Interviewer: John has released six studio albums, most recently Paradise Valley, and has won seven Grammy Awards, one more than our guest on Wednesday, Billy Joel. The event this afternoon will take the form of an interview, but we will have some questions from you at the end. Now, I know that some of you have been queuing since 12 o'clock, so I won't keep you any longer. Please welcome to the chamber John Mayer.
Interviewer: So the first question I wanted to ask this afternoon was, what made you decide to accept our invitation?
JM: I like the idea of not only coming to Oxford, obviously, to speak, but the idea of there being a place where you can be guaranteed that there's going to be a room of people who will understand the ideas or the concepts that you set forth. You can't always guarantee that your audience, whether it's four hundred people or two people at a dinner, are going to be receptive to the ideas or the concepts that you want to put out there. And so the idea of talking to a roomful of people, even if you're not music students, even if you're just curious minds, that's enough for me to be very excited about setting a time and place to enjoy not having to attenuate the ideas that I want to set forth, because somebody is from a different publication or a different outlet and I have to think about what their sort of containment is, and then work within it. I get a little bit cramped intellectually from doing that, so I like the idea of like, hey, meet at this time and place to talk to some smart kids.
Berklee, Early Career and Success
Interviewer: We'll live up to those expectations. You attended one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States, Berklee College of Music in Boston; what was that like and how has that shaped your career?
JM: Well, you know, I attended it—I always need to make sure that I add that I didn't go for very long. I went for a year. But it was really great, and it wasn't great in a way that would be reflected in any sort of transcripts, but that was music anyway. Music’s not supposed to be reflected in transcripts, necessarily. And it was really great to come from a town where I was one of the only two kids we even played a guitar and all of a sudden become assimilated into 5,000 guitar players. That was really interesting to go from the bedroom into a city that was, you know, basically this amalgam of just musicians, guitar players, drummers, singers—all these people want to do the same thing you want to do.
And for me it was like, I didn't really get into the curriculum at all, but the sort of humanity study of it all was what was really great for me as a musician because I got to see what everybody was gunning for, how everybody saw themselves, what the race was for, how everybody visualized what success was or how they visualized themselves. And so the first semester—I went for two semesters—in the first semester was a really rigid idea that I was going to be the best guitar player, I was just going to go to become the best guitar player. Then I realized that that's a very sort of like, there's no real way to define what that is anyway.
And so I went home for a Christmas break and really thought about what it was I wanted to do and realized oh I don't if you're a guitar player if you're only a guitar player who's trying to be the best guitar player then you're only fans are going to be fans of that sport you can't really transcend very few guitar players do and then I realized I remember saying to myself oh I want to be listenable you know I want to be listenable I want actually I remember thinking like I want this entire student body to become my audience you know and that flipped a switch and unfortunately didn't include Berklee so much in that mission statement anymore, but it was really great—I've made friends that I still have there and just being able to communicate in this very sort of singular language of having this dream with other people who also have that dream is a huge part of the picture of making it.
Interviewer: You might presuppose my next question, so you moved from Berklee in Boston to Atlanta. That’s sort of your way of trying to get into that new idea?
JM: Yeah I remember thinking I don't need the instructions anymore. Some people go for four years, “I get it, I get it, I get it, I get it, give it to me, give it to me, I got it, I got it stop reading, stop reading the manual stop, reading the manual, I get it, I get it.” And from there, cause I started writing songs when I was at Berklee. See I started ditching class to write songs at Berklee and I guess looking back on it I needed the fuel of that sort of rebellion to kind of push off from and really become something. So I was sleeping through classes and staying up at night recording demos in my room and then I realized, oh I get it this is what I got to go do.
And I had made a friend there who lived in Atlanta and said “hey let's withdraw together and go the in act in Atlanta.” And so we did and I remember the day I walk down the street in Boston and I went and I withdrew and they give you a sheet of paper. The canary copy is there's, pink copy’s yours. See you later. And I walk down the street with it going like, what have I done?
And I remember I walked into a bump into my one of my guitar instructors who was like “I don't see you in class anymore," and I said “yeah I'm not going to class any more lately.” And I said I just withdrew as a matter of fact. And the very first moment that I learned possibly I was going to be okay was he said “well man, you're a phenomenal player and if you—" sort of like, when your teacher says to you, yeah I get it, hit the road man. Go do it. That was really huge. He said "if you ever need to come back I'll change your grade, but go get it done."
