Nearing 40, Mayer seeks a comeback

John Mayer.
John Mayer.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Grammy-winning hitmaker recently finished his new album and filmed a video for what he hopes will be his next hit single

LOS ANGELES • John Mayer can explain where he has been. In fact, once he gets going, he probably will not stop, given the amount of time he has spent in private processing his recent self-imposed irrelevance - the "lean years", as he calls them.

A generational guitar talent and reliable soft-rock hitmaker with seven Grammys, Mayer is also a master conversationalist prone to verbal solos, noodling in impressionistic bursts about his nature and career, weaving in therapy- speak, potential stand-up bits and a barrage of mixed metaphors as if he is writing this story himself. That is what got him into trouble in the first place.

"The elephant in the room is that we're sort of talking about the double-headed dragon of the Rolling Stone interview and the Playboy interview," he said a half-hour into a monologue about why he left pop music's A-list and how ready he is, emotionally and musically, to return.

Across four hectic days this month, as Mayer, lucid and optimistic, finished his big-budget new album, The Search For Everything, and filmed a music video for what he hopes will be his next hit single, he seemed to especially relish reflecting on his 2010 undoing.

The only hits I’ll have left in my life – because there are great hit writers, but I will not go into a room with them – are luck songs. My record has one name in the parentheses on every song and it’s my name. That’s important. 

JOHN MAYER on songwriting

Recalling the consequences of those infamous magazine articles - in which he used the phrase "sexual napalm", chronicled his onanism in horrific detail, referred to his male anatomy as David Duke and somehow separately used a racial epithet - Mayer was vivid and virtuosic in his self-laceration.

"What has to happen for a guy to believe that he's totally well-adjusted and be that far out of touch?" he said. "My GPS was shattered, just shattered."

At 32 and obsessed with outsmarting the idea of a "cliched rock star", he explained, "I started to invent my own grenade." (His big mouth.)

Tabloid fame was "a human- growth hormone" and "extracurricular stuff" anyway, he said. Also: "What I did was probably semi- consciously just reboot it - control, alt, delete."

His career had "flatlined". "It was cat and mouse," he said, "and the mouse lost."

Now approaching 40, "I'm old enough to look back on my life and go: 'That's probably the photo- negative shot in Behind The Music," he said. "Coming up after the break - boom - the downfall."

In reality, after those turbulent moments, he moved to Montana, grew out his hair and made two more major-label albums - Born And Raised and Paradise Valley - that were less Your Body Is A Wonderland and more Laurel Canyon. "It's rivers and cows," he said. "There's no sexuality there." The relatively modest sales reflected that.

But the exile could not last, not for this restless people-pleaser with the baby face and a penchant for dating some of the most famous women in the world (Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry).

In late 2014, as he began writing what would become The Search For Everything, which will be out on April 14, Mayer realised: "I'm a young guy. I like girls. I want girls to like me. I want to make music and be thought of as attractive. I was finally ready to re-enter that world and grow back into it."

He thought a lot about George Clooney.

"There's a guy who can make art-house films and then just decide that he's going to be in a blockbuster," he said. "I remember thinking to myself, Okay, I'm going to come out of retirement from blockbusters. It's a choice to write pop songs, just like it's a choice to write blues songs or folk songs. Let's write the big ones that we are capable of writing."

The commercial prospects of the song Still Feel Like Your Man are a concern. In Mayer's absence from the Top 40, guitars have been further silenced by electronics. Even Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes, Mayer's direct descendants, work with pop songwriting teams and cover rap tracks.

"I do a thing - I have sensibilities," said Mayer, who has often found himself overcompensating for his pristine, but often edgeless, bluesy pop and coffeehouse soul.

"My instincts as a musician are not exactly my instincts as a listener or a member of the world. But I believe that I am successful because I obey them."

He added: "The only hits I'll have left in my life - because there are great hit writers, but I will not go into a room with them - are luck songs. My record has one name in the parentheses on every song and it's my name. That's important."

While The Search For Everything began as a break-up album, with songs such as Moving On And Getting Over and Never On The Day You Leave, it quickly transcended that. "There were times when tears came out of me and, I went, Okay, John, this is not about an on-again, off-again relationship. This is something more profound."

Though he has been in therapy to work on his "attachment style" and recently quit drinking, he is wary that his notoriety as a womaniser precedes him. "I've inherited a younger man's reputation," he said. "You can even break 'bad boy' into good bad boy and bad bad boy - I somehow managed to become a bad version of a bad boy."

Since splitting with Perry, he has hardly been out, he insisted, though he does fiddle around on an exclusive dating app. "It's just a lot of chatter," he said. "We all talk to the same people. There are very few people meeting up."

Another hurdle is that he will be on tour most of the year, headlining arenas in support of the album, plus a jaunt with his side gig, Dead & Company, where he plays guitar alongside members of The Grateful Dead. ("The feeling of inclusion that I have with this band - they saved my life," he said.)

The itinerant lifestyle, though, is less fraught than whatever lurks in the fame-stained recesses of Mayer's soul, depths he is beyond game to probe and excavate. In The Blood, the most fully formed, Tom Petty-esque track from The Search For Everything, is a sort of self- baptism, with him singing big questions with no answers:

"How much of my mother has my mother left in me?

How much of my love will be insane to some degree?

And what about the feeling that I'm never good enough?

Will it wash out in the water or is it always in the blood?"

"It's not pretty, those words," Mayer said in the studio as he worked on final touches. "But the one thing I look forward to the most as I re-enter this level of the music world is I want to experience saying something that I can defend no matter what.

"It's like: 'John, they're gonna come after you. They're going to ask about it,'" he said with a cackle. "I say, 'Let 'em.'"

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Nearing 40, Mayer seeks a comeback'. Print Edition | Subscribe