The Good Life

Grammy-winning John Mayer takes his success in stride.

Sometimes, you have a good day. Maybe a good week. If you're lucky, a good year.

And then there's John Mayer. At 26, he's having a good life. A very good life.

Mayer first showed up on the public radar with his 2001 acoustic-oriented debut, Room for Squares. The album went gold, then platinum, largely on word of mouth from his relentless touring. The album included the pop hit, "Your Body Is a Wonderland," an anomaly celebrating sensuous foreplay while most songs on the radio were about banging and boasting. "Your Body" went on to win Mayer a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal. He was also nominated as Best New Artist. It established him in the minds of millions of adolescent women as a cute, sensitive guy who really understood them. At last count, Room for Squares was triple-platinum, selling more than 3 million copies.

Mayer is not naïve about his emotional impact on young females. Nor is he predatory, by all reports, making him, well, safe, like a best friend--and all the more appealing. He genuinely respects his audience, even if he's sometimes a little baffled by them.

"My fans are so smart, I don't have a lot of room for indiscretion," he states when reached by phone. "I don't have a lot of room for errors. Because they're so smart, I have to stay genuine."

As a pop star, Mayer is antithetical to the stereotype. He's polite and focused. He doesn't drink or do drugs. A gawky 6 foot 3, he wields his guitar with technical precision and taste rather than flamboyance. He doesn't mess up hotel rooms. In fact, he probably wipes down the sink and hangs up the towels before he checks out.

The middle child of two happily-married educator parents in Connecticut, Mayer is an average, middle-of-the-road kind of guy who got all geeky about guitars and music. He's hard working. He's simple and direct and honest.

Describing a recent break from his near-constant touring, he says, "I went on vacation not long ago in Malibu. I rented a house, had the band up there, and we relaxed and cooked and ran, you know, just lived."

He understands what a weird filter pop stardom is. He's neither obsessed nor overwhelmed by it: Stardom is just another tool, like an effects pedal on his Stratocaster guitar, a means to an end. Asked how his fans see him, he replies simply, "I don't really know."

Instead, he talks about how he wants to be perceived. "I've always wanted people to see me as someone who is a long-term producer of music," he explains. "If there was a song that came out that they didn't like, it's alright, because it's not about the egg; it's about the goose. There haven't been a lot of artists in the last 10 years like that, who are known for the process that creates the songs instead of just one or two songs. When you think of Sting, you don't think of a song; you think of the man who makes the song."

Early criticism tagged Mayer as a Dave Matthews wannabe. Although he has clearly benefited by alphabetic proximity to Matthews in stores, Mayer actually started out with a bluesier, guitar-god vision for himself, studying at the Berklee College of Music. His first hero was Stevie Ray Vaughn. That legacy sometimes still seeps through, as in his take of the late Texas bluesman's instrumental, "Lenny" on Mayer's live double-CD, Any Given Thursday (also platinum) or his uncanny channeling of Vaughn, captured on a recent Austin City Limits segment for PBS, backed by Vaughn's original rhythm section, Double Trouble (drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon).

Mayer's vocals also have a lot of Stevie Ray in the tone, once you hear him doing Texas blues. He's got chops-a-plenty, even if his songs sometimes reference high school or hanging out at the mall. His critics have cited the adolescent aspect as somehow diminishing the seriousness of his work. Mayer himself is aware of his need to grow throughout what he expects to be a long, successful career. His plan is not to plan.

"I could think about how I'm going to shape it," he states, "or I could just keep living my life and it happens. It's never been a conscious decision where to point to next. It's kind of like waking up in the morning and deciding what clothes to wear. Hopefully, where I'll be 10 years from now is exactly where I am now, plus interest."

Does that mean his fans can look forward to paeans of life on the bus, watching the world through the windows?

"That would be true if you only wrote about face-value situations," Mayer says. "If I only wrote about what I saw, then I would write about the road and the couch in the dressing room and the TV on the bus. But if you write about what you're thinking about or what you feel, that can take you anywhere."

Mayer believes in his impending career arc, how he and his fans will grow together, how his songs will take on different concerns that his audience will continue to find compelling.

"Paul Simon is amazing at putting someone's life into three verses," Mayer says with admiration. "Ben Folds really kind of turned me on to lyric writing. I'm trying to think of who I pretend to be when I write lyrics. ... Lately, I actually feel quite like myself when I write lyrics, which is cool, which is what you try to get to, to feel like yourself when you do it."

Mayer, like Simon, prefers to create the melody and song structure first. The lyrics come last.

"If you have amazing lyrics but they don't fit right, then it's not that amazing," he notes. "Someone like Jewel is a lyricist, a poet who incorporates poetry into a song. I care more about how it flows. The only way you can do that is write the melodies first and then finish the lyrics later, which is infinitely harder, because now you've got other qualifications. You've got to find the right syllable structure, the right stresses, the right rhyme, the right meaning, all that stuff. Plus make it hummable."

Although he's just starting another tour for his second studio album, Heavier Things, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts when released last September, Mayer admits he and the band worked on new songs during their recent vacation.

"Yeah, we had some equipment up there and wrote some tunes," he says, chuckling that even his vacation involves playing music. "I'd like to get a new record out by the end of this year."

The youthful enthusiasm of his fans can sometimes cause problems for Mayer as he continues to explore and define his musical path. He concedes they sometimes confuse their image of him for who he really is, "especially in terms of the way records are made and how the business works. Sometimes they're so insightful that they start bringing insight to things that aren't true," he says diplomatically.

"I think they'd like to believe that anything they don't like just isn't my fault, that I was a babe-in-the-woods getting manipulated. But actually," he shrugs, "it was me."

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