This transcript is excerpted from the full interview.
Alex Cooper: John Mayer, welcome to Call Her Daddy.
John Mayer: Thank you, Alex.
I am so happy you’re here. John, I think we need to tell the daddy gang, who are our listeners, how we get here. Cause we went to a little dinner, the other night, and I want to kind of go through what happened at that dinner because people are probably like, “how did you get John Mayer on your show?”
JM: There’s only one way, which is to find me personally, have dinner with me, be cool, and you’re actually an incredible pitch woman for coming on the show. And I didn’t really have an intention for coming on. We had a great dinner, Cazzie David, you, and me, and I think there’s something to do with December where you’ve all year been yourself, followed your rules, done what you normally do, not done what you don’t normally do, and I think somewhere in the last couple of weeks of each year I’m like, I want to do something out of character.
AC: I’m so happy that this is what you’re calling “out of character” and you get to sit down with me because, yeah I pitched you, why you should come on the show. And you and I kind of like battled for a minute meanwhile Cazzie is sitting there eating her chips loving every second of it.
JM: It was a debate.
AC: Yeah it was a debate. And you decided to come on. What I loved about that meeting dinner is that you are very sure of yourself. Have you always been that confident? Like, what were you like in high school?
JM: I’ve had some degree of confidence. It took that to get out of my town. To get into the world. To push against the forces of people who were saying—not just not encouraging me, but actively discouraging me from doing what I have ultimately have done. So the quality of that confidence has changed from a beat down every door, push yourself on people as much as you can all the time, to something way more relaxed.
So, everyone when they first start out is way more confident than they need to be because they don’t know how confident they need to be. Right? And so it was kind of obnoxious when I was younger. I mean if you’re spending your whole youth pushing against these forces of, “you can’t do it, you’re crazy, you’re gonna end up on the street, this is a terrible idea,” that’s going to have a hangover effect on you for a long time where you’re going to still keep pushing.
AC: That’s really interesting cause I could imagine—the reason I ask about high school is because I feel like we can agree they are such formative years where your approval socially is so important towards the way that you view yourself. How how did you get along with people, and how did people treat you?
JM: I didn’t, and they didn’t. I didn’t have a presence. I went to school to get it over with, and my life began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when I came home and played guitar. So I didn’t dislike anybody, and I almost didn’t need that particular level of approval. I was kind of invisible, I just went to go. I didn’t really pay attention in class. It’s really hard to explain. And there are people out there who would understand: when you’re thirteen years old, you’ve got five years before you can even do anything on your own. And that was the hardest of my entire life was from thirteen to getting out of high school, because you already know what you know, and you have to go through the rest of this kind of rote plan that’s sort of been set for everyone. And I remember sitting in class going like, I’m not supposed to be here.
AC: Right, so you’re saying you knew what you wanted to do, you knew you were going to be a musician, and you were like, “why am I in social studies? Like, what the fuck am I doing here?” Like did people bully you? Were you like the dorky musician or no?
JM: I was bullied a little bit, but I was always kind of big. I was tall. I remember getting punched in the arm for flinching. I don’t know if that’s still a thing. This is the most butch your show has ever been.
AC: I love it. The Christmas special. Did you date in high school?
JM: I had one girlfriend in high school, but I didn’t really date, I had one girlfriend in high school.
AC: What was John like in high school dating?
JM: Probably the best version I ever was of myself. I would like to think that was the best version and the next time was the best version. I only had one girlfriend before everything changed in my life. To me, like, the truest, most innocent, realest, sweetest—it was high school.
AC: Did you ever, through your fame, reach back out to her?
JM: I did reach back out a few times.
AC: Because you were looking for what?
JM: Maybe to bring that part of my life into the new part of my life. But by that point she was married and had kids, and I thought, that’s a separate chapter, or that thing in my life was a separate chapter. I don’t have to talk to people to know that I’m okay, that we’re okay. I think that’s telepathic.
AC: I liked you said that at dinner, that there are certain people in your life that you don’t need them in your life anymore, but it’s really cool when you have a mutual understanding, whether it’s an ex, whether it’s someone who was your friend at some point, to just be like, we don’t need to talk to know like, we’re good. We don’t talk anymore, for whatever reason—
JM: Yeah, I mean there are a couple little outstanding, still vibrating things I would like to get to a hundred percent closure. I don’t think that’s realistic in anyone’s life. Do you have someone in your life that’s it’s always going to be incomplete?
