There was a time, not that long ago, when John Mayer was hardly thrilled with how his life and career were playing out. Sure, he was a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum recording artist, and one both championed by blues-guitar idols like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy and dating Hollywood starlets in equal measure. But back then, suffocated by his place in mainstream celebrity culture, Mayer says he couldn’t appreciate his success.
“Part of the idea of celebrity being toxic is it rots the part of your brain that goes ‘This doesn’t feel good,'” Mayer, 39, says calling from New York City on a recent afternoon. “And so it took me a lot of years to get my head together,” the guitarist says. “I had a lot to shake out.”
Part of that for Mayer was giving up on trying to explain himself — or rather convincing others he’s not the loudmouth playboy he’s been portrayed as. This grinding process, something he refers to as “compulsive overcorrection,” begins for public figures, he contends, “the second the media starts reporting on your behavior in a certain way and you don’t feel like that’s really who you are and that doesn’t represent you.”
Talking to Mayer is a journey; it’s to be taken on an ever-winding conversation that, for him at least, seems as much a therapy session as a critical self-assessment of the peaks and valleys of his 15-year-plus career. Earlier this year Mayer released his seventh studio album, “The Search For Everything.” He’s the first to admit he went on something of a detour beforehand — one that found him concentrating on more rootsy, folk and country-influenced music with 2013’s “Born and Raised” and the following year’s “Paradise Valley.” And that’s to say nothing of his ongoing stint with Dead and Company.
But, he says, with his latest he was aiming directly for the pop charts. His current single “In The Blood” has seen some success on streaming platforms but the album has otherwise gotten a tepid reception. “I’m not even on a singles chart now,” Mayer says with a laugh. “But it’s not about charts. It’s about being a part of people’s lives with music that combines everything they liked about you in the first place.” Namely his ability to create earwormy hooks, buoyant guitar tones, syrupy sweet vocals and, in the live setting, showcase a proficiency on the electric guitar unmatched by most of his peers.
The fact that fans are still turning out in large numbers for his shows baffles him. “You’re supposed to have your moment, build a fan base and you then are slowly ushered toward another part of the pasture,” Mayer says. “The fact that more people are coming to shows than they ever have before — it really is confusingly amazing.”
His path has hardly been a smooth one. In late 2009, Mayer was lambasted in the press following a string of sexist and racially insensitive comments he made during interviews. And that’s to say nothing of the pervasive narrative that Mayer only made his poppy singer-songwriter debut, 2001’s “Room For Squares,” so that he could then have the latitude to explore the blues, soul and R&B he far preferred. Mayer loves this theory and also thinks it’s patently absurd. “That would mean I was sure I was going to succeed in pop music,” he says of “Squares.” “That’s crazy! And like most conspiracy theories, which I believe this is, there’s too many things that would have to go perfect for it to work.
Mayer says any theory of the sort is “more a window into how people have difficulty seeing somebody love all kinds of music.” He imagines a self-conscious fan of his later work thinking ‘The only way I can make peace with the fact that I like a guy who also wrote “Your Body Is A Wonderland” is that he didn’t really mean to.’ But,” Mayer notes, “I really meant to.”
But Mayer does understand that if people have a narrow window of his capabilities or are surprised at his diverse taste and instrumental prowess it’s because of how he first presented himself to the world. He did arrive with acoustic softies like “No Such Thing” “Why Georgia” and “Your Body Is A Wonderland.” And “whatever you do on your first offering is 90 percent of how people are going to know you from then on,” he says. “You can’t get as many people to the town hall as you did the first time. You can shape it over time but there’s nothing like that first debut. It’s hard to give off a message of evolution and growth to those people again. You have to wait an exponent of 10 times longer to get an updated and newer message of who you are as an artist which is always changing.”
And now? Well, Mayer says he’s finally at a wonderful place in the world — in his musical and personal life. He’s confident he has carte blanche to make whatever sort of music might be inspiring him at the time. A fear of judgment or repercussion is no longer present. “I’m totally at peace,” Mayer says. “Time is fair. It all makes sense to me now.”