His big mouth nearly ruined his career. Now, in his first major interview in two years, he swears he’s a changed man.
By Josh Eells
If you’re a slightly damaged rock star looking to show the world you’ve made a fresh start, you could do a lot worse than Paradise Valley. An absurdly picturesque corner of Montana not far from Yellowstone National Park, it’s where stars like Peter Fonda and Jeff Bridges come to decompress in Big Sky splendor. As of recently, it’s also the second home of John Mayer, who traded paparazzi and bottle service for a big stone-and-wood cabin on a 15-acre spread on the banks of the Yellowstone River, with a Land Rover in the driveway and a recording studio at the top of the hill.
On a recent Saturday, Mayer stands in his new kitchen making a peanut-butter sandwich, in a blue flannel shirt, artfully weathered jeans and Japanese-designer moccasin boots. He bought this house from a local wildlife painter in January, and he’s still in the process of moving in. In the master bedroom, clothes spill from a suitcase that’s still half-unpacked. In the living room, framed photos of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell lean against the fireplace, waiting to be hung. Mayer, meanwhile, is casual and unshaven, with a haircut that suggests he hasn’t been around a woman in a while.
Today is Mayer’s first interview since early 2010, when ROLLING STONE and Playboy each published disastrous interviews with him. In the latter, the singer compared his ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson to “sexual napalm,” joked about having a “white-supremacist dick,” and tried to dissect the concept of a “hood pass” by using the word “nigger.” The fallout was swift: He was branded a misogynist, a racist, a narcissist and, not for the first time, a douchebag. At a concert on the evening that the Playboy interview appeared, he gave a tearful, nearly five-minute, onstage apology. “I quit the media game,” he said. “I’m done.”
He approaches our interview almost like a therapy session — at one point reclining with his head on a pillow, literally on the couch — and pauses frequently to analyze how his answers will sound to the public, at the same time intensely self-aware and not at all. Sometimes, as when the topic of his 2010 interviews comes up, he turns away entirely, staring at the cows at the dairy across the river, or at the river itself as it rushes past. “It’s changing,” he said, “all the time.”
First of all, how did you find this place?
I took a road trip with friends, and we stopped here to do some fly-fishing. I loved it, so I called a real estate from the back of a magazine and gave her a bunch of keywords — “Seventies, Neil Young, old guitar, groovy, getaway.” She showed me this place, and I was like, “Done.”
And you’re out here full-time now?
I still have my apartment in New York, but I”m here for the rest of the year. I drove out at the end of March — the “Shadow Days” video was my trip out. My stuff was in the back of that truck. That truck and another truck.
What do you like about it here?
It’s just a matter of not being in that world. Not being in L.A., not being in New York. You can have what I call a natural mind. I have a few windows that are shut here, so to speak. Like, I have a no-TMZ rule. When I get to the house, I want to just exist.
It’s been a while since we heard from you. This is your first interview in more than two years.
I was just done. I was shut down. To be honest, I still want to be shut down. But at a certain point, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself and running.
Speaking of running — let’s go back to the winter of 2009–2010. Describe your head space.
I think what it comes down to is that I’d stopped appreciating the rarefied air that I take up as an artist who means a lot to people. I just turned into a punk. The world of being a celebrity is emotionally very compelling and difficult to say no to, and I jsut took on more nad more of it. It’s always the moment before somebody breaks when they act the toughest. Your adrenaline goes nuts and you go, “Bring it on,” and that’s when you’re 30 seconds away from devolving into a ball of tears.
And that’s where you were?
I was holding up the walls for a while, but it was just a matter of time. There were people in my life who said, “I love that guy, but I don’t want to be anywhere near him when that goes off.”
What was happening, exactly?
I had a gambling addition with people’s opinions of me. When someone says, “I don’t like that guy,” I like to sit down and talk to him, and make sure he’s not misunderstanding me, and sometimes you can save it. So it only makes sense that I would scale that up to a million. And as soon as I’d get it back to even, I started making big bets again. What I didn’t realize was that one of the best things you can do is walk away. I’ve arrived at something that I wish I’d known a long time ago, which is that I have to let people not respect me.
Do you remember what was going through your head while you were doing those interviews?
I was just performing for myself. If there was an elephant in the room, I wanted to ride it. But all people said was, “Look at that idiot on the elephant.” I remember during htat ROLLING STONE interview being really paranoid, thinking, “I know what your’e trying to do to me, and I won’t let you do it — I”m going to do it to me.” That’s a guy who needs to take a break.
