John Mayer’s inner child is speaking, and he sounds scared.
Little John is using Big John’s language, the orderly, self-soothing lingo of the therapist’s couch, to unpack what exactly went down last night. But one word keeps bubbling up from the tar of boyhood dread: “trouble.” Mayer repeats it seven times in 15 minutes, always in italics, as if leaning into the word will drag it into the light, rob it of its fearsome, ancient power. “I’m not in trouble,” he says. And: “The most important thing is that I ain’t in trouble, you know what I mean?” And: “It was important for me not to look at the fact that TMZ picked it up as, ‘Oooh, you’re in trouble.’ Finger-point, John Mayer from the fifth grade.”
It has been a few years since Mayer, newly 41, saw any pickup for a sketchy remark. And while his quote from a couple of weeks back about the number of women he has slept with -- “sub-500” -- resulted in a rash of headlines, the one that TMZ blasts on this early-October day is unique in the Mayer canon: “WE NEED A NEW ‘MALE CONTRACT’ ... Screw This Alpha Male BS.”
Last night, the day after Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mayer played a cancer benefit in Baltimore, and between songs he decided to speak on men’s entitlement. His initial thoughts, captured on video, were a little muddled: “What’s bullshit is the idea that if you’re a man, any woman you see, you should be able to get an erection, and when we don’t” -- long pause -- “that’s the trauma.” As some cheers went up, he continued, apparently in an effort to clarify: “I don’t want it to be the male contract! I’m telling you, that’s the contract, and we have to tear. The contract. Up.” Eventually, after a woman in the audience asked the sensible question -- just what, exactly, is the male contract? -- Mayer finally delivered an unambiguous, if rather obvious, takeaway: “You do not possess the universal ability to have any woman you see.”
This drizzly afternoon, relaxing on a couch in his pristine 36th-floor suite at the Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan, Mayer doesn’t look like someone suffering from an emotional hangover. Though he is wearing what appear to be the world’s most expensive pajamas: a soft brown T-shirt, draped just so over his fit-dad frame; gray sweatpant-like trousers; and cream-colored canvas sneakers that look like Chuck Taylor knockoffs but are actually over $500 and made by the Japanese label Visvim, Mayer’s favorite.
And while he exudes a cultivated kind of serenity, reeling off long and thoughtful meditations on his current big themes -- maturity, celebrity, the Walmart Yodeling Boy (“I think about him a lot”) -- anxiety lurks at the edges of his speech. He’s not sure the benefit was the right forum for his message. He’s worried that he introduced an unstable element into the intimate space between singer-songwriter and audience, violating a sacred rule of live performance. But really, he’s worried that even when he does the right thing, he’ll get in trouble all over again.
Six, eight years ago, Mayer gleefully stirred up shit. Already a tabloid person of interest for dating the likes of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, he famously told Playboy he had a “David Duke cock” and, less famously, talked to Rolling Stone about seeking “the Joshua Tree of vaginas,” one “you could pitch a tent on and just camp out on for, like, a weekend.”
“Some people still say, ‘That guy’s a dick,’” acknowledges Mayer. “And I go, ‘Well, any of that data you’re working off of is really old.’ I mean, I can tell you for sure that I haven’t been a dick in many years. That’s a really outdated take.”
The dick detox began in 2012, when Mayer bought a place in Montana and began to slowly back away from his ego. Since then, he has released two albums, Paradise Valley and The Search for Everything, both of which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. He also played to more than 760,000 people on his 2017 arena tour of the Americas and Europe, according to Billboard Boxscore, which is just the latest example of the touring prowess that has earned him the Legend of Live Award at the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit and Awards.
More intriguingly, Mayer has recentered much of his creative energy around other artists: joining Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti in Dead & Company, which played to over 500,000 people this year on its third and largest annual summer tour; sitting in on guitar during Dave Chappelle’s stand-up gigs; recording and performing with artists including Frank Ocean, Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes and Travis Scott, whom he joined on Saturday Night Live two days before our hang at the Four Seasons, contentedly giving guitar face next to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker.
“I just fucking love participating,” explains Mayer. “I’m not trying to do this to suck anyone’s blood. The most dynamic, creative experience is people making their first, second and third albums. That’s where the hot lava is, and I just love being there. I love being there.”
(Scott responds in kind: “It’s a crazy, super trip” working with Mayer, he writes in an email. “He brings that natural psychedelic energy.”)
As he allowed his own lava to cool, quit quote-bombing magazines and split from Perry, his last famous girlfriend, Mayer started putting some sweat equity into his fame, workshopping a kinder, gentler, more stoner-friendly “Your Body Is a Wonderland” guy, mainly on Instagram Stories. He passed on an offer to become a mentor on The Voice -- the gold-standard celebrity maintenance plan -- because it landed at the same time as the Dead & Company opportunity, and aside from the question of whether the two gigs could “simultaneously survive in the same bio-dome of my career,” he worried that taking on both “might be asking a little too much from the universe.”