JM: And I remember thinking at that point, okay this is not the dumbest thing I've ever done. And moved down to Atlanta, and that's how these things happen. They're hipshot, rogue, loose cannon things that happen. They're not ever these very specific architectural perfect moves. I move down to Atlanta; I had no car, I was riding perpetual shotgun with my friend. Didn't drive anywhere. You know, asking your best friend for rides it's very taxing after a while. And then just started from there and you know look to play to 30 people and that turns into 90 people and then you sell out a place that holds 180. And you keep going from there.
Interviewer: Was that sort of a gradual progression, or was there a moment when you thought wow I’ve got it now. When was the lift off, or was there lift off?
The lift off was so gradual and so perfectly stepped for me, which actually we will review in a later chapter about how that can actually be bad for you eventually, but every month was significantly better than the last. For five years, every month was just better than the last in terms of the up ticks. So I mean, we went from — I remember 1999 my goal was to sell out this place called Eddie's Attic before Christmas and that place held 180. And we did it, and I did it. And I went, I've made it. And that's no different than when I was a kid saying “oh this is a G chord!” Or selling out Royal Albert Hall, or selling out the O2. All you're doing is just scaling up the expectation or the goal, but the feeling is exactly the same. And so 1999 I was playing to 180 people, 2000 I had a record deal, 2001 put a record out and was touring the country, 2002 had my first two or one Grammy Award playing to, I think at that point probably six/eight thousand people a night. And then it just kept going up and up and up and up. And like I say, that it’s mostly a good thing when you have that opportunity.
The problem is you don't realize what it is that you have because there's no reason to expect or assume that that's crazy. Well it is crazy.
Interviewer: There’s no shock factor.
JM: Yeah, there's none. There's no reason to believe that you can't get out as many eggs from the goose as you just asked for, because there was really a period of time where you would just point to the scoreboard and nail it. What you then later on in life do is you have to realize, whoa that was rare, it was an incredible opportunity, it was an incredible moment. Basically it comes down to, that never happens to people.
But you don't know when it just happens to you.
The lens and the sphere of your own life always feels casual and quotidian — I got in “quotidian”! US Weekly doesn't put “quotidian” in when you say it. And so by, not virtue, but by just the simple fact that it happens to you it's just you pass it “this is what happens to people.” And then I realized wow this was an unbelievable trajectory that just kept going. It's like a craps roll and it's like a 45-minute craps roll.
Musical Influences, Bob Dylan
Interviewer: So throughout your career you've played sort of in many different styles like only you have an incredible sort of diversity and range—
JM: Thank you.
Interviewer: You're welcome.
Broadly you've sort of moved from acoustic rock to sort of a blues genre, is that fair to say?
JM: Yeah, I was always doing both, yeah.
Interviewer: Do you have a favorite, any particular reason for the change?
Well I've always loved both, right, so I grew up in the golden era of the eighties, and this is where I have to really tread lightly because I don't want to put any music down. But in the eighties, there was better music. [Laughter] There was just more—it was more music per square inch in the music. So it's very rare nowadays to have a hit song also be musically complex. They're almost sort of antithetical to one another. But in the eighties the biggest hit in the world could be one of the most well composed, beautifully played things. Like, you know, Genesis, and The Police, that's really complex stuff, Stewart Copeland playing the drums. If The Police came out today they wouldn't be popular for some reason or another because of the way they play. They’d sort of intimidate the listener, you know. And so I grew up in a household where just the normal everyday turning the channels you were hearing really incredible well-composed, well-performed music. So I was always weaned on that. I always came up on what I didn't realize was very dense music composition.
But then I discovered guitar. So that was the other half of this thing was like I always loved pop music, and I always loved Huey Lewis and the News. Huey Lewis and the News is a blues band! Phil Collins is an R&B freak. There was a strain of musicality of a heritage R&B, blues—really a strong presence there. Then when I picked up the blues this sort of became the big quest in my life, and the answer is to put them both together. That's when I'm the happiest.
If you ever see me do a blues thing, it's because I did too much pop thing. Yeah and I really shouldn't have to do that if I compose correctly. I should be doing both at the same time. And in all the songs that I look at on a setlist every night and go I can't wait to play that those are the songs where the mix of the two is perfect, and when I hit it it's fantastic, and when I don't I have to play one song after the other to get the same effect. So I have to actually play a pop song and then a blues song to get that same effect. That when I am at my best I can play one song that combines the both of—
Interviewer: Like in the eighties.