You mean talking about masturbating and looking for “the Joshua Tree of vaginas”?
Anything like that. If I’d said, “My parents just got divorced; I’m getting ripped apart in the tabloids; I’ve got people hiding in my bushes; and I do’t know what’s up or down,” that would have been more compelling than any bravura comedy act. Or trying to be Tracy morgan, giving you rocking quotes about sex. It’s like any bad comic: You get nervous, and you bomb.
But you’re not a comic.
Yeah. I guess maybe I was arrogant. But at that point I was running with a lot of comics, and I just started thinking like one. I would hear someone do a stand-up act, and then I’d go, “I’m gonna say the f-word a lot. I”m gonna do bits.” I don’t know if that’s intelligent or just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. Not everything is a riff.
Tell me about the day the “Playboy” interview came out.
It was a Wednesday in February. I was in my hotel room in Nashville. There was a Chinese restaurant outside the window, and the call came in, and I remember staring at the restaurant sign while someone said, “This is a really big deal.” It’s like in a movie when the explosion goes off but you don’t hear it — it just goes black. It’s the complete inverse of “You’re nominated for five Grammys.”
At that point did you still think, “Oh you’re overreacting, it’s not so bad”?
Yeah. You’re just trying to stop yourself from imploding. You’re hoping you can charm your way out of the situation. Charm your way out of people being — I don’t know about offended, but…
Oh, I think people were definitely offended.
I don’t want to tell people what they should have felt. But for about five minutes there, I thought that I could disarm the situation.
By not backing down. Just barreling through. I don’t know. It was crazy. I’m never going to be able to give you a one-to-one ratio of thought to action.
So those interviews came out. And then what happened?
I got the shit kicked out of me. I got sort of disowned. But the subsequent crash — which sometimes I call “the market correction” — kind of ripped me out of a culture that I didn’t have the strength to exit myself. It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome. And I never would have known it if it hadn’t sent me spiraling.
What was going on in your head around that time?
I remember just feeling like everyone was made at me. Like if I was at a party, no one would come up and shake my hand.
Was there a time when you thought it was all over?
Yeah. I was becoming irrelevant — and I needed to become irrelevant. I told myself, “Whatever you’re left with, you’re not going to complain about it. Your life will go on — but the party’s over.”
Did you see a therapist?
I had one already. Obviously his role became more integral. He’s in L.A., so a lot of it’s by phone. But it’s nice to have somebody just to be a witness.
Who else did you talk to?
Very few people. As much as it hurt — and it hurt a lot — I don’t think anybody wanted to take me off the grill. But ultimately it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You come to the end of your twenties and start becoming an adult, and you need to shut off the computer to install the new software. I wasn’t going to fix the sail on the boat at sea during that storm, you know what I mean?
I think so. But you were 32 at the time. Shouldn’t you be an adult by then?
I think that for me, age 32 was 28 with four years of “I’ll get to it in a minute.”
And this was what it took to make you an adult.
I could have converted with about half of that [laughs]. People don’t understand — when you screw up, and you feel that wave of energy of a million people saying, “Shame on you” — 20 minutes on that grill is enough to change your life. The body is not equipped to handle negative energy from so many people. What’s the Kanye West line? “There’s a thousand yous, there’s only one of me?” I think about that a lot.
I’m not sure that’s what Kanye mean by that lyric.
It’s not. But that’s the great thing about lyrics: You can take them how you want.
Yeah, but that one is Kanye saying to a girl, “How can you refuse to sleep with me, there’s a thousand girls like you but only one Kanye West?”
Well, now he has me to thank. Because I just made it deeper.
It’s interesting to hear you bring up Kanye, though. You guys had sort of a similar situation.
I think about Kanye a lot. He cried, I cried. We don’t keep up much, but I feel a kinship with anybody who came up in the early 2000s. Like, maybe Norah is Bonnie Raitt, and I’m Neil Young…But I’ll say this about Kanye. I think we were both masterminds with a vision, and we ran out of runway.
Kanye started out masterminding everything. Design, art — he was a one-man show. And then all of a sudden you have all these people calling you a douchebag, and you realize you don’t have a plan to make people stop hating you. So you disappear for a while, reassess everything.
You also shut down your Twitter account.
I realized that the overall feeling of my days was starting to drift. I was day-trading — it was like opening an E*Trade account when you’re constantly keeping track of how you’re doing. I wasted a lot of time on Twitter.
I’ve often wondered if Twitter rewires your brain.
