John Mayer: The Billboard Cover Story
After a harrowing medical journey, during which he feared he'd never sing again, John Mayer is reborn with a new lease on life and his first tour in three years
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
"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.
MAYER + BILLBOARD
"I'm never a quitter. That's how my mind works. Everything I stand for is about fighting through and never backing down"
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.
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.
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
JOHN MAYER + BILLBOARD