JM: Like in the eighties. Yeah, I mean no one thinks that stuff is corny. It survived because it still was connected to the heritage of—even metal bands right, like you could take a metal band, the guy had hair out to here, you can say well those guys were sitting on the edge of their bed for hours. They were sort of the original nerds, they were the original cool nerds. All these guys from Rat and Poison and they were shredding. And shredding means sitting in a room yelling, “Mom! I’m practicing!” For hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. And I really think that ethic was very important.
Interviewer: So did you ever see yourself revisiting some of your earlier styles for sort of the days of the John Mayer Trio? Anything along those lines?
JM: Yeah, you know I suffer from the curse of options.
Interviewer: It's not a bad curse to suffer from.
JM: It is if you only have a life expectancy of like, eighty—what is it now, seventy nine point five or something for a guy? And if you're a rock star it's, you know—
JM: Thirty-four. [Laughter] I'm living on borrowed time. For me it's like, you know most people have time management problems in a day or a week and I think sometimes I stress out because I have like time management problems in a lifespan. And so I get frustrated with touring. How many years am I really going to have where I'm fertile and good at this, and do I want to spend seventy five percent of those years on the road?
So it's really hard. It's kind of my biggest challenge. I think it's actually, if I were to like self diagnosed here, it's been a little bit of the problem as to why people have difficulty understanding slash appreciating who I am as an artist because I haven't necessarily made the statement and restated it and restated it and restated it so that people could all get on board with the same statement. Because I need to do the next thing that moves me so that I can move forward and keep evolving, I think sometimes by the time people go to the breadcrumbs I lay out for one thing I'm already gone.
And so that's really not been great for me commercially, but I think artistically I think you'll just have to sort of look at it all from an aerial view and go, well okay I'm giving up sort of being the most popular thing of the day to sort of write this much longer sort of script. Which is, wow that's a guy who's looking at the letters in the word going "oh G, oh I don't know about G this year," but if you zoom out you can see oh there's something actually being composed here of a larger sort of sloth.
I will let you into this when I when I was home for a long time and I had nothing to do I got a little insane but also kind of brilliant in a weird like get off my lawn sort of way.
I was very intrigued by Bob Dylan and how for every point you can make about why Bob Dylan is brilliant, you could make another counterpoint as to why you would never want to include Bob Dylan in your dreams of being a musician. Because of one reason or another. It's just a great thing to do to look at somebody that you really admire almost to the point of, you know, obsession, and humanize them and break it down and look at it. Instead of looking at something thirty years after its heyday where everything gets crystallized into brilliant, awesome, he went electric and everybody went, "boo" and he went, "yeah take it!" and the world went, "yeah we love it."
Well you have to break that down and get into it and look at it linear, look at it like you're in that moment looking forward. So I went to Wikipedia, [Laughter] and I took every single record he ever put out, the year it came out, and the top chart position that it got to, and I graphed it. It went from like one to seventy-something so that was how wide it was. And I went across this way and this thing goes like, it looks like an EKG going across. Now if you're only honing in on one moment from where it goes from three to twenty on the chart, it's moving about a half an inch. But if you have just put a record out that has underperformed, quote-unquote, so that now you've slipped. Imagine going from three to twenty this year. The press will eat you alive, he's done, your label will drop, they'll say he's a has been, never mind, good night, on to the next guy. Oh, these three clones, one's a DJ, other one does backflips," oh that's really impressive, fine.
But your attention will shift. But if you look at it like this, that becomes the most impressive shape your career can possibly take. One, four, twenty, four, seventy, seventy-four, thirty, one. That's to me I think the way that you can be around forever is not to do whatever it takes to hook yourself to the number one position, because if you do that then the constant is number one at the expense of the variable being whatever it takes to be number one. And that's also a ticket out. It's a ticket out.
At least it's compressed enough the way the world works where my last record came in at number two, that's incredible. I had a cake with a number two made.
So that nobody forgot around me that number one, I'm not upset and I will never be upset at chart position. I'm going this way [gestures horizontally] not this way [gestures vertically]. And also so everyone else could realize that their hard work is still paying off. This jockeying for real estate in people's minds every single day it's highly impatient and I find that I think impatience is a turn-off.
Post-Paradise Valley, Throat Condition, Montana
Interviewer: So without asking you to sort of divulge anything, where—you know you've spoken about your variations—where are you heading now?
