Songs in the Key of Mayer

The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter drives fast, talks a blue streak and longs for love. But don't call him sensitive, or he might smack you.

John Mayer Credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

John Mayer is picking up serious speed as he cruises down a New York highway in his steel-blue BMW. "Turn on the butt massager," he says, then demonstrates the car's assortment of toys: ventilated seats, voice-activated radio, computer navigation system, built-in phone. A few minutes later, just when our asses have started to limber up, a police car pulls out behind us, siren blaring. On the side of the road, the 26-year-old musician lets out a sigh of resignation, reminds himself of the etiquette in these situations — "Hands on the wheel, windows down, radio off" — and assumes the position as the cop approaches his window. "You were doing 74 in a 55," says the officer, who obviously doesn't recognize the multiplatinum-selling Grammy winner. Mayer folds the ticket into his pocket without examining it and gets back on the road that leads to Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York, where, in a few hours, he will play for a sold-out crowd of 14,000 fans. "I'm not going to let this ticket thing bother me," he says, more to himself than to me. Mayer's mind never lingers on one thing for very long. Behind his wide brown eyes there is a constant buzz of thought, like the purr of a computer booting and rebooting and rebooting. He talks a lot, and haphazardly, but is rarely less than articulate and often sounds as if he's quoting a lyric he has yet to write down.

Released in September, his latest album, Heavier Things, debuted at Number One and has been in the Top Twenty ever since. Out-of-the-box success is a new thing for Mayer, whose previous CD, Room for Squares, was a slow burner that was out for nearly a year before it went platinum, earned him a Grammy for "Your Body Is a Wonderland" and then went platinum two more times. Mayer sold 3 million records without any glitzy marketing push, building an audience the old-fashioned way, by touring relentlessly. With record sales sinking in the past couple of years, Mayer and artists such as Norah Jones (who toured with Mayer last year) have been able to attract an unusually broad fan base: everyone from frat boys to soccer moms.

Except for his bedroom, where clothes are strewn across the floor and on top of his unmade bed, Mayer's Manhattan apartment is neat and free of clutter. In the living room, a baby grand sits next to a taupe sectional couch, and his Grammy is perched alone on the fireplace mantel. "Want to hold it?" he says playfully, and, of course, I do. He still has the foam padding — with a cutout in the shape of the little gold gramophone — that cushioned the award in the mail; he's thinking of having it framed.

Today he is dressed in loose-fitting jeans and a brown polo shirt with a tiny embroidered silhouette of himself where the alligator might normally go. "An ill-founded merch idea," he explains, and then gestures to four light towers behind the sofa. "That's the gayest I ever got, putting four different-color gels in those lights." This duplex costs him $7,500 a month, but he thinks it's worth the expense because he wrote a record here.

He grabs a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies as he leads me up the stairs to the modest recording studio on the second floor. On the studio wall, a framed platinum album for Room for Squares and a black-and-white photo of Jimi Hendrix playing at the Isle of Wight festival; on the desk, a multitude of hard drives and unopened mail, including a box containing the Proactiv skin-care system, ordered from a TV infomercial. ("If they jacked the price up to fifty dollars a bottle, I'd still pay it," he says.) "This room is the pride and joy of my life," he coos, staring out of the windows at uptown Manhattan. "Look at the view. So cool." And then he adds a classic Mayer non sequitur: "I fear snipers sometimes, and then I have to move out of the way."

Huh?

"I have weird phobias," he says. "I'm really afraid of suicide. I'm the last person who will ever commit suicide, but I have a fear of suicide. Like, I hope I don't come down with it. The night I finished the record in L A., I was on the computer, sitting next to the balcony, and I was like, 'By six o'clock this morning I will be facedown on the pavement beneath the balcony, but I can't help it. What if it's fate?'"

Mayer describes himself as "a psychological hypochondriac." It's unexpected, because Mayer — for all his hyperkinetic energy — does not seem like a stress case. He is perpetually upbeat, relentlessly funny and not a moper. "I don't understand moodiness," he says. "I refuse to give my attention to anybody who sees their own mood as a private barometer for the way the rest of the room should be. My dedication is to staying nice and mild."

There is a song on Heavier Things called "Something's Missing" that ends with Mayer making a checklist of life's necessities. He sings, "Friends? Check/Money? Check/Well-slept? Check/Opposite sex? Check/Guitar? Check/Microphone? Check/Messages waiting on me when I come home? Check."

