The Redemption of John Mayer
Loose lips sink ships, and for a time there, it seemed John Mayer's would take down one of the most promising careers on the planet—his own. A couple of years ago, Mayer was every girl's worst nightmare, divulging the racy details of his relationships and personal life to anyone and everyone who put a microphone in his face. He'd become the bane of women everywhere, and the butt of jokes for his cringe-worthy interviews with various high-profile publications. You couldn't help but be embarrassed for him. For a man whose music oozed sensitivity, he was second only to Kanye West for his insensitivity. Mayer's arrogance was fast eclipsing his talent.
Douche factor aside, John Mayer is a man who knows his way around a fretboard. His blues chops have earned him a spot on stage with the greats like B.B. King
, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Guy. He has been compared to Stevie Ray Vaughan and has been christened Slowhand, Jr. But after a very public dressing down, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter sold his homes on both coasts and headed for the hills, tail between his legs. He ended up in Bozeman, Montana, where he bought a ranch and retreated from the public eye for some much needed reflection. Mayer grew out his hair, bought himself a cowboy hat and a pair of boots, and embraced the more laid-back country life. His intent was to let absence mend his tattered image and time smooth out some of his rough edges.
After two years out of the limelight, a couple years older and hopefully a whole lot wiser, a much humbled Mayer has decided to let his guitar do the talking now. Mayer emerged from his self-imposed exile back in May with his fifth studio album, Born and Raised
, and lucky for him, Mayer's fans are a forgiving lot. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard
charts, beating back stiff competition from Slash and several "American Idol" alumni. Born and Raised
has received generally positive reviews from most critics, some of whom are calling it Mayer's best album to date, not to mention his best-selling. "I hope people want to receive this music," he told NPR about his return to the record charts. "I have so much that I need to say—I hope I get a chance to say it. I hope people are interested."
Having a lot to say was precisely what got him in hot water not all that long ago. At the heart of Mayer's media meltdown in 2010, when he gave highly controversial, back-to-back interviews to Playboy
and Rolling Stone
, was a desire to be liked and a fear of appearing boring in print. His confidence, after all, has always been in his fingers and his songwriting.
John Clayton Mayer was born on October 16, 1977, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His mother, Margaret, was an English teacher and his father, Richard, a high school principal. John's interest in the guitar was sparked by Michael J. Fox's guitar performance as Marty McFly in the 1985 film, Back to the Future
. He became fascinated with the instrument, and when John turned 13, his father rented one for him. "I picked [the guitar] up and started playing it," Mayer recalls. "It wasn't that it made instant sense to me. It wasn't that I knew everything when I picked it up, but for some reason I didn't mind not knowing. I had a couple of weeks before I took lessons, so I got to play a little bit before anyone told me where to put my hands. I still think a little like that; throw your hands around it and listen and if anything cool comes up, remember what you did, remember why that happened and remember how to do it next time."
Mayer began taking lessons from a local guitar-shop owner and soon became consumed with playing like Stevie Ray Vaughan, an early influence. His singular focus concerned his parents to the point that they had him seen by a psychiatrist, who determined Mayer was fine. John credits the guitar for helping him to escape from the tension of his parents' contentious marriage.
While in high school, Mayer formed a band with Joe Beleznay, Tim Procaccini and Rich Wolf and called it Villanova Junction after a Jimi Hendrix song. The band played mainly covers and didn't stay together long, but John's prowess on the guitar and his talent for songwriting left a lasting impression on his bandmates. "John played so well," says Beleznay. "When I first saw him play, when I was 17 or 18, the level he was playing at was like a 50-year-old musician. Someone that had been doing it for years would have just loved to be at his caliber. He had a confidence that was contagious." When Villanova Junction disbanded, Mayer started playing blues bars and other local venues, and after graduation, he took a job as a full-service gas station attendant for $7 an hour, working until he had saved enough money to buy a 1996 SRV signature Stratocaster.
John enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music when he was 19, but dropped out after two semesters and relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, to pursue a career in music. He became a frequent performer at local coffee houses and blues clubs and in 1999, self-released his first EP, Inside Wants Out
. A year later, Mayer performed at the prestigious South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, where he landed a contract with Aware Records, an affiliate of Columbia Records that specializes in exposing unsigned musical artists to the mainstream.
