Thursday, July 10, 2008

John Mayer is Bigger Than His Body

Finally I have time to upload it. For all of you who have been waiting for the John Mayer interview, here goes....

Singer and guitarist John Mayer claims that people will always get the truth out of him. He speaks about fame, obsession, blogging and talking too much.

John Mayer is a contradiction. Behind that sensitive and seemingly timid Wonderland boy lie a fierce tongue, a bold nature and a sarcastic sense of humour – a stark contrast to what you would expect from a guy who writes and plays “watered-down music,” as his critics call it. No wonder he once told a gullible bunch of teenage fans that his songs are ghostwritten by Richard Marx. He loves to fool and provoke his audience, hence his passion for doing stand-up comedy. Once John Mayer starts talking, he won’t stop. On stage or off, either way his big mouth gets him into trouble.

Then there are the upsides to his skyrocketing career. Rolling Stone magazine named him one of “The New Guitar Gods” and dubbed him Slowhand Jr. He has several Grammys under his belt, and has collaborated with blues legends such as B.B. King and Eric Clapton as well as Alicia Keys and Kanye West. And he has dated several Hollywood beauties over the past few years, including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Simpson, Minka Kelly (daughter of former Aerosmith Guitarist Rick Dufay) and now Jennifer Aniston.

Mayer’s creative outlets include design (he wants to design an Air Max) and writing – he penned a column for Esquire called “Music Lessons with John Mayer,” and the heartfelt lyrics in his songs show that here’s a voice that needs to be heard. He’s an avid blogger, maintaining four blogs, mainly to rectify perceived distortions of his image by the tabloids. Earlier this year he told Best Life magazine that he suffers from panic attacks and carries an anti-anxiety drug with him at all times. Far too often he’s busy mimicking or mocking someone (including himself). Nonetheless his heart is in the right place. He is actively involved in philanthropic activities through his fund “Back to You,” an organisation that addresses environmental issues as well as education and health care.

A stern woman greets me in the lobby of the Landmark Mandarin. She tells me that I only have 20 minutes and that this is an exclusive interview. In other words, I should be grateful and better not upset the star by asking the wrong questions. After all, he’s the new guitar god. I nod in agreement and follow her to his room, where I find myself in a surreal episode of Entourage, complete with camp followers. There he is lounging on a couch, surrounded by two of his friends (I never quite managed to figure out their names, or how they are linked to him work-wise). It’s his first time in Hong Kong, and it’s rainy season. “We’ve been laying low,” he says. “The weather outside isn’t exactly made for getting up and heading out. But I’ve just been relaxing . . . which is good.” Yep, just another lazy day in the life of guitar god John Mayer.

You’re here to unveil the new flagship store for Coach. What is your relationship with the New York brand?

I was approached and asked to play at the opening for their Hong Kong flagship store. It’s those moments that I really like. I think there’s a place for bringing music where there’s sort of a musical quality to something. I don’t know if I’ve ever played for the unveiling of a store. But there’s a musical quality to it. Music and fashion. So I was happy to do it.

Rolling Stone magazine calls you the new guitar god. How do you live up to that?

You don’t live up to it. You just live up to your own standards and do the best that you can do. Take whatever compliment there is, and there’s certainly a compliment within reading that. But if you keep it too long, it doesn’t serve you anymore. You start living by it, trying to live up to it. So I gave myself a couple of days of going ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. This is kind of what I’ve always wanted’, and then put it somewhere in the back of my mind. I think if you keep it in the front of your mind too much, you start to . . . there’s too much to live up to. I know exactly what it is that would make me a better guitar player this year. So there’s enough for me to work on.

What would that be?

Playing less and meaning more, you know. So there is just enough for me to work on this year, that I don’t feel as if all I need to do is sit back and take a compliment.

What is more important? Singing or playing guitar?

Both! Oh, songwriting is so difficult because they’re both so important. You could have a great guitar part, but if you don’t have the right music, the right words over it, you don’t know what you have.

You once mentioned that you wanted to quit music and focus on design instead. (This happened after former Sony head, Don Ienner, disliked his album Continuum. Mayer admitted that he cried that day.)

I still want to. [Laughs.] Yeah, the thing about having a lot of different pursuits, which I would say that I have, is that it gives you incredible confidence in the face of pressure. When things get tough, you know that you could always do something else. Yeah, I’ve had moments where it was just impossible for me to do stuff. But I reserve the right to do that every once in a while, you need to. If you’re in a relationship, you need to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ Go for a drive, then come back and say, ‘Actually I do want to do this.’

