“We will never get further along in this dialog as long as people keep condemning kids for stealing. They’re not stealing. It’s reprehensible to tell a kid that, by him double-clicking this thing, it’s the same as stealing a pair of shoes from a store.”
Double-Grammy Nominee John Mayer Has a Lot on His Mind, and He’ll Tell You All About It
John Mayer is a talker, so much so that he managed to jam an hour-long interview into 15 minutes the other day. The 25-year-old double-Grammy nominee—for Best New Artist and Male Pop Vocal Performance—is also an immensely talented songwriter and an astounding guitarist, with one classic—the double-platinum-and-still-growing debut album Room for Squares—already under his belt. Artists like this don’t grow on trees, which is why A&R reps are having such a hard time finding the next John Mayer. And for those who haven’t seen this cat live, Aware/Columbia has just released Any Given Thursday, which documents, on double-CD and DVD, an entire, typically dynamic, live performance. Asking the questions and then getting out of the way during the course of the following near-monologue was the far from dynamic Bud “Hunt & Peck” Scoppa.

In terms of the Best New Artist Grammy, you obviously don’t stand a chance. You’re going up against four females—and one of them is Norah Jones.
Yeah. Well, I understand Norah’s thing completely—I know why.

You do? Would you explain it?
Sure. Norah is the artist that people wish they were alive in the era of, and now have come to realize that they just might be, and actually are. Because this generation will always wish that they had the same kind of reverence for music—that they had a reason to have reverence for music—as their parents did. Norah Jones is the current real-time embodiment of all those classic remastered records that we have to listen to in order to hear these great artists. And I think people are jumping at the opportunity to now have an artist that they can see at a show tonight, that they can say 20 years from now that they saw. People are dying for that kind of history. That’s the way I felt when I heard her, and I think there’s a great effect in writing music that makes people feel smarter.

Lemme throw this out there, although it’ll sound like a bullshit question: Do the Grammys hold any significance for you?
Yes, they have a cultural significance for me, but they don’t have an impact that would make me feel better about myself in and of the moment. But winning a Grammy would allow me to see all the other people who’ve gotten Grammys in that category and to see myself a little clearer in terms of how far I’ve come—because it’s very difficult to see.

You’re the son of a pair of academics. Although your stuff doesn’t come off as overly scholarly by any means, there’s clearly a consciousness involved—an organization to everything you do.
I grew up in a house where “fuck” wasn’t particularly funny, but where you can really make somebody laugh if you choose the right word at the right time. I don’t remember learning anything in school, but I remember learning everything at the dinner table—really going out for the long pass in terms of trying to impress my mom with word usage, usually having her correct whatever the wrong word was and send me on my way with the right one. I never forgot the words I learned. You couldn’t get up from the dinner table except to consult a dictionary.

I find having a command of a range of tools is the same no matter what you do—the same musically, the same verbally. It’s a matter of how your knowledge of something settles into your work so that it becomes intuitive. I just have a thing where I don’t line two big words up together at the same time—that’s like wearing all your best clothes on the same day. I mean, communication is a way of me getting you to understand what I’m thinking. If I can do that with the word “good,” then perfect. So it’s just a matter of using what you know at the right time.

That results in accessibility.
Clever is an element; it’s not an entire entity. I grew up starting to play open mics and coffee houses, and for a singer-songwriter of the truest caliber, clever is really what you go for all the time. But clever doesn’t really hit people. Clever goes to your head, and feeling goes to your gut, you know? And I think there’s a balance between being clever but also having something to put across. Looking back on it now, I think Room for Squares might be a little bit more cerebral than a gut punch. Right now in my life, I love the gut punch—and no one does that to me like Coldplay. Coldplay is all about the gut punch. It’s an amazing album, and it’s earnest. It’s incredibly musical and incredibly important, a great male work of art, with real tenderness and introspection. It’s a record of regret, remorse, apology, admission.

The Coldplay album is quite simple and direct as well—which equates it with your work. And, like you, Coldplay doesn’t get the respect from the critical community that their music warrants. I suspect it’s a matter of rock critics confusing accessibility with shallowness.
Yes. But there’s a new way of listening to music now. I wasn’t alive in the ’60s, but I have a feeling that, as the Beatles got bigger and bigger, exponentially, that they didn’t have fans saying, “The Beatles are too big for me now.” I just don’t think fans had that same sense of entitlement.

We’re so possessive as a society that it’s ridiculous. I’m not complaining, I’m just layin’ it out—we live in a world of absolute material isolation. “Don’t let your stuff touch my stuff, or I’m gonna get really fucking pissed off.” And I think that that’s trickled over into music, where people are really turned on by the idea of possessing an artist. And that artist might be possessed by 100,000 people, a million people, but there’s the illusion that it’s just the listener and the artist in a room together. And when that illusion is destroyed—which maybe it has to be at some point, when you get to a certain level—it’s jarring to people, and it’s interesting to me, from what I can get a feel on, people’s first reaction is disappointment, which I will never in a million years understand.

What about betrayal?
Absolutely. “I used to listen to you, and then you got big.” “I used to listen to you, and then the demographic at your show changed, and it wasn’t what I was expecting.”

