Songwriting

Hand writing on a notepad.
Interview at Acoustic Cafe
From live performance at Acoustic Cafe in Bridgeport, CT

I was totally inspired by, like, Dave Matthews Band at the time. They were the only group, for me, that were completely innovating advanced concepts in hookery.

Just like eight hooks in a song. Why the hell not? I’ve got four songs I’m working on, let’s try and make it one. You know? And it’s that complete lack of economy that I looked up to. Because when I was at Berklee, I had a songwriting teacher that said, if you are working on a song and you have two or three good ideas within that song, make two or three songs. And that to me was a little counterproductive than what I was looking for which was like—

Interviewer: Because you’re gonna get three thin ones?

JM: Yeah, exactly. Is to take six months to write a song. And take three of your ideas and if they’re all in the same key, and they all make sense, you know, throw it in there and get it sort of interesting. That’s sort of the goal.

Live at KTCZ-FM
Interview and performance from Minneapolis

Interviewer: What is it about the nature of your songwriting that seems to appeal to everyone so universally? 

JM: I actually like the question. Why is it that nobody doesn't like me? 

I want to see if I can answer it articulately. I think it's because I don't think you have to like me to believe me. I think because when you accept an artist that you don't really like it's because at least you believe 'em. I don't believe a lot of people who sing. I don't believe a lot of bands. But I believe Staind. And Staind is very much like others of its ilk, but I believe. And therefore I don't hate it. The question of, is it for me or not, is different. But I think that people at least hear that it's thought-out and maybe respect the fact that it's not hammered out in twenty minutes and at least I have some sort of consistency, maybe. I hope.

Excerpted from Live at KTCZ-FM >
Article from Berklee College Magazine 2004
John Mayer Returns to Berklee
"I think phonetics mean more than lyrics ever will. It's all in how the words sound. I've heard some lyrics that were incredibly clever, descriptive, and moving, but they were set to music in such a way that it was hard for me to remember them and sing them back. I like songs that feel really good rolling off the tongue. Almost all hit songs have lyrics that are great to sing."
Interview in Berklee alumni magazine
"Running with the Big Dogs John Mayer, '98"
I pretty much explain myself in my songs; I’m not very abstract. I like to be understood. As a songwriter, you make a decision early on about whether you want to be understood. The people who don’t want to be understood don’t really love what I do. They think it’s too fluorescent, transparent, or even boring. I’m not giving them anything to wonder about, just things to see. At the end of four and a half minutes, I want people to get it. I don’t want to give them more to wonder about.
Interview from WPLJ Acoustic Cafe
Live at WPLJ Acoustic Cafe with Race Taylor

RT: Are you a writing-all-the-time kind of guy?

JM: No. I mean I'm a thinking-all-the-time kind of guy. But I want to slap the writing-all-the-time kind of guy. He's always asking for a napkin and a pen. You can never just eat at the diner with him. He's always like, "hold on a minute, I heard an amazing conversation over there. That's a title." I don't like that. I live my life and it all kind of comes out a year later.

RT: When it comes time for you to actually sit and write, what inspires you the most? Is it infatuation, is it lust?

JM: Great question. And I'm still trying to figure it out, cause if I could figure it out then I'd know when to close the tab and go home and go to work. I think it all boils down to "pretend." A friend of mine said one time, you have a really good "pretend." I think we talked about making records, and I just kind of go to the record store in my mind two years from now, and I just pick up this record and it's blank. Looks blank, sounds blank, nothing on it. But I'm constantly in my mind picking out the next "me" record. It's up to me to really come up with what's on that record.

So I'm just pretending what the next songs should be. And again I'm lying to myself. Cause I'm letting myself be honest, because I'm saying none of this counts and then it does, and I put it out and it's really what I feel. But when I go home, just to keep the pressure down, I go, well what's the next song? You don't have to put it out. What would the next song sound like?

Lecture at Berklee (2008)
Livingston Taylor's Stage Performance class
You can reverse-engineer anything you want! You're really giving away all the secrets. You can listen to a song on the radio and go, "I want one like that." You may think that you're ripping it off, but you're giving yourself too much credit, because you didn't rip it off well enough. So now, you failed at ripping off a song, and you've succeeded at writing your own great new song.

