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Interview with Zane Lowe, 2018

John Mayer: 'New Light' Premiere | Apple Music


Zane Lowe: No matter how much I try, John Mayer, I always go back to you, and I don't know why that is. Even though we've just met, I feel like it's been like that forever.

John Mayer: Well I feel like we've known each other. I mean I watch your show and I listen to your show. And then I feel like people have mentioned me to you quite a bit.

ZL: That's true. Many many times actually throughout the years. In a light—I'm not even gonna try and sort of like, you know, pretend that it's otherwise— in a light that is very favorable, people always talk about you in a very, very nice light.

JM: Cool. Well I worked hard on that the last six, seven years.

ZL: [Laughs] And before that?

JM: Just a smash-and-grab of everything I could possibly figure out all at once.

ZL: Because of your age do you think in the way that you were introduced to this whole thing so much success so young—really, I mean—quickly?

JM: Yes I wouldn't have let myself say yes to that years ago because I would have thought it was a little reductive. But it's true. If we were to break it down more it wouldn't be the conventional version of that, but yes. I dropped in at the top. 

ZL: Yeah.

JM: And I remember, like if you look back on some of the songs, like "Gravity" is me going like, "Hey I'm kind of aware that there's a little bit of a volcano happening."

JM: And you know I see it happen the best thing for me is that having gone through I think probably every version of some relationship with success and failure, I think it probably makes me a good—I don't know—overseer for other people who are moving their way through it. 

ZL: Do you get a chance to do that very often? I mean I know we'll talk a little bit more about him later on but since we're dive in straight in, you know, Shawn Mendes obviously has spoken to me personally actually and on the record about the influence that you had on helping him understand things a little bit better because he was young.

JM: Yeah, I mean Shawn's just a better version of me in a lot of ways. He's like "John Mayer 2.0," without the weird software viruses. It's like I was a beta version of a celebrity and he's a better version of a celebrity than I ever was.

He's not as volatile. But I like where I've ended up, put it that way. Now that everything sort of flattened out and we've leveled out at cruising altitude, it's lovely.

ZL: And what does cruising altitude mean on a day-to-day basis like how do you just stay in that place? Because you've been at the other end where it's been nuts.

JM: Yeah I feel like my ambitions have settled in, like I've retired from a certain type of ambition, which I think is right.

ZL: Oh, let's talk about that for a second, what was that ambition before that you were chasing so much?

JM: You ever download a file but it doesn't tell you how big the file is? It just tells you how many megs you're downloading? You're like,"How big is the file?"

It'll be like 4.5 megs of question mark. And then you'll get that striped bar—this is Apple talk, know your audience. And you don't know when you're growing up what the limit of what is available to you is, so your whole concept is world domination. And I think it's a very simple mistake—now I think the play out of isn't always simple, but it's a very simple miscalculation to go. Well I've got so much but maybe it's just 1/10 of what I could have.

ZL: You can take everything that you want but will it ever be enough? That's the bottom line.

JM: Well, so here's another analogy for you: I used to have a Segway, right?

ZL: Like a physical Segway? Like the things that people made out like they were the simple ride of the future but they actually hurt a lot more people than is actually on the record?

JM: Well this was my point exactly.

ZL: Go ahead.

JM: [Laughs] Everybody wipes out on a Segway once, but only once. Because then you're like, Oh that's how far forward I can go.

ZL: [Laughing] That thing that seems so simple is actually one step down from an ATV. 

JM: Yeah man, because you fall off of it and the thing keeps going it hits other people and you go, Okay—

ZL: It's like a treadmill with a mind of its own.

JM: Well that's fame.

ZL: Oh, well done! [Clapping]

JM: See what I'm saying? So it's a very simple miscalculation you go oh because this was given to me in this short period of time you could say it's a blackjack metaphor -

You're like, Oh I'm the world's greatest blackjack player.

ZL: Do you play blackjack?

JM: Yeah, well yeah.

ZL: So you understand a metaphor.

JM: Yeah and then you go, Oh no you're just lucky. You just had a good run at the beginning. I highly encourage every artist to keep going until they fall off the Segway. And then I encourage the fans to go, Got it dude, okay cool we love you. And then everyone to go well all right now we know that's the confines in which we're working in. 

