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Charlie Rose Interview

Interview from appearance on The Charlie Rose Show

Introduction

Charlie Rose: John Mayer is here, the seven-time Grammy Award Winner has sold more than 30 million records worldwide. He has shared the stage with guitar greats like B.B. King, Carlos Santana, and Eric Clapton. Clapton calls him a master guitar player. Mayer returns with his first album in four years, it is called The Search for Everything. I'm pleased to have John Mayer at this table for the first time, welcome.

John Mayer: Thank you very much, Charlie.

Wave One of The Search For Everything

CR: This is so good that you had to release it in stages. Is that basically what happened?

JM: I believe in the songs so much that I thought they deserve to be seen without distraction from either the barrier to entry of so many songs all at once, or other music coming in and sort of—or there being so many songs—songs that aren't that great, a couple of songs that are, and I felt like the boldest thing I could do was say I think I did it and take a look at these four at a time. And the response to it has not only been positive for the work, but positive for the format of releasing music that way. So I was not alone because I'm one-half consumer, one-half artist, and I remember seeing some really great records from great artists come up on, you know, my Spotify or Apple, or whatever it be, and I go, twelve?

CR: Yes.

JM: Because this is a deep dive. Maybe I'll just go for the singles right now. And so I wanted to put music out the way that I myself would want to hear it as somebody on the other end.

CR: Is it hard to get acceptance for albums? I mean, I've had people—musicians come up to me and say what's happened to albums is disgraceful.

JM: Yes. I think I've been known traditionally now as an artist, as an album artist.

CR: Right.

JM: So I think I've probably engendered a little more trust with my audience about making records than maybe other artists have. So I'm okay being a dinosaur in this time, being the guy who makes records. But even then I've sort of broken up the concept of a record. I want to ultimately have a record, but I think what this was was about making it small enough for people to—it's just an easier point of entry into it, but ultimately ends up with a record that has an arc, and we think about sequencing, and we think about the power of serializing one song before the next and the next. That still matters, I feel like. It may not matter now, but I think it may matter again, and what you want to do is sort of future-proof it so that if and when people go back to albums, you never looked frightened.

CR: Yes. The Search For Everything.

JM: Yes.

CR: The title.

JM: Titles come to me and they stop the title searching game. 

[Laughter]

CR: They come to you, not somebody who says—

JM: No, no, they come from me and for some reason it fits, and I didn't have many titles in the bingo cage for this one. And when the search for everything came up in my mind, it sort of immediately cemented and I went, oh, that's going to be hard to beat. And it explained very well looking back now over my career and all these different things that I've done what this really sort of all is. You know, it sums up the music and it sums up also personally for me in terms of my curiosity, that sort of is where I lie.

"Still Feel Like Your Man" Background

CR: What does "Still Feel Like Your Man" sum up?

JM: It sums up musically, first, trying to make a pop song that can be on par with anyone else's pop song. But also being in a sneaky way really hyper-musical. So if you listen to it, sort of across the surface of it, you go, oh, that's a nice little groove. But if you go down into it and figure out what's going on with the bass and drums and these really very clean, tidy, sharp, staccato syncopations of things, it's almost like a parabolic curve or something. It looks like a curve when you look at it from afar, but it's really a lot of very, very, very straight lines [...] [humming rhythm] You wouldn't imagine that could swing. And that's what—when I first came up with this riff on the guitar, I went, oh, this is new.

I don't know if it's good or bad, I'm not so interested whether it's good or bad. I'm interested [in] that it's new because this was my seventh record and you're looking for ways to still innovate. A little bit like a magician in a warehouse going like, well, I've climbed out of the locked box and I've gone under water, what's the next trick, you know? And I thought, for having been thought of in the same sort of category of blue-eyed soul for such a long time, that there is something really unique about the robotic kind of syncopation. And then the lyric—every once in a while as a songwriter you get a lyric, and you know it's great. A title, "Still Feel Like Your Man," and then you immediately get frightened that someone else has already done it.

CR: Yes.

JM: The thing that follows a great idea is intense fear that it has already been settled on. And you do a search on Spotify or Wikipedia and you go, "Still Feel Like Your Man." It's like a trademark search.

