John Mayer’s drink of choice is a glass of 12-year-old Cragganmore Scotch, water back. But this evening, at a Morton’s steak house in Miami, the singer-guitarist is choosing not to indulge.
”There it is,” Mayer sighs, stretching his lanky, 6’3” frame over the bar to get a better look at the bottle of whiskey on a shelf beyond. ”It’s like looking at an ex-girlfriend. She’s so beautiful — but you know she isn’t going to do you any good.”
Mayer was, for a number of years, teetotal. He feared falling into the disastrously addictive ways of such musical heroes as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton. But recently the 29-year-old has let his thick, curly hair down somewhat, especially last New Year’s Eve, when Mayer hit New York City on a subsequently well-publicized tear with some old friends and one newer one, alleged paramour Jessica Simpson. ”We had a blast that night,” he recalls. ”An extraordinary throwdown! When I want to party, I set it up so far in advance. Cars. Drivers. Drinks. You set up your blast radius…and you go!”
Two weeks later, the Connecticut-raised Mayer is in Miami, rehearsing with his band prior to a 24-date U.S. tour in support of his triple-Grammy-nominated album Continuum — and he will have a Diet Coke, thank you very much. After all, those years of sobriety did treat him quite well. His 2001 major-label debut, Room for Squares, sold more than 4 million copies thanks to the sweetly romantic and Grammy-winning single ”Your Body Is a Wonderland.” Mayer’s 2003 follow-up, Heavier Things, went double platinum, propelled by ”Daughters.” Although the song would win Mayer two further Grammys, the acoustic tribute to familial bonds (sample lyric: ”Fathers, be good to your daughters/Daughters will love like you do”) made ”Wonderland” sound like ”Back in Black” and was released to radio over Mayer’s strenuous objections.
”I absolutely did not want that as a single,” he says. ”A single becomes your quarterback for your record. Putting the ball in the hands of ‘Daughters’ and saying, Push this record? It just seems pandering.” The success of Heavier Things turned Mayer into his generation’s writer of ”sensitive” songs. This pleased just about everyone — except the artist himself. ”I got pigeonholed. Everybody [was going], ‘You’re doing good,’ but I felt terrible. They had the wrong man. So I had to jam the door open.”
To prove his mettle, Mayer decided to showcase his talent as a session guitarist, recording with a tranche of peers and idols, including the Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, Rob Thomas, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. ”I didn’t know he was a guitarist,” Hancock says. ”Like the general public, I regarded him as a singer-songwriter. But when I actually got a chance to work with him I went, Oh, this guy can play.”
In 2005 the singer-songwriter-guitarist formed a blues-rock band, the John Mayer Trio, with in-demand session drummer Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan) and esteemed bassist Pino Palladino (The Who, David Gilmour). The Trio went on tour and, that November, released a live album, Try!. If not as commercially successful as his solo work, the CD proved Mayer capable of more than just end-of-prom slow-dance songs. ”In a trio, there’s nowhere to hide,” says Jordan over the phone from New Zealand, where he is on tour with Clapton. ”And it was different for John, not being the best guy in the band [laughs]. He’d never worked so hard in his life. But he more than held his own. He’s a fantastic musician. Here’s a guy that knows about tone; he’s constantly tweaking his guitar tone. That’s something he shares with Clapton, with all the great guitarists.”
Mayer subsequently recruited Jordan and Palladino to play on Continuum, a collection of soul-inspired material that Jordan also co-produced. ”Continuum is kind of like my thesis paper,” says Mayer of the album, which includes a cover of Hendrix’s ”Bold as Love.” ”It’s the one I feel best about. I’ve finally got it right. There’s a little bit of me that’s, like, now I can die — proverbially.”
Mayer is far more mellow than the guy this writer interviewed back when Heavier Things was released. Now he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, whether jawing over a dinner of salmon or, as he did earlier in the day, rehearsing his band with musical precision. A good deal of Mayer’s upbeat demeanor may be the result of the warm commercial and critical reception that has greeted his stylistic gear change. Released last September, Continuum has comfortably shifted a million-plus copies so far and is nominated for the prestigious Album of the Year Grammy. (In total, he has five 2007 nods, with the John Mayer Trio CD up for Best Rock Album and Mayer himself for his cover of ”Route 66” from the soundtrack for Cars.) ”I never worry too much about awards,” he says. ”But it’s funny, an interviewer just asked me what I would change about the Grammys, and I thought, Maybe this precise moment isn’t quite the right time to be criticizing them.”
