Singer-songwriter details “Emoji of a Wave,” “Helpless,” “Still Feel Like Your Man” and “Roll It on Home”
by Jenny Eliiscu
“It’s beyond a break-up record,” says John Mayer, after playing back the second group of songs from his new album, The Search For Everything. “It’s about my impression of loss. It’s about the ghost in the room. Proudly, it is, as my therapist says, a study into the metaphysics of absent love.” The singer-songwriter’s seventh LP is coming out in waves – four songs per month until a 14-track physical release later this spring.
After releasing “Wave One” in January, Mayer acknowledges that, as he shares more of The Search For Everything, the autobiographical picture it paints is coming into sharper focus. “I actually, for the first time in my life, believe I recorded exactly what I was feeling,” says Mayer, who describes having experienced a deep and unprecedented sadness following his 2014 break-up with Katy Perry. “It was the only time in my life that sadness was like a lucid dream, like, ‘Oh, I’m here. I got no business trying to get out of this, because it won’t work.’ It was like learning to live in the wilderness.”
His most ambitious recording to date, The Search For Everything is the result of more than three years of sessions at the legendary Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. He started in August of 2014, taking breaks in the past couple years to tour with Dead & Company. (After a solo tour this spring, Mayer goes back on the road with that project for another 19 U.S. dates this summer.) Mayer detailed the making of the four songs in “Wave Two” of The Search For Everything.
“Still Feel Like Your Man”
“This is my little engine that could,” Mayer says of the groovy-yet-angular “Still Feel Like Your Man,” a propulsive, minimal R&B tune that’s the musical cousin to “Moving On and Getting Over” from Wave One of the new album. He spent more hours working on revising and improving the song than any he’s ever recorded. The title, however, came to him in a flash, within his first week working on The Search For Everything. “The title itself had lyrics blowing out of it from every corner,” he tells Rolling Stone, and recalls writing pages and pages of ideas, “almost like a treatment for a movie,” before he even attempted to sing a melody to go with it. His favorite lyric – “I still keep your shampoo in the shower, in case you want to wash your hair” – is one of many autobiographical moments on the album.
Once he found the right music to go with the concept, he wrote for three straight days in a near-trance. “I feel like I never touched the ground those three days, like ‘Let’s not worry about what this might draw from and be true to whatever it is.'” Along with co-producer Chad Franscoviak, Mayer deconstructed and reconstructed the song countless times over the past few years, redoing the drums, switching out guitars, working to make it “really punch but also really freaky,” and to give a vibe Mayer describes as “ancient Japanese R&B.” He even has ideas in mind for a video involving CGI panda bears and a sequence requiring him to take dance lessons. “Can I please be Kanye for one video and just yell at people for not being dope enough?,” he jokes.
The closest thing to a straight-up rock tune Mayer’s shared so far, the funk-tinged “Helpless” is one of the few tracks on the album recorded live in the studio, with Mayer joined by his longtime collaborators, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. (Also known since 2006 as the John Mayer Trio.) “Pino is so inventive without trying that this track is his track,” says Mayer. “You get disco overtones but it’s all implied.” Reminiscent of late Seventies and early Eighties Stones tracks like “Miss You,” Mayer describes the tune as “wish fulfillment recording,” because it allowed him to dabble with retro guitar tones he’s always loved. “I picture myself opening a show with this song,” he says. “It straddles a lot of different vibes at once.”
“Emoji of a Wave”
“It’s about sitting in a feeling,” Mayer says, describing the emotional inspiration for “Emoji of a Wave,” a gorgeously orchestrated folk tune that features lush, otherworldly vocal harmonies – including backing vocals from Beach Boy Al Jardine and his son, Matt. “There are two levels to the song,” Mayer notes. “One of them is the beautiful destination I go to whenever I hear it, which is Santa Barbara on a rainy, cold day. The other level is just about this part of life and love that my brain doesn’t understand: wanting to act to resolve a situation but knowing there’s no resolution.”
The spark of inspiration for the song – the line “oh honey, you don’t have to try so hard to hurt me” – arose during the first couple weeks of sessions for the album. As the music came into focus, Mayer came up with the swirling harmonies in the chorus and thought, “This is kind of a Beach Boys thing.” Then came a stroke of perfect timing, and the kind of serendipity that can only happen in a world-class studio like Capitol. One Saturday afternoon in fall of 2014, the Beach Boys were doing a performance in an adjacent room, and Mayer bumped into Jardine in the hallway. “He said, ‘If you have anything I can sing on…’,” Mayer says, “And I was like, ‘Well, I do have this one song…'” Jardine and his son Matt made time that same day to record harmonies on the track. “How many artists do a Beach Boys thing and then have an actual Beach Boy come and sing the thing?” Mayer says. “That’s the joy of being in a musical community.”
"Roll It on Home"
“We have this bar in Livingston, Montana called The Murray Bar, and that’s the room I’ve always pictured this playing in,” says Mayer, of the laid-back country tune – a song about the moment you realize you’ve been at the bar so long that “tonight’s already yesterday.” Says Mayer: “It’s like the singer in the jukebox is putting their arm around you, like, ‘You did not get what you wanted tonight. Tomorrow’s another chance.'” Because he wanted the song to feel like a pick-up band was playing it, Mayer sought to retain small imperfections that would give it a kind of slackened shuffle. “It’s supposed to be like a worn-in pair of jeans,” he notes. “It reminds me of JJ Cale or Eric Clapton, and those unsung great records like Clapton’s ‘Promises,’ which sounds like it’s performed in a reclining chair, with a cigarette burning in the headstock of the guitar.”