John Mayer - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Since exploding into mainstream superstardom in 2001, John Mayer has cultivated an increasingly well defined dual personality that simultaneously threatens his teen idol public image and legitimizes his artistic integrity