Two things that are happening too much right now in songwriting are B sections and bridges, I think in young songwriters. B sections and bridges are not worth as much as you think they are. They're just ways to stave off either writing the chorus, or you didn't work hard enough on making the chorus connect to the verse, [so] you need to buy yourself a little bit of harmonic leeway to get there. And that's what I've started to do, is just take those B sections out.

I want to know where the chorus is. Nobody ever said you have too many choruses. "That's too hooky! Why do you always go straight to the hook? Why can't you just set it up more?" Nobody's ever said that. The best thing in the world is to have an artist come in and play a song that's too long cause he loves his chorus so much. That's the easiest fix in the world. You go, "you got a really good problem I'm about to tell you about. Your chorus is killer and you know it too much. If you want someone to hear that chorus more? Let 'em rewind the song to hear it over again." That's beautiful.

Recap of Berklee seminar
Converting Information to Inspiration
I used to love writing a song and going out to dinner. [...] That is the greatest feeling in the world. Taking a walk because you know you have a song and you're going to come back after dinner and finish that bridge. It's a better drug than anything I've ever heard of in my life. That is the high of all life. You've created something for free that will give you identity and purpose and the feeling of being awake in every way. And it will happen. But in the meantime, get the house ready for it."
Interview on Studio Q
Aired on CBC Radio One, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi

Because [Paradise Valley is] not really country in the sense that I'm not singing through my nose any more than I did before. There's no different inflections in the vocals whatsoever. But really what makes it different from the other records—and what's made every record different from one another—is that as a writer I get really interested in song form. Think of it like the skeleton of a song.

You can write a pop song that has a verse, B section, and a big chorus. Or, one day you listen to "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright." 

If you've heard enough pop songs with a verse, B section, chorus, verse, B section, chorus, bridge, quiet chorus—boom, big chorus! At some point in your life you intersect with this idea of: verse verse verse verse verse verse verse, and you go, wow that's really cool. You kind of break free as a writer. Bob Dylan, you know, coming from the Woody Guthrie thing, of the verse/refrain—

JG: But Dylan's a good example—maybe "country" isn't the right word. Rootsier.

JM: Sure. American song form.

JG: What you’re doing, it sounds like roots. Sounds like, you know, we're in the barn here. To a certain extent. And you like that?

JM: I love it.

Interview at the Oxford Union
"Life in Music"

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.

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Charlie Rose Interview
Interview from appearance on The Charlie Rose Show

I'm going to be as beautiful as I can be about being sad. That's kind of what this was. Listening back to this song "Emoji of a Wave" and going like, "that is what this [experience] feels like." Which, as an artist, and a musician, you don't normally get all the time. You come close. You go, "well, we'll get 'em next time. [I've captured] eighty percent of how that feels." There are songs on this record that I listen to and I go, I did it. I'm good enough a musician now to translate one hundred percent how something felt. And that is a possession as an artist that is more valuable than anything you can have.

CR: And what artists can do is not only express how they felt, but say it in a way so that all the fans—it speaks to something they feel but can't express. That's where the connection comes.

JM: Right. That's when people say, "I feel like I'm looking in a mirror," or, "I feel like you said something that I was going through at this exact time in my life."

CR: Has the process changed over the years?

JM: No.

CR: Same thing?

JM: The only reason the process has changed is because I am incapable of letting myself repeat myself. And if you could lobotomize me, I would write you another hundred killer songs. But because I'm writing with the rest of my catalog behind me, looking on, it gets harder to find negative space where you haven't written. I do two things very quickly: I go, someone else did that, and I've done that. And I would probably be better off and be more prolific if I didn't do that, you know. But I'm still looking for these parking spaces that haven't been settled on, and they're harder to find, but I think it creates more longevity if you can keep looking and looking and looking. So every song on this record has another ten that stopped somewhere in the middle because I went, oh, no, no, or, I don't want to do that again.

CR: So you just simply threw it away?

JM: Yes. They don't get finished unless they're good enough.

CR: I'm amazed that—you read about painters, you know, who will go to bed having put something on canvas and will get up in the morning and don't like it. And will just throw it away.

JM: Well, the good thing about being a songwriter is that would be like if a painter could take the paint off the canvas and file it away and use that same portion of paint again. Which I can.