JM: I think everyone has a couple of those. But for the most part it’s been important for me to move on into the adult parts of my life with the peace of like, we’re cool, we don’t need to talk.
AC: Okay, so we’re about to leave high school. Cause I’m going through the journey of you. You performed at your high school graduation. Were people nice to you then or no?
JM: Yes I did. Yeah that around the time when I started to reveal myself as a guitar player and I was in a band and we had written a couple songs. We had written a song for graduation. I didn’t actually graduate that ceremony. So, I didn’t get enough credits to graduate. I had to go to summer school. So it was a really deep moment to play that song and walk off the field while the rest of my friends graduated and I walked home. How bluesy is that?
AC: Okay but just so everyone knows, six year later you’re a Grammy-winning artist?
JM: This part freaks me out. Chronologically speaking, this part is maybe one of the only aspects of my life that truly blows my mind.
JM: Because it’s such a short period of time that felt longer to me. I graduated in 1995, and six years later I was playing arenas. At that point I was playing clubs but I had an album out and that would end up wining Grammys and that was six years.
AC: So it didn’t really fucking matter that you had to go to summer school? You’re like, I didn’t need to graduate.
JM: No, and you know what I always think now is: people who get branded “misfit,” “loser,” you know, in some way developmentally disabled. No they’re not. They’re on some other track that they have no school for.
AC: I love that you’re saying that too because it goes back to what you said about, “I was sitting in that class and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I had to be there.”
JM: I was writing lyrics.
AC: It’s interesting to hear you say like, it’s so crazy to me that, six years after I graduate college I’m winning a Grammy for “Your Body is a Wonderland.” You were dating someone at the time that you’re writing this iconic song—
JM: No I wasn’t.
AC: You weren’t?
JM: No, that was about my first girlfriend.
AC: Wait, what?
JM: That was about the feeling, which I think was already sort of nostalgic. I was twenty-one when I wrote that song, and I was nostalgic for being sixteen.
AC: I thought it was about a different celebrity.
JM: No that’s one of those things where people just sort of formed that idea and it gets reinforced over the years. I never met a celebrity when I wrote that song.
AC: Did your high school girlfriend know you wrote that about her?
JM: That’s a good question. Maybe she didn’t.
AC: To this day?
JM: To this day maybe she didn’t. So if you’re my one and only high school girlfriend, that was actually about you.
And this happens a lot with songs. So I’ve made a rule. I guess I always had a rule that I wouldn’t tell anyone. I don’t write songs about people. I don’t write songs for people or about people. I might use a relationship that inspires me to write something. So yeah, even if I was writing a song because of someone, it’s like that goes away, and I’m left with the song. So I don’t like telling anyone that a song is about somebody, because most of the time it’s not, and it takes people away from themselves because they’re visualizing who I’m writing about.
Songs come out, they means things to people, sometimes people thing it’s about one person or another. Sometimes it hurts the song. Sometimes the song doesn’t do as well because people go, “well he’s just petty.” I go, it has nothing to do with that. But I’d much rather keep the sanctity of these songs intact and burn a couple of them because people think it’s about a person and it’s not, cause it’s really important—the most important thing in my life now are my songs. And so when I go play songs now, I’m playing songs that I see people in the crowd are reliving their life. It ain’t about anyone but the people I’m singing to. It’s now about their college years, it’s about their sick family member who died, it’s about their fight with cancer and how they beat it. These songs now for people are these weigh points in their lives. It’s not about any one person.
The first three records of my life was just like proving. Proving. And you should. And then you start hearing people tell you, “thank you. Your music got me through a dark time.” That’s so much deeper. I mean I definitely think everyone should have those proving years and enjoy them, cause I definitely did. “Now do you see?” And I had a lot that I had to get out when I first started. And it was obnoxious, to them. And I get it. And I think it explains a lot of younger people who have just hit the scene, who you’re like, “this person is obnoxious.”
I have a lot of grace for it because you never know how hard someone had to punch to get out of their town or their family or a relationship. And you just I think that's where—I got the "douchebag" title a lot. And I was trying incredibly hard, but I had been trying incredibly hard since I first played the guitar to get where I was trying to get. I couldn't get the message, like, "John, they like you just fine. They like you just fine."
