By Dan Hyman
At this point in his career, John Mayer figures there’s several ways he could theoretically be characterized by others. “People might say, oh, he’s been around for almost 20 years so he’s a nostalgia act. Or he’s washed-up. Or he’s a 2000s act,” the singer-songwriter and acclaimed guitarist said when calling from Toronto on a rare day off from tour.
“But I’ve disassociated myself from this hierarchy of, are you successful or are you a failure? Jockeying for placement on a ladder wasn’t interesting to me then and it certainly isn’t now. That career went away,” — Mayer contended, referring to his decade-plus run as one of pop’s music’s most reliable crooners and commercial success stories. “And in its place is to me a far more interesting career. Now I get to live the life that I’ve always dreamed about.”
Now at a rare and enviable point in his professional journey where he’s not only an arena-gigging solo musician but also the guitarist for mega-successful Grateful Dead spinoff band, Dead & Company, Mayer, 41, said he’s become far more deliberate — and even, he admits, a bit cautious — with his creative decisions.
“My career isn’t just made for my personal wish fulfillment anymore,” said Mayer, who plays the United Center on Wednesday and Thursday. “It took me a lot of years to figure out what I deserve to go for and what I don’t deserve to go for. What’s my area? What’s my lane? What’s my thing?” With the breakout success of his multi-platinum selling 2001 debut album, “Room For Squares,” “it all came on really quickly,” Mayer explained of subsequent offers to dabble in outside projects from guest roles in TV shows and films to a host of endorsement deals. “The way my career started I had no relativity for how big a bite to take of anything. I just went, Ah ok, this is all just bite-sized stuff and I’m just going to eat from that and that and that. It took me a long time for me to get the recipe right.”
According to the guitarist, what makes him so pleased at where he’s landed is that despite him no longer being a chart-topping pop star “(If I tried to still be a pop act, I’d be a very bad pop act”, he said with a laugh) he’s not only able to consistently sell out massive venues by himself and with the Dead, but more importantly he can collaborate with and mentor a diverse crop of young musical talent from Shawn Mendes and Khalid to Daniel Caesar and the late Mac Miller.
“If I have any kind of credit I don’t want to use it for getting a seat at a restaurant,” Mayer said. “I want to use it for being able to work on someone’s song or help them write something or collaborate with them on a brand-new thing. That to me is the ultimate in opportunity. I’m now part of a bigger thing. I’m not my name as a brand. I didn’t like it when I was and I’m no longer part of that stardust arrangement.”
Mayer’s ever-evolving gig as a wise elder has also seen him recruiting some of the most exciting names in contemporary music, from the bassist Thundercat to outré pop star Charlie Puth and viral rapper Lil Nas X for “Current Mood,” his ongoing Instagram Live show broadcast on the social media platform. Decidedly low-budget and shot at Mayer’s Los Angeles home, the show finds the musician occupying the role of a sarcastic quasi-late-night talk show host who not only unleashes a tongue-in-cheek monologue straight to camera but then interviews and plays alongside a rotating assemblage of his musical peers. “Current Mood,” said Mayer, is his way of bypassing the traditional Hollywood television ecosystem.
“I had always wanted to do a show and I found the development world of television in Hollywood to be sort of less and less of an open door to anybody,” Mayer explained. “I asked myself, what do I care about? Do I care about getting a deal on a television network and having the screenshot of the “Variety” post on my Instagram that says, ‘Here we go! Been waiting to tell you about this for months!’? Or do I want to just do the thing.”
Mayer admitted his most recent album, 2017’s “The Search for Everything,” at least by old music-industry metrics, would be considered something of a commercial disappointment – the gold-certified album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 – and yet miraculously the musician continues to expand his audience in new and exciting ways.
Much of that, he offered, is thanks to his gig with Dead & Company. Yes, even the most hard-core Deadheads have become Mayer converts, and to that end, they’ve even started attending his concerts. As he recalled with palpable glee, on the second night of two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, “I welcomed people who might have been in my crowd as part of ‘The Grateful Dead Exchange Program,’” he recalled with a laugh. “And there was some real noise, man! There clearly were some people there from having seen me with Dead & Company.” And what led to those Deadheads suddenly embracing Mayer’s music?
“It just allowed people to listen to my music with those kinds of genetic markers in my mind and listen to where the similarities in the music are. And it’s been really interesting to watch people use this optimistic healthy confirmation bias to be like “Yah, those things actually are fairly similar!”
Above all, Mayer said his present-day happiness could be traced to his no longer needing the self-affirming embrace of a mainstream pop audience. “I kind of detached from this IV of needing a certain kind of Number One-ness,” Mayer offered. “And that’s really important you come off it before someone takes it out of you. Because I see artists who are still dependent on Number One-ness. And to me the biggest crime in a way is that they don’t need that anymore. Once you’re so good and once you’ve had enough Number Ones you don’t need to go for Number One again. I feel bad for people sometimes who don’t know there’s life outside of scrambling for Number One. It’s like, no; you have all this power now. You don’t need to go for Number One. You get to go do whenever you want now and people will follow you.
This,” Mayer said with a mix of excitement and contentment, “is where my life gets interesting."