On the other hand, from the evidence of the two shows I attended, your crowds seem to be into the idea of sharing you.
They’re actually not. I don’t know, I just think there’s a lot of resentment.

Do you consider Any Given Thursday your second official major-label album or a side thing?
I still call it a side thing. Room for Squares is my only record out, really. Everything that’s not perfectly stated is not a statement to me.

And yet, if you consider Room for Squares to be too clever, you can correct that by presenting these songs in a sweatier way.
Absolutely. I mean, there are fucked-up notes all over this record. We didn’t fix a lot of stuff at all—that’s why it’s called Any Given Thursday. The DVD that accompanies it was the third film shoot we’d ever done for a show. And when you record shows, everybody, though they don’t want to say it because they don’t want to jinx it, wants you to do the historical, “I was there that night” show that just so happens to be caught on film. But it’s so contrived that, by the end of the night, you’ve played nothing like you normally do because you’re playing to the camera. And the idea going into this was, “Let’s do it like it’s any given Thursday.” So I’m not playing to the cameras, and I wish they weren’t there, and I’m ignoring them. I got a great representation of a really good night out of it. So it’s the full set, in sequence, and some of the highs I think are brilliant, and some of the lows are laughable. But you know what? That’s what happens in a live show.

Is there a lot of that audience-participation stuff going on?
Absolutely. We have raffles and stuff.

Yeah, right. The reason I ask is it would annoy me if the girls in the audience singing along drowned you out.
That’s the issue with people at shows. I survive emotionally from playing shows, and I want those shows to be as important as they possibly can be. And at some point, I’m gonna figure out a way to accommodate each person at the show, not just physically but recreationally. There’s two types of showgoers: There’s the scream-along, “I love you” people, and there are the people who fold their arms and sway. And right now, those two types of people are standing next to one another.

I’m a swayer.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m a swayer, too. I represent swayers.

I think we’ve just stumbled upon the title of your next studio album—Room for Swayers. Speaking of that, how far along are you on that project?
I’m doing it all at my house right now; I’m just demoing. Y’know, technology is an amazing thing, because technology has now equalized every single person in the sense of giving them an equal chance at making it. If you have $2,000, you can make a record, too. And that’s great, because it’s gonna come down to talent.

Your new song, “Something’s Missing,” made a big impression on me when I first heard it during your Troubadour show in December. It struck me as a zeitgeist-referencing song, very much of the moment, and quite distinct from the introspective, personalized songs that dominate Room for Squares. Is that an important song for you?
“Something’s Missing” was the first song of the new era for me. It actually serves as the archetype for the record that I’m making now. It’ll sound more like “Something’s Missing” than it’ll sound like “No Such Thing.” I’ve kind of embraced a more adult, more relaxed kind of sexiness rather than a frantic sexiness—a more relaxed musicality. It’s not a chord a second; it’s not these beats that are so poppy and swing so hard that they’re like rays of sunlight. “Something’s Missing” was the first song to come out of me that was really close to being exactly what I want in a song. I’m lucky to have that song because it showed me the way to my other songs.

I’m coming up with stuff that really excites me. My criterion for writing now is, “Do I want to play it live?” and will I want to play it live for two years? So I’m only finishing the ones that I’m gonna want to play for a long time…like this new song “Fister.” I’m kidding.

Hey, real quick, ’cause you’re from HITS, and you’re very ensconced in the argument of, “Why is the industry slumping? Is it because of file-sharing?” Print this if you can: We will never get further along in this dialog as long as people keep condemning kids for stealing. They’re not stealing. What we’re doing is, we’re aggressively combating ignorance with saying, “Stop that!” Instead of trying to introduce kids to the love of a record. I just think it’s reprehensible to tell a kid that, by him double-clicking this thing, it’s the same as stealing a pair of shoes from a store. That will never, ever get a positive response from a kid, ever. Evereverever. But what it takes is, “Check this record out. There’s a reason they print these things up and not put ’em over the Internet.” There’s a reason—and teach these kids the reason.

Your career is a testament to the effectiveness of that very taboo when it’s employed in the service of building a buzz and, ultimately, a career.
Absolutely. And it’s difficult for me to have a true, unbiased vantage point because I’ve done well from it. But I also could’ve probably sold another half-million records if it wasn’t for the burning. So it still affects me, but not in the way it affects someone with one diamond on their record and the rest rock candy. I just think it takes turning kids on to why they should own a CD. Turning kids on to the same thing that excited you when you got a Bob Dylan record; the same thing that excited me when I got a Stevie Ray Vaughan CD. There’s a way to turn kids on to whole works of art—and it’s not gonna get any better with labels putting their singles on Now compilations.

You turn people’s ears off when you say downloading a song is the same thing as shoplifting. It’s an imbecilic statement to make, and it blows the conversation out of proportion, so that you cannot have any rational dialog whatsoever… [takes a deep breath] Ahhhhh. Your counterclaim is dismissed.

The biz ponders action after some reflection.
100% guaranteed to be somewhat accurate, probably.
Just to inspect it, though.

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