It does rewire your brain. When I got off, I remember really quickly getting my RAM cache back, having deeper thoughts again. Being able to write verses — before, I was just writing lines. I made the record I made because I didn’t have any leaks in the pipe. I kept all the creative water pressure moving toward the record.
Eric Clapton also said something about you that kind of predicted all this. He said, “I think he becomes too caught up in being clever…He’s a prime saboteur, and he will do himself in, if everyone lets him.”
The truth hurts. But it’s also a very loving statement, in a way.
Like, “Hey, kid. Get it together”?
I really want to share this. Early on in the crisis, I had to get on a bus after a show. Th TV was on — it must’ve been PBS — and it was Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy or something playing. And I just thought to myself, “What would my heroes think?” Growing up, those guys kept me company. I must have fallen asleep listening to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” a thousand times. And then it’s Black History Month, and you get on a bus and see John Coltrane with his eyes closed, playing “Impressions,” and you go, “What did I do to these guys? What did I do to what these guys mean to me?”
Well, what about the African-American people you actually know, like your friend Buddy Guy, or your drummer Steve Jordan?
Um…I don’t want to get into that. I”ll live with that for the rest of my life. But, yeah, I hurt people. I remember meeting this beautiful black girl who loves my music and who wants me to apologize so she can continue to love what I do. That’s not lost of me. I fully took the lessons.
Did you make any personal apologies?
Yeah. I don’t want to get into that either, but I did. And I kind of want to leave this part of the conversation, if I can.
At this point, Mayer excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, he says he’s ill — dredging up these memories has made him feel like he’s going to throw up. We agree to meet the next day.
The next afternoon, he picks me up at my hotel and we drive to a cafe. There are looks of vague recognition when he walks in, but otherwise, no one pays much attention.
“I really want to become a part of this town,” Mayer says. “But you’ve got to assimilate yourself slowly. So right now, if somebody wants a picture, you can absolutely have a picture. I say yes most of the time, because I have a greater appreciation for people.”
Mayer orders a BLT and a cup of black coffee, which the three teenage waitresses take turns making sure is never empty.
Mayer says he spent the rest of last night feeling pretty bad. “I’d never told that story to anyone who wasn’t there. And then I thought, you know, ‘It might be uncomfortable, but I can’t carry worry about the reception.” I moved to Montana, did an interview, and wanted to move even farther away. That means there’s something I need to turn around and face.
I ask if he thinks he’s done his penance. “I don’t know,” he says. “I go from being overly contrite to overly flip, and I don’t want to be either. Some things in life are just a knot you’re never going to get out.” Today, he says, he’d rather talk about the future.
So tell me about the new record.
I’d been waiting since the beginning of 2010 to reboot everything. Somewhere in the middle of the last record cycle, I knew I had not made an enduring record.
What wasn’t enduring about it?
I just don’t think it was done. And I think I do great work when I’m fueled by a certain innocence, and that was gone.
Musically, or because of your celebrity?
I think they’re linked. I’d stopped changing amp tubes. I’d stopped A/B-ing guitar cables. I stopped getting my hands under the hood. By the time I got into the studio [in New York] in October, I said, “I’m gonna write some bad songs. I’m not gonna edit myself.” Some of them were bad — but I started getting that muscle back.
How were you writing?
I wrote on my typewriter. I would go home and write at least three pages of lyrics. You can’t see what you’re typing, so it’s this feeling of anonymity with your ideas.
I heard this was a pretty heavy time for you: partying a lot, writing hungover…
I wasn’t partying. But I was drinking. There was something therapeutic about waking up with a part of my head that wasn’t criticizing me.
Were you going out? Drinking alone?
I’d go to bars with friends, or drink in the studio. And then I’d wake up and take out my guitar and lay on the couch and write. I don’t remember being depressed. It was about being able to write without criticizing myself. I was in that strange, beautiful place where the chemistry in your brain is, like — your enemy isn’t home.
I wouldn’t do it again, because my body can’t take it. I used to be fine by 1 p.m.; now it’s two days. But I feel like I lived this really authentic New York musical vibe. I’d go to the bar, have a beer and a shot of Jameson, and walk down MacDougal Street in the Village, just waving to NYU kids.
The Freewheelin’ John Mayer.
Absolutely. I have no problem saying that. I wanted to touch a little of that. I wanted to rub the belly of it, and I did.
We started recording in May. And it was a great run. I would come home and feel really lonely, because something beautiful just took place but there was nobody around to say, “Wow.” I started thinking that I wasn’t all bad.