CR: Yes.

JM: Not to say you couldn't write a song with the same title, I don't like to. And it comes up open, clear.

CR: Clear.

JM: And then we go for it.

CR: Now, you go for it meaning that you have a title, I mean, you have a title of a song and you have the music and then you'll do the lyrics?

JM: In this case. Most of the time I get the best results when music and lyrics happen at the same time. They both climb up either side of the hill. 

That's when it's really, really good. A lot of times I have music that is sitting in a bin, and a lot of times, fewer times than most, I have lyrics that are sitting in a bin. And every once in a while, you get the title that has chords and words and sounds dripping out of it. I had that with "Daughters". I knew when I wrote the very first part of the chorus for "Daughters": "fathers be good to your daughters/ daughters will love like you," it's a bit of a limerick. And when I had that, I went, this is sort of going to sire an entire song.

[Plays a clip of "Daughters" performance from Where the Light Is]

And so I had "Still Feel Like Your Man," and I looked at the title and I went: this is almost like, found in the couch cushions of R&B history. You find that nobody had yet put together "Still Feel Like Your Man". It was very provocative and evocative.

CR: When you wrote it, were you thinking of someone?

JM: Sure, yes, I mean, I think of the person that I left a relationship with, you know. I think of the last person that I parted ways with, you know. I process that very deeply. I get to process that with music, and I was in a relationship that— you know, I don't mean to play coy about not using proper nouns. I like to look out for other people's mornings when they open up the computer. It's too easy to sort of spawn these other stories and then it creeps into other people's minds and makes bad—you know what I'm saying? It reverberates, you know. I have to watch disingenuousness, right? Like, I'm on the alert for disingenuousness because I—

CR: And on the search for authenticity.

JM: Right, I can't play dumb, right?

CR: Right.

JM: But I also don't want to sort of rattle somebody's cage on a morning when somebody picks up the story because they love proper nouns, right? However, I can't sit here and say I have not done a duet with Katy Perry. I can't—I won't let myself sit here.

CR: Yeah.

JM: And say well, that's a mum word. It's not a mum word. And what's difficult to explain to people is that that's about where it ends as a proper noun, and it becomes what everybody feels when they end a relationship. And what I do, and I've come to terms with this, you get to a certain age and you go, this is what I do, I write love songs. And so it's very tricky. I would love to be able to write — put these songs out in a complete vacuum where people can think about these songs only in their own context. And hopefully if I've done a good enough job of writing, they can.

Songwriting

CR: Writing is the thing for you, you said I think once, I want to leave this earth as a writer.

JM: I'm a writer. I'm a writer more than anything. Nothing brings me more joy than writing. If you give me a choice between being in the middle of an incredible blues guitar solo on stage or being in the middle of a writing trance in the studio, knowing that by the end of the night I was going to have something, I would rather be in the writing trance. So the song is very much about processing the loss of somebody. It's difficult, and I think it's part of the package when you are in a relationship with someone that people know very well, I would love the luxury of people going, whoa, I don't know who this was but that would be really great, then you could get right into how I felt.

But if I do a good enough job as a songwriter and I think that I have on this record, I think it becomes a footnote and it's, like I said last night on stage, I said, there's a difference between writing a song because of somebody and for somebody. And I feel like people usually revert to the language of, like, this is written for somebody. Like I don't go to people's doors and ring the bell and go, I wrote this for you. Songwriters write because of.

CR: Right.

JM: But for the world. "Still Feel Like Your Man" is not an ad hoc message, it's for the world, you know. So it's the other side of that.

CR: Has the process changed over the years?

JM: No.

CR: Same thing?

JM: The only reason the process has changed is because I am incapable of letting myself repeat myself. And I wish that I—if you could lobotomize me, I would write you another hundred killer songs. But because I'm writing with the rest of my catalog behind me, looking on, it gets harder to find negative space where you haven't written. Because I'm the first—I do two things very quickly. I go, someone else did that, and I've done that. And I would probably be better off and be more prolific if I didn't do that, you know. But I'm still looking for these parking spaces that haven't been settled on, and they're harder to find, but I think it creates more longevity if you can keep looking and looking and looking. So every song on this record has another ten that stopped somewhere in the middle because I went, oh, no, no, or, I don't want to do that again.

