"No one wants to cut into a singer's throat--that's the last resort." Michael McDonald, longtime manager of John Mayer, is explaining the singer/songwriter's decision to put his precious vocal cords under the scalpel. It was early fall in 2011, and Mayer had just been diagnosed with a severe tissue inflammation on his vocal cords known as a granuloma. Even more crushingly, he'd received the news just after he'd nearly completed what would become his acclaimed fifth solo album, 2012's "Born and Raised": Now there was the possibility that he would never be able to record or tour again as a singer.
Confronting the problem, Mayer turned to Dr. Steven Zeitels. A Boston-based laryngeal expert, Zeitels has become the superstar surgeon for superstar vocalists. He's treated the throat issues of notorious belters like Roger Daltrey and Steven Tyler, but Zeitels became truly famed for guiding Adele's successful microsurgery to remove a bleeding vocal-cord polyp. Adele famously gave Zeitels a shout-out at the 2012 Grammy Awards after her dramatic recovery, but Mayer wouldn't enjoy such luck.
"I actually referred [Zeitels] to Adele, and he did a great job with her," Mayer says. "My situation was different, however--more complex, and a lot more ambiguous." After extended periods of voice rest, it became clear Zeitels' combination of surgery and Botox injections (to paralyze Mayer's vocal cords and let them heal) hadn't fixed the problem brought on by stress on Mayer's voice from constant touring and performing, and a longtime struggle with acid-reflux exacerbated by poor diet and drinking. "I thought I'd just take a pill and it would go away, but the problem got worse and worse, and grew and grew," Mayer says.
"Basically, it's as if you picked a scab every day," McDonald adds. "John's throat just never healed--it was constantly bleeding."
In fact, there was considerable doubt that Mayer would ever sing again. "I spent so long being terrorized, I had all but shut down the fantasy of playing music again-just so I could, you know, survive," Mayer says. During the solitary periods of intensive voice rest that followed his treatments, he tried to console himself by thinking he could always be a virtuoso instrumentalist-an elite sideman, or in-demand session pro, perhaps.
"If John was never able to sing again, he'd at least be able to tour as a legendary guitar player," says Scott Clayton, Mayer's booking agent at Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Mayer was long ago anointed as a six-string savior by the hallowed likes of Eric Clapton, but once robbed of his voice, he threw himself into his playing with a new fervor, jamming for hours on end that previously hadn't been available in his grueling schedule.
"John's just been playing guitar for three years straight," McDonald says. "He hasn't been onstage playing the same thing every night, so as a musician, he's grown insanely. But during his vocal rest, John had an ongoing frustration without being able to crack the joke in the room--he just couldn't type fast enough on his iPad. Everyone told him he should go to an ashram, but that's not John's style. He didn't like being on the injured reserve, and started chomping at the bit to get out of the gate and back on the field."
"I was forced to type on my iPad to communicate anything," Mayer says. "It wasn't liberating. Is breaking your leg liberating? No. All complexity is gone when you don't have a choice." Famously intense and driven, Mayer describes himself as a "classic type A" individual. "I'm never a quitter," he says. "That's how my mind works. Everything I stand for is about fighting through and never backing down." Once hobbled, he began to apply the same determination that built his career to restoring his voice (and sanity). Despite encountering naysayers at every turn in the medical community, Mayer relentlessly continued to search for treatment alternatives. "He still felt he could find a cure," McDonald says.
With nowhere left to turn, Mayer and McDonald made an appointment with Dr. Gerald Berke, an otolaryngology specialist at the UCLA Voice Center for Medicine and the Arts. "John and I went to see him together," McDonald recalls. "Dr. Berke said, 'I think I can do this without surgery. In Boston, you were given one unit of Botox. I'm going to give you 17 units to really shut down your vocal cords and let them heal. I'm going to do it now--I'll go right through into his neck.' I asked him to leave the room and give us a minute. John and I looked at each other, and we both agreed we had nothing to lose."