So a song like "Love on the Weekend" was written three times as a completely different song, but I was so in love with cracking the "Love on the Weekend" code that it eventually fit the piece of music that I had. So it's two different—it's like a slot machine. And you're just trying to get three sevens. And you go, oh, I really want "Love on the Weekend" as a title for something. So every time you come up with a new idea, you throw that paint on it. So you can dismantle the painting without having to slash the canvas up, which makes being a musical artist a little more flexible.

CR: Writing is the thing for you. You said, I think, once, "I want to leave this earth as a writer."

JM: I'm a writer. I'm a writer more than anything. Nothing brings me more joy than writing. If you give me a choice between being in the middle of an incredible blues guitar solo on stage or being in the middle of a writing trance in the studio, knowing that by the end of the night I was going to have something, I would rather be in the writing trance. So the song [Still Feel Like Your Man] is very much about processing the loss of somebody. It's difficult, and I think it's part of the package when you are in a relationship with someone that people know very well. I would love the luxury of people going, "whoa, I don't know who this was but that would be really great," then you could get right into how I felt.

But if I do a good enough job as a songwriter, and I think that I have on this record, I think it becomes a footnote and, like I said last night on stage, I said, there's a difference between writing a song because of somebody and for somebody. And I feel like people usually revert to the language of, like, this is written for somebody. Like I don't go to people's doors and ring the bell and go, I wrote this for you. Songwriters write because of.

Most of the time I get the best results when music and lyrics happen at the same time. They both climb up either side of the hill. 

That's when it's really, really good. A lot of times I have music that is sitting in a bin, and a lot of times, fewer times than most, I have lyrics that are sitting in a bin. And every once in a while, you get the title that has chords and words and sounds dripping out of it. I had that with "Daughters." I knew when I wrote the very first part of the chorus for "Daughters": "fathers be good to your daughters/ daughters will love like you," it's a bit of a limerick. And when I had that, I went, this is sort of going to sire an entire song.

May 2017 Twitter Q&A
Twitter Q&A session

most challenging part of songwriting?

Being interested enough to care what you might have to say.

Excerpted from May 2017 Twitter Q&A >
June 2017 Twitter Q&A
Twitter Q&A session

[Question missing. Something about writer's block]

Get ready for this bombshell: don't write.

Article on Berklee.edu
John Mayer Shares the Stage with Student Songwriters

“If you’re a songwriter in the room, we already know each other,” Mayer said, setting a tone of camaraderie. “There is no luxury form of songwriting. It’s no easier for me than it is for you. We go to the same place. We try just as hard for just as long.”

Throughout the two-plus-hour event, Mayer kept the environment welcoming, whether it was through offering lyric-writing advice (“Make things tangible,” he said), or keeping it light with a relatable, self-aware sense of humor (“Oh my God, I’m back in the BPC talking about flat-sixes!”).

Mayer followed the epic workshop session with a performance of "You're Gonna Live Forever In Me" (which was inspired by a bad note he struck while practicing the Grateful Dead tune "Friend of the Devil") as well as an unreleased original, giving the students and audience a chance to see the inner-workings of his own process. After, he waxed reflective, saying that songwriting is a mystical process of elusive self-discovery where you “try to truly see yourself in a way that’s just beyond, most of the time, your ability to comprehend.”
Blog post from Berklee Blogs
My Afternoon in a Tree House with John Mayer
Each song is like a tree house. You spend all this time creating a new place that never existed before. It’s a place built by you, for you, and is a place you can retreat to.
Article in Rolling Stone, 2017
John Mayer on Katy Perry, Learning From the Dead, Embracing Pot

You get old enough, and you can hit the mark with fewer elements. I read this book one time about the Secret Service. And I love this part: in the world of presidential protection, older people are better at working president detail in the Secret Service. Because the older people have tenure and seniority, and they’re not afraid of losing their job if they overreact. If they throw the President in the car because a car somewhere else backfired or a balloon pops. They’re more willing to do it because they’re not scared of losing their job, like a young person would [be]. 

That always stuck with me. As I get older, I see myself artistically that way a little bit. I hope that, as I get older and my career goes on, that I gain the ability to afford writing things that don’t necessarily have to hit you over the head. I can make a little song like “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” and ultimately what ends up happening is that it translates into something even bigger than something that you would have sat down and tried to make big.