CR: So you just simply threw it away?

JM: Yes. They don't get finished unless they're good enough.

CR: I'm amazed that—you read about painters, you know, who will go to bed having put something on canvas and will get up in the morning and don't like it.

JM: Yes.

CR: And will just throw it away.

JM: Well, the good thing about being a songwriter is that would be like if a painter could take the paint off the canvas and file it away and use that same portion of paint again.

CR: With some other way.

JM:  Which I can.

CR: Yes.

JM: So a song like "Love on the Weekend" was written three times as a completely different song, but I was so in love with cracking the "Love on the Weekend" code that it eventually fit the piece of music that I had. So it's two different—it's like a slot machine. And you're just trying to get three sevens. And you go, oh, I really want "Love on the Weekend" as a title for something. So every time you come up with a new idea, you throw that paint on it. So you can dismantle the painting without having to slash the canvas up, which makes being a musical artist a little more flexible.

Piano

CR: The writing, I assume you have some innate ability, too, beyond just simply learned process.

JM: Yes.

CR: Clearly. Did you have the same thing as a guitarist? Did you have some sense of music so that you adapted to the guitar and earned the praise of people like Clapton and others?

JM: Yes, my father was a piano player, still has a piano where he lives, and that was my first introduction to music.

CR: A piano.

JM: A piano.

CR: Yes.

JM: It's an interval instrument. It's just pure—it's a calculator. It looks to me a little bit—it is a keyboard.

CR: Right.

JM: It's an abacus to me, you know. I mean, it's still where I would go to show someone how music works, I wouldn't show them on a guitar. It is the very graphic.

CR: You would show them on a piano, not on a guitar, how the music works?

JM: Yes. It's a graphical representation of —

CR: How good a piano player are you?

JM: I'm really good in the key of C. [Laughter] Because with a guitar player —

CR: Yes.

JM: The guitar is instantly transposable, right? So the guitar has this transposable geometry. Learn a scale here, you just move it up and the key moves. A piano becomes relative to the sharps and flats, you can't put a capo on a piano. The best thing I can do is use a digital piano and just go and transpose it up and play a different key, but I'm still playing in the key of C. So I grew up very quickly going, okay, this goes bum, bum, bum, and this goes ding, ding, ding. And then you start to subdivide it.

CR: Yes.

JM: And you can—it's a calculator. [humming] That sounds nice, bing, that's a triad. So I knew early enough what that was.

Guitar Playing and Early Influences

CR: But it's all self-learned?

JM: For the most part, yes. It is self-learned when I was younger from sitting at a piano and just sort of working that out, a little bit of a guitar lessons when I was a kid. But my guitar teacher stopped teaching me how to read music. I remember—

CR: Because?

JM: Because I just took off on this other thing. He would do this thing where he would do 15 minutes of book stuff and 15 minutes of, like, you bring a song in and he'll teach you how to play the song. I would bring these blues songs in. He'd teach how to do it. And I'd go, okay, got it. The curriculum gathered really quickly on this blues thing, but we weren't doing the book stuff. And my parents at one point said, I think they were on to it, and if I remember it correctly they were, like, play this, and they put the book in front of me, and I'm like, I can't play that.

CR: At that time, where do you think you were going? I mean, what kind of—

JM: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, I wanted to be that guy. I was gonna go do that. That was my calling. And it still is. When I was 13 years old, I remember I thought, got it. I remember the first night I had a guitar. And it was before I had lessons. Which I now tell parents who say, what do I do? I want to give my kid lessons. I say, give them the guitar for two months and don't give them lessons.

CR: Yes.

JM: Let them discover their own nebulous take on things and then fold in the actual theory. So that's what I was able to do. And I found the most distant room from my parents and I played in the middle of the night. And I immediately figured out chords. And I'll never forget looking at—this is not revisionist history—I looked at it and went, Okay. And that okay was so vertical, it went through everything in my life, and I went, This is what I am.

