EW gets hip to 'Square' John Mayer. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter talks about his old-soul musical tastes, his word-of-mouth success, and, yes, Jennifer Love Hewitt
John Mayer
Credit: John Mayer Photograph by Ben Baker

Room for Squares

John Mayer seems to have picked up Thor as a stalker. Three nights ago, he played to a soggy crowd in New York’s Central Park. Now he’s in a suburb north of Detroit, where, with show time approaching and thousands of nervous fans filing into an amphitheater, a sunny day is giving way to electrical currents louder than anything the PA system could produce. ”You brought the thunderstorms again,” says a label rep visiting backstage.

Correction. ”I bring the wonderstorms!” Mayer announces, lighting up with a bolt of mock hubris.

A million or so lovestruck fans beg not to differ. Mayer’s first major-label album, ”Room for Squares,” is such a steady seller that it’s just been certified platinum despite never having cracked the top 10. There’s a similar near-stealth success to Mayer’s touring: The 24-year-old tyro is selling out sheds as large as 10,000 seats. ”I haven’t had to piggyback off anybody else’s identity,” he says of getting to skip the traditional freshman-rocker hazing of having to open for some superstar act. ”I’ve kind of been able to grow out of my own little plot of land.” All this has been achieved with modest radio play and lots of word of mouth. ”It’s almost charity work, what people have done, turning other people on to my music,” he says. It’s good to be the Mayer of ”Squares”-ville.

If there’s one radio format that Mayer is in the pocket for, it’s Adult Album Alternative…also known as the land of the dinosaur. The triple-A audience is not exactly overserved these days by early-twentysomething hotties, not when Sting is a typical star of the format and Dave Matthews’ receding hairline is the mark of relative youth. Then along comes Mayer, still closer to senior ditch day than senior citizenry. With ”Room for Squares,” he was ”trying to make the most mature-sounding immature record in the world” — an album lyrically true to his tender age but musically not too wet behind the ears. He achieved that with songs like ”No Such Thing”: It’s totally age-specific, as underdog Mayer anticipates seeking psychic revenge at his 10-year high school reunion. Meanwhile, boomers with only the faintest memory of attending theirs like it too.

”I want to be the first guy from my generation who doesn’t just represent one record, but the promise of a lot of ’em,” says the lanky singer-guitarist, putting his orange-and-black sneakers up on the tour-bus couch. He is altogether smarter, funnier, more historically savvy, and more ambitious than you’d guess from the unforced earnestness of ”Squares.” ”A lot of young artists right now are drawing from an incredibly shallow pool of inspiration. There are artists my age whose musical understanding dates back to 1994. That’s frightening, to think the tail of the comet only goes back as far as Jesus Jones. Most people don’t know there’s a door everywhere they look. You almost have to have a host come up to you and say, ‘Put down Radiohead for a minute. This is Wes Montgomery, ”Smokin’ at the Half Note.” Or, this is Eric Clapton.’ It doesn’t mean you have to play like Eric Clapton, but just think about how he thinks for a minute.”

As a teenage guitar-hero aspirant, Mayer spent a lot of time inside the heads of hallowed bluesmen. ”I was 15 years old, with my room plastered with posters of Stevie Ray Vaughan and as many Albert King photos as I could have, which wasn’t many. Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Cray — these were like my buddies. And I knew at the time that I was the only kid my age in Fairfield, Conn., to have those people as friends. Everyone else had Nirvana, and I was skipping class, reading the Buddy Guy biography ‘Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,’ cutting out the pictures when I was done.”

Room for Squares
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