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Article from Berklee College Magazine 2004

John Mayer Returns to Berklee

It wasn't exactly a "run through the halls of [his] high school," but on Friday, September 17, hit songwriter John Mayer '98 returned to Berklee to pay a visit to his alma mater for a solo performance and clinic. The event was held in a packed Berklee Performance Center and was webcast to the Dolby Laboratories in Burbank, California, so that Berklee's West Coast alumni could be part of the excitement.

After opening with his song "Clarity," Mayer told the audience that this was his first time leading a clinic, and that he had prepared a lot of material to share with the audience. First, he said, he wanted to discuss his philosophy on networking and making contacts as the way for new artists to break into the music industry. "I think the idea of making a lot of contacts is overrated-especially now," Mayer said. "People that you meet should know you as a friend. That's how most connections are made. Hang around with the people who are good to you, not those who you think will get you somewhere," he said. Mayer went on to say that in his estimation, there is no single "discovery moment" that leads to an artist getting a record deal. He recalled that six years ago he had been playing in nightclubs with just a few people listening. Little by little, he built an audience and doors opened.

Mayer encouraged the students with their studies, telling them to "plug in any bit of static knowledge that anyone gives you as soon as possible. Then convert it to colors. Hopefully what you are doing is taking information and developing taste and style." He also charged the students with the task of making a list of musical clichés and then scrupulously avoiding them. 

Throughout the two-hour clinic, Mayer displayed wit and a genuine desire to share what he has learned in his ascent to stardom. Introducing his song "Daughters," he said, "I wrote this song in my hotel room about a year and a half ago. I missed all of my press appointments that day. When you have a song coming out, stay there. If you miss your class, I'll write you a pass. It happens so rarely, don't move, just keep writing. I didn't leave until I was done with this one."

Afterward, Mayer said, "I think phonetics mean more than lyrics ever will. It's all in how the words sound. I've heard some lyrics that were incredibly clever, descriptive, and moving, but they were set to music in such a way that it was hard for me to remember them and sing them back. I like songs that feel really good rolling off the tongue. Almost all hit songs have lyrics that are great to sing." Mayer then gave an example of such a song from his own repertoire and sang his first hit, "No Such Thing."

Opening up a discussion, Mayer took a number of questions from the audience. He answered queries about overcoming writer's block. Another questioner asked what Mayer's biggest challenge has been. He spoke about reconciling his original intent with the final results in his music. "My biggest challenge is what I wish could come out of me and what does come out of me," he said. "What comes out is the truth. I didn't know I was going to write ‘Your Body Is a Wonderland.' I'll agree with you if you say it's a poppy little confection, but it came out while I was listening to a lot of records that didn't sound anything like it. Sometimes I finish writing something and then think, ‘That's not what I wanted.' But that's the song that came out; it's what I made. It has been my biggest challenge to realize that is me no matter how hard I try to bend it."

Mayer was enjoying himself so much that he extended the clinic a half-hour. He took out his electric guitar for the songs "Come Back to Bed" and "Wheel." While singing each, he created a loop and then soloed over his chord progression. He performed a long fade-out with his volume pedal on "Come Back to Bed," leaving the crowd in a hush.

Mayer was realistic about success and discussed the arc of an artist's career. "I won't always be playing to 20,000 people a night," he said candidly. "I'll probably be doing clubs again, and I'll really enjoy that then.

As he bid farewell, he said, "You know, I've been back to Boston about 12 times in my career, but this is the first time I've come back to Berklee. I feel really comfortable here." Many in the audience were optimistic that with another invitation, Mayer just might come back for a repeat performance in the future.

This article appeared in our alumni magazine, Berklee Today Fall 2004.