Playing with Dead & Company

CR: I want to talk about two things that you went through, one is obvious, the four years. But secondly, touring with the what's left of The Dead. What do you learn from that? I mean, a group that is so part of the American culture for certain people?

JM: Yes, for lot of people, and I think they're a lot more accessible than their fans would like—like, they're a lot more accessible, but people like the barrier to entry. I get it now. If it's presented to you in the right sequence of songs, I mean, it's phenomenal stuff. I seem to see this sort of fraternal loving thing that feeds a bit off people not understanding it.

CR: Right. 

JM: You know, there's a value to looking at someone and going, you wouldn't understand. And if you would like to make your way into it—talk about learning something on your own—you really do internalize it. And you find your way to the top of this mountain where the rest of Deadheads are and they go, welcome, you've made it. 

[Laughter]

But I don't see necessarily Deadheads working hard to recruit. I think they like the—

CR: You have to find them.

JM: You have to find them. They like that that's the requisite. For me as a solo act, I'm just wise enough now to understand what I haven't liked about it my whole life, which is being responsible for articulating your own ideas. I don't think that my own ideas are all that important from time to time. I take the best fourteen and put them on a record, but the idea of repeatedly trying to articulate how I feel when I'm not even sure how I feel or I didn't have an answer for a question someone asked me, over the years you begin to sort of create the best persona you can come up with, but it's not really who you are.

And I was starting to get really distant from wanting to do any of that, and when I joined up with Dead & Company, I realized I don't have to. I'm not responsible for giving the answer about—I can tell you what it means to me, but I don't have to be the physical, human representation of my own ideas. I now understand I can't help you understand me unless I give a "New York Times" interview and the guy says I talk too much.

CR: Yes.

JM: You know, I can't—

CR: Is this the most recent New York Times interview?

JM: Yes. I can't—and I think I have to be done with this mission statement I give to myself before I sit down with somebody that I'm going to leave and you're going to have a map of who I am. It's just not ever going to happen. So when I'm with Dead & Company, they're a part of my life. The band is a part of my life, I'm a part of their life. The fans are a part of my life. I'm a part of their life. I'm a part of the band. I play the guitar, Bob Weir sings, Bill [Kreutzmann] plays the drums, Mickey [Hart] plays the drums. I'm there not as a star. I'm there to help that crowd go to that place.

CR: Yes.

JM: And when you say what remains of the Grateful Dead, on a personnel level, that is accurate. I think the spiritual side of the Grateful Dead is accessible and will always be accessible if you get those people together making that noise—

CR: But that part of it is with Jerry, I assume?

JM: Yes, Jerry is the most alive dead person that's ever lived and died. I mean, I get the sense that—they are keeping him alive. They keep him alive. He is just behind the veil. I've never seen—

CR: Because they're maintaining the capacity of people to remember.

JM: To remember and visit the place that he settled with that band. So he's a settler.

CR: Yes.

JM: And he set up camp, and then he left. But you can still go there. And I think that speaks to how incredible the music is. You can still visit. It just takes people —and it is now sort of a little bit of an oral history. It's a musical hand-me-down. And I think guys like Bob Weir are expecting it to be that. And looking at me as someone they're sort of grooming—I mean, this is never going to be over for me as long as I live, this is—

CR: You will always be part of it.

JM: I will always be part of it and I will always continue doing it. This is a part of my life for the rest of my life.

CR: When you left for four years in Montana, where were you going and what was the point?

JM: Well, it is a bit of a reductionist thing. It's not your fault for sort of putting it in those words.

CR: No, you put it in the right words for me, help me.

JM: Born and Raised. Okay, so, 2010, I go, Oh, I'm at the end of this idea, this pop star, flat-iron hair, sort of leather jacket thing.This isn't working. I don't have a dream.

CR: Not working or you're tired of it?

JM: I would say nobody dreams past their third record. 

[Laughter]

When you're a kid in high school, you're not dreaming about your fourth record. And you're not quite sure how to say I don't have plans for this. And you're not quite sure how to ask anybody what to do. And you're certainly not quite sure how to say I think I should take a break. Because people go, he's a mastermind, he dropped right into the top of the mountain, he knows what he's doing, he knows what he's doing. It's what I would call now, sort of in a tidy fashion, sort of, I came to the end of an old idea.

