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Interview on World Cafe

Interview with Talia Schlanger on World Cafe (NPR)


John Mayer releases his new album, The Search For Everything, in its entirety Friday. When we spoke last week, he called it "the chronicle of my discovering and reconciling pain."

Mayer's been delivering the record in waves — two waves of four songs each, including the singles "Love On The Weekend" and "Still Feel Like Your Man," have already come out. The look and sound are totally different than the last couple albums Mayer put out: 2012's Born And Raised and 2013's Paradise Valley both had Laurel Canyon vibes, but The Search For Everything is a big, shiny return to pop from a man who's won seven Grammys and sold more than 30 million records around the world. It's also beautiful, heartbreaking and a stark reminder that even though Mayer's made headlines in the past couple years for the celebrities he's dated, or things he's said, he is first and foremost a talented musician.

Mayer is currently on an epic tour to showcase the new record. Last Friday, he let World Cafe crash his dressing room at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly before his concert. You can listen to our full chat above, and check out an edited transcript below.


Talia Schlanger: This is a record that people are calling a pop record.

John Mayer: Hm, my version of it, yeah.

TS: We haven't heard from you for a few years; what you offered before was a little rootsier, a little more Laurel Canyon-esque. Was this a deliberate choice — to dive back into the pop machine?

JM: Yeah. I don't think that I took a break from it because it was a machine, I think I took a break from it because my ears get tired. Not just from recording a record, but from touring for so long.

TS: So it was a deliberate decision to take a break from pop for a little while to begin with?

JM: I think it's a decision to take a break from that sound. ... I started listening to Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) and Neil Young and The Band, and I'm just nervy. And I listen to stuff, and I don't like the fact that I'm not doing it. ... It almost literally gets under my skin and I can't stop moving and I get antsy and I go, "Let me at it."

And so it's not necessarily like, "oh, I can't take the pop thing anymore." It's more like the excitement [of] "Ooh, let me at that first crack." I want the first crack. You know what I mean? I don't want the seventh album, I want the first album of its kind. So then when it came time to do The Search For Everything, it was like — hey, let's just make the best of what we've done so far. It's almost like our greatest hits, but not for the songs themselves — for sort of the process. This is like — this is the best of what I'm able to do as a writer.

TS: Was there one song that started it all, where you're like, "Oh yeah, this is the inception of what this album is supposed to be"?

JM: That's a very good question. There were a few. There were a couple of weeks in the very beginning of making this record that were astounding weeks. Astounding writing weeks. The songs wouldn't stop. I started frightening myself.

Each song just made me write another song. I had this run where I was like — this is about forgetting that we're making a product and just writing. I wanna go so deep that it transcends the traditional contract of "musician who is known goes in studio and makes songs for his waiting public." I drilled so much deeper than that, it was like — there is no public right now. There is no musician. There is no star, there is no nothing. It was almost like there is no John Mayer.

And then I realized from that point on, it better either make you hurt or make you feel something or make you move, but it can't just be music for music's sake at this point. So a lot of stuff didn't make it either because it wasn't true or it was a little bit too ambitious. ... I had one song on here that sounded like a Black Keys song, and it was awesome until I started singing on it. And then I would listen back it, and lest anyone believe that I'm way into myself — I mean I'm way into myself, but I don't love myself, but I'm literally into myself.

TS: What do you mean?

JM: Well, like, I'm about myself, I'm self-centered, but I don't think everything I do is great. But I think about everything I do all of the time.

TS: Well, we all do — we're all humans. But do you feel like you do that more?

JM: More, all the time. All I do is think about what I do. Horrible, it's a horrible existence.

TS: Uh oh.

JM: But then I'll go in the studio, and I'll come back and listen and I'll go, "Oh, that is a great drumbeat. Listen to that guitar tone. Listen to that --" and then when I sing on top of it, I go, "I don't believe that for a second." And so I don't finish it because I don't buy it. Like if I don't buy it, no one else is gonna buy it. I go, "That's not me."

TS: So you said that a song has to make you feel something or hurt. Which one on The Search For Everything makes you feel the most?

JM: Oh, "In The Blood."

TS: Oh, good, I'm glad. I wanna talk about that one. Tell me about it.

JM: I won't talk too much about it ever, for some reason. I guess I made a deal with myself that if I was gonna go that honest on a song, I wasn't gonna necessarily be a liability to it and color it in. But suffice to say that when I heard that one come back, it was like, holy — had a fist in the air.

TS: When you're writing, you're just trying to hear a part of yourself that you can identify — identify itself to you. When I listened to that back, it was like an anthem for me, about me, and I went — I just had a fist in the air for any time it would play, I'd just be like — there it is.

JM: Yeah, but I don't want that to be heard by somebody as pride, [as if] there's a lot of hubris in this song. "In The Blood" is like a pleading — a pleading or reckoning or wondering if you can be the person that you want to be.

It's turning around and pointing at yourself and going "What's in there?" It's a certain time in your life where you just want to turn yourself upside down and shake everything out and go, "Where's the loose change? What is in here?"

TS: There's a lot of love on this record, it sounds like the search for the one thing or the one person. And you've been writing about love and relationships a lot.

JM: My whole career, yeah.

TS: I'm wondering if there's a difference, like in the early days when you write a song like "Your Body Is A Wonderland" or "Why Georgia" or "Dreaming With A Broken Heart" — it's only your friends or your family who know who this is about. And I don't wanna play the proper noun game — I'm not interested in that — but I do want to know how that changes the process, when you have people out there who are gonna speculate and guess who songs on this record are about. Do you have to approach the writing in a different way?