JM: I don't know if you know this, most people don't have to ask me to do that. Where am i heading now?
Interviewer: Yeah, after Paradise Valley?
JM: Starting to think about it. I have not written a song since "Wildfire," which was like the very last thing that went on the Paradise Valley record. That was like June . I think I need to make a record that sort of brings everything back into focus. I've really enjoyed and I still enjoy the sort of simplicity of some of these compositions, but I feel like it's time to make a record that takes a while. Although Born and Raised took quite a while, Born and Raised was a very well-thought thing. Paradise Valley was my first experience and experiment with, Hey here's a bonus record, you can't hate it because it wasn't supposed to be here anyway so, good. But then I realized that does make a statement, people do clock that.
So I think what I need to do, sort of keeping with the previous conversation, I think that I've got to make a record that is the ultimate sort of "here I am." So I think it's time to go back and, you know, it's like in the movies where the the ex-marine grows the long beard and long hair and takes off to like Tibet or something. And then there's always a moment he's like "I don't do that anymore." And then he shows up at the Pentagon and totally clean shave and he's like "where do we start?" I may be shaving the beard soon.
Let's really take time and put together the blues, R&B, soul blues ethic, the guitar playing thing, which I've never really been super excited about. Purposefully having guitar histrionics, it's never really been —
Interviewer: Not shredding.
JM: Yeah, exactly. Because when I went to Berklee I saw people do it, but I do think that I'm getting kind of this place in my life where, if you can man, just do it. I had this moment where my youth I was really frenetic and everything was like whatever, and then I hit this mode where it was like, less is more. And now as I get into my later 30s I'm like, if you can do it do it all the time. Do it all the time. As long as you can do it. Just shred. Show people what you can do. So it's a sort of this arc of how fancy you think you find yourself to be.
Interviewer: On that note, and I was speaking to Michael about this earlier, I know that you had some throat surgery not too long ago and that was difficult and obviously you're speaking perfectly fine today. [Do] you want to talk a little bit about that? I know you've had to do some botoxy stuff.
JM: "Botoxy." I had botulism inserted into my neck by way of a hypodermic syringe.
Interviewer: That's, um, unfortunate.
JM: It worked. Immediately it worked. The one thing I learned was that medicine the world of medicine doesn't know everything. It's not a complete map. Not every single area of that globe has been charted. And you don't know that til you hit something and you go "oh we don't have any idea where we are right now." You know when a doctor tells you—I remember the first guy I really talked on the phone about it he went "oh boy." When the doctor goes "yeah you got one kid. This is a tough." And then when doctors give you like nine options and each option kind of cancels out the next one and the one before it.
You get to that like, what would you do if you were me thing. And really all it was was just this abrasion in my throat. Because of where it was my throat kept working working, singing singing, talking talking. It wouldn't heal. It was like having a cut on your hand they said, and just not stop clapping. So the first thing was with an operation that tried to cut it out hoping that the healing would be easier. I don't know. Then I met a guy who said here's what we do we shoot you up with Botox, it paralyzes the vocal cords so you can't clear your throat, you can't close them even if you tried. And I said great, when does that happen? And he says right now.
At that moment it was like I really thought about athletes. Athletes, they work at the highest level of physicality that a human being can have. So in a way these two little muscles right here sort of like being a basketball player, or football player. Your football.
I know my audience.
[Interview]: Good save.
JM: Thank you. Actually I was thinking Arsenal, when I said I only know one team it's Arsenal. Where if you're performing at this high-level, and what I mean by high level I mean sort of these large stages where there's there's crowds of 25,000 people each night I thought immediately in that office thought about athletes and athletes sort of hand their body over to the team. Yeah cut the knee out, whatever you like, take the cartilage out, whatever you need I'll be back in two years. I thought about Peyton Manning who had a neck issue and wasn't on the field for a while, thought about Kobe Bryant who continually has problems with his fingers. You know, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh's knee or something like that. Your body is sort of now handed over to this sort of Olympian level thing that you do. So if something happens to it you don't really necessarily have a say or even have a self that embodies that.
So I was like yeah, we got to do it. And so they actually injected it through the neck from the outside. He feels around and then he goes and pushes it through—you feel the needle go through the neck, through your throat [makes noise] and then again he's like "okay that's that side".
