Win or lose, John Mayer says his work keeps him happy

[8 February 2007]

By Jon Bream

McClatchy Newspapers

John Mayer went out on a limb.

No surprise there, because the Grammy-winning rock star not only speaks his mind but lacks a self-censor button. Read Rolling Stone to find out about his sexual fantasies and marijuana habits. Read his blog to learn of his solution to the spat among the “Grey’s Anatomy” cast. Read right here to see who he believes will win the album-of-the-year Grammy on Sunday.

“I think the Dixie Chicks deserve it,” Mayer said without hesitation, even though his album “Continuum” is also a finalist. “Not only is it one of the best records, but it’s one of the best records that was produced under some of the most stressful artistic conditions that I could ever think of.”

Although the Chicks have been spurned by country radio for criticizing President Bush, nearly 2 million people bought the trio’s “Taking the Long Way,” which featured Mayer’s guitar on two tracks. By contrast, his soul-tinged “Continuum” received considerable radio exposure, thanks to the hit “Waiting on the World to Change,” and has sold 1.3 million copies. He is contending for five Grammys on Sunday.

“Win or lose, I have kind of a nice cure-all,” he said last week on tour from Memphis. “If my head gets too big because I won something, I’m right back onstage at work. If I didn’t win anything, I go right back onstage and get all that gratification from fans.”

Mayer did appear uncomfortable when he won his first Grammy in 2003 for best male pop vocal (for “Your Body Is a Wonderland”) over James Taylor and Sting, among others. In accepting his prize, he said, “This is very, very fast, and I promise to catch up.”

Well, now that he has released three studio CDs and one live disc, has he caught up?

“Maybe I’ve caught up to the first one,” said Mayer, who won the pop vocal Grammy again in 2005 as well as song of the year (both for “Daughters”).

But when his name was called that first time, he sensed it was too much too soon with too much scrutiny, he said. “Rather than let anybody debate whether or not I should have had it, I’d be the first person to say, `I’ve got to work harder for this one.’”

Mayer, now 29, has proven his mettle since then. He has evolved from a sensitive singer-songwriter who made the young women swoon to a guitar hero who formed a heavy blues-rock power trio in 2005 with two veterans, bassist Pino Palladino (the Who, Eric Clapton) and drummer Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, Bob Dylan). Their tour yielded a live album, “Try,” which is nominated for a Grammy for best rock album.

He says the John Mayer Trio is liberating, keeping him “from feeling that I’m a product and I belong to the corporate stable,” he said.

The versatile Mayer wears many hats: songwriter, singer, guitarist, producer and performer. Which is the most important to him?

“It’s all of the above,” he said. “For my own satisfaction, I think of myself as a guitar player with the singing on top. I think most people think of me as a singer with the guitar playing on the bottom.”

He has played with some guitar heavyweights, including Clapton, B.B. King and Buddy Guy, as well as such other luminaries as Kanye West, Alicia Keys and Herbie Hancock.

Mayer occasionally puts down his ax and tries his chops at standup comedy, which he has done unannounced in New York City, his home.

“It’s not a career,” he said. “It’s a dalliance. I’m only like 1 percent better than I would have to be before I decided to quit completely.”

He gets the same thing out of standup that he gets from his other creative outlets: “It’s just a street fight. It’s like interrogating the invisible and trying to figure out what the future holds, or what you can possibly get at (by) working harder at being creative.”

That might sound pretentious but “when that creative bug hits,” he said, “I’ve got to cancel dinner and stay in and write.”

One night, he spent three or four hours crafting several scenes for “Grey’s Anatomy” in response to Isaiah Washington calling fellow cast member T.R. Knight “a faggot.” Mayer’s solution: Make Washington’s character gay.

“I’m into concept exploration,” he said. He felt “kind of bad” after posting it on his blog because he doesn’t know the actor, but he has no regrets about that or any other big-mouth pronouncements he’s made over the years.

“To think I’m going to go through life without a misstep, forget about it,” Mayer said. “Print it now: There are going to be 20 of them. What matters is your intention and your heart and soul and being a good guy.”

He used to be a good guy about answering e-mail from fans and frequently updating his blog at But he has cut back because he says the compassion he experienced on the Internet in the late 1990s has largely disappeared, replaced by a tabloid mentality.

“We’re getting to the point where it’s going to be,” he said, “and it’s going to be pictures of celebrities with red arrows on them saying `Look at that zit.’”

Mayer feels the same way about tabloids themselves - the supermarket superhighway of information - who have covered his relationship with Jessica Simpson with almost as much voraciousness as Tom Cruise’s wedding.

He ignores it: “I’ve got back a lot of wasted time in my day that I used to spend worrying about so many perceptions and the way people were reading into things. I now actually have more time in my day to think about music and other pursuits. I’m no longer working to calculate the incalculable.”

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