Everybody is curious about your relationship status. (He is currently romantically linked to Jennifer Aniston)

(His entourage jumps up and tries to stop him from answering.) No no no, this is totally fine. Ehm, I’m in a place now where I don’t hide anything. There is a difference between hiding something and choosing not to talk about it at a certain time. I’m choosing not to talk about it at the moment. But that’s not hiding anything, because I still want to live my life as openly as anyone else would. It’s just finding the right moment to talk about it, as you would and everybody else would.

Ok, let’s talk about your other passions. You are said to have a few obsessions, such as watches, tattoos, sneakers . . . ?

I have a lot of obsessions. I don’t have an obsession with tattoos, I have an obsession with watches. Although I don’t really know what the word obsession means any more. Obsession is a sick sociopathic sort of thing. I think what obsession has come to mean is a great interest in [something]. So yeah, I have a great interest in many things. I think that’s one of the best things to have as a person. As a man, as many pursuits you can possibly have . . . that’s the James Bond in me. I would like to be able to crack a safe and tell you what kind of diamonds are in it.

What inspires you to write and sing?

The need to be understood. The need to explain. As soon as I have an emotion that’s new, the only way to make peace with it is to get it out. So I’m just a born expressionist.

That’s also why you manage four blogs?

Yep. I resigned myself to just understanding that I have a high level of communication that I need to take. But I think that’s a lot of people you know. There’s a lot of people who blog. I’m just trying to keep a connection with my fans, in a sense that there are a lot of other messages now competing with the original message, which was that I’m here because I play music and I want to entertain people just through music. When the other messages, like magazine covers or stuff come up, I need to blog, because I need people to still hear my voice. Because what those other things do is, they sort of take your voice away.

Do you do meet and greets?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting, you don’t get a chance to really talk to people at a meet and greet. But I suppose I’d rather meet two people for 15 minutes, than 30 people for five seconds, because that could really be a moment where you could say ‘What do you think? How am I doing? What would you like to see more of?’

What do you think of bands putting their albums up online?

That’s the new world. Part of being an entertainer is entertaining people the way they request to be entertained. I think across the board, throughout time. The entertainers who continue to have a career throughout generations are entertainers who are able to adapt to the way that listeners wish to be entertained. The Rolling Stones are still the Rolling Stones because they now have question and answer on Youtube. The people who get left behind are the people who kind of put their shovel in the ground and say ‘No, this is the way that I want it to be.’ But that’s just about the most brutal thing you can do, because it’s going to keep rolling, and you just kind of have to stay one step ahead. But then on the other hand, you also have to have good music. So it’s interesting. You can’t go too far into talking about the system without asking ‘What is the actual thing that you’re trying to get out there.’ I’ve never heard an excellent pop song not become a hit pop song. I live with that every day. I put songs on the radio that I knew weren’t pop hits, but I just wanted people to hear, and guess what, that’s exactly what happens. They don’t become pop hits and sometimes people hear them and they go away. So that’s the thing about art. It doesn’t lie. Artists can lie, but art doesn’t lie.

Tell me about your fund, Back To You. What are your latest projects?

The way it came about was when I realised that if I write my name on a piece of paper . . . you know, I sign guitars for friends’ auctions for their schools, and all I do is like this, tshshshshshshsh (he shows me by pretending to write on a napkin), and two weeks later I get a phone call, saying ‘That went for $20,000.’ So it’s a way of taking that incredibly almost unfair sort of economy to be able to do this, tshshshshshshshs, and have it mean more to somebody than it meant to me, because all I do is move my hand. Taking that as much as possible and making good come of that. So what we do is we give back with things that matter . . . to me. Music in the schools. I would like to do something with Nikon and Canon to get cameras in the schools. Everybody owns a camera but nobody knows how to use it. Nobody knows how to use it! They’ll be like this (he does his squeaky voice impression) ‘How many megapixels does it have?’ You know what that means? That means that there will be more pixels of your crappy pictures! You know what I mean? So it’s just a matter of, number one, culturising young kids, and number two, a lot of it are health issues too. It’s sort of a health thing, a music thing and an art thing, keeping people alive and keeping the spirit alive at the same time. I kind of say that the best way to explain this is that they are noncontroversial thoughts. I wouldn’t ever want to pay for a pair of tickets and find out that the money went to something political.