And in those moments you stare at whatever the dumb picture on the doctor's office wall is or you stare at some arbitrary thing and it becomes sort of, you have this bond with it because you're staring at. And this is what you have to say to yourself: I love music. I love singing. I love doing this. I'll see you later, I'll do it again, we'll be back. I love this too much. And it's no different than getting that slip from Berklee going like this, I love music. They're leaps of faith because you want to do what you love and you have no other choice but to move forward because backwards is screwed. You just burnt backwards down. There's no backwards anymore.
And then in a way sometimes I think we do that so we don't leave ourselves an option, there's no debate. It's this way because there's nothing back there, there's all F you back there. So I never really freaked out. I had a difficult time but I knew I love music, I love singing, I love being an artist. And I'm also in some odd way somewhere in the middle of my own biography that will say "and then in 2011 he had this," and if you sort of commit to the extremes that I do in my life, I realized very early on that I was going to commit to extremes. Then one of the extremes as well as getting a Grammy on your second year of playing on stage is also going to be having an ailment that's going to take you out of the game for a minute and it's when you realize that, oh okay so there's sort of this balance that's happening overall and it's it's not happening here it's happening all the way to the left and all the way to the right there you go that's a crazy way to live you know but I'm sort of signed up for the ride now present company and experience included here because this is really out of my element.
Interviewer: I know another big change you made; you move to Montana. You try to get away from everything, you try to get a sort of a rural setting. What was that like, why'd you do that? And did that help you musically?
JM: It was great. It was perfect. It saved my life.
JM: Yeah because I wouldn't had much of a life if I was still in my head the way that I was a couple years ago. And it saved my life because it took me out of this perceived noise, this perceived action/activity, this perceived war that didn't exist. And it said "you sit here." And I did it, I said I'm gonna sit there. And it's really hard at first to feel the fear of missing out and sit through it. But in a way I had to the help because there's nothing to do anyway.
I wouldn't have been able to keep myself in the woods if I could have gone played, because I would have just looked to going to play to get the boost that I needed to get. And that's the way my whole life went and in a way I'm really glad that's happened to me because all I would do is book a show. If you hurt someone's feelings, if you did something like in your personal life where you haven't called a friend back in forever and they chewed you out, or if you feel bad about yourself when you should. Right?
You feel bad about yourself in a moment that would probably provide you with some sort of perspective and learning and you go "not going to feel it, let's go play." Then you're denying yourself growing up. And I could always pick up a guitar and I could always be great and while I was playing I could say "why do I ever worry about what anybody thinks?" And then of course we take the guitar off you're just raw nerves.
And so because I couldn't just go rely on that as my protection I had to really sort of grow up in the interim that I had been successful for all at once. And when I figured it out I was like thank god I still have a career after figuring it out, because a lot of people figure it out when they don't have a career. A lot of people go "I get it! Let's do a show." And they go "nobody likes you." So that was really great to get away.
Some of the greatest times in the world were like coming back into LA but knowing what I knew, not just about the world anymore, but like knowing what I knew about where the mugs are, or like where the dog lays, or like when sunset is, or like where you have to go [to] see the greatest view. And I had something that belonged to me which I'd never had because I always belonged to something else. I always belonged to an idea of making it. World domination. Why not keep doubling down, because I turned eight hundred into sixteen hundred and sixteen hundred and thirty-two and thirty-two into sixty-four and that allowed me to stop and go, "about time to become a person". And I had a rapid sort of deceleration. And then once I got that slow I was like I now have an advantage to my life as a [applies air quotes] celebrity. Cause you're not full of it if you put [air quotes].
That gives me such a leg up because I now can—I don't want to say this the wrong way—but I kind of appreciate nonsense instead of take it on as the enemy. I sort of appreciate it as something I know how to turn off. Because I just have a no gossip no magazine TMZ bla bla bla rule at my house because I might as well not have a gate. If you let people into your mind like that you might as well not even have a gate. Celebrities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on security and then get on the internet every morning and look at all this stuff online that makes them feel terrible. And it's like, they got in. They got in over the fence.
And so if you're really going to live well—[it's] so important to not have unwanted visitors.
Interest in Design, Continuum
Interviewer: I think I'm right in saying there was sometimes when you've considered quitting music. Is that true?
JM: Yeah. There was one time in particular yeah.
Interviewer: And studying design or something's always been a passion of yours?
