By Joe Coscarelli / New York Times News Service
LOS ANGELES—John Mayer can explain where he’s been. In fact, once he gets going, he probably won’t stop, given the amount of time he has spent in private processing his recent self-imposed irrelevance—the “lean years”, as he calls them.
A generational guitar talent and reliable soft-rock hitmaker with seven Grammys, Mayer is also a master conversationalist prone to verbal solos, noodling in impressionistic bursts about his nature and career, weaving in therapy-speak, potential stand-up bits and a barrage of mixed metaphors as if he’s writing this story himself. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place.
“The elephant in the room is that we’re sort of talking about the double-headed dragon of the Rolling Stone interview and the Playboy interview,” Mayer said a half-hour into a monologue about why he left pop music’s A-list and how ready he is, emotionally and musically, to return.
Across four hectic days in March, as Mayer, lucid and optimistic, finished his big-budget new album, The Search for Everything, and filmed a music video for what he hopes will be his next hit single, he seemed to especially relish reflecting on his 2010 undoing. Recalling the consequences of those infamous magazine articles—in which he used the phrase “sexual napalm”, chronicled his onanism in horrific detail, referred to his male anatomy as David Duke and somehow separately used a racial epithet—Mayer was vivid and virtuosic in his self-laceration.
“What has to happen for a guy to believe that he’s totally well-adjusted and be that far out of touch?” he said. “My GPS was shattered, just shattered.”
At 32 and obsessed with outsmarting the idea of a “clichéd rock star”, he explained, “I started to invent my own grenade.” (His big mouth.) He was “a Mack Truck without brakes”. Tabloid fame was “a human-growth hormone” and “extracurricular stuff” anyway, Mayer said. Also: “What I did was probably semiconsciously just reboot it—control, alt, delete.” His career had “flatlined”. “It was cat and mouse,” he said, “and the mouse lost.”
Now approaching 40, “I’m old enough to look back on my life and go: ‘That’s probably the photonegative shot in ‘Behind the Music’,’” Mayer said. “Coming up after the break—boom—the downfall.”
In reality, after those turbulent moments he moved to Montana, grew out his hair and made two more major-label albums—Born and Raised and Paradise Valley—that were less “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and more Laurel Canyon. “It’s rivers and cows,” he said. “There’s no sexuality there.” The relatively modest sales reflected that.
But the exile couldn’t last, not for this restless people-pleaser with the baby face and a penchant for dating some of the most famous women in the world (Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry). In late-2014 as he began writing what would become The Search for Everything, released on April 14, Mayer realized: “I’m a young guy. I like girls. I want girls to like me. I want to make music and be thought of as attractive. I was finally ready to reenter that world and grow back into it.”
He thought a lot about George Clooney. “There’s a guy who can make art house films and then just decide that he’s going to be in a blockbuster,” Mayer said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to basically come out of retirement from blockbusters’. It’s a choice to write pop songs, just like it’s a choice to write blues songs or folk songs. Let’s write the big ones that we are capable of writing.”
The commercial prospects of the song “Still Feel Like Your Man” are a concern. In Mayer’s absence from the Top 40, guitars have been further silenced by electronics. Even Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes, Mayer’s direct descendants, work with pop songwriting teams and cover rap tracks.
“I do a thing—I have sensibilities,” said Mayer, who has often found himself overcompensating for his pristine, but often edgeless, bluesy pop and coffeehouse soul. “My instincts as a musician are not exactly my instincts as a listener or a member of the world. But I believe that I am successful because I obey them.” He added: “The only hits I’ll have left in my life—because there are great hit writers, but I will not go into a room with them—are luck songs. My record has one name in the parentheses on every song, and it’s my name. That’s important.”
Writing The Search for Everything, which was released in two four-song “waves” before its final iteration to better suit the streaming era, proved spiritually purifying for Mayer, he said.
“This was the only time in my life that I was making something that I could live inside of. I’ve built a home because I needed a place to stay, not because I was into selling homes.”
While it began as a breakup album, with songs like “Moving On and Getting Over” and “Never on the Day You Leave”, it quickly transcended that. “There were times when tears came out of me, and I went, ‘OK, John, this is not about an on-again, off-again relationship. This is something more profound.’”
In the last six months or so, completing the record coincided with the flipping of a biological switch—he called it “a chemical care package”—for Mayer, who recently became an uncle for the first time: He really does want to settle down. “That’s the final frontier, man.”
But as he approaches a milestone birthday, “I wish there was somebody to throw me the 40th,” Mayer said, leaning into his corniness. “I want the baby with the protective earphones” by the side of the stage. He’s even been living out of a hotel for fear of establishing another bachelor pad. “I want to say, ‘We’ll take it,’” he said, adding, “I’m right on time for my career, and I’m running late for my life.”
It’s a process. Though he’s been in therapy to work on his “attachment style” and recently quit drinking (“I’m actually very thoughtfully entering cannabis life”), Mayer is wary that his notoriety as a womanizer precedes him. “I’ve inherited a younger man’s reputation,” he said. “You can even break ‘bad boy’ into good bad boy and bad bad boy—I somehow managed to become a bad version of a bad boy.”
Since splitting with Perry, he’s hardly been out at all, he insisted, though he does fiddle around on an exclusive dating app. “It’s just a lot of chatter,” he said. “We all talk to the same people. There are very few people actually meeting up.”
Another hurdle is that he will be on tour most of the year, headlining arenas in support of the album—he played Madison Square Garden on April 5—plus a jaunt with his side gig, Dead & Company, where he plays guitar alongside members of the Grateful Dead. (“The feeling of inclusion that I have with this band—they saved my life,” he said.)
The itinerant lifestyle, though, is less fraught than whatever lurks in the fame-stained recesses of Mayer’s soul, depths he is beyond game to probe and excavate. “In the Blood”, the most fully formed, Tom Petty-esque track from The Search for Everything, is a sort of self-baptism, with Mayer singing big questions with no answers:
“How much of my mother has my mother left in me?/How much of my love will be insane to some degree?/And what about the feeling that I’m never good enough?/Will it wash out in the water or is it always in the blood?”
“It’s not pretty, those words,” Mayer said in the studio as he worked on final touches. “But the one thing I look forward to the most as I reenter this level of the music world is I really want to experience saying something that I can defend no matter what.
“It’s like: ‘John, they’re gonna come after you. They’re going to ask about it,’” he said with a cackle. “I say, ‘Let ‘em’.”