On the 35th floor of a New York skyscraper, John Mayer is talking a mile a minute, as usual. "You know who really blows me away?" asks the singer-guitarist, who's here to promote his sixth solo album, Paradise Valley. "Jack Johnson. This motherfucker refused to be anybody else than himself. And I'll be damned if he isn't winning through the years, just by being himself! That song comes on, man – the 'I Got You' song – and it's real. What a great amount of respect I have for him. I go, 'That's who I should have been. I should have done it like that.'"
Everyone knows the path Mayer chose instead, starting around 2008 – the path of TMZ and TMI, overshadowing his music with a string of high-profile relationships and aggressively un-PC jokes in tweets and interviews. "I was in, let's call it, the constant-acquisition phase," he says with a wry grin. "But I don't have those overreaching desires anymore."
Mayer's gold-selling 2012 comeback, Born and Raised, came in the middle of his treatment for a vocal condition that required surgery. He announced the follow-up with minimal fanfare this summer, just a month before its late-August release. "If I hadn't taken on all comers and basically invited everyone outside to fight me, then I would have had years where people didn't think about me or regard me one way or another," he says. "But when I came back with Paradise Valley, they would have been like, 'I like that John Mayer guy.'" He laughs a little. "Yeah, the Jack Johnson route is the better route. But I didn't know that until now."
Paradise Valley is full of low-key folk-rock tunes, as pretty and peaceful as the part of Montana it's named after, where Mayer lives. The songs are catchy, but they don't sound like pop hits – which he says is by design. "How great is it to not have to think in terms of ubiquity?" he says. "That shit was hard, man! I didn't have any fun when I was trying to keep [my fame] elevated. It's almost impossible. It's Sisyphean. Now, playing shows is all the fame I need."
That said, Mayer hasn't entirely extricated himself from the celebrity machine: He recently reunited with on-and-off girlfriend Katy Perry. She's on the new LP, singing a duet called "Who You Love."
"For me, it's about how being with anybody is settling," he says. "You can really hear the joy on that song. We're celebrating, like, 'We give up! We give up – it's you.' And that's oddly romantic, in this day and age, I think."
According to Mayer, dating a pop star even as he downsizes his own ambitions hasn't created any tension. "The fact that we're on such different sides of the coin actually keeps a lot of conflict at bay," he says. "She's a whole different vibration of what's going on, and I'm totally supportive. I can say, 'Hey, how was work?' and really wonder how work was. It's a nice existence."
Mayer has a tendency to go off on unexpected tangents, and you can tell he still worries about saying something he'll regret. Midway through our conversation, he makes a very slightly off-color joke, then catches himself. "Um, don't print that," he says nervously. We move on to another subject, but he brings it up again moments later: "You can't print that line. It's out, right? I have a weird thing in my mind. My brain just fucking . . . and it's nothing, it's not a big deal. But I'll create a loop in my brain, like a corkscrew. You ever talk to someone who has that thing? Is it common?" Mayer shakes his head. "Anyway . . ."