JM: Yeah, I really love design. Actually, I'd just finished making Continuum. Handed it in, and my manager played it for the head of the label, and I was [like], "what'd he say, what'd he say, what'd he say," and the call—I remember where I was—the call came in, and he said "uh, he doesn't hear anything on it, he doesn't hear a hit. [He] wants you to go back and write some more stuff." And I was just like, how can you not hear how special this record is. And I just thought, if I can't do this, I'm done. And the record went on to be really, really successful. And my most successful record to date, I think, and it taught me a big lesson which is, like: listen to someone's record twice before you give a point of view on it. So now if anyone ever plays me a song, I go, "play it again." People a lot of times assume what it is they must be saying to you.
But I thought, I'm just going to go to Parsons and I love design and I love where it's heading, and I want to have something to do with it. And I'm still amateur at it.
Interviewer: And how long did that feeling of disillusionment last for?
JM: A couple days. [Laughter] But then you pick yourself up off the floor. But look I didn't say like, I'm gonna quit music and go smoke crack. I said I'm gonna quit music and go to school. Which I would have promptly dropped out of to start my own design company. Because I have to do those kind of things. I can't actually follow the curriculum.
But design's weird now. I wouldn't want to be a designer right now because it's going through its pop phase. It has to or whatever. But I wouldn't want to be a designer now with the sort of celebrity aspect of what design now means. Which I wouldn't want to be a part of. I actually do design stuff and I won't tell you what it is because I should not need to. You know what I mean? You should like it on your own. So I'm still very interested in it, but I never wanna have a "John Mayer" line of something. I wouldn't want to win that way or lose that way. [Laughs] I want to lose fair and square. "They didn't know it is you, they just didn't like it." Okay, I can learn from that.
Interviewer: Without putting you into too awkward a position, what is the work, the song, the album of which you're most proud. That sounds so corny.
JM: No, it's not corny. Well I know now that Continuum is the record that was sort of the best representation of what I could do. It's really cohesive, it was really in-the-moment. It was also a time in my life where I was very open-minded. I wasn't self-protective. I was still riding my bike down Venice Beach and I wasn't worried who was taking my pictures. I wasn't guarded, I guess you should say. But I will say—and I think it could be believed now because it's not, like, my latest record—Born and Raised was the most incredible experience I ever had making a record. Doesn't have to be someone's or everyone's favorite for me to be able to tell you that discovering that record—by way of each and every song coming out and going, Oh I have you now—that was really a remarkable time. That's when I needed music the most, and that's when being a composer really came in and made me feel great.
Songwriting, "Who You Love", and Work with Veterans
Interviewer: What's it like writing new songs, and what is your goal? Did you have a starting point? Do you start with lyrics or start with the music, or does it just sort of happen?
JM: It's hard to explain. I know it's different for everybody. I've never written a sheet of lyrics and gone in and sang them. There's a certain kind of arrogance that I've trained myself to have where I take a song that doesn't exist and I pretend it into existence by way of the arrogance of forgetting that that's not really a song yet and playing it like it is. "Arrogance" is sort of a fun word to pick, but it's really so hard to explain. You're like sneaking up on this feeling and once you find it—it's like lucid dreaming. It's like, you got to be wise enough to know you're in the dream to control it, but not too excited while you're controlling it to wake up from the excitement. So you realize you got something and you're like, "give me a pen, give me a pen," and you can't break the trance, because if you break the trance from excitement then you don't have it anymore.
And so really what it's about is playing playing playing, hearing when something's happening, but not letting your hands stop, and letting it keep going. So you have to encourage yourself and persuade yourself. And when the arrogance comes in is, like, "everything you're doing is great, everything you're doing is great, everything's great, everything's great, you're badass, you're so badass, that doesn't suck," because that's not the time to tell yourself it sucks anyway! Because you don't know.
So it's really interesting to go into that pure make-believe of "wouldn't it be cool if I had a song that went like [sings upbeat pentatonic melody]." I don't know, let's try it, that fast. That's just a thing off the top of my head. And if you can get that, if you can not be scared of that then it's really an incredible moment to just continually throw yourself in these moments.
Co-writing is very hard for me sometimes. I don't do it most of the time because if you have a different writing style, a lot of times I come off very overbearing. Not like I haven't today, but sometimes it can throw someone off. And I can always tell that we'll never finish the song when they go, "I'm gonna finish this at home." No you're not. The way that I do it is to go into a moment and fight the emptiness of the moment for something.
