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Interview with Steven Smith on Fuse

On The Record: Fuse

Steven Smith: As we've been swimming in all things John Mayer, preparing to come in and sit and talk, we've come up with four aspects of you that I think make sense. You've got singer/songwriter, shredding guitar player, comedian, and then the celebrity.

John Mayer: I think that's fair.

SS: Do you think that your attitude towards that is what enables you to "survive" in the celebrity world It just seems like you're not letting it get to you and you're having more fun.

JM: Well it's funny that you even say "survive." It really has all the power you give it. You use it in some sort of predatory sort of a sense that celebrity is somehow or another, capable of removing whatever it is that I've built as an artist. I've spent the last two years thinking about that and wondering that. But I think if Battle Studies comes out and is successful in people's minds, and they are able to connect as quickly and as closely as they did on the records before Battle Studies, then wouldn't that serve to say that you can survive anything that takes place in your life outside of music as long as your music is alright. That's the most exciting part of putting this record out is there aren't many people who fan out into four elements and ever are able to go back to their most primary one successfully. So I'm really returning to my primary element.

SS: So how has the internet changed your relationship over the years with fans?

JM: Well actually, I was lucky enough to sort of find an in, and I don't think it's really around anymore. Like whatever the new in is. Like for me is it was Napster. It was file-sharing, it was internet. Once I even got a record to get out there with. It was really a dynamic sort of growth. The interesting thing now is just sort of learning how to adapt and change your reasoning with how you use the internet while people go onto different parts of the internet, and different things like Twitter. This is just where the communication point is. And then, it takes a minute to figure out how can I use this in a really authentic way.

SS: But you pretty much used Twitter as a promotional tool. You talked about the album title, the first single on Twitter before the press release.

JM: Yeah, but I don't really think about promotion. I was actually thinking about this the other night. Like, "Will I want to get on Twitter and say, "Hey everybody, buy my album?" And it's funny because I don't want to do it and there's a lot of times I'm at places or with people that I know that would sorta up my Twitter profile as like someone who's wheeling and dealing, and out and about and meeting and greeting but that's always a time when I want to write something silly and non-descript in terms of where I am or who I'm with. There's something about using your Twitter to say, "Look who I'm with right now." I don't care who you stand next to. I care who you are, what you're doing.

So yeah Twitter turned out to be a really sweet, endearing thing. The question is like, how am I—I mean do I even tweet that it's out? I guess I should. But I just don't want anybody feeling like spoon feed.

SS: To me it just looks like it's just fun. The web.

JM: It is fun. It's like a little radio almost. It's even more radio than radio is.

SS: Sounds like an Elvis Costello song.

JM: [Sings like Elvis Costello]

SS: So you threw all these fun things on the web. Baking contests. Mayer craft carrier cruise. Wearing a thong. How much calculation goes into these or is it literally like Twitter, sometimes with jokes that you come up with that are like, "Let's do this. It'll be fun."

JM: Am I calculating in terms of how do I keep my profile high and things of the music. And the answer is like absolutely not. It doesn't work that way for me. I'm sure there are times where what I think is not me wanting attention actually turns out to be me wanting attention just in a different language. Because if I have a funny idea and I have a way to get it out. Then I usually end up putting it out. And I guess somewhere inside I want people to scratch their heads a little bit.

Like in the case of wearing green thongs it's like, really in all these situations, the X factor is the camera. Now the idea of going on a cruise that's yours and everybody's letting loose. And they want to see you let loose. And for your fans. Not that I'm saying that I'm so shocked that the picture got out but I live for that moment. I'm not living my life for the eventual photo spread or because of what it's going to look like tomorrow afternoon on Popsugar or whatever. On that boat, running around a lap in that crazy little getup is what you do to show your fans that you don't have take yourself that seriously. On a boat, in the middle of the ocean.

SS: You're discussing celebrity and surviving it, do you ever worry that with unnecessary coverage of you and your life, affects people's perceptions of your music?

JM: It's absolutely a concern. But if you gave me the choice of one or the other I still wouldn't change making the decisions that I will continue to make in my life. If it means that you're staying human and you're staying in touch and you're learning your lessons and you're, you know, rope-a-dopin' in life. Then everybody is gonna be alright because I'm gonna be alright. And I'm also gonna make music that continues to be from the heart. Because if you close your heart out, you're not able really to make music anymore you are just making tracks, you know.

[Studio "Waiting on the World to Change" plays]

SS: Do you censor a lot?

JM: Um, no. Actually there is a difference between censoring and just knowing better. If I'm complaining about something, and I am supposedly the guy who's got it all, then what does that say about somebody who is not in my position? It's like, people are always saying, I read on the internet, people are like "Oh, stop complaining and go hide behind your beautiful house and piles of cash." So I do now. I just have piles of cash around. And you know what? They're right. It works. It does work. It really, really works.