JM: I think I've always done a very good job of converting personal information into universal songwriting. And like I've said before, if I do a good enough job of writing the song, people aren't going to be distracted the whole time the song is playing. Ultimately, you want people to not care about anything that led to the song. You want them to care they've got it, you want them to care that they've got something to jam to or relate to. When I wrote "Stop This Train" — that song means a lot to a lot of people and I've learned that over the years, and that means a lot to me — they're not thinking about my parents, they're not thinking about Richard and Margaret Mayer, they're thinking about their parents.

So when I say, "Still Feel Like Your Man," I think people understand the directionality of that in terms of a singer singing to an idea, but that's where it ends. And then people listen to it and they think about who they still feel connected to. Obviously, the tabloids and the magazines or whatever — it is an epilogue to a public relationship, so I get that. But maybe — he says as he throws his arms up — maybe there's people out there who can say, "Oh, he really did feel something." And I don't think that's the worst thing in a world where a lot of people might have imagined or might still imagine that I don't really have emotions about this stuff. I think you'd probably find some people if you'd poll them — "He just goes out with people." Like no, listen to this record and you'll be like, "Oh, that's not an animal. He's not an animal."

TS: Does it bug you that you would be perceived that way?

JM: Not anymore. It did and it almost destroyed me, to try to be like, "Oh, I can fix this."

TS: How did you get over that?

JM: Just die and come back to life.

TS: Really?

JM: Yeah.

I realized most people don't care about you. Your friends care about you, your family cares about you, but most people aren't looking at you all day. And that was the major miscalculation. Now I'm like I'm glad that I didn't just jump right back in and make stupid records because I didn't have my head together. I was like, "Got it. Let me just go take a breather, I'll see you again, I'm gonna go disappear for a minute, get my head together" and repaired it and came back and it's like — I've never had more fun in my life playing music. I've never had more fun in my life. And I'm glad I had the experience of growing my hair long and walking around drunk in New York City and no one bothering me. I got to have some years that I didn't get before. Like Bill Murray says, "Everybody's an ass for two years when they first become a celebrity," but I didn't do my two years until later on.

TS: How do you make sure that they don't come back now that you've made a pop record and you're sort of in that realm again, and tabloids are asking you things, or the press is making requests?

JM: You just put yourself back in your hotel room at the end of the night. You put yourself back on the charging dock, remind yourself that this is all gift-related, this is all musical gift-related. And the extracurricular stuff is fun — like Dave Chappelle says he likes fame, he just doesn't really trust it. I think that's the most honest way. I like it, I just don't trust it anymore.

TS: Do you want it though, now?

JM: I want it if it's related to music. I realized that it doesn't fit me to be any bigger than the music is. It doesn't fit. It was like me walking around with a really tight shirt for a couple of years. It doesn't necessarily fit.

Writing "Theme From The Search For Everything"

TS: I want to maybe close by talking about the instrumental at the end to The Search For Everything.

JM: I wrote this instrumental on Christmas Day in Joshua Tree. I had this RV, I drove it out to Joshua Tree 'cause I had nobody and nothing. I was like — I'm gonna go to Joshua Tree for Christmas, I'm not gonna be sad in an environment that reminds me of a thing I don't have. I'm going out in the middle of nowhere. And I wasn't sure why I went, and once I got there I was kind of upset. It was really windy, I was watching The Big Lebowski in the middle of nowhere. Nobody was there, there were no bonfires.

I thought maybe there'd be bonfires and a world of disenfranchised people meeting together — nothing, it's a parking lot. I woke up Christmas morning, and I had brought my ProTools stuff and my little recording rig, and I just started playing the guitar. And I was staring at Jumbo Rock right out of the window of the RV, and I just sat there and played this melody. And then I forgot about it. And then I opened up my computer one day and played it back and I went, "Oh, this is beautiful." 'Cause I drove away from Joshua Tree going, "Nothing happened this week, this was some sad-sack stuff." And then when I laid it out as a song and played it, I went, "Oh, this is gonna go in the middle of the record."

So when I go back to your criteria, did it make you hurt, or make you feel something or make you move?

It made me — it's a very sweeping, deep thing that's bigger because it doesn't have my vocals on it. There's some other power because it's not me. It's me getting out of the way.

I will say one more thing that people don't know about the record. The record started with this poem, and the poem's in the middle — there's a much longer poem that you will see more of in the future, but—

TS: What is it, will you say it?

JM: It says, "How sad it is that time should pass, her majesty the hourglass. We take the sand of bygone years and make mud of it with all our tears. What is now compared to then and will I ever love again? The answer to that question brings the endless search for everything." And the day I stood in a bathroom and I stood there for one hour and I just kept writing, kept writing, kept writing, kept writing — and these little couplets and — and I was like, "Oh, that's the mission statement for this record."

There's this lovely moment that I had in the record where you look at the person, or the thought of the person, and you look at them and you go, "Oh, you can go. This is about me." And a lot of this record is, "You can go," and me going, "Oh, this is about me." And you drop a vase and water and ceramic goes everywhere and you're just like, "You can go — I'll take care of this if you just step out. I'll take care of this." And the theme might sort of be the most triumphant version of that, which is like, "Oh, I'm free to go now." It's not free to go from any one relationship, it's not free to go from any one person — it's free to go from yourself and your old interpretations of yourself that are not true, these old, burned-in habits of thinking, these old, burned-in desires that aren't even your desires — they're not even what you want. They're not even what you need.

Here I am with the show that I want, with the band that I want, with the music that I want, and I've never been more excited to see what comes. I wake up in the morning, I put my feet on the floor and I say to myself, "Not hung over." It's the first thing I say, I say it to myself every morning. And then I go, "We get another day where we have discovered how to live, where we enjoy it and our health is here. The end." That's it. Your true life exists in between the period of time where you stop being an ass and something kills you. That's your life, and I just started my life.

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