If Mayer is pleased about the success of Continuum, he is clearly less comfortable with the amount of ink that has been devoted to his relationship with Jessica Simpson. The story first broke last August when it was widely reported that the pair were an item. Mayer responded by posting a photograph of the cover of the Public Enemy single ”Don’t Believe the Hype” on the blog section of his official website. But after their togetherness on New Year’s Eve, the two are again making headlines. (Simpson’s publicist declined to comment for this story. But in recent days, Simpson has been photographed several times in his company, and has been attending his shows.)
What’s it like being subjected to such attention?
”I don’t know how to talk about it without sounding things out,” says Mayer, who previously dated the actress Jennifer Love Hewitt. ”But I don’t feel right about sounding things out because you can print those as easily as my end result.”
You have, though, been hanging out with Simpson…
”Here’s where you’re going to grab me with your crazy Matlock skills,” laughs Mayer. ”I think the photos would reflect that. That was a fun New Year’s Eve, though. Some of my fans have been a little upset at me. I was indiscreet, you know. And it would be of great importance to me, if I really loved an artist, for that artist to stay grounded. That’s really what it comes down to. I’m addressing this the only way I know how. You were at the rehearsal today. Did the band sound good? Did I look in any way disoriented?”
”That is all I owe the world. It wouldn’t matter if it were a half a grapefruit in the passenger seat of my car. If that half a grapefruit took me off of being who I was as an artist and as a person, I wouldn’t be into that grapefruit, if I was a fan. Now, look: You’ve got me nervously eating starch,” he says, pushing a wedge of bread into his mouth.
Just to be clear: You’re dating a grapefruit?
”Yes! I’m having sex with half a grapefruit — this coming from a man that does not understand analogies, apparently. I’m glad I didn’t say ‘young Cuban boy.”’
Did we mention that John Mayer is funny? And this is a good thing, given his most recent hobby: stand-up comedy. Mayer has some experience being professionally amusing. In February 2004, he appeared on Chappelle’s Show in a skit that investigated the types of music that make different racial groups dance. The same year, VH1 broadcast an extremely funny half hour of self-deprecatory messing around entitled John Mayer Has a TV Show.
These days, Mayer is taking his comedic inclinations a little more, well, seriously. In the past nine months, he’s made a string of low-key stand-up appearances at comedy clubs in L.A. and New York. ”I brought this plague into the world!” says kids’ comedian Sherrod Small, a regular on VH1’s Best Week Ever. ”John came down to the Comedy Cellar in New York, and he wanted to get on stage. So we worked on a couple of jokes he had in his head, and the next week, he went on. He was nervous, but he did great.”
”I have the bug,” Mayer admits. ”The last set I did was decent, and decent, for me, was a new high. But it does make people around me a little nervous.” Such anxiety probably seemed justified when a brouhaha erupted after Mayer allegedly used the N-word in the course of his stand-up set last June. ”It wasn’t some Michael Richards-style freak-out,” says book editor and novelist Jason Pinter, who was at the show in question. ”It was within the context of a joke about how black people can use [the word], whereas, for white people, it’s taboo. Had the joke been funnier, it probably would have made more sense. I definitely want to be clear that I don’t think he’s a racist. It was a poorly timed joke. I just don’t think his material was as good as it should have been.”
Ask Mayer about the incident, and he says, ”I have such a ‘No comment.’ Especially with the climate now. I work with a lot of black artists…. Well, I’ve learned a lot, and quickly.”
For now, at least, music continues to be his forte. Before leaving Mayer in Miami, the last song EW hears him rehearse is a beautiful track off Continuum called ”I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You).” As the title implies, the track is a romantic lament. However, as Mayer croons the opening lines, it is hard not to regard them as a mission statement. ”No, I’m not the man I used to be lately,” sings the pop star-turned-soul man-turned-comedian-turned-whatever the dickens he wants to be next. ”See, you met me at an interesting time…”