CR: Right. But you didn't know where to go?

JM: Didn't know where to go.

CR: You simply didn't want to go where you were going?

JM: No, I just didn't know where to go next.

CR: Right.

JM: And I like organization. And you can have organization on your first record. You can state your case and the world can understand it.

CR: Right.

JM: But you start throwing other things into it, personal life, the misrepresentation of who you are as a person. Where if you're a smart person, you look at the misrepresentation of who you are as your job to sort out. And I wish I had known that it wasn't, but you want to get engaged. I am a people pleaser. If you told me that one of the people on my way in here didn't like me, I would get up from this table right now and start shouting who it was.

CR: It's a little bit like people who walk into a room and they know the one person who doesn't approve of them or like them. They can see 99 people who love them, but they don't go to them. They go to the one person cause they want to figure it out. 

JM: Well because we want to make it okay. Because we mean well. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who means well. 

CR: Okay but just help me understand this. So the time you took a break. 

JM: Well I didn't take a break.

CR: So what did you do then?

[22:30]

JM: Okay, so 2010 I come off the road, I go, I want to just make a completely different record. So I make Born and Raised. But I'm living in New York City and I'm completely left alone, it's really great. But I didn't move to Montana until 2011. So I made Born and Raised in New York and LA. Moved to Montana where I wanted to move anyway. Then I had a vocal situation that prohibited me from singing on tour. And I made another record out there because I went, Well I just want to make records. That's what I do.

And I love that guys like Stephen King can write a short one or a big one. I mentioned this before, but George Clooney is who everybody should aspire to be in their career. Make a big one, [then] make a black-and-white one. And I went, This should be a black-and-white one. And it sort of gets flattened and reduced so that people can sort of—

CR: Okay, but what's wrong with whatever they do? In other words, what is the picture that people have drawn that is not true?

JM: For me?

CR: Yeah. Of you.

JM: That's a huge responsibility to, like, be honest about, because there's probably some stuff in there I don't deserve to say should be—Um, that's a really good question. That I "moved to Montana and wrote country songs." Although that's not that far off.

Womanizer bothers me. Womanizer. That's always bothered me and I that if you really looked into all of the times where it went sort of dim for me and my mouth kept going and my brain wasn't there I think it's—see I've been me my whole life. I've watched me. You make these decisions in life, you do the right thing, you give yourself a pat on the back. You get this sense that throughout your life if you do the right thing you are going to be known as a person who does the right thing.

But there's nothing like the Hollywood machine getting your information wrong. And I give a lot of information! Right, I'd be much better off if I had short answers. It's less TNT to wire up. 

CR: [Laughs] Yes.

JM: And so when they inevitably get it wrong cause I'm putting out so much information, this idea of womanizer comes in. And to say that I'm bristling at it is an understatement. It is a complete distortion of who I am. And breeds this idea that, Well if you've got this so wrong, then I'm going to be as wrong as you think I am. And I don't know where that came from. Does that make sense?

CR: So if you say I'm this, I'm going to be this?

JM: If you say I'm this, I'm going to subvert this. If you say I'm this, I'm going to parody this. Does that make any sense?

CR: Yeah, of course it does. If in fact you are influenced by what others say about you and you decide in some way I want to do a parody or in some way I want to go to some extreme of what they're saying just to—

JM: And I think the intent is to make people go, "Oh he's not that! He's playing off of that!" But that's asking a lot of people's attention span to be able to notice that, and possibly intelligence to be able to notice that. The best example I can give you—and I'm sure you've heard of this before—if you have paparazzi on the way to a restaurant, and you're sitting with someone who's not entirely indoctrinated into this world, they say, "You should take a picture of them. Why don't you go outside and take a picture of them?"

It's everyone's first idea when they feel a little bit captured by something is to fight back. And part of the fighting back is intellectual. This idea of, You can't contain me, I'm going to over-intellectualize what you're doing. We're talking hyper-extending myself way beyond what should be taking place. Because all I want to do is get back to where it is clean. Here's who I am, here's what I do, I promise you I'm this, I promise you I'm not that, I mean well. You can get lost in that.