One thing I want to ask you about is the disconnect between “public you” and “record you.” In conversation, you’re smart and funny and complicated. But on your records, everything is very straightforward and earnest.
Well I’m a lot less funny now. So maybe everything is back to normal. But I think I’ve earned the right to write a really dumb lyric if I want to. I’ve established a base line — if I wanted to use a better rhyme, I would have. I don’t have to prove to people that I can turn a phrase.
I’m thinking about songs like the new one, “Shadow Days, with a line that goes “I’m a good man, with a good heart…”
It felt wrong to say “I”m a good man” after what happened. But that’s what makes it kind of beautiful, too — saying it and meaning it. I know I”m a good person. If I’d put that out in May of ’10, it would have been reviled. But two years is enough time to believe in molecular change.
What about that line in “Speak for Me,” where you say, “Now the cover of a ‘Rolling Sone’ ain’t the cover of a ‘Rolling Stone’?”
I was in the studio, reading that issue of ROLLING STONE with Snooki on the cover — the one where she was riding a rock. To be honest, it wasn’t even about her, beacuse you could look at ROLLING STONE covers since the beginning and there was always the equivalent of Snooki on a rocket. But I flipped through it and I felt a little lost — like, “Who my age can I model myself after? Who’s around that I can say, “I’d like to be more like that guy’?” I meant it more as a fan than as a guy who’s actually ben on the cover of ROLLING STONE.
There’s another song called “The Age of Worry,” where you sing, “Build your heart and army/To defend your innocence/While you do everything wrong.”
That song was like a letter to myself. It’s me using the role of songwriter as soother, actually caring about the culture of unhappiness and cynicism. Of people not enjoying their twenties. I had my twenties.
I’d say you had the shit out of your twenties.
Elton John and I were in the same studio for a minute, and he had this line — he said, “You did your bit.” I did my bit.
How do you think you’re different now as an artist?
I think all the words I wanted to shy away from at the beginning of my career, I now want to be. Earnest. Sensitive. Singer-songwriter. I would love to be Jack White — or maybe I want the people who like Jack white to also like me. But I”m the guy who writes beautiful music at 85 beat per minute.
Do you think there’s still a place on pop radio for that?
No. And that’s really hard for me to say. I”ll probably never be in the Top 10 again. Letting go of hits is really, really hard. But I want to age gracefully musically. I look at my catalog almost like the development of a human being — it was a cute little kid, and then it had pimples for a while, and then it became a cool adult.
This was a big moment for me; I was sitting at a restaurant, and they were playing either John Mayer Pandora or Coldplay Pandora. And my song would come on, and I’d go,” That’s a really beautiful son.” And then Jason Mraz would come on, and Jack Johnson, and Coldplay. And I said to myself, “You know, this is not bad company.”
You used to say you were afraid you’d meet your soulmate and she wouldn’t want anything to do with you.
I disagree with that now. My behavior is no longer a liability. And there are plenty of exceptional women. I remember talking to this girl at a restaurant, and she was really rough on me. She walked out. And then she walked back in and said, “I”m sorry. Let’s start that again.” And I had so much respect for that, you know? I can’t calculate how much I bother someone. But I’ll find somebody who will understand.
Do you think you could find her in Montana?
Maybe. But I haven’t had a girlfriend in a long time, and I”m OK with that. I am fully hurtable right now. I’m not a weaponized version of a man. In my twenties, I had weapons-grade charm. Now I feel like I”m extremely sensitive and open to love. I can’t help it if the womanizer thing still floats around. I mean, how can you be called a womanizer if the last time you were actually with somebody was 2009? I don’t think a womanizer is someone who hasn’t dated a woman in three years.
When was the last time you went on a date?
2009? I don’t know.
What about Taylor Swift? In her 2010 song “Dear John,” which she’s implied is about you, she sings about being “played by your dark, twisted games.”
What is that in reference to? Bringing that up?
To you being a womanizer.
Oh. That’s one thing I literally don’t have an opinion about.
Opinion, fine. But how did you feel when you heard it?
It made me feel terrible. Beaucse I didn’t deserve it. I’m pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do.
You mean the sentiment or the way it was delivered?
Both. I never got an e-mail. I never got a phone call. I was really caught off-guard, and it really humiliated me at a time when I’d already been dressed down. I mean, how you would you feel if, at the lowest you’ve ever been, someone kicked you even lower?
What about the things she’s singing about in the song? Like how “I was too young to be messed with”?
I don’t want to go into that. But I will say as a songwriting that I think it’s kind of cheap songwriting. I know she’s the biggest thing in the world, and I”m not trying to sink anybody’s ship. But I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, “Wait till he gets a load of this!” That’s bullshit.