But for me now like cruising altitude is loving what I do. Being really efficient with it. I'm not playing music to get attention necessarily like I was. I'm not playing music to have the world see me a certain way. That part of my life has settled in really nicely, and I'm actually more interested in helping other people with their ambitions than I am with with anything else I need to do in terms of making people love me.

ZL: I'm very thrilled to be able to make a genuine contact with you at this point in your life thank you me because I'm excited about the conversation we're gonna have not just today but in the future and ongoing because I think that you're in that place you know you're in an honest open place. But I'm also excited that we have new music and you know we are now, sort of, I mean we dive straight in. I mean that was just like go time. So I feel like four minutes into our relationship. I'm gonna press play on this brand new song when I come back and talk about it, but this is a brand new song called "New Light" and I'm so excited to play it. All right.

[Commercial break, playing "New Light" over air]

ZL: Beautifully done, bro.

JM: Thank you man.

ZL: Beautifully done. 

JM: That was really fun to have the first listen for me, through these great speakers and realize that the thing holds up.

ZL: What I love as well as when we get artists in the room—and there's a brand-new song from John Mayer, just to reiterate, called "New Light" and it is today's World Record and to make it official so that everybody knows exactly what I'm talking about. Well there it is. It's gonna be streaming right around the world on Apple music. Add it to your playlist, get it moving and get it shifting.

But watching you react to your own music in that way it's a joy and I've you know talked to so many artists and played so many songs in front of them for years and years.

And it's so interesting watching how people react, and some people get very self-conscious and dip down inside themselves they're not sure. But there are other people like yourselves who are like, Oh I'm gonna enjoy this moment for everything it's worth.

JM: It depends on the song. I've had like ballads that were so heartfelt that actually got anxious every time we play. Like there's a song in my last record that's so intense and literally my heart would race when it was playing. And I will say about this song that the fact that the artist is the one who created the song, you see how it's made, you question whether this part was why you wanted to do it. There's always this built-in feeling like, Well my song isn't as, like, weaponized as a different person's song. But this is different because every time it comes on I go, nope, sorry. It's just that good. It's just military-grade.

ZL: No, it is man. All of the sonic, like, everything—basically the language of this song is everyone is speaking to each other.

JM: And I'll tell you what, as cocky as it sounded, what I just said, like when you make songs, a lot of that stuff is just luck, where the frequencies of your idea—like the literal sonic frequency—just each thing in the stack just goes perfectly with the next. We make so many songs in our lives and every once in a while you get a magic track where you're like, oh, I didn't even mean to have it sound like that.

ZL: And what about the ones that don't fit into place that easily but you know there's some essence there? I mean are you faithful to them and see it through?

JM: Yeah, because you'll forget how hard it was once you experienced other people experiencing. For instance, this song was not easy to write lyrically. It just wasn't. 

ZL: And why is that?

JM: It was written out of sequence. So I had the chorus and I had the second verse before I had the first verse. You usually have a place to start. I had to write the first verse in a way that would be reverse engineered to a place where as you heard it still it made sense.

And yeah, there's code-cracking involved. So even I as I sit here and I'm like, oh, they should all be this effortless—I went crazy for two weeks.

ZL: What about No I.D., working with him?

Now let's just talk about Deon for a second because anyone who knows anything about him as a producer and subsequently as somebody who has helped other people take their vision to record industry work—and he's touched lots of parts of people's lives, and you know most recently on the Jay-Z record his work on that is exemplary. 

JM: It's brilliant.

ZL: Really unbelievable the way he was able to capture what Jay was trying to say in such an emotional, honest way and give him the template to do it on. Now I'm working with him and you working in that world you've definitely worked in all sorts of different genres before so why did you team up with No I.D., what was it about him?

JM: I liked the idea of still being the musician that I've always been but changing the vocabulary a little bit. Certainly this is not a hip-hop track, but it has a vitality to it that I think is really modern. And it was interesting to work with him because he's just such a great artist in terms of samples and taking things and moving them around and really turning it into an instrument. There's no doubt, like, his use of Ableton is insane. It's like a violin for him.

