, and, you know - and for every song on this record, I remember the moment I went, oh, let's chase this, you know? And then you begin to sort of work on that one project.
One of the strongest ones I remember - one of the strongest memories I have of stumbling on something was playing the chords to "Shadow" - what would become the chorus to "Shadow Days" and singing, I'm a good man with a good heart, and going, oh, that's stirring (unintelligible). And then I remember thinking, well, if you're going to say that you're a good man with a good heart, you better explain why you think that. You better explain that honestly. So then, I went, OK. And I think what the verses have to be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHADOW DAYS")
MAYER: (Singing) Did you know that you could be wrong and swear you're right? Some people have been known to do it all their lives. But you find yourself alone just like you found yourself before. Like I found myself in pieces on the hotel floor. Hard times have helped me see. I'm a good man, with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start. But I finally learned to let it go...
So I think the record's conversational that way because it's not as much of a thought-out, me penning a song on a piece of paper. It's me talking into a microphone. It's expressing myself at that moment.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the singer and songwriter John Mayer. His new record is called "Born and Raised." I want to ask you about lyrics, because this is such an introspective record. I mean, it's hard not to hear the lyrics on some of these songs: Well, I ain't no troublemaker, and I never meant her harm or, you know, if I ever get around to living, when are you gonna wise up, boy?
It's hard not to hear...
RAZ: ...those lyrics and think, man, John Mayer, this is a confessional. This is a record about something that you have been through and you're going through and you're working through.
MAYER: Well, I had nowhere else to go, really, but to get more real, you know? I couldn't get any less genuine. And I don't know what it was. I think - I do know what it is now because I've spent so long breaking it down. Part of it was like this, like, seven-year itch in a relationship with doing what I do for a living. I must have gotten bored or something, I don't know. I mean, I...
RAZ: And so what did you do?
MAYER: Anything I wanted to, that's the problem. That's the problem. I did any- I think the salient problem was that I saw anything I wanted to do as a road worth taking, as if like I was this exception to every rule.
RAZ: Whether it was destructive or not.
RAZ: And I guess I should clarify for people who don't know what you're talking about, these interviews you did with Playboy and Rolling Stone a few years ago where you made some sexually explicit - I'm certainly not going to go into details. It's not worth it.
MAYER: Yeah. I mean, I can actually talk about it now from the vantage point of, like, being out of it. I mean, I remember what it felt like. I'll never forget what it felt like. But I don't embody the feeling that much anymore because I just autopsied it so long, you know? And so for me, I remember going, like, well, I really want to do comedy. Well, should I be able to do comedy? Probably not. Like, if I had just been a dude off the street saying I want to do standup comedy, I don't think I would have been led on the stage, or not on whatever stage I went on. I would have had to be in Radisson or something, you know?
And so for me - and it took me two years of breaking down, breaking down, breaking down what this all was to realize, here's an opportunity that Rolling Stone or Playboy or whatever outlet is giving me to talk about my music, and I'm using this outlet to bomb at the Radisson. So I never would have been on the cover of Rolling Stone if someone had seen me do eight minutes on stage. But I was so confused as to why people were interested in what I had to say, why even some people - not even all people. I got those lines to crossed, and so when it came time to do these interviews where I had nothing to say, but I didn't want to be boring.
I got in the worst trouble ever over and over again in my life from the time I was 4 till two years ago because I didn't want to be boring. And I remember thinking to myself, well, this is Rolling Stone. We got to give a Rolling Stone interview. And that's the miscalculation, because all - the only thing you have to do is be honest. But I wasn't prepared to be honest, but I knew that I had to be open. When you're like just open because you think you need to be but not honest, then you start, sort of, freeassociating garbage, you know what I mean?
RAZ: I mean, it sounds like, in a sort of a weird way, what happened with those experiences was probably really important for you, like a wake-up call, that you needed...
MAYER: Yeah, it was.