Now Mayer’s got a rudimentary but entertaining Instagram Live show on Sundays, Current Mood, with guests like Charlie Puth and Cazzie David, daughter of Larry. That’s where David extracted the “sub-500” comment in a sex-themed series of questions for Mayer -- and, barely noted at all, he announced the two-year anniversary since he had quit drinking.
But Mayer’s not satisfied with merely reaping some mid-career goodwill. In fact, he has a new ambition: restore the role of the singer-songwriter as truthsayer, thought leader and moral guide. “Believe me when I tell you,” he says, “there is going to be a massive shift toward telling the truth again.” Which sounds, coming out of Mayer’s mouth, a little bit like trouble.
Last year, for his 40th, Mayer and some pals blew up a Winnebago. This was in Montana, a little ahead of his actual birthday. Chad Franscoviak, Mayer’s longtime sound engineer, arranged the whole thing, a surprise dinner theater-type excursion in which Mayer and some other “good guys” jumped in a vehicle loaded with paintball guns to chase some “bad guys” to their hideout -- the vintage Winnebago, tucked in a quarry. Mayer and Franscoviak loaded it up with actual explosives, Mayer fired an actual 50-caliber rifle into it, and ... kablooey. Then they sent their cars off a cliff.
Laying waste to the motor home gave Mayer the same “so giddy you need to pee” feeling he remembered as a kid with a group, ditching a boy they didn’t want to hang out with. It was not, in other words, a mellow embrace of middle age. Mayer only made peace with the onset of his 40s after a few more months of “kicking and screaming,” but what’s surprising is that he stopped kicking and screaming at all. “I probably had a run in my life where I wasn’t aware that there was anything I couldn’t have. And it made a monster out of me,” says Mayer, echoing, consciously or not, his comments about the male contract. “And there’s something very freeing about you can’t. And that’s about the right age in your life where you go, ‘Yeah, you can’t.’”
And why would the younger Mayer have realized there were things he couldn’t have? Here’s a guy who obsessively practiced guitar in his Fairfield, Conn., bedroom as a teen, defied his educator parents to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston and, about three years after dropping out, signed to Columbia and officially released Room for Squares, the debut album that eventually went quadruple platinum.
It’s easy to forget, in the age of Drake and Cardi B, that in the ’00s, “Mayer” was synonymous with “mainstream.” He’s a key figure in late-stage rock, with a record seven No. 1s on the Top Rock Albums chart and 25 entries on the Hot Rock Songs chart, the most for any solo artist. He’s also a king of the Adult Top 40, Adult Contemporary and Mainstream Top 40 charts -- the realm of supermarkets and dentist offices, of everyday people in need of a pick-me-up.
Mayer got there not by flexing his dazzling guitar skills and blues bona fides, but by crafting memorable lyrics that read specific and ring universal, writing poignant melodies with a grand sweep and singing them in a bedroom rasp Drake himself might envy. Think of “Daughters,” his No. 19 Billboard Hot 100 hit from 2005. It’s an intimate acoustic track in which a man essentially blames the “maze”-like behavior of his crush on her absent father -- and it’s beautiful, almost epic.
“I would love to make music for the club,” says Mayer, the same way he says most things: in a patient, matter-of-fact tone, with a hint of amusement at his own complexity. “I make music for the omelette on the Sunday after the club, and I’ve got to be OK with that, and I am OK with that.”
He also says that “the same thing that I may have [once] found a little underwhelming about not being culturally super hot is the same thing that has given me a little more traction in something just a little beneath that. You might not be the It Guy, but the It Guy has got a better chance of being picked off.”
This spring, Mayer managed something of an It Guy feat: Unburdened of expectations and armed with a new fluency in meme culture, he released “New Light,” a deliciously smooth, almost campy number that hit the top 10 on Hot Rock Songs and Adult Top 40, thanks in part to a dank, “Bound 2”-style green-screen music video that now has over 21 million views on YouTube.
But while Mayer is grateful that the song connected, he realizes he’s not going to be invited to pop out from under the stage to play it at the Grammys. And because he has let go of “white-hot relevancy,” Mayer doesn’t necessarily intend for his imminent new single, “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” to be a hit. Instead, it’s a first step in returning the songwriter to, well, semi-relevancy.