You went from teen geek to guitar god. How do you deal with your fame?

That’s a good question. I was talking about this just the other day. How do you deal with this? Well, you lose something . . . forever. You lose a certain sense of self, gone, forever. There’s a certain part of myself that I will never get back. And in its place you have to rebuild a new self. You have to rebuild sort of on the fly . . . like a replica. That’s difficult you know. It takes a lot of work. It’s a little less natural than who you were before. You have to really consciously take the best parts of yourself, the parts of who you really want to be, and build them back into this new life, this life of having no secrets, this life of having a name, not just on your driver’s licence, but on other people’s minds or on a t-shirt. So you come to understand yourself better. Sometimes there’s a luxury in not understanding yourself.

Why do you have to give up a part? Why can’t you hold on to that self?

Because you can’t! My self-image is everybody’s image of me. My original self-image is gone, because I don’t have that anymore. So in its place I’m learning to have a self, in a world where everyone also has your self. So it’s interesting. Different people do it in different ways. So I try my best to stay as natural as I could stay in this environment. I’m never going to be like I was before, ever. But then you could say the same thing about anybody. You’re never going to be 19 again. It’s just a very dramatic way to grow up. But you get right into parties. I’ll tell you what, I haven’t stood in a line since I was 23 years old! What’s a line?! You know what I mean? So that’s kinda cool, I guess . . . traded my entire inner self to be able to get past the velvet rope. Deal! [Smiles.]

You used to write a column for Esquire a while back. Would you be interested in doing something similar again today, perhaps for our Asian audience?

There’s a lot of work. You turn in your publication and within five days you would have to turn in your next column. I just didn’t like being tied to it. That’s actually the reason why I started blogging. It’s so instant. The world moves so fast, and by the time a month passes and the thing comes out, you might not be talking about some of the people there. I will tell you something. I’m rich and I’m happy. Rich and happy makes you lazy as shit. I had to get dragged out of bed to go on this tour. So I’m really laaaazy, laaaazy. You’ll always get the honest truth out of me, I promise you. But I really like to be lazy . . . for a minute.

What’s your story with stand-up comedy? Why do you like it?

Well, it originated in 1972. Most people don’t know that. Ehm . . . no [chuckles] . . . it challenges other people as much as it challenges me. It’s a huge challenge to me, and I find that it’s actually a bigger challenge to other people to have to make peace with what it is that I’m doing. Here’s the thing. If I told you that I did spoken word, like . . . Down from the sky, black, ecstasy, perfect, sweet, bare, comes to my mind (he performs in a rap sort of style). If I went on stage and read poetry like that, you would go like this (he claps his hands): ‘I gotcha. I like you. That makes sense.’ When I say I want go on stage and do stand-up, it’s really not that different from spoken word. It’s just that nobody has really done it, and nobody really should, to be honest with you. But it’s really just for me. I feel like standing up for the ability to express myself and not charge for it. The minute you start charging money for it, you better be good!

People beg you not to do stand-up, because your mouth gets you into trouble every time.

It’s difficult to do! Even if I wasn’t who I was, you’re still unfunny when you start out. But you just have to figure it out. But for me, I had it twice as hard. I can’t rely on the licence to be able to say anything that’s not true. The minute I say girlfriend, all of a sudden people go, ‘Well, who? Who are you talking about?’ So everybody knows it’s difficult. If there wouldn’t be so many spies in the world, ready to dissect every single thing I say, I would probably spend more time trying to get to a point where I can really . . . actually it’s like karaoke! It would be like an actor or an office guy saying, ‘Every Friday night I like to get a little drink in me and go out and sing “Don’t stop believing.” ’ I like to get a little drink in me once in a while, get on stage and say ‘Take a really big dump on a date.’. I dunno. That’s just an example of what you would get.

If there was to be a movie about your life after you passed away, who would you want to play your character?

That’s a trick question. Number one, I could never die. Number two, it would be animated, because to get that perspective of my life, you can’t put cameras there. Panavision hasn’t built the contraption that would be able to angle cameras, to show the pure drama of my life. You can only really do it in a computer. So it would be sort of like a Final Fantasy, other-world, rotating 360 degrees bullet-time . . . and that’s just me masturbating. I haven’t even left the house, and already, it’s just windows breaking, slow motion, spinning around, me signing on with my password, checking out the new galleries. Who would get to play me? Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s got something. He could really draw out that sort of ambiguous sexuality in me. You know what I mean?