And I learned really quickly like what I could do and what I couldn't do. The first few days he would bring up these samples and they were great I'd be like, Put me in. And because there wasn't—so hip-hop is a different harmonic agreement with the world then what I do. So I'd hear these loops and I'd go, Put me in. And there'd be nowhere to go because harmonically speaking like I couldn't put a song on it, you can only really put top line on it.

ZL: That's why there's only so many projects like that that work primarily and breakbeats and loops that are as successful as they are because vocalist and the beat-maker have found a way to collaborate in that space. So like "NxWorries," Anderson Paak and Knxwledge. That works for a reason. 

JM: [Raises hands excitedly] Smart dude. You're smart dude. So what I learned really early on was that like, Oh whatever these chops are they have to be melodic so that they don't define what the one is—not to get too, like, music theory. So that I can then do my thing over it so there so it's not so constricting

ZL: You didn't want to try something and it's light anymore reduced fashion because we know I'm a lot of where you can go melodically but you don't want to go, Okay what do I sound like if I actually reduce my lane?

JM: Well we tried and I just wasn't feeling it. I love Black Keys. If I start trying to do Black Keys stuff I just don't buy it myself. Like I am just naturally hyperbolic.


So we just learned really quickly that if we go in on things that have melodic openness then I can do my thing on it but I have tried to do a more constrained sort of top line character driven to some degree I don't buy it in myself. I'm a very good judge of like, Is this BS or not? And if I hear something back to the speakers and it's me and I don't think it's true then number one, I can't finish it, but number two, like, I don't respect myself when I stand by it.

ZL: Oh my gosh, John Mayer is with us, man. and time is flying and we might just carry on.

JM: We're not even on the entree yet.

ZL: No, we're not even there, man. We're on the amuse-bouche and yes it's today's world record from John Mayer it's called "New Light." 

[John singing "New Light" with Zane's commentary and harmonization]

ZL: How many vocal tracks are there?

JM: There's like three. There's not that many. 


JM: It's like Lionel Richie's "Hello" or something. I tried to make a song that was all the best melodic stuff from the 80s. It's got a little bit of [sings chorus of "Break My Stride" by Matthew Wilder]. And then here's what I do: this is called the, "thanks for listening." One more hook at the end. [Sings "New Light" outro]

ZL: Take note kids.

JM: [Continues singing]

ZL: Only one thing wrong with this.

JM: It's not six minutes?

ZL: You faded it out. I just don't know why you would do that. It was so much groovy momentum to that and then you—

JM: I'm a big fan of the fade-out stealing the thing you want to hear at the end.

ZL: No, don't say it! I just could have kept going for—

JM: So then listen to it again. That's how you make people want to listen to the song again. Just start slowly removing the thing they like the most. [Laughing] 

ZL: [Laughter] It's so true.


JM: You have two different characteristics; you've got like "sit with the artist" version of you, we've got party boy version of you.

ZL: I am your party boy version, I'm a learned party boy.


ZL: It's called "New Light," it's a collaboration with No I.D. Because I know you're deep in the production of your own music and it's not like you just hand the reins over and go, "record."

JM: Yes, I have very big feet and I've just learned over the years that I don't hand over reins super well. 

I'm a bedroom beast, you know—

ZL: Do you make beats?

JM: I started to. I started to.

ZL: Using what?

JM: So about a year ago, maybe a little earlier, I started working on the MPC. So it's always been into MPCs.


ZL: So just for today let's just create an environment where we talk about Kanye as a creative entity from inside there.

JM: Easily done. One of the first times I saw him in the studio he had a laptop in his arm, and he went listen to this, and it was the instrumental of "Gold Digger." And he wrapped along to it perfect. It was perfect. So Kanye's thing is that—at least when I don't wanna pretend like I know him super well, but I don't imagine this changes in somebody as a creative—the veil that hangs between what you know and what you don't, in terms of creating, for him is so frigging thin that I understand his excitement artistically. Because he can pull anything into existence that he wants.

He is maybe the greatest summoner of creative energy. I've seen him do it, it's a magic trick.