RAZ: ...and you needed that.
MAYER: It's something that happens to control freaks. When you're a - when you think you're a mastermind and you think that you can correct your way out of anything, you will eventually learn that you cannot just correct your way out of everything. When you forget that the only reason people want to know your name is because of the music that you make that sometimes they want to hear. Some people don't like my music. What I was doing was thinking, like, if they don't like me, then there must be something they're missing. I'm going to do something for this guy so he says actually, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha - turns out he's cool.
Well, the bottom line is you don't need to be interacting with that. But if you're a mastermind and a control freak, you say, I'm going to figure out a way to make that one guy say, he's not all that bad. And what ended up happening was I became so committed to the idea - which is not a reality - the idea of correction that I completely lost sight of what the original plan was, which is you make music for anybody who wants to hear it.
RAZ: It's becoming so much clearer where this record came from...
RAZ: ...because this record is about you making that break from that part of your life.
MAYER: And it's a very difficult break to make. And, you know, maybe that's my greatest achievement is coming so close to having the last brain cell that remembered what it was I was here for disappearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I EVER GET AROUND TO LIVING")
MAYER: (Singing) You are hiding in your mind, working all the time, trying to make it better than you got it. You been spending all your time, searching for a sign, that's never gonna look the way you want it. Think you better wise up, boy. Think you better wise up, boy.
Now, I think I - the thing I love the most about where I am is that, you know, a lot of people do come around to appreciating it, but it's not there anymore. You know, a lot of people do wake up and go: Wow. So when I was 23, I had a hit record and everybody knew my name. And it was cool to want to meet me at the party, and I just put a song out, and it would do really well. And, you know, that doesn't happen to every 23-year-old. You don't see it as how lucky you were. You see it as something that you just have a touch for. And then you realize, oh, I was lucky, you know? I had to go back and, like, recode everything in my brain. Wow, OK.
So I was lucky enough to figure that out and still have the opportunity to continue on in a pretty large scale. So I just take that as - like, the biggest gift in my life is that I don't need to do any bigger than I get to be from the records that I've made.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the singer and songwriter John Mayer. His new record is called "Born and Raised." It's interesting to hear you talk about what you've been through because the first track of this record is about a journey. The song's called "Queen of California."
MAYER: Yeah. Yeah.
And, I mean, obviously, it's a journey from East to West, but - it's a physical journey. But this record was a journey in so many other ways for you, and it kind of sort of sets the tone right at the start of that record with that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN OF CALIFORNIA")
MAYER: (Singing) Goodbye, cold. Goodbye, rain. Goodbye, sorrow and goodbye, shame. I'm headed out West with my headphones on, boarded a flight with a song in the back of my soul.
That was the mission statement for the record, sort of. I think "Queen of California" - you always sort of write a song somewhere in the writing process for an album that becomes the - like the den leader of the rest of the songs. The lyrics: heading out West with my headphones on, makes me so happy to sing it. As a writer, that's what you try and do, try and come up with one line that you could actually think about for, you know, four or five minutes and kind of get deep into it, you know?
There's a lot to it, you know? You don't head out West with your headphones on unless you're searching for something. It's actually about, you know, getting over stuff, just being able to have a hopeful vibe about something again, which I think is why it's the first track on the record, because it's the first - it's a very relieving sort of breath of fresh air.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN OF CALIFORNIA")
MAYER: (Singing) I just found out her ghost left town, the queen of California is stepping down, down, down.
RAZ: That's John Mayer. His new record is called "Born and Raised." John, thank you so much. Get well soon, please. And congratulations on this record.
MAYER: Thank you. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN OF CALIFORNIA")
RAZ: Now, you heard just a bit of what John Mayer had to say. It was a fascinating conversation. To hear a longer version, head to our website, nprmusic.org. And for Saturday, that is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. Join us tomorrow for an interview with Adam Lambert and an update from the NATO summit in Chicago. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.