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Thu November 28, 2013
'It's Hard To Stay Patient': A Conversation With John Mayer
John Mayer has a lot to be thankful for this year, including his return to the stage. A Grammy winner and a multi-platinum seller, Mayer is one of the most successful musicians of the past decade-plus — but a few events in his life have left him uncharacteristically quiet of late. He took a break from press after a pair of controversial interviews in 2010; not long after, he underwent surgery for damage to his vocal cords and had to stop speaking and singing publicly for more than a year.
Mayer's new album, Paradise Valley, is named for the place in Montana where he now owns a home. The change in scenery, he says, has a lot to do with the way his newest songs sound: relaxed, nostalgic, with a hint of longing for a quieter life than the one his fame has afforded him.
"That's been the theme of my entire career, really," Mayer tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "Basically, I don't know how to reconcile this job I have as a musician with this desire to be a guy who stays at home. I even tattooed it on my arms: 'Home Life,' as some sort of 'Thug Life' alternative."
Mayer says the self-aware tone of Paradise Valley may not translate into sales ("You may have to go someplace like Montana to get this record" he quips), but that an artist can benefit from resisting an obvious hit once in a while. He points to one of his favorite movie stars, George Clooney, as a case in point.
"He really knows how to mete out the work that he does," Mayer says. "The serotonin that courses through your brain when you think about George Clooney is mostly due to those decisions: making a blockbuster movie and then making labors of love, and being patient with your career, being patient with your gift, being patient with your time. It's hard to stay patient. The only thing that sort of keeps me going is looking back at the historical data of the artists that we now absolutely love, whilst forgetting huge pockets of time that their records weren't successful: Neil Young, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty."
In this Thanksgiving broadcast of All Things Considered, Mayer joins Shapiro for a special extended chat, featuring acoustic performances of music from Paradise Valley and some in-depth discussion of his life and career. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
It's hard to measure fame, but here's one very unscientific way to do it. The name John is one of the most common in the U.S. And if you type John into Google, one of the first names auto complete gives you is not John Lennon, of The Beatles; or President John F. Kennedy. It's our next guest, the singer John Mayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MONTAGE)
JOHN MAYER: (Singing) Your body is a wonderland ... there is heartbreak warfare ... whoa-ho, gravity is working against me ... you'll love who you love, who you love ...
SHAPIRO: Those songs cover the decade-plus that John Mayer has been a music superstar. He's had multiplatinum albums, won Grammys, dodged paparazzi, kind of self-destructed; escaped to Montana and spent more than a year without speaking or singing publicly, to allow his damaged vocal chords to heal. Now, he's recovered; back on the road with an album, called "Paradise Valley." And he's here in Studio 1, with us on this Thanksgiving Day. Welcome.
MAYER: Thank you very much. That was a very cool intro.
SHAPIRO: Thank you. First, tell me about your family's Thanksgiving traditions. Were there certain things you did every year that you still remember?
MAYER: I remember Thanksgiving based on ambience. I grew up in Fairfield, Conn. There is a certain Northeastern sky. And I don't think I ever remember the weather being different than just milk-white sky; cold, slate gray, you know. I guess my memories are more sort of temporal, color, sort of just vibe, you know. And what's great about it is that you may not still be able to get to sit at the table with the same people that you used to, but you can still look up at that sky and get that same kind of groove going on where, you know, it feels like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving morning, you know.
SHAPIRO: I get a sense on this album of a sort of nostalgia for that kind of domestic, family, tranquil life.
MAYER: That's been the theme of my entire career, really.
MAYER: Basically, I don't know how to reconcile this job I have as a musician with this desire to be a guy who stays at home. I even tattooed it on my arms - Home Life - as some sort of like, thug life alternative tattoo.
SHAPIRO: There's a song on this album that, to me, sort of speaks to that tension; called "Dear Marie."
SHAPIRO: You want to play it and then we'll talk about it?
MAYER: I'd love to, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MARIE")
MAYER: (Singing) Dear Marie, tell me what it was I used to be. Oh, dear Marie, tell me what it was I used to be. And if you're further up the road, can you show me what I still can't see? Remember me - I'm the boy you used to love when you were 15. Remember me? I'm the boy you used to love when you were 15. And now, I wonder what you think when you see me in a magazine.
(Singing) From time to time, I go looking for your photograph online. From time to time, I go looking for your photograph online. But some county judge in Ohio is all I ever find...
(Singing) Oh, dear Marie, tell me do you still believe in me? Oh, my dear Marie, tell me, do you still believe in me? Well, I got my dreams but you got family. Yeah, I got my dream but you got yourself a family. Yeah, I got my dream but I guess it got away from me...
SHAPIRO: That's John Mayer, playing "Dear Marie" from his album "Paradise Valley." Gotta ask - is Marie a real person?
MAYER: It's not a real name, but it's a real person, yeah.
SHAPIRO: It's a heartbreaking lyric - I got my dream, but you got a family.