This brings up another interesting thing as a songwriter. We love the concept of writing huge songs. You always sit down and you go, “I want to write a big one.” Not in terms of popularity, but in terms of scope. I’ve always tried to write big ones, and I’ve always failed. I would love to write a song called “Galaxy.” I’d love to write a song about something taking place from galaxy to galaxy. It never works because the intention of it is just too large. But then, if you get really small like I did on “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me,” and you write, “a great big bang and dinosaurs / fiery raining meteors / it all ends unfortunately,” that’s tiny. But when you’re done with it, you realize, “oh, this is gigantic because of forced perspective.” It’s not huge, it becomes huge out of forced perspective. And I’ve learned that now ten times over.

Twitter Q&A (July 2017)
Twitter Q&A session with fans

Do you ever feel uncomfortable with how honest UR in your songs nowadays? There must be some sort of healing power in them Re: In the blood

If a song is honest and true it will protect you. Plus I believe you can write a song without having to discuss more about it.

Interview from The Bobby Bones Show
The Bobby Bones Show: Episode #75

BB: Who do you run your songs by? You write one, you go, “hey what do you think of this?” Boom. Who’s that person?

JM: Me. And there’s even people I run my songs by and they go, “that’s great," and I go, “no it’s not.”

So again, big feet. Big strong head. Most of it's in-house. I don’t necessarily collaborate very well. But I kind of know what I know. I don’t finish songs that I don’t think will make records. I don’t usually have any extra songs left over that don’t have parts falling off of them when I’m done with an album. So I know what makes a me song now and what doesn’t.

And there are even good song ideas that I have—like really cool things—I listen back to it and I go, “I don’t buy it.” Like, I know myself well enough now. I can do more stuff than I should do. I can do more stuff with a guitar or with a band or with drum programming than I should have as music that is called my music. It’s really weird. It has to pass a lot of tests. It’s like a four-quadrant test. Is it good? Do I like it? Which is different than, “is it good?" 

So you can have a song that’s good that you don’t like, you can have a song that’s not good that you like. Is it me? That’s the third. It can be good and you like it but if it’s not you then it’s like, “I don’t know if I want this to be my thing.” And the fourth question is, “do I want to play this every night when I go on tour?” And if it passes all four of those questions, then I know it’s a really good song. 

I don’t know what a hit is anymore, but I know what is one of those songs where you’re like, “oh this is bulletproof, let’s go around the world with this.” And "Rosie" it’s like, anywhere you go—[sings drum intro]. People—they don’t necessarily cheer for the recognition of the tune, but they cheer because it feels so good. So I’m pretty good about being my own A&R guy.

BB: Do you play all your instruments on your demos?

JM: Yes. Yes I do. And sometimes that’s tricky because the ignorance of my playing a certain instrument that I don’t really play predominantly adds to the certain, uh, je ne sais quoi of it. And then you bring a really good musician in, and then you gotta be like, “will you play it a little dumber?” [Laughs]

And then you gotta be like, “can you do it with just your left hand?” “Can I hit you in the head once with a vase and then can you do it?” I go with the "väse," I don’t say "vāse." I’m fancy. So I have people try and replicate that kind of half-awake way of playing.

Interview with Steve Jordan
Layin' It Down With Steve Jordan, Part 1
I think if you took the song away—the songwriting is what makes the guitar playing the guitar playing. The fact that I'm done singing, "I'm slow dancing in a burning room," and people know the arrangement and I'm about to go into a solo is what gives the solo its power.
Podcast interview with Dean Delray
Let There Be Talk, Part 1 of 2, Episode #501

I think taking away B sections and bridges takes a layer of a song away. The bridge to me was always the “but also," or “and additionally," or “but conversely." If you're writing a song that is "screw you," the bridge should always be like, “eh but it's probably me too." 

DD: Absolutely!

JM: That's a wonderful place to expound on your thought. and when the bridge is gone—I love bridges.

DD: I do too. 

JM: No one writes a bridge like Sting. That's the king of bridges to me.

I might no longer possess the kind of psychic energy necessary to write something like "Stop This Train." I'm not sure that I would sit in a room alone and write twelve verses for a song with that much intention, with that much need to create, with that much fire. As you get older you don't write twelve verses and pick the best four. Young people: [sings made-up wordy lyrics], and I go, this is gonna kill me. I can't. When I was younger: [singing quickly] "welcome to the real world she said to me, condescendingly, take a seat, take your life, plot it out in black and white"—we're halfway through. And at this point as I get older I go, I don't know that I could ever summon that much energy to go da-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba [...].