Standup Comedy, Battle Studies, Taylor Swift 

SS: Standup comedy. When you started doing that. I mean you're very funny. I would say that that's the more ballsier thing than being a musician. Being in stand up is the hardest. It's the absolute hardest. It's the absolute hardest. So what aspect of comedy did you say, you know what, I'm going to try that?

JM: It's really just a faster, close quarter combat version of song writing. You know, as much as I worry about how I'm going to get the first verse of each section to set you up knowledge wise so you know the chorus is about is the exact same way I'm trying to write a joke. So that I can set it up in one sentence and you'll know what I'm talking about. You miss, so many times you go on stage to do comedy and you know what you're saying in your brain but you don't say it into the microphone and you get nothing. And someone else has to come up to you who's a comic or something and say, "I know what you were trying to go for but you missed that word and that word and that word and nobody knew what you were talking about." So I really can defend wanting to get up there as a writer. You have a seed of an idea, how do you get to a place where people can consume it and understand it. It's just like being a song writer.

SS: Do you ever follow into that quandary of the writer that you will be having an emotional experience, something will happen and in the back of your head you are like, Oh this would really make a good song or joke or something.

JM: Absolutely. You know when it gets time to make a record or finish a record, you are seeing things as titles. You are breaking everything down to, Could that be a title, could that be a title? And really the songs that are worth anything are the ones that sort of come into you. I woke up one morning and went [Sings chorus of "Half of My Heart"]. You know that's just what you start with. You spend all day writing and writing and writing. That's how songs get written. When you have to be reminded that you are a famous musician who has to get his major label record out, that [knowledge] does not write songs.

SS: So where did the title "Battle Studies" come from?

JM: I was reading this book called, On Killing, and there was this reference to this book, the book was called "Battle Studies." And I really stopped and sort of turned towards the last three or four years of my life as a person, not as a celebrity but as a person. And sort of what everybody goes through at certain stage in their life which is really getting down into it so you can have a really peaceful next decade of your life. Sort of just instantly fused into how great it would be to call a record "Battle Studies." And actually I think it's the most universal record, thematically, that I have ever made.

SS: So now the record is coming out, what's your mood like? Cause you had an amazing Twitter about it if I may dive right in.

JM: Yeah, I'm right here but why don't you read those 140 characters I wrote two weeks ago.

SS: Excuse me. Two days ago.

JM: This is an efficient use of everybody's time.

SS: Two days ago. You wrote, "I'm at the point where I think to myself that this album is really great or really—either way, I'll be too busy to know it." Do you remember like what you were doing right then when you Tweeted that?

JM: I was probably so sort of burnt out from doing one thing or the other that I just took a Twitter break. A little Twitter break. And I've had a bunch of experiences making this record where when I went home, saying to myself, "Oh we are gettin' it. Oh we are just taggin' this." The other half the time I'll walk upstairs and I just feel like I am—I've done it. Continuum was it. It was a good run.

SS: What's the biggest difference in evolution from Continuum to this record?

JM: It's not as neat. It's purposely got some edges on it. Continuum sort of is all about this perfect record. The vocals are, you know, I sing them a thousand times. Make sure that each time you sing a line it is perfect. But Battle Studies is a lot more endearing in the sense that, it really feels like me, not on stage playing for you some of these songs, but like in your house playing for you. It's a little more intimate. Not to say that it's like a Neil Young record. It's closer to Neil Young record than a Sting record this time around.

SS: Now, the first single, "Who Says," has more of a Tom Petty type feel to it. Is that something you were going for?

JM: Yeah. Tom Petty and Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, you know, moving out to California to make the record I couldn't help but fall in love with that sort of really easy melodic straight to the point sort of a vibe. So that's how I knew that I wanted it to be my first single. Most people's first singles, most of my first singles, if not all of them, have been the biggest thing you can find on the record. What's the biggest, loudest, tallest, sort of largest thing you can find. And this was sort of like, I wanted to go under all of that. You have to go back to that place that's very pure and simple and connected. And so, "Who Says" was sort of like grabbing people by the collar and bringing them close again and going nope, it's just you and me.

SS: Taylor Swift. She's on your record. How were you introduced to Taylor Swift, how did you find her as an artist?

JM: I've written a song, keeping with the Tom Petty context, I've written a song that's straight up melodic to the point chorus and I was thinking, well if I, in my little imagination, am Tom Petty in a song, who's Stevie Nicks? And it was like, I'm very strange about getting other people to perform on my record because I feel like I want those records to be around forever. And I don't know what someone else is going to do in their life.