Two days later, Mayer couldn't speak at all; his vocal cords were paralyzed for several weeks. But when Mayer went back to the doctor, he showed fantastic improvement, so Berke loaded him up with even more Botox. "I probably had contiguously three, maybe four months of not saying a word," Mayer says. "The endurance was tough for me, but I started a new life. It's hard to believe that I'm healed, but just to make sure, I keep going back every two weeks for a look, and it's the same--if not better."
Today, Mayer is explaining his cliffhanger road to recovery sitting in a brick-walled control room deep inside famed Los Angeles recording studio the Village. Experiencing Mayer's dynamism in person makes clear how difficult it would be for him to put life on pause. Equal parts preppy and hippy, Mayer sports a compendium of earth tones--chambray jean jacket, rugged brown boots, beige buckskin man-sack strapped across his chest, his trademark wide-brimmed hat resting on a nearby chair. While often appearing boyishly cute in photos, in the flesh he's lumberjack manly, a light brush of stubble covering an Affleck-worthy chiseled jawline. Up close, he appears almost disarmingly oversized, with surprisingly large hands--a singer/songwriter squeezed into a quarterback's frame.
What's most surprising about Mayer, though, is his swift, analytical mind. Sometimes he appears deep in thought, staring off into the distance as if to conjure his next burst of wit from the ether. At other moments, he fixes you with an intense gaze as he ardently rams home his observations or insights. His height and solidity match his outsized charisma and voluble personality: Mayer speaks rapidly, his New York-minute patter a sharp contrast to the measured, soothing tones he deploys on signature hits like "Daughters," which won the 2005 Grammy Award for song of the year and reached No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A true studio rat, Mayer's in his element at the Village, excitedly detailing the cherry vintage audio gear surrounding him: "That's a Neve RM-8 Sidecar--never seen another one of them--and the board is an old Helios console, which is a material object of lust, in addition to being great-sounding. The Who, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles all used Helios, and they're very hard to find." The Village remains one of music's sacred temples of hitmaking: Numerous gold and platinum discs of albums created here-from the Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" to the Rolling Stones' "Goats Head Soup" to Steely Dan's "Pretzel Logic"--line its halls, but it also holds particularly personal history for Mayer. This is where he made much of his 2007 multiplatinum album "Continuum," as well as a follow-up EP, "The Village Sessions."
Forced back to square one, Mayer's ambition burns undimmed--if anything, getting a second chance has made him even hungrier than when he first appeared in 2001, rocketing out of the Atlanta coffeehouse scene as a sort of James Taylor retrofitted for post-millennial top 40 radio. In fact, Mayer has returned to the studio with his Grammy-winning engineer (and former roommate) Chad Franscoviak to work up a few new songs to spice up the repertoire on his much-anticipated upcoming summer tour. A road dog before his medical woes, his return to the stage will be his first time back on the road in three years. "I'm not on my first record, where I have to play the single twice," Mayer says. "I'd like to add three or four scalable, meaningful songs that I can't wait to play. I'm ready to look down at the set list and go, 'I love every one of these.'"
That the 35-year-old singer/songwriter still composes set lists at all is a triumph considering the medical roller coaster he's just gotten off. Mayer's condition first revealed itself during the "Born and Raised" sessions, which were produced by veteran Don Was. "I was writing in a lower register--probably unknowingly because I couldn't sing higher," Mayer says. "By January, I was like, 'This is a cool grit.' Then in April, I did a pop-in show at [New York standup haven] the Comedy Cellar, showing up really late after everyone had heard a bunch of comedy to play a few songs. That night, I heard myself sing and went, 'Oh, this is new.' If you don't have an index for something in your mind, you go to the doctor."
The release date for "Born and Raised" was postponed as Mayer initially underwent treatment to tame his acid reflux, and then began a series of protracted vocal rests in hopes the condition would heal itself without surgery. By early 2012, Mayer had recovered enough to finish the vocal tracks for "Born and Raised." A March appearance at South by Southwest had even been confidently booked (Mayer had been discovered while performing at a SXSW showcase in 2000) along with the initial dates of a summer tour. Then disaster struck again. "John went into rehearsals for a few days, and felt something was still not right," McDonald recalls. "Everyone said it was in his head, but the granuloma had returned."