DD: It’s almost like joke-writing. 

JM: Oh, is that true?

DD: When you’re first writing jokes—

JM: That's setup city. 

DD: It’s dense dense dense. Later on you realize it’s “bop, bop, boom”. 

JM: That's right, that's right! “Bop, bop, boom”. 

DD: That's right and that's also a great song formula.

JM: Okay so the song that is for me now the benchmark of songwriting is "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain". 

DD: Oh, yeah. 

JM: I drew it out. I'll sometimes map a song—I'll listen back to it. I'll just want to understand it genetically, and I like, write the song out. I listen to "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." I took a blue pen when it was not the hook, I took a red pen when it was the hook. I counted the number of lines. The thing, you could fit it on a cocktail napkin. The whole song. And [sings] “blue eyes crying in the rain” comes when you least expect it and it just keeps resolving and you get a bridge in the first forty seconds and it's perfect. If I could have ever written "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" I would have. That's just the most genius thing ever written because it's, “bop bop boom”.

JM: People have no idea how many songs I throw away, but the ones that I think are great, I think I've always thought were great. You can't change my mind on. 
 
DD: You can kind of tell when you have a great song, it really just starts to stick in your own head.
 
JM: Yeah, it plays like a radio in your head. If I get home from writing a song in the studio I play a little game. I go, “sing it. Can you sing it?” And if you can't sing it to yourself after you've worked on it all day, if you can't sing the song when you're brushing your teeth it's trashed. If you have to press play to remind yourself how it goes and you just wrote it three hours ago, it ain’t ever gonna stick.
The Blackbird Spyplane Interview
What’s up with John Mayer??

Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve said you took inspiration from Quentin Tarantino on this album — how?

John Mayer: “So, any song I write has to work on acoustic. You have to believe that I believe it, and it can’t leave the stable of what it is I do. So with Tarantino, he can do a western and still be Tarantino — he’s such a great manufacturer because he’s such a great consumer, where he can write enough love letters small enough, on enough small sheets of paper, and put them in a leaf blower, where you can’t really point to any one thing. That’s been my hope: ‘Can you grind the influences into a fine enough dust that you can make a new paste out of it?’”

Interview with Zane Lowe, 2021
John Mayer: ‘Sob Rock’ and Implanting False Memories | Apple Music
Whenever I want to write a big song I can't. A big song, meaning spatial. I want to write about outer space. I want to write about the huge glacially large space inside of the heart when it misses and this and that. And that's when I get writer's block, because I try to put basically a song to fill the entire galaxy. And I've never gotten a song that way. But if I write a song about something the size of a glass of water and I do it right I notice a week later it's got the universe in it.
Instagram Story Q&A (August 2021)
Questions from various fans

Q: As a short story writer, is there any piece of advice you'd give on the art of story telling?

A: Look for the symbolism later.

Q: What advice would you give to the new generation of songwriters?

A: A song is 1 part divine inspiration, three parts homework/code cracking.

Never ever skip the code cracking. Go crazy. Hate it. Cancel plans. Do it as a show of respect to the new guest that has joined you from another world.

Q: What does a songwriting process feel to you?

A: Songwriting is the process of going from total ignorance to uncovering the truth about a creation. You become an expert in that song. But only that song. Because when you go to write another, it's a return to Stupidtown.

Podcast interview with Cory Wong
"A Song Too Perfect To Record?" Episode 2 of 2 from Wong Notes Podcast
You don't get the attention back in a song once you lose it. No one's ever said, "naw, you lost me. Oh, I'm back!" You lose someone, you lose someone. No one ever waited a song out. We think you do. We don't.
If more people in art take chances that may result in complete failures, there's just a higher chance also of someone else going, "oh, you can do that now." That's all songwriting is to me. Just remember it can be done. Or learn that it can be done. Oh, you can start a song with the chorus. You can't start a song with a chorus that you're writing, unless you remember that you're allowed to. [Otherwise] it wouldn't come up. You'd have to remember you're allowed to. [Sings beginning of "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" and "You Give Love a Bad Name."]
Interview with Alex Cooper
Call Her Daddy Podcast
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.