You know who's really good? Chance is really good. And Shawn's really good at it. But Kanye is the best at it in terms of sitting in a room with a thing he doesn't have and going and coming back with a thing within seconds. He's fearless.

ZL: You know who I heard is amazing at that—who doesn't often put herself out in that light necessarily, or that specific light, because she has so many strings to her bow and she's so remarkable on so many levels—but people talk about Beyonce's ability in the studio to be able to just zone in on something. 

JM: I would love to see it. All we do as artists is pretend we have a song and the song we come up with is our fake pretend thing about of what our dreams are based on so yeah it's make-believe man we're going into a room going today I'm going to pretend I have this. Kanye is like the greatest sniper I've ever met. He has more confirmed kills than anyone else in terms of going into a room and going, Today it shall be this. Now and I'll leave you here in terms of the the dividing line between talking about the art and time but the rest of it that is intoxicating and sometimes toxic in terms of—

ZL: Because it's uncontrolled?

JM: How do you know, how can you be sure what is someone's true assessment of a boundary line, and what is just another imaginary imposed boundary line?


JM: But at least sensitive introvert is consistent with itself. Sensitive extrovert means super outgoing but can't take any dissenting opinion about this super out—that's why I'm not on a show, because I know that I can't take—

ZL: Isn't that just called narcissistic? [Laughs]

JM: No, no it means, I think it's a really self-aware to be like—look I'm really good at generating ideas, and this does pull together what you were talking about before. I'm an idea factory. I had to learn over the years what are the honest ideas. And also this has to do with the time this all happened. This is late 2000s, this is when there were 30 paparazzi to each celebrity in town, you know. And you weren't sure what the value was of people misunderstanding. At this point if someone gets me wrong I look at it any day. I look at Twitter and take me five seconds to find someone who has me wrong. I go, All right. Back then it made sense to want to fix it.


JM: Sure. Also you just grow up and you know you learn that the things you were scared of eating you alive didn't even have teeth. You're gonna be alright


JM: Well I think those two guys specifically are really good for artists everywhere because when you see an artist being that successful doing it that way it just sets a precedent so that everybody can be a little more open and easy about what they want to create. 

ZL: You know who was the master of that was Bowie as well.

JM: Was he? Big Bowie blind spot for me. Do you have any music blind spots? Is there a band you go, Yeah I couldn't carry a conversation about that band?

ZL: Yeah there are definitely a few of them. I mean I've been sort of exposed to a lot of music over my life so even if I'm not overly passionate about it I sort of have some kind of basis of understanding. 

But the other day I had this moment where a couple of friends of mine had always said, You've never ever really had a Tom Waits moment and you really feel it because this guy is like a real one. And you don't want to go through your life and not really have had that experience and so what I did was not to sound like I'm on message but I actually utilized the high tier of streaming and I just dived and I just dived in yeah I didn't know where I was gonna end up and three hours later I was like alright I get this good for you I understand this but it's taken me time and they were definitely artists like that yeah. I mean Dylan, Bob Dylan is someone who I admire greatly in the moments that I have absorbed but where do you even begin with Dylan to absorb it? A friend of mine is, actually Richard, is going through every single album one by one on vinyl chronologically. 

JM: I went deep into Dylan in 2010. Deep into Dylan.

ZL: Every album?

JM: Every album. Every album.

ZL: That's a year!

JM: Yeah once you catch it you catch it. Same thing the Grateful Dead. Once you catch it you catch it. You just have to wait for like some some point of entry you just pick up a point of entry. And the Dylan thing is like—

Well look, what's the through line between like Tom Waits, Dylan, and Grateful Dead is that there's a little bit of a sonic of a friction, asteroid field, sonically.


JM: People are trying to make records based off of one part of "Pyramids." "Pyramids" is a mothership that blacks out the sun in the sky. And people are making records just trying to take one piece—it's like a broken alien ship and people are trying to find technology from it. It's like, Oh we figured out time travel from this tiny little wire! Everybody wants to make "Pyramids." You can say "Pyramids" is like Coldplay "Clocks" was in the early 2000's where it spawns an entire generations of songwriters.