The restaurant manager comes over to say there’s a political event starting soon, for the local chapter of the Tea Party. “We should go,” Mayer says, suppressing a grin.
Back at the house, we sit on the porch and Mayer opens a couple bottles of IPA. He’s supposed to be on tour, but he head to cancel because of a throat problem. Last year, he was diagnosed with a granuloma, a blister near his vocal cords that’s exacerbated by singing and talking. He had one surgery, but it didn’t take. Sometime in the next few months, he’ll have another.
“It’s disappointing not to tour,” Mayer says. “The band sounded so good. We were on some Grateful Dead shit — really deep.”
So how does one get a granuloma?
I’m not sure how I got it. But it just kept growing. I did a lot of therapy, like anti-acid-reflux, and it didn’t work, then I went on vocal rest. No alcohol. No spicy food. No talking. Most of September I wasn’t talking at all. I’d have a bluetooth keyboard, and someone would have an iPad to read what I type. I had to point to menus at restaurants. People look at me like I’m crazy.
So In October I had the surgery. Then they inject Botox into your vocal cords. I want to be careful about that, because I don’t need to see on the Internet, JOHN MAYER GETS BOTOX — I had Botox on my vocal cords. But I didn’t get enough so now I’ve got to do the surgery again.
Considering all that’s happened, does the fact that you were literally forced to shut up strike you as kind of poetic?
I can see how for other people it might be quaint. But I’d already figured it out man. I’d done the homework and then some. I could have learned the same lessons with a quarter of the consequences.
Yesterday you said half.
I’m saying a quarter now. I’m going easier on myself.
So what has changed in your life?
I just don’t think I’m supposed to be in people’s faces all the time. I don’t care what I think about American Idol or Auto-Tune. I don’t Google news-search myself. It gives you this sense that the whole world is thinking about you, when really it’s just, like, the Hindustan Times and a mommy blog. I’ve learned that people don’t care. The paparazzi weren’t in the bushes because I’m “superstar singer-songwriter John Mayer.” It was about the situation.
You mean Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Aniston…
Yeah. I made it about me. Suddenly they were my paparazzi. People were like, “Dude, — no. I like some of your songs. But get out of the frame.” People got upset I considered myself in, like, the top 10 male celebrities or something. It’s like, “No, you’re the guy I listen to when I make omelets.”
But that’s a little disingenuous. At this point, you are a celebrity.
Yeah. But it’s not a bad thought to have. If I was somebody who didn’t like me, I’d like to read me saying that nobody cared.
Do you feel like you’re 34 now?
I really do. It’s been an interesting and violent coming-of-age, but I appreciate where I am. Getting out was the hardest part — but staying out is easy. That’s why I got this place. So I could live a life-size life.
How do you plan on filling your days? Backpacking? Fly-fishing?
Wake up in the morning. Get a cup of coffee, make breakfast. Go to the gym. Then just drive up the hill to the studio, take the care to work. Eventually I want to make records for other people here, too. Everybody wants to work with Adele, but so do I. I told her, “If you ever want to write together, I do a mean Track Six.”
And if we see you on TMZ in a month, coming out of some club…
It’s reductionist to say you’re either living in Montana or living it up at a club. Yeah, maybe I’ll go out at couple of nights in L.A. Run my hands across the lockers, have fun with my friends. But then I’ll get on a plane and come back here. And I’ll go to Albertsons and fill up my fridge, turn on the lights, sweep the floor, and I’m here.
And you’re not worried about getting sucked back into the world?
I had the same discussion with my therapist. Say I’m at the Grammys, and there’s an after party. There’s a girl giving me attention, and it’s intoxicating. But there’s a plane to Montana waiting on the tarmac? What do I do? What I’m learning is, I’m going to be all right either way. Because I’m a different person. Now I’m thinking about who I’m going to put in this house. I’ve got a room with two twin beds, and children’s books between them.
You bought children’s books?
A very resourceful interior designer bought them. I wrote this song that didn’t make the record called “Sweet Unknown.” There’s a lyrics I love: “If you want to be free, you’ve got to go it alone/And if you want to go home, you’ve got to build your own.”
You built your home.
I’m ready, man. I spent two years not being thought about, and now I have a hard time wanting to be thought about again. I wouldn’t mind being forgotten about right now. And to be honest…I think it’s kind of cool. I think it’s kind of cool not to be around.
Source: Rolling Stone (transcribed by IOMNJM)