"We got to a point where we thought we were out of the woods, and then it came raging back," Mayer says. "I felt I needed to take six months off, just to regain my sanity, really."
For McDonald, the decision to halt Mayer's upcoming tour "was a no-brainer," but still bittersweet: This was meant to be the first time in his career that Mayer would be getting cozy with his fans in theater settings. His previous 2010 tour to promote 2009's platinum "Battle Studies" had proved wildly successful--winding its way through indoor arenas, then moving to amphitheaters for the summer season, it would ultimately gross more than $45 million, according to management.
"When John started his touring career, he'd skipped a step, almost immediately going from large clubs into 5,000 seaters, and then large amphitheaters," CAA's Clayton says. "But a year ago, we were looking at much smaller places--2,500- to 4,000-, maybe 5,000-capacity venues. Doing a theater tour wasn't just a financial decision: John felt the intimate setting would really support what he'd done with the album, and he wanted to give his fans that experience. When the granuloma came back, both he and the fans were devastated."
According to Clayton, "a lot goes into canceling a tour" of this magnitude: While the 2012 leg was never intended to be as big as earlier Mayer gigs--at 100 dates, it landed around roughly half the previous excursion's numbers, and in considerably smaller venues--multiple nights in major markets still had to be withdrawn, and promotion for "Born and Raised" ground to a halt. As well, according to Clayton, plans to expand the tour to larger venues became indefinitely postponed. "Looking back on it now, there's something really cool about having lost all that momentum," Mayer says of his forced exile on the sidelines. "You can't make a sea change in the two weeks between tour legs."
He made the most of the time out, however, taking a series of solitary, cross-country road trips. During one of them, he bought a house in Montana's Paradise Valley, moving much of his life to a quiet, beauteous idyll along the Yellowstone River. In surroundings considerably less paparazzi-thronged than his downtown New York digs, Mayer was able to reflect on a career many felt had gone off the rails.
In recent years, in fact, Mayer had grown better-known to the public as grist for the celebrity tabloid weeklies than a musician. He'd become a Perez Hilton staple due to a string of high-profile romantic entanglements ranging from Jennifer Aniston to Taylor Swift, who famously roasted him in songs like "Dear John." (Mayer's on-again, off-again relationship with Katy Perry, with whom he attended the 2013 Grammys, appears to have gone off-again just recently.) What proved most fatal, however, was Mayer's mouth: Controversy seemed to follow whenever he opened it near a tape recorder. Most infamous was a 2010 Playboy interview where Mayer flouted racial and sexual taboos with all the subtlety of an M-80.
The flames continued to burn with Mayer's frequent, provocative rants, retorts and explanations on Twitter. "It was like, 'This is your new medium,'" Mayer says now of his Twitter stream. "You're now in the shaping-smoke business--spending more than you earn in terms of focus on what you're really doing, and in the hours of your life that disappear in the maintenance of vapor. You're not going to write a blog that's going to change people's minds a month after you've really made a mess of yourself. I don't know anyone who's painted with that negative wave for more than a couple years before they lost their mind. It quickly becomes its own cockfight. You'd see highly motivated people grow increasingly determined, as I did, to clear their name and straighten out any and every ambiguity. That math is correct, except for one exponent: It's not real. I mean, where's the music in it?"
Though promotional tweets still appear on @johnmayer, Mayer himself has been Twitter-free since Sept. 14, 2010. On that day, he pulled the social-media plug on his 3.7 million followers, and found his passion for music revitalized like never before. "People misjudged the moment that I turned the corner on the person I was, and the music I wanted to make," he says.