Interviewer: That neatly brings me on to my next question which is about collaborations. I know your most recent single "Who You Love" is of course a duet written and performed with Katy Perry. What was that like to do, to write, to perform, and how is that different from your other collaborations? I know you've collaborated with Frank Ocean as well on the recent album.
JM: That's a good question. Well I wouldn't have brought her a song if I didn't think it was going to be great. She wouldn't have said that she would do it if she didn't think it was going to be great. So it was a completely artistic transaction. I think the power of the song protected me certainly—I don't know about her—but protected me from the feeling of it being a little too cute. I certainly didn't say—and this is where directionality of an idea really comes into play—that song would have been completely different if I'd sat there and said, "hey let's do a duet!" Would I ever have written "Who You Love?" No, it would have been something completely different.
And so you can have two people in a room doing something that—the mission statement could be the same in two different situations, but if the directionality of the idea comes from a pure place—if you're just playing and I go, "hey, I think I got a song for you,"—then the quality or, the the "dignity" of a song can explain a lot about: "why did you do a song with your girlfriend?" The dignity of the song itself and the quality of it sort of stands up for—
Interviewer: The song explains why.
JM: It explains why we would have gone in the studio to do that, but it certainly wasn't hair twirling, like, "you know what we should do?" Because we both know there's more reason not to do that.
Interviewer: I've got one question before we take some questions from the audience. You're heavily involved with charity work, and you're heavily involved with supporting veterans charities. I know that one dollar out of every ticket you sell go through a veteran's charity. What made you get involved with those charities specifically?
JM: I gotta be very honest, I wondered—and I've never told anybody that's before—but I always wondered was there something wrong with me and that I didn't have a charity. Am i a cold, heartless son of a bitch because I don't have a charity. I don't have a cause. I hear other people talking about it but I'm not talking about it. Am I cold [and] dead inside and everything is just about me. And then in about 2007 I went with a friend of mine who was an Israeli Krav Maga instructor down to a military camp military base in North Carolina. And I didn't go as a celebrity. There were no cameras. I went in under the radar, I was wearing fatigues and I was there on a whole different capacity.
And what I saw was so stirring and moving. What I saw was never going to be presented to me in any other way that I was going to find on television or the internet. This was not converted into media information, it wasn't streamlined, it wasn't compartmentalized, it was a real feeling. I had a real experience with this culture. And from then on I went "this is this is it for me." This is where my passion involuntarily gets lit up for this. Part of the reason it's great is because I was slightly involved on the fringes of the sort of green movement, sort of carbon footprint—The Inconvenient Truth year, but found very quickly that people who don't want to sound—not everybody—people who would like to continue their inaction on something, the easiest way to do that is to argue the existence of it. I didn't break the vase because there is no vase. You know what I mean, like this really highly philosophical thing of like "there is nothing to fix" is a really great way to ignore the question of "if there was, how would we fix it?" And I was very discouraged by that. Secondarily, it was wasn't my first thought, the cause of caring for returning combat veterans was, wow this is a debate club, this is a fantastic way to corner someone in a debate because you have to then move on to the next question "how would we fix it?" You can't deny the existence of it.
It's one of the very few things that is cause or movement or a call to a call to action that you can't continue to lull yourself into inaction by saying "I personally believe it doesn't exist. And don't you encroach on my personal beliefs because in my belief system it doesn't exist. And do you want to go down as being someone who argued my belief system because they're my beliefs." There's no way to put your energies into that, you have to then talk about what there is to fix. There's no controversy. You end up sounding like a dick any way you put it other than "what can I do to help?" And that was very interesting to me and that was very compelling to me in addition to obviously seeing that there was this incredible need, I mean it is glacially large as a need. The number of people returning and the depth into their life, the relative shallowness into their lifespan they are.
They are in the first quarter of their life. They're twenty-two years old. You can't tell someone who's twenty-two that they're condemned to their experiences for the rest of their life. You couldn't tell anyone in this room that you're condemned to your experiences for the rest of your life. But to a lot of these guys and girls coming home, the sort of template here is, "once a vet always a vet." However you are when you get home that's it. And if you can't be inspired by looking at that sort of metric and go, Wow we've got the resources, the money, the time, and the sort of infrastructure to do it, let's just do it. This is the easiest thing to do. You'd have to then admit, I don't want to help, get up and leave. Which I would be very excited to see one day, just somebody totally implode under that.