SHAPIRO: Is that how you feel about having gotten your dream?
MAYER: Sometimes - well, no. I mean, it's difficult to talk about making your dreams - so many people haven't even made their dreams happen, I'd think it would be difficult for me to sit here behind this microphone and say: Well, something funky happens when you get your dreams. It happens to be true, but it's difficult to talk about it without people saying, well - you know...
SHAPIRO: Easy for you to say...
MAYER: I mean, look, there's enough people who are trying to make their dreams happen. But, you know, for that song it makes sense. And by the way, it's also not like, rendering a judgment, either. I mean, that's the kind of writing I like.
SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say, it's not rendering a judgment?
MAYER: Well, I'm not saying it's better or worse, you know? I'm saying I got my dream, but you got a family. The "but" is very important - well, I got my dream but you got a family is just - for one second - wondering whether that was the way it should have gone. I think that's fair to say without being infuriating to people who are like hey, man, I'm still demo-ing stuff in my basement to try to make it - you know.
SHAPIRO: This album, "Paradise Valley," is named for a place where you bought property.
SHAPIRO: Do you write different kinds of songs in Montana than you write in LA or New York?
SHAPIRO: What's the difference?
MAYER: You know, the difference is - and I may have taken a hit commercially for it - is that you may have to go to someplace like Montana to get this record. Like a song like "Dear Marie," if you take that song on the road, any open road, it's killer. I think if you're on a subway in Manhattan, I don't know if it's going to play like that. But I actually really like - you know, I love George Clooney for many reasons - and don't we all? But one of the reasons I love him is because he can - he really knows how to mete out the work that he does.
SHAPIRO: You mean like, when to do the blockbusters, when to do the indie films?
MAYER: Yeah. It's incredible. I mean, the serotonin that courses through your brain when you think about George Clooney is mostly due to those decisions of making a blockbuster movie, and then making labors of love. And being patient with your career, being patient with your gift, being patient with your time - it's hard to stay patient. The only thing that sort of keeps me going is looking back at the historical data of the artists that we now absolutely love, whilst forgetting huge pockets of time that their records weren't successful.
SHAPIRO: Like who?
MAYER: Neil Young; Frank Sinatra; Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Joni Mitchell; you know, Tom Petty. There's a certain patience to it that if you can do that, if you can really walk that path and - you know, we all applaud Bob Dylan for going electric, but I guarantee you that guy lost sleep. He's an artist. Artists want to be loved. If an artist says he loves not being loved, he's like an inch away from falling off the cliff, you know?
SHAPIRO: We've got John Mayer in the studio with us for a special Thanksgiving chat here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. The first song you played, "Dear Marie," looks back to when you were 15.
SHAPIRO: And you've also got a song on here that - to me, anyway - sounds like sort of a longing to be older. It's called "Waiting on the Day." Want to play some more music?
MAYER: I'd love to. All right, all right, all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'WAITING ON THE DAY')
MAYER: (Singing) Waiting on the day when my thoughts are my own, when this house is my home, and plans are made. When you'll be there for me, baby. When you'll love me all the way. When you take my side in every little firefight. When you hang your things and stay. I'm waiting on the day. When my life on the run reaches out in the sun, and shows my age. I'm waiting on the day, when that voices comes to say that it's not wrong what you did for just a kiss. When you'll be there for me, baby. When you'll love me all the way. When you take my side in every little firefight. When you hang your things and stay.
(Singing) I'm waiting on the day, I'm waiting on the day. Waiting on the day when these words are in stone. When the kids are all grown, and we go dancing. Oh, can you do it, baby? Can you love me all the way? Will you tie me tight in little strands of paradise? Will you walk with me before the morning fades? Well, I'm waiting on the day...
SHAPIRO: John Mayer with us in Studio 1 for a special Thanksgiving Day performance. We're going to be back with more music and conversation in just a moment. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro back with John Mayer, who's joining us for a special Thanksgiving interview. We mentioned earlier, you were unable to speak or sing for how long?
MAYER: On and off - I mean, when you put it all together, it was probably a year and a half.
SHAPIRO: You were recovering from a throat injury, and you sound great today.
MAYER: Thank you. It's coming back very slowly. It's a lesson in patience because, you know, singing is supposed to be this sort of effortless sort of soaring. It's still a little bit like, you know, flying a helicopter with your feet in your hands, but I'm getting there. And it's sort of - every month gets a little bit easier, yeah.
SHAPIRO: Do you physically sing differently now from how you did before the injury?
MAYER: It's a little bit boxier because, you know - well, I have to sort of back up. The treatment for this final round - the thing that worked, because I'd had a surgery, I'd had voice rest. With a stroke of good luck, I met another doctor who said, we inject Botox into your throat, and that will paralyze your vocal cords so that it gives this thing on your vocal cords time to heal. But what it does is, it renders you completely silent.
SHAPIRO: So you couldn't even whisper to friends.