There are, according to Mayer, two main reasons we need singer-songwriters again. One seems reasonable enough: Social media and political polarization are triggering great pain and sadness. “The Mister Rogers documentary was a huge moment for people this year,” says Mayer, referring to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which A.O. Scott described in The New York Times as having a “curious melancholy.” “It was a wrecking ball for people, going, ‘Whoa, that’s who I used to be. There used to be hope in my chest. There used to be trust that the world was going to be OK.’ And that’s where the gold is up in those hills right now: in telling people they’re gonna be OK.”
The second reason is where he flirts with trouble: It’s that music has become “sonically superficial,” too focused on making people go “wow.” Mayer, who has worked closely with numerous top rappers over the years, asked hip-hop super-producer No I.D. to oversee “New Light,” and who cops to his own obsession with production techniques and “plug-ins,” is nevertheless rooting for a wave to overtake trap, the way “California songwriting” like Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash displaced psychedelic rock.
“This is me being very highfalutin about it, [but] I do think there is a very good case to be made for the allegory between trap music and psychedelia. That’s what we do: We go around and around and around between avoiding the truth and exposing the truth.
“I was in the studio with a great artist, huge artist who was jamming out to Michael Bolton,” Mayer continues. “Not ironically. Because there’s something in there that you want to get. It’s song form. And it’s motif. And it’s craft. That’s what allows you to hear a thing over and over and over again, instead of this sort of one-time listen that we’re into. Some of these things you only need to hear once, and you go, ‘Can I email you a golf clap?’”
It’s a giddy inner child who presents about a week later at Henson Studios in Hollywood, on Mayer’s 41st birthday. Mayer, sprawled in an Aeron-type chair by the mixing board, is here with his band, scattered around the control room, and Franscoviak, manning the computer, to lock in the rhythm parts for “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” recorded a few days earlier. Mayer lazily flashes the thumbs-up, asks for a drum fill to be moved from one part of the song to another and says things like, “Well, my day is made.” He’s wearing patched jeans, slouchy suede Visvim boots and an elegant gold watch, but his fashion-y XXXL white T-shirt gives him a boyish aspect.
As the playback ends and Mayer starts chatting away, you can see why his friend Stevie Nicks writes to say, “Everybody matures over the years, but John has a lovely childlike spirit that doesn’t change. That’s what makes a great writer.” He lights up talking about the 11-year-old Walmart Yodeling Boy, Mason Ramsey, whose Instagram handle is @lilhankwilliams: “An interesting case ... What if he’s singing about, like, having money stolen from him? Him with 14-year-olds -- 14 being the oldest person in the band -- and they’re singing about shooting dice and breaking a bottle over someone’s head? Yo, I’m in.” And Rihanna: “If you told me Rihanna was on Easter Island right now, I’d go, ‘Seems fair.’ That’s an artist with a circadian rhythm that I admire. It’s just like a blind person, man. She might call you at four in the morning. That’s an artist.”
When I bring up Tucker Carlson, who on his Fox News show seized on Mayer’s “male contract” spiel to baselessly speculate that it was a preemptive deflection of misconduct allegations, Mayer ignores the name and plows on with an explanation of how he lets trusted friends filter the media’s takes on him. But he does decide to zoom out on his own “user experience” of fame, using the example of Kanye West.
As Mayer sees it, he has “failed” where West has succeeded: elevating his art above all else and absorbing the waves of “negative energy” that result from tirelessly stoking the public’s attention.
“I think that he made a very conscious decision years ago -- this is in defense of Kanye West -- to put more on the table than anyone he knew,” says Mayer. “I remember hanging with him in his house, maybe two or three years ago. I realized that night [that] he’s given most of his life to the invention ... I have a lot of respect and a lot of admiration and a lot of empathy for artists who devote more of themselves to their art than most other people do.”
Still, the West who visited President Trump in the Oval Office, says Mayer, is like an MMA fighter who “hasn’t tapped out,” and he worries for a nation of people conflating their humanity with the images they project on social media. A wearier, more weighty spin on “Waiting on the World to Change,” “I Guess I Just Feel Like” aims to capture the despair particular to American life around the 2018 midterms. (“The world is changing every four weeks. Three weeks, probably,” says Mayer. “So if you’re not putting a song out within a month of you writing it, you’re probably late to your own party of how you saw the world.” Which is why he’s only writing singles and has no plans for an album.)
Mayer blames much of that despair on the “personal brand”: “one of the least fortunate sociological things that happened in the last 15 years.” And with the exceptions of Kanye West, Donald Trump and, should he decide to go full Hank Williams, Mason Ramsey, Mayer knows the danger of the personal brand better than most. The one thing he’s sure of, the thing he keeps top of mind as he seeks to tell the truth, get a few laughs and maybe make a little trouble, is this: “You’re not done when you’ve said your most shocking thing. You’re done when your most shocking thing gets an eye roll.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of Billboard.