"That happened before I had vocal issues. 'Born and Raised' was the course correction where I figured all of that out. I don't fast before photo shoots anymore. I'm not doing anything just to challenge people. I'm doing just what I want to do." As such, the album teems with soul-searching confessionals like the single "Shadow Days" ("I'm a good man, with a good heart/Had a tough time, got a rough start/But I finally learned to let it go"). It's Mayer's richest album musically and lyrically by far--a vivid tapestry of Allman Brothers-style guitar filigree; rootsy, organic instrumental interplay; and unflinching introspection. Despite the fact that it entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1, selling 219,000 copies in its first week (according to Nielsen SoundScan), Mayer considers it a "no-hit record"--a status he's at peace with. "I was off the radar when I made that record--irrelevant," he says. "But I made the music that moved me. The deeper something is, the less span it has. If that was a bid for longevity, then it worked. There really is a life to be lived between being red hot and washed up."
As such, Mayer's re-entry proved simultaneously low key and boldfaced. He dropped in as guitar sideman on Frank Ocean's performance on "Saturday Night Live," and jammed memorably with the Rolling Stones in their spate of comeback shows last December. "Playing with the Stones was very inspirational," Mayer says. "What a band to play guitar in. Your notes float when you play with the Rolling Stones."
Mayer made his return to singing onstage, meanwhile, in January at a benefit concert that raised more than $100,000 for firefighters who fought the Pine Creek fire, a recent blaze that decimated much of Mayer's adopted Montana community. He'd brought in Zac Brown as a ringer vocalist, but ended up singing songs like "If I Ever Get Around to Living" off "Born and Raised" with vivid, grizzled intensity--to rapturous applause. "It was more a symbolic than musical experience," Mayer says. "I had half the voice I have now, but I got a little bit of that feeling of flight. And I hate to say this because it raises a lot of other questions, but it felt really good to be back onstage as a grownup. And as my voice started to come back, I really started to dial up the dream machine as far as what I wanted from my upcoming tour."
A makeup date at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on April 25, followed by an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, will mark Mayer's first full-length concerts in three years. These shows will eventually lead to a headlining tour this summer, which is proving as big as any in his career. Clayton claims "pent-up demand" for Mayer's triumphant return to the stage is filling amphitheaters anew: "John's been off the road for three years, and has such an incredible, hardcore fan base who are used to seeing him every summer. I'm not surprised there's this incredible demand."
Mayer intends to give those fans an experience they haven't ever had from him, thanks to a combination of freshly recharged musical mojo and elaborate, technologically forward visuals. "You're not going to see a songwriter flanked by sidemen, but a real band," he says. "We aren't going to try to appease the applause-o-meter. I've done that before--'Uh-oh, they need [Mayer's 2002 smash] "Your Body Is a Wonderland." Give them "Daughters."' No, the audience is there to watch what you want to play. I'm giving the players the reins this time out, but it's not going to be a jam-band thing. Instead, I've been influenced by a specific approach the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix had that I adore: completely unself-conscious ensemble playing that's unrepeatable. I'm taking the concept, the vibe, the essence of that kind of playing and then rendering it in a hugely expressive way."
The tour's innovative stage production is designed to echo Mayer's musically expansive spirit. "It's going to be moody and visual, surrounded by warmth and sound," Mayer says. "You're going to want to hang out for two hours, detach into time and space and trip out, if that gives you any hint about what to expect from the video wall. The really big bell and whistle is the video component--most of the time will be spent composing the video content. We'll be able to drag and drop video on the fly, the way you'd be able to bring up a light fader, so the show will be different every night."
Mayer has had quite a while to meditate on this spectacle of sound and vision during his recent physical and spiritual rehabilitation. "Last Sunday night, I put on the complete recordings of Miles Davis' "In a Silent Way," sat in my chair with my dog sleeping on my foot, poured myself a little Knob Creek to sip on and watched the Yellowstone River as the sun went down," he says. "As I looked up at the sky, I was planning this tour in my mind-I couldn't have done that when it was unforeseen when and if it was going to happen. The greatest gift I now have in my life is the opportunity to play again, which is also the opportunity to dream again. My dreams were in escrow, but when I found out this thing in my throat had receded, the most exciting thing for me was having a second chance at a new life. My dreams have come true twice. That's really cool."