“When I first finished the record, I thought, ‘I can’t talk about this. It’s like fishing through your own poop,’” says John Mayer, fresh from sound check prior to an outdoor concert in Irvine, Calif. He’s draped his lanky 6-foot-4 frame over the built-in settee in his tour bus, which is parked beside the stage. “But I’ve had a little time to think about what the record is and what it does. Bottom line, I think it speaks for itself.”
Is Mayer saying he doesn’t want to talk about his second album, Heavier Things? Get serious. If there’s anything this heady artist enjoys as much as making music, it’s talking about making music. And so it begins: “Room for Squares was written in a petri dish,” says the loquacious 25-year-old, employing the requisite metaphorical icebreaker. “I hadn’t toured, so it was all very theoretical in nature. By the time I got to the recording, I had some tips as to which kids were going to grow up to be the famous ones. This time out, I don’t know that. I just know which ones mean the most to me — and all of them do. It’s going to be interesting to put it out there and see what people think about it.”
Thus far people seem to think it’s fine indeed. That includes not just the first concentric circle of Mayer’s fan base — the 300,000-plus who grabbed the album in its first week on sale — but also a number of big-time critics, many of whom had previously seen the breakthrough artist as some post-teenpop commercial aberration, rather than an emerging artist of depth. In perhaps the most perceptive take on Mayer’s work, Rolling Stone’s James Hunter — who told me his previous exposure had been limited to Room’s radio songs — praises Heavier Things’ “emphasis on interior life,” the newfound subtlety on display, and the “pure radio bliss” of first single “Bigger Than My Body.” He also notes Mayer’s “aversion to phoniness” and the “deceptively untroubled universe” this man/boy inhabits.
Mayer, of course, has his own take. “This record is absolutely a gut thing,” he offers. “There are song titles I wish were cooler, and the album title could have been cooler, but there’s something incredibly equitable about the way the record feels to me. There’s nothing forced; it falls where it falls. It’s like taking your hands off the wheel and letting it go where it wants to go for another 10 songs.”
The record, Mayer explains, wanted to go from the Berklee-grounded cerebral approach he’d employed on Room for Squares to a less scholastic, more intuitive destination: “There are melodic and harmonic movements on Heavier Things that are just a bit more [deliberately] paced, because I realized that I can be emotional that way.”
For this crucial album project, Mayer once again chose to put his trust in producer Jack Joseph Puig, the studio wizard whose work on cult-classic Jellyfish albums put him on the map; he’s now one of the industry’s busiest mixers. “When Jack mixed the first record, I realized that he understood what I want to do next,” says Mayer, explaining his rationale. “We kept in touch, and it was like asking your friend to help you out, except your friend is one of the greatest engineers and producers and mixers in the world.”
The collaboration resulted in a record that displays the meticulousness of Steely Dan (“Only Heart”), the deep-grooved sultriness of The Police (“Bigger Than My Body”), the plaintiveness of Nick Drake (“Wheel”), and something all his own (the gorgeous “Split Screen Sadness,” the new album’s “Why Georgia”). The two principals, each accustomed to being in control, pushed each other past what Mayer has described as the “comfort zone of past achievements.”
When Puig made a judgment call, Mayer listened, pondered and, more often than not, agreed. “I can’t tell you how many times I listened back to a rough mix and went, ‘Do you want me to do this again?’ And Jack goes, ‘No, it’s great.’ And I’d listen back and I’m like, ‘Well, come to think of it, there’s nothing else I could do better.’ I would be doing it again simply to fulfill this assumed requirement for difficulty, you know?”
In recent months, Mayer’s fed off a new source of inspiration: Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head (which has kept Room company on the charts for well over a year). “When I started to get down to the music that really moved me,” he explains, “I realized that it wasn’t about putting your pinky on your lip and going, ‘Ahhh, very clever!’ I like that sometimes, but I felt like I’d done it enough — people know I can turn a phrase. How about saying instead, like Chris Martin says, ‘And the truth is, I miss you’? That shatters you to pieces.”
It’s safe to say the songs and vocal performances of Rush of Blood influenced the material and performances of Heavier Things in a manner that extends beyond Mayer’s supple slides into falsetto on “Bigger Than My Body” and “Clarity”; after all, he’d used that move himself in the chorus hook of “No Such Thing.” In Martin, Mayer has found a kindred spirit, a fellow artist who shares his idealistic view of romantic love and his sensitivity toward its expression in the context of the ultimate (and in Mayer’s case, still theoretical) significant other.