MAYER: I could whisper, but that was it. (Whispering) This time last year, I probably sounded like this. And if I laughed, I'd have to go, ha, ha, ha. What I found very interesting was that I didn't enjoy playing guitar, just playing songs.
SHAPIRO: Just without singing.
MAYER: I didn't like it. Which, for years, I said, I'm a guitar player. I'm a guitar player. And I did a lot of sit-ins with people. I sat in with the Stones. I sat in with Zac Brown Band. I sat in with a lot of people. And I missed that microphone, man. I missed that microphone.
SHAPIRO: John Mayer, we learned a lot about you today. Before we say goodbye, we've got a lightning round for you.
MAYER: There's no such thing as a lighting round with me. It doesn't happen.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) As lightning as it can get.
MAYER: Never going to happen.
SHAPIRO: OK. What's your favorite Thanksgiving food?
MAYER: I've got some rolling fog answers to your lightning questions. Favorite Thanksgiving food? Stuffing.
SHAPIRO: If you were snowed in, in your house in Montana, what album would keep you from getting cabin fever?
MAYER: Neil Young, "After The Gold Rush."
SHAPIRO: What sentence or phrase do you say more often than any other? So mine, for example, is just introduce yourself with your name and title so we've got that on tape.
MAYER: Wow, yeah. I find the phrase gotcha is a wonderful way to terminate conversation if you have nothing to say to a person, if they offer you information. It doesn't have to be insignificant, but it has no inherent response built into it.
SHAPIRO: Oh, not gotcha like ha, I sprung one on you. Gotcha like, OK, got it, thanks.
MAYER: Yeah, like gotcha.
MAYER: Gotcha is a great way to say, we're done with that.
MAYER: I feel like I created the phrase gotcha.
MAYER: So like, let's try gotcha right now. I'm going to say something really insignificant ...
SHAPIRO: All right.
MAYER: ...that you have no answer for, and I just want you to say, gotcha.
SHAPIRO: All right.
MAYER: Yeah, I'm going to get, you know, the thing is, I'm going to get some room service later on. I'm going to get - I'm going to land at, like, 11 o'clock so I'm probably just going to get in the room and get some room service.
SHAPIRO: Gotcha. Yeah, that really works.
MAYER: Doesn't that feel good?
SHAPIRO: OK. Next one comes from our colleague Melissa Block, host of this program. What's your favorite chord?
MAYER: It was probably like a E minor 11 or something at some point. It was like...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)
SHAPIRO: That's nice. You said you no longer Google yourself.
SHAPIRO: What do you Google?
MAYER: Oh, that may be the most personal question you can ever ask somebody, in this day and age. I'm usually Googling watches, guitars, questions that need tie-breakers at dinner. Google is dinner's favorite tie-breaker - I guarantee you that song was on Tom Petty "Damn the Torpedoes."
You used to have to call a fan of Tom Petty or in some instances, Tom Petty himself. Now, you can just Google what it's on - There was no way, no. That was not Bill Paxton. It was Bill Pullman, and you know it. No, I will look it up right now. Oh, they were both in it.
SHAPIRO: That's not so personal.
MAYER: No, but I'm just saying, that - yeah, I Google...
SHAPIRO: No, that was a good answer.
MAYER: Yeah, but I - yeah, yeah.
SHAPIRO: I gotcha.
MAYER: I Google watches.
MAYER: Gotcha. Gotcha. There it is. Great call back.
SHAPIRO: John Mayer, you have won the lightning round...
SHAPIRO: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: ...and your prize is that you get to play another song for us.
MAYER: That is a prize, isn't it?
SHAPIRO: What are you going to take us out with?
MAYER: Just to remind you of the stuff I've done in the past, I'm going to do a song that I wrote in 2003, a song called "Daughters."
(Singing) I know a girl. She puts the color inside of my world. But she's just like a maze where all of the walls all continually change. And I've done all I can to stand on the steps with my heart in my hands. Now, I'm starting to see that maybe it's got nothing to do with me. Fathers, be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do.
(Singing) Girls become lovers who turn into mothers so mothers, be good to your daughters, too. Oh, you see that skin? It's the same she's been standing in since the day she saw him walking away. Now I'm left cleaning up the mess he made. So fathers, be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do.
(Singing) Girls become lovers who turn into mothers so mothers, be good to your daughters too. Boys, you can break. You'll find out how much they can take. Boys will be strong, and boys soldier on. But boys would be gone without warmth from a woman's good, good heart.
(Singing) On behalf of every man looking out for every girl, you are the god and the weight of the world. So fathers, be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do. Girls become lovers who turn into mothers so mothers, be good to your daughters too. So mothers, be good to your daughters too. So mothers, be good to your daughters too...
SHAPIRO: That's John Mayer, playing "Daughters" in Studio 1, for this special Thanksgiving performance. There's more from our conversation, plus a video, at NPR.org. John Mayer, thanks very much. Do you want to close out this segment for us?
MAYER: I would love to close out this segment today.
SHAPIRO: All right. repeat after me: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.
MAYER: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.