AC: Yeah. I really appreciate you explaining it that way because I now too have a different opinion, especially maybe in the music industry or, you know, actors and actresses, like maybe the way that they are being perceived online and the way that they are acting probably is really not who they are. They are elevating to try and get the attention, to get the approval. And eventually as you see people in their careers—and you don't even have to be famous for this to happen, you could be doing it at your job, you could be doing it socially. You're trying to make a name for yourself, you're trying to have a presence. And it probably feels inauthentic, but you want to be seen, you want to be heard, you want to feel accepted, and that can lead to feeling like, "what, am I even being myself right now?" So I respect that.
JM: Yes. Thank you. That's what everyone goes through. Everyone, by the time they grow up, have grace for other people on the way up as they fight through those things. The people who are the most vicious, are the people who have yet to ask for grace, cause they don't need it yet. Because they still have this view of the world like, they're in total control and they're going to make all the right decisions for the rest of their lives, until they don't. And I feel like that's just something that everyone passes through.
AC: What do you cherish the most about the rise of your career?
JM: Oh, that's a great question. The rise or the where I am now?
I'll answer both. The rise is that it was during a really cool time. I don't think I would have had the same success I have now if I had begun three years ago. I think I would be trying and trying and trying on social media and trying to get things out there. I mean, there was just so fewer people doing things that you automatically had more people paying attention. So I'm really lucky that I came up when there were just fewer cars on the road in terms of making songs and having people pay attention to you and being seen. And now where I am now the greatest thing is that any idea that I have I can do. Any idea that I have. I feel like if there was a song idea I had for any musician in the world, I'd have a pretty good chance of them at least listening to it, and that's really interesting to me. That to me is the greatest thing, is like, the songs I have that I'll take for the rest of my life, but also any idea that I have I think any musician in the world would wanna go like, "I want to hear what Mayer has for me." So I feel like that's the idea that I could bring anything to life that came to mind, that's the ultimate for me.
AC: I'm interested, so as your rise to fame, how did your interactions with women change?
JM: That's a good question, and I think I saw the approval of women as being something that was like each time somebody liked what I did I felt like, because of the way I was brought up, that that was the only time that was going to happen. So I feel like I was made to believe growing up that if somebody liked me, it was pretty much an accident. And that should be capitalized on. And so I felt very deeply when somebody liked me. Very deeply. I think, look, the elephant in the room is that I'm on a show that caters to women, and I have a couple of nameplates on me, like "lothario" and "womanizer," and stuff, and I think, look, that is what that is, that's the role that I play on the big tv show that I didn't write, that's fine. Maybe I had a hand in it, or something, but I think people would be surprised to know that it was less me going like—you know the meme of the guy behind the tree? It was less this [rubs hands together], and more this [looks side to side, paranoid]. "Me?" "Uh, yeah." You know, because it was always set forth to me that like, that shouldn't happen.
AC: Right, like without dissecting into your childhood, a woman's approval and attention to you, clearly there was an insecurity within you that you perk up and would fight until the end to make sure you were getting to experience that as long as they were willing to give it to you. And you are like waiting for someone to give you the approval and breathe life into you essentially, and you loved a woman giving you attention or validation.
JM: Most of that is true and it's so true I won't even flat spin about that after this is over. Some thing are just too true for me to get upset about. That's remarkably true what you just said, except it was a little less overt in terms of me being, like, yeah keep going, keep going. Because I did invest myself, I did invest myself in relationships.
AC: What is it like for almost everyone in the world to know who you are?
JM: Because I don't really live exposed to all of it, I don't quite feel it, and I'm okay with it because it's linked to something that I have to do anyway. If I'm having a day where I don't like any of this stuff I can pick up a guitar and listen to myself play and go, that's why you do it. So the fact that this is all linked to something that I do objectively well, that I can listen to, I can write a song, I could play a song, I could play the guitar. That's what anchors me to all of this stuff. All of this is happening because I can play the guitar, write music, and sing in a way that people want to pay attention to. I can't imagine what this would be like if I didn't have that grounding element. And as I get older I have much empathy for people who are really well known but don't have something to hold onto like a buoy. My life gives me this buoy, which is, I could write a song, I could play guitar. It's tough even that way. But it's not like I'm famous from a thing that happened to me or a thing I was a part of that I was no longer a part of because the person who hired me for the thing didn't want me anymore. So it's very stable. I've come to terms with the fact that it's not gonna be another way.
