Q&A: John Mayer on His New Voice, Summer Tour and Dating Katy Perry

Singer on bleak prospects after his throat issues: 'They said cancer would have been easier to get rid of'

John Mayer performs during the Stand Up for Heroes Benefit at the Beacon Theatre in New York.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
January 30, 2013 12:50 PM ET

Last year, doctors told John Mayer it could be years before he sang again. "There was not a lot of hope," says the singer, who'd already been through failed surgery to repair a granuloma in his throat. "They said cancer would have been easier to get rid of." But a second round of surgery in August worked, and on January 16th, Mayer played his first set in two years at a benefit in Bozeman, Montana, for the firefighters who battled the wildfires that destroyed 12,000 acres near the singer's home last summer. Mayer sounded raspy but overjoyed jamming on an eight-minute version of last year's "If I Ever Get Around to Living."

In this exclusive online Q&A, Mayer opens up about his new voice, why he's reluctant to speak out more often ("I abused that ability to express myself, to the point where I was expressing things that weren't true to my thoughts"), dating Katy Perry, and why he doesn't consider himself a pop hitmaker anymore. "I have gray hair on my temples," he says. "Born and Raised is my least popular album. And that could be because I wasn't ready to tour and promote, but also the videos came out, the record came out, it had a shot. I'm OK with that."

John Mayer Sings Onstage for the First Time in Two Years

Congratulations on singing onstage again. The way you extended "If I Ever Get Around to Living" and jammed on it at the Montana show was great.
Thank you. I've been dreaming about playing my own music [while] sitting in with the Rolling Stones and playing with all of these wonderful musicians. So much time had passed in between each of the times that I got to play guitar with somebody. There were days and weeks and literally months of not doing anything, and running out of things to do when there's nothing to do. For me to get back onstage and play again, it's just like, "Oh right, this is what I'm able to do. This is what I've been able to do while I was watching a whole bunch of Westerns every night and making rice bowls with chicken." It's been very fun to uncover it and rediscover it again.

So you cooked a lot?
Yeah. Just healthy food. I'm on a bran diet, man. I'm the king of rice and chicken. And Powerade Zero.

How did you adapt to not being a touring, performing musician?
I just became more settled in as a person. I would rather not be settled in as a person instead of playing music all the time, to be honest with you. But that wasn't an option. I wasn't going to be able to just visualize myself as a musician. You know, when you visualize yourself as a musician, you can make a lot of apologies for the little weird, interpersonal things you have with people. And when you don't have that, you go, "OK, let's focus in on the fact that the people I see today, I'm going to see tomorrow." Maybe the most interesting thing is that when I was hanging out in L.A. or New York, I actually became a part of a social circle for the first time in my adult life, not just the circle of people on my tour. I actually started to learn, "Oh, these are people I'll see at movie nights, house parties and dinners, so get to really know them and let them get to know you." I was a little underdeveloped in the way of being the guy who's at the party and not, "Hey, where are you playing next?" It's just sort of a really interesting lesson. I'm glad I got it . . . I have friends – some are the closest friends of my life – who have never come to a show of mine because there has never been a show in the length of our friendship.

Who do you consider your best friends?
A lot of them are comedy writers, movie writers. I'm actually at my friend Ricky Van Veen's place, who started CollegeHumor. I met him when I got off the road in 2010. It's almost like to certain people, the fact that I'm a musician is known but not really understood on a certain level. I feel like when some of my dearest friends now come to a show one day, they'll have a terrible time renegotiating that that's who I am. Like, "Oh, right, you play onstage in front of thousands of people."

You're playing Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival and the New Orleans Jazz Fest. You're going to be on tour all summer, I assume.
Yeah. I'll be touring all summer.

And on January 16th, you raised more than $100,000 for the firefighters.
That's what they tell me, yeah.

What made you want to make the Montana gig be your return to the stage after two years?
I was just going to play guitar. It was going to be me sort of curating the night and playing guitar in everybody's band. And it just turned out that I had been given the clean bill of health about a month ago. I didn't really believe it. I actually had them go back another time to look again, and I kind of feel like I want to go back a third time, because I'm just not used to it going my way. It's funny – you can't even call it a granuloma anymore. It's called a retinoid, which is where the granuloma was. It's gone. After being plagued by it for two years, you almost keep thinking it's like the end of Nightmare on Elm Street. There's always this moment that it's gonna come back, and I'm learning that that's my imagination.

Is it possible the granuloma could come back?
Sure. Everybody goes through this – at 35, you realize you just can't do whatever you want to do in terms of diet, sleep and overuse. You're held accountable. It's a ratio of one to one of what you put in to what you get out. I never went off the rails, but as a singer you have to really watch what you put into your body. Especially with what you put in your body before you lay flat and go to sleep. You don't realize that when you go out and have a couple drinks and you come back home and you pass out, you're raiding your esophagus with acid from two or three whiskey sours. If you do that night after night and then you sing eight hours a day while you're writing a record, you're going to start wearing away at the stuff in your throat.

After the surgeries, how has your voice changed?
Everything changed about my voice. I don't have the projection. My laugh changed. The way I used to laugh is kind of like that "I'm embarrassed," high-pitched laugh. I don't really laugh that way anymore. I've found new ways around everything – new ways to talk, new ways to laugh. Now I wonder if I can go right back to the shape of my voice that I had when I was singing once I can do what I want to do with it.

With extra time on your hands did you pay much attention to the current music cycle?
A little bit. I wanted to step away from being competitive, or super-intellectualizing everything. It was about to be a generational change for me anyway. You know, I was about to be in it for my 10th and 11th year. That's about the time when you have to make a decision as to whether you're going to let the new generation in and respect it or say, "It shouldn't be this way!" The music that was on the radio when I first came up in 2001 would never make it today. It was Norah Jones and Jack Johnson and Coldplay and me. It's just different now.

The kind of stuff I like is not very popular anymore. I'm moving into another part of my life. I have gray hair on my temples, you know? Am I going to throw that aside and say, "I want to make sure I play Jingle Ball every year?" Or do I say, "That's cool, I'm going to go gracefully into the next chapter of my life, and grow older with my audience" and be OK with not chasing hits.

I think Born and Raised is my most significant, meaningful record, and it's also my least popular album. And that could be because I wasn't ready to tour and promote, but also the videos came out, the record came out, it had a shot. I'm OK with that. And I think those couple years off that I couldn't get on the ice sort of made me a lot more mellow and allowed me to see things by the month instead of the minute. And that was very cool for me. I don't have opinions about most things anymore when it comes to music, because I'm aware that it doesn't matter what I think anymore.

Really? You could tour arenas and sell them out tomorrow.
Yeah. But so can a lot of people who are a little less relevant on radio or culturally. It would be great to continue being thought of in the same thought as guys who are on the radio, selling a shitload of records and downloads and stuff. But I'm ready to experience whatever the result of the music I make is, whether people like it or not.

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