So what's missing?

"I remember coming off tour feeling really lost, like, 'Where am I, what should I do?' It's like that feeling between hunger and thirst and arousal and desire all at the same time. I get that feeling a lot — I'd say about once a day for maybe half an hour. I think it's just sport at this point. It's total self-absorption to the max. Most people think of self-absorbed as 'I'm thinking about me instead of about you.' But I'm self-absorbed to the point where I'm thinking about me instead of the movie I'm watching. Self-absorbed as in, 'What happens if I flip out and all of a sudden I'm at the movies and I just want to go home? "

He says that his tendency toward panic pays off, because it's "the same mechanism that allows me to write songs." It's also the mechanism that keeps Mayer completely drug- and alcohol-free. "I've made a commitment to being present at all times," he says as we walk from his apartment to the nearby Virgin Megastore. "And I'm such an anxiety person, I'd worry that the drugs were a trap. Like, 'I wanna get out of this high!' I already walk down the street and think I'm losing my breath for no reason — just fuck with my own breathing."

In the back lounge of his tour bus, Mayer is still dressed in his sweat-soaked clothes from tonight's show at the Tweeter Center in Camden, New Jersey. He looks in the mirror, grabs an Afro pick and combs his hair flat against his head. Then he swoops his bangs upward, so that he's got a curlicue that wouldn't look out of place in a John Waters flick. "I wrote a fan letter to Michael J. Fox when I was eleven, asking how I could get my hair like his," he blurts. "Around the time of Secret of My Success, he had a little mullet, with a tuft thing behind his ear. I tried to get that going, but my hair is too thick."

A week after the show in Camden, I meet Mayer's parents, Margaret and Richard — a retired schoolteacher and principal, respectively — at their home in Fairfield, Connecticut. John is the middle child between his older brother Carl, 27, and his younger brother Ben, 24, and Margaret says that her pop-star son was always "a peaceable kid." She has laid out a plate of Milanos on the table on the back porch of the home the Mayers have lived in since 1984. "He would not demand a lot of attention," she says. "He would go off and do things by himself."

Before he picked up guitar, John wanted to be a radio announcer. "Maybe it was the booming baritone or the glib delivery," he says. "I used to sit in the bathroom with the lights out and just talk. Just riff. I'd go for hours. I also used to record radio shows in my bedroom. It was, 'WJOHN, your Number Two radio station, because you're always going to have one better than this.'"

Everything changed in 1990. John's neighbor gave him a tape of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Listening to it, Mayer had a revelation. "It was like, 'What is this, and where is the rest of it?'" he says. "It was the sound of perfection for me. That sounds totally corny: My life was black-and-white and then it was Technicolor. But I just remember going on this hunt for the rest of it."

He became obsessed with Vaughan and Hendrix and Buddy Guy and Robert Cray; all of his free time was spent playing his guitar. His grades suffered, and several times he asked his parents to let him drop out. As he saw it, he was going to be a famous guitarist, so why bother with high school?

"It frustrated the hell out of my mom," he says. "She saw my conviction as though I was in a cult and needed to be reprogrammed. So she took me to two different therapists to try to get me to stop playing guitar." He says his first hit, "No Such Thing" — about a kid who's tired of being told "to stay inside the lines" — was largely a response to his parents' skepticism. "I remember standing at my mom's door and saying, 'Just watch, just watch,'" says Mayer.

"We've seen so many teenagers who didn't pay attention to their studies because they had dreams of being a basketball star or whatever," Margaret offers. "And in the end they got nowhere. We didn't want to just go, 'Oh, yeah, John, good idea.'" "I am no judge of his music," says Richard, who at age 76 is 19 years older than his wife. "I am the most unhip guy you'll meet, but my experience with musicians was that they played on Friday and Saturday nights and had another job during the week. I would say to John, Where's your Plan B?'"

Mayer made it through high school and was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston with a partial scholarship. After his first year, he became frustrated by the emphasis on technical expertise rather than creativity; he quit college in 1997 and moved to Atlanta, where his career got going in earnest.

He started playing regular gigs at a small club called Eddie's Attic and attracted the attention of major-label A&R reps after performing at the annual South by Southwest music convention in Austin, in the spring of 2000. The next few months, he says, were even more demoralizing than all those years in high school. Nearly every weekend, he would fly to New York to meet with music-business executives, and almost every one of them showed him the door. "The record people would always pose questions to themselves and answer them," he says." 'Do I think it's a great record? Absolutely. Do I think that people would want to hear this record? I think so. Do I think that the climate is right for this kind of record right now? I'm not sure.' And I remember thinking, 'Can I just finish my smoothie and go?' I came in pretty headstrong, and I can see how I could come off as a cocky little fuck."