AC: What's something that is currently keeping you up at night?
JM: Metaphorically keeping me up at night?
JM: whether I should put out a whole record as my next release, or one at a time. I can't tell. Put a record out, you get a record. Put a song at a time out, and you get repeated shots. Repeated looks at the ball.
AC: So why wouldn't you do that?
JM: I think I would probably put a song at a time out. I think.
AC: I think that feels right.
JM: I think a song at a time is right for this next record.
AC: Like I would love a record, personally, so I could like binge it. Little Netflix moment. But I get what you're saying—
JM: Yeah I'm not on a label anymore, and so that kind of keeps me up at night. That the next thing I do would seem to be—not being on a label feels a little bit like the next thing I do I have to prove myself.
AC: How is your writing going? Like, you write everything.
JM: I write everything. I mean that part is really fun, looking back on it, to have 100% ownership of the songs I've written. But it's hugely time consuming. Hugely time consuming. And as you get older, time gets more valuable, which makes this deep diving that I do feel a little harder. Because no matter how old you get, this stuff still takes a year to write. When you're one guy, and you want to sound like you're five guys, you've got to be yourself five different ways, and you can't do that all in one day. So the way you make music that sounds really complex is to hit it repeatedly on different days with different mindsets. Which takes a very long time. Very long time. You write a whole song, and you'll go, oh, I only needed that one verse which is actually the chorus to this thing, and that dies, and then this moves over to here. And I would never do it any other way. I would rather not put a record out then fall off, in that way.
AC: And when you're saying this, do you go to a recording studio?
JM: I go to a recording studio everyday, nine to five, I have a job. Without it, I would fall apart.
AC: How many people are in that studio with you?
JM: One or two. It's just me and an engineer. And an assistant sometimes. A guitar tech comes in and out. And I go home, I think about what I did that day, how I could make it better, I'm always writing, I bring a new thing in. Is this a thing? No. Is this a thing? Yes. Actually, no. Is this a thing? Yes. Actually, hell yes. They're all different experiences, and when you win, you go home feeling like a god. Did anyone see what I just brought to life today? I could not believe I still have it, I still have it. This is incredible, this is incredible. And then you have to go write another one, you go write another one, and you're stuck in the same slog that every other song was, and you go, I'm garbage, I don't have it anymore, I'm out, I'm done. And then you'll find another one, and I'm on top of the world.
Sometimes I'll write a song and it'll be really good and I go, just don't write another one for two or three days. Just relax because you're only gonna be as happy as the last thing that frustrated you.
[Plays "Slow Dancing In a Burning Room", beginning of "Why Georgia"]
When I came up with, "who says I can't get stoned," I think I was in bed, a little stoned, on a bed. And it was after having some fun, and that's when an acoustic guitar came out. It's so lame to do it before.
AC: Can you sing "Daughters"?
JM: And "Daughters," I think it may have been on this guitar, I wrote that in 2003, I was in New Zealand or Australia, and I was in the shower when I came up with it, and I got out of the shower naked. And skipped the next thing I had to do, which was a radio interview, I was like, I can't do this radio interview I have to write this song.
But what I like about "Daughters" is that, for all the tracks that people use for songs—and I love songs with a lot of tracks—but this is one of those songs where the whole song is on the guitar. This is the whole song of "Daughters." [strums intro chords to "Daughters"]
[Plays part of "Daughters"]
[Plays "Dreaming With a Broken Heart"]
JM: I haven't played that song in a while.
AC: That song got me through so much heartbreak.
JM: Yeah. I woke up one day, I was making Continuum, I woke up and I had had a dream about someone, and I had a crush on them the whole rest of the day because I had had a dream about them. Do you still have dreams where you wake up and you loved someone, and now you have a crush and you're all emotional for a day? It's the best feeling in the world, as you get older.
But I went to the studio, and they were working on something else, and I went and say in this big reverb chamber and closed the door, and I was like, I gotta work on this song. And that's all about the pain of having a dream about someone that you don't know but have a crush on or that you know and have a crush on. For me I didn't really know this person but just had a crush on them. I'll never say who. Because it's random, it's very random.
AC: Yeah, waking up is the hardest part. Wow.