Fame came quickly to John Mayer, who burst onto the national scene in 2001 with his major label debut, Room for Squares
. With the hits "No Such Thing" and "Your Body is a Wonderland," which earned Mayer his first Grammy, the album climbed to No. 8 on the Billboard
200 and has sold more than 4 million copies. Room for Squares
gained serious momentum as Mayer made the rounds on late night talk shows. His performance of the song "Neon"
on Last Call with Carson Daly
showcased his incredible skills. His talent as a guitarist, however, was not what would promote the album. With a voice like warm, gooey honey, sensitive lyrics and boyish good looks, Mayer had teenage girls swooning. He had undeniable pop appeal, which proved to be the driving force behind the promotion for Room for Squares
The pop sound that had been all over Mayer's debut wasn't as prevalent on his second album, Heavier Things
, which was released in September 2003 and landed at the No. 1 spot on the record charts. The sentimental ballad "Daughters" earned him another two Grammys, one for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and the other for Song of the Year. Fearing such sappy songs would pigeonhole him and kill any dreams he had of a career as a serious musician, John began appearing on more mature television shows like PBS' Austin City Limits
and hanging around with guitar icons like Buddy Guy and Clapton, one of John's heroes.
On his next effort, Mayer made an unexpected move when he formed a bluesy, guitar-driven jam band with distinguished bassist Pino Palladino (who'd toured with The Who) and drummer Steve Jordan (who'd recorded with Dylan and Clapton). Calling themselves The John Mayer Trio, the band was a conscious effort on Mayer's part to restore some of his integrity.
The John Mayer Trio released a live album in November 2005 called Try!
, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album. This time out, Mayer focused on popular blues renditions rather than adult-contemporary pop songs. Critical response to the album was mixed, however, with most critics impressed by Mayer's progression and Palladino and Jordan's musicianship, while still being underwhelmed by the music itself. The trio toured as the opening act for The Rolling Stones on some A Bigger Bang tour dates that same year, when critics noted that although John was a badass guitar player, he was "a bit too eager to impress."
Mayer's increasing credibility would carry over to his 2006 release, Continuum
, an album that is widely considered to be his breakout release. It featured a variety of styles, from blues to soul, and helped to solidify John's status as a first-rate guitarist. The album included the protest anthem, "Waiting on the World to Change," which nabbed Mayer his third Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, while the record itself scored for Best Pop Vocal Album. Continuum
became Mayer's third studio album to go multi-platinum.
John was on a roll. In 2007 Rolling Stone
named Mayer one of their picks for The Top 20 New Guitar Gods, and featured him on their cover, front and center, flanked on either side by Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante and Derek Trucks. Two years later Mayer added to his collection of Grammys with his fourth win in the category Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Say," a single written for the Rob Reiner film, The Bucket List
, and one for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for the live version of "Gravity" that appears on Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles
Next up for Mayer was Battles Studies
. Released in November 2009, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard
200 chart and was his fourth consecutive record to be certified platinum. Battle Studies
received positive reviews from most music critics including Rolling Stone
, who praised Mayer, calling Battle Studies
"a real study in craftsmanship and understated guitar ninja-dom." Yes, things were going well for John—that is, until those infamous interviews in early 2010 which left many to wonder whether he was suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. It was hard to reconcile the John Mayer coming out of stereo speakers with the blowhard spilling his guts in print.
Mayer has since apologized for his serious lack of decorum, saying that, "I just wanted to play the guitar for people. Everything else just sort of popped up and I improvised, and kept doubling down on it." Courting forgiveness for his past transgressions, the entirety of his new album is a lengthy apology to the people—mostly female—he’s wronged over the past few years and marks yet another change in his musical style. Produced by Don Was (The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King), Born and Raised
incorporates the musical elements of folk and Americana. It counts among its influences artists like Dylan, Neil Young, David Crosby and Graham Nash, the latter two of whom add harmonies to the title song "Born and Raised"
, an ode to hard-won self-awareness. The tracks on Born and Raised
are insightful and full of self-truths and bluesy simplicity. Perfect music for a road trip, so roll down the window, pop out your bare feet and enjoy. This is Mayer minus his nasty alter ego. Here's hoping he doesn't muck it up this time.
In a postscript to this piece, John Mayer isn't currently permitted to sing due to a second bout with granuloma, a tumor on his vocal cord. The recurring throat issue has forced him to cancel his summer tour in support of Born and Raised
(he's set to have surgery this fall), but alas, it hasn't silenced him completely. John was in Rolling Stone
recently, whining about Taylor Swift who'd apparently humiliated him with her song, "Dear John." According to Mayer, the country-pop star allegedly wrote the song about him, chastising him for taking advantage of her youth during their brief romance. Uh-oh. Is that thunder I hear rumbling out in the distance? As someone who appreciates this man's talents, I'm rooting for John to take the high road and zip it. Second chances are a gift. Thirds are much harder to come by.
Image: By Julio Enriquez from Denver,CO, USA (Picture 222) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
, via Wikimedia Commons