SS: So you choose a 19 year old?

JM: Yes, that's a good point. That just goes to show you how confident I am, that this is not a gimmick. It's not featuring so and so and so and so just to sell a record. That's evidenced by her coming in and us having a great time in the studio. And singing on a song that's a little less than a duet. But where she is, it's just fantastic.

SS: That was a great answer.

JM: Thank you, I saw you get stumped.

SS: I was just like, wow. I don't even know where to go now. Your fast and your dry articulate glib-ness couldn't even over come. That's my glib-ness that people find most appealing.

JM: Did you have to find the guy at the interview that was most like me?


SS: How would you, John Mayer, categorize your sound? The reason I ask is. When you go around on the website you have bands are like "I'm this and that and the other thing." On one website, it says John Mayer, Adult Alternative.

JM: Well who else is Adult Alternative? Can I calibrate it that way?

SS: You were it actually. 

JM: It's just me, a class unto myself.

SS: Just the Mayer alternative.

JM: I have learned to just roll with these tidal waves of classification. It's like, you know I don't want to be like one of those guys who is like, "It's like Stevie Wonder lived down the street from Jackson Brown and they hung out in Van Halen's basement." It's just like, Shut up.

SS: Jay-Z playing at Madison Square Garden. You came out, people are still talking about it.

[Shows video clip from performance]

Your performance was one of those moments where you were shredding. On your songs on some of your albums, you don't take it that level. Why is that?

JM: Being able to do it doesn't really all the time merit doing it. So yeah, there is a theoretical sort of high gear as a guitar player that I could go into. But it just doesn't really work for me all the time as the right thing to do. I have a lot more fun composing little lines and counterpoints and melodies and stuff.

For whatever reason, my internal meter doesn't rock that hard as a songwriter. But I can rock that hard as a guitar player, so when I hear Jay-Z's music, I see an opportunity to have someone else's songs bring out a different element of me as a guitar player.

JM: We both sort of had that rare moment of like musical hang time.

SS: You could tell on stage, it was really great.

JM: I really did use twitter I really invited myself to that concert, by saying I heard I couldn't stop listening to DOA and within a week we made contact and Jay had said to me, "You know, well I'm doing this show on September 11th as a charity event for the widows of the firefighters and policemen of 9/11." And it's so funny I went, "I'll be there let's do that, that sounds great." Not knowing or thinking that it's at Madison Square Garden. I'm just thinking it's like Randall's Island. I don't—it's just in my mind I'm not picturing that I'm saying yes to play at Madison Square Garden.

But as soon as I say yes to that stuff, somebody letting you in on their song, is like sacred ground for them. And so it begins this concept and this conceptualizing of what am I going to do on this person's song to make it better and not weigh it down.

SS: Are you a big hip-hop fan?

JM: I am a fan of hip-hop when its good. Like I'm a fan of jazz when its good. So I am a fan, call me greedy, I like the best artists from every genre.

SS: Speaking of good artists you played with legends. B.B. King, Eric Clapton. When you handle these guys, is there ever a thought in your mind of, "I'm a student, I'm gonna learn from these guys. Or is there a comfort of, "I can hang?"

JM: No, the only comfort that I have in those moments is knowing that I've at least spent enough time in what I call the Simulator. At home playing to B.B. King albums for years is being in a simulator. I tell myself, that I at least have put in enough time in the simulator to deserve an actual flight. But you have to at least tell yourself that you're not an accident that you're up there. Because from there you're just gonna lose all your confidence and not really be able to swing the bat.

SS: Another fabulous was the Michael Jackson Memorial Concert Thank you. You did "Human Nature."

[Shows video clip of memorial performance]

SS: Why just instrumental?

JM: Because I am not good enough to sing that song. It's not even in my range, but I don't have a restriction on range as a guitar player. I have a huge restriction in range as a singer. So I just figured if you could side step, to the point where you're not even singing, but you could sing on the guitar. That might be the only way I could succeed at it.  

SS: So you're going to be performing the day your album is released. Have you ever put on a show on a release day before?

JM: I think we did that on Continuum. The show at Roseland. The great part about going out on a new tour and having a new record out is that you sort of relieve the other tunes of their duty and having to be the record that you have out. It's almost like I can take the songs from Continuum now and repurpose them in other ways because they're not on deck. It's going to be fun. Nobody wants to come to the show and hear "Waiting on the World to Change" or "Say" the way that it was performed on the record. So it's really fun, you get to play new songs and you get to repurpose the old ones so that they're new.

SS: John Mayer.

JM: Steve.

SS: John.

JM: Far be it for me to say. That was a fantastic interview.

SS: Thank you. And it's Stev-en.

JM: If only I had known. We could have done that again. But I don't quite care.