That John Mayer speaks Japanese comes as a surprise to the two Japanese reporters who have traveled to Camden to conduct brief interviews. I can only assume he's saying something bawdy because he often is, and because the reporters are giggling and blushing. He learned Japanese as a freshman in high school, which is also when he met his first serious girlfriend. "Her mother said she should learn Japanese because it would look good on her college applications," he says, slouching his six-foot-three frame down low on the couch as the tour bus heads back to New York. "There was a magnet program in another town, and we'd get bused together. I was like, 'I love Japanese! Mom, I wanna study Japanese.' When really it's just so you can finger your girlfriend on the bus every morning."

Mayer doesn't have a girlfriend right now, but he readily admits that he really, really, really wants to fall in love again. He wants it so much that he has resisted — as best he can — hooking up with random girls on the road, so that he will be completely unfettered if he meets the woman of his dreams. "I used to be able to mess around," he says. "I don't really anymore. The lady I'm looking for is not backstage. I want to meet somebody so I don't have to do my hair that much. I don't want to fuck around anymore."

Honestly, do you think you'd have as many girls interested if you weren't John Mayer?

"You don't have to persuade me to be perfectly honest. This gets into a whole chapter: 'Heartthrob.' Because I'm not a heartthrob. I have a butt chin. No under-chin. I have a giant head, I'm lanky as can be. I have back-ne. I'm not conventionally attractive, but there is someone who my look totally does it for, no matter what it is. Whether it's the fact that my neck seemingly comes out of my chest and not the top, whether it's that I have terrible posture. I've never labored under the illusion that any of my success has to do with looks."

Do you have a type?

"It's a know-it-when-I-see-it thing. I don't like Fabergé-egg beauty. I like sweatshirt-and-ripped-jeans beauty. That's what 'Wonderland' is about. It's not about hot girls. It's about a girl who does it for you. People always thought that was a make-out song, but it's really about loving every part of someone like they're a jungle gym. It's not just tits and ass and pussy. Sex is so utilitarian. Foreplay is like a sixty-four-count box of crayons and a couple different types of paper. Sex is like banging a Coke can with a mallet."

But isn't it hard to have a serious relationship when you're on tour all the time?

"I would give this all up right now for a wife if it meant that if I didn't give it all up, I'd never find one. Money? It's nothing until it means taking care of a wife and kids. I will gladly be former one-time successful rock musician John Mayer who pitches the first ball at Little League games."

Mayer remembers the first time someone called him "sensitive." He was eleven years old and looking through an issue of Dog Fancy magazine when he came upon an ad for an animal charity. It had a picture of an emaciated pooch, and Mayer just started to bawl. Patting him on the back, his mom said, "Oh, you're a sensitive boy." He still cries at goodbye scenes in movies, and he remembers a recent Diet Coke commercial that made him tear up. ("Something with a guy looking in the hamper and realizing that his wife wears the same underwear his mom used to wear," he says. "Pure nostalgia.") But to call Mayer a "sensitive singer-songwriter," as so many have done, is getting him all wrong.

"People seem to think I'm at a heightened level of sensitivity all the time," he says. "But when I look at someone's face, and they're trying too hard to be earnest, or getting all Cusack with me, I want to smack them."

Mayer has the same passions as the average 26-year-old American male: He and his bandmates are so geeked-out on the sniper video game Halo that they wear fake Army dog tags bearing their Halo aliases. He doesn't watch as much porn as he used to, but he still has a healthy appreciation for it. He wears the same pair of sneakers almost every day. He is such a regular guy that when we walk down the streets of Manhattan one night, no one takes much notice.

"I don't want to be a famous person," he says. "I want to be a famous musician. Right now, I'm a big target, just living off the land with no scandal attached to me. I feel like, with this record, everybody is going to look for a weak spot to say, 'I knew it.' I'm focused on proving that my success wasn't an accident. And when I play onstage, I want to get twice as good as I am now. Why? Because fuck everyone else. I don't care what you could possibly have to say about me, because I will always work hard enough that you will have to follow it up with, 'But, boy, that kid can play.'"