Rubbing a hand over his tousled mop of wavy hair, Mayer sits forward on the settee, as if something extremely important has just occurred to him. “I always front-loaded my job description with guitar player/songwriter and then singer, because singing was such an inexact science to me,” he continues. “My Berklee training never extended to vocals. But now, having been on stage for two years, I’ve been able to flatten it down to some pretty even variables.” In Mayer’s creative process, you don’t simply emote; you set up a scenario in which the potential for emotiveness is optimized.
Coldplay wasn’t the only band he listened to during the gestation period of his new album: “I was really inspired by Joshua Tree vocally, being that if you really key into Bono’s vocals with a producer’s ear, there are a lot of things he could’ve sung better — more on pitch, more even, more rhythmic. But there’s a scarred quality that’s really personable and beautiful. I didn’t want to do the opposite on this record and have everything be pristine.”
Consequently, “There’s hardly any auto-tune on Heavier Things,” he explains, “and most of these vocals are second or third take. I did scratch vocals as soon as we recorded each track, and there’s a certain vibrancy you have at that moment, a certain understanding of the song that you’ll never have again.”
Mayer admires other contemporary artists without being tempted to emulate them. “I can’t sit down and write an idea from the back-end forward,” he admits. “Radiohead is really good at that. I don’t think you end up with an idea like ‘2 + 2 = 5’ for a song title. I think you start with that song title; you start at the finish line. You take yourself out of yourself, you stare at yourself from far away and you work from that angle.” In Mayer’s aesthetic, the creative impulse will always come from within, no matter how cerebrally that impulse is manifested, and 2 + 2 will always add up to 4.
Throughout the afternoon, Mayer peppers his conversation with domestic references, revealing a reverence for the sort of picket-fence normalcy he gave up when he left the family home in Connecticut for Berklee in Boston, relocating a year later to Atlanta, where he would plot out and then execute his game plan. Domesticity is one of the things a young artist sacrifices when he chooses to grow up in public; loneliness is the ongoing result of having impossibly high standards for a relationship. So there’s a touching irony in the fact that the mundane joys of home and hearth preoccupied this unorthodox rock star throughout the making of Heavier Things, manifesting itself overtly in such songs as “Daughters,” “Come Back to Bed” and the elegant, poignant “Home Life.”
If a home life is Mayer’s dream, he’s presently a tireless nomad with a lot of pressure on his shoulders, some of it emanating from his label, Columbia (which is pinning its fiscal hopes on Heavier Things during the critical fourth quarter), some of it from within. But you’d never know it from his body language or his words.
“Part of me doesn’t mind failing,” Mayer asserts, though he may simply be sounding out an opinion in order to see if it actually holds water. “That’s not to say I don’t want to be a success. I want to be a pop musician, I want to be in the limelight, and I want to make the most of the limelight. I want you to all come to my castle in Tuscany.” He says this with his wry, cockeyed smile — the one that indicates he trusts the listener to receive the statement in the spirit he intended, a mixture of the self-deprecating sarcasm that grounds him and the overarching self-confidence he exudes. It’s the same attitudinal dynamic you’ll find in “New Deep,” in which he sings, without a trace of phoniness, “I’m so alive / I’m so enlightened / I can barely survive / A night in my mind / I’ve got a plan/ I’m gonna find out / How boring I am / And have a good time.”
A few hours later during the evening’s performance, our hero is loose as a goose, seemingly demon-free, as always, basking in the palpable adulation of another rapt multigenerational crowd and further buoyed by the belief he’s made the right record at the proper moment. Bouncing around the stage during an instrumental breakdown, Mayer allows himself a moment of spontaneity. He puts down his Strat and approaches a girl in the front row who’s snapping away with a digital camera. He grabs it from her, leaps atop the drum riser, raises his arms straight up and shoots the panorama before tossing the camera back to her. Then, in mock horror, he gingerly grabs a trendy cap off the head of another concertgoer, pulls out the ever-present Sharpie and writes on it, brandishing the headwear in front of him so that his handiwork can be seen on the giant overhead screen; on it, he’s scrawled, “The last trucker’s cap.” Then he replaces the offending fashion statement on the girl’s head, picks up his guitar and resumes playing, having made yet another point to his own satisfaction. Work and play are interchangeable in the seemingly untroubled universe of Johnny B. Goode.