CR: And the reason they characterize you that way, womanizer or whatever it was, is because—

JM: Well it's—there was a period of time where I was sort of moving—it's hard to explain. It's hard to explain, I'm still unpacking it in my own life. There's just a situation where you fall into, uh—I dated a lot of big names. I mean that's the elephant in the room. 

CR: You're right, that is the elephant in the room. 

JM: I dated a lot of big names. And I think people get the size of the name mixed up with the number of people that I've been with.

CR: So if you date just a few big names it seems like you are out there with a lot of women.

JM: I think so. And I can't blame anybody for thinking that. It took me a long time to realize; people do not Google search me. People do not think about me all day. People take a glance at you and that's the takeaway.

CR: [Laughs] They are not going to say, "Let's see what John did today?"

JM: They are not completist. So they don't see that, you know, he made Born and Raised and Paradise Valley, and he did this. They see the spikes. 

And because the type of music I was making, rightfully, did not entitle me to the kind of press that I was generating or being involved in. 

CR: Cause it wasn't able the music, it was about your personal life.

JM: There are just bigger Google searches.

So what ends up happening is I start going, I'm not that, I'm not that, I'm not that. There was a correction that needed to happen for me. There was a market correction that needed to happen.

But I think what sent me in a tail spin and hurt me—and I never said hurt me because I wouldn't admit to it. Best thing I could do now is to say, "ouch." Best thing a smart person who tries to mastermind his way out of everything is to say, "ouch." Cause "ouch" will lead you to the truth. And the truth will lead you to—

CR: And "ouch" is better than "it hurts me?" 

JM: Uh, no, it's the same thing. "Ouch," "this hurts," "I hate this," "this makes me feel bad;" I wouldn't admit to it.

CR: It's a little bit like, "don't let them see you sweat."

JM: Yeah. Now I know, I mean. Whenever you yell the loudest is when you're about to cry. You would see someone, they yell the loudest and say they can take anything, is the second before they're about to crumble. And that's where I was was, "you can't get me," and it's like, no they really can.

CR: And how long ago was that?

JM: That was seven years.

CR: And today?

JM: I have a really good handle.

CR: Past all that stuff?  

JM: Past all of it. And understanding that, again, people are not John Mayer completists. It might take a second to review a little bit—you may have to sort of go over it again with people. Does that make sense? Expecting that not everybody is on your make every time you wake up and do something. 

CR: And is some of that in this album?

JM: Not really. It was in Born and Raised a lot. That was a wounded sort of thing. But I got a lot of music out of going deep into myself. This [album] is a different dive. This is a dive into being a certain age. I think there is a certain loss in relationship. There's always one relationship loss, I feel like, that takes you with it. You know what I mean? You're not just parting ways with somebody. There's always one that kind of takes you down.

CR: That you lose something.

JM: I lose something.

CR: Right.

JM: Yeah. And this [album] is this idea of being as absolutely beautiful as you can be. Like, look, let whoever, the sort of intelligentsia, rock outlets, and journalists say that it pablum or it's lite or it's bland. I'm going to be as beautiful as can be about being sad. That's kind of what this was. Listening back to this song "Emoji of a Wave" and being like, "that is what this [experience] feels like." Which, as an artist, and a musician, you don't normally get all the time. You come close. You go, "well, we'll get 'em next time. [I've captured] eighty percent of how that feels." There are songs on this record that I listen to and I go, I did it. I'm good enough a musician now to translate one hundred percent how something felt. And that is a possession as an artist that is more valuable than anything you can have.

CR: And what artists can do is not only express how they felt, but say it in a way so that all the fans—it speaks to something they feel but can't express. That's where the connection comes.

JM: Right. That's when people say, "I feel like I'm looking in a mirror," or, "I feel like you said something that I was going through at this exact time in my life."

CR: I hope that you'll come back. It was a real pleasure having you here.

JM: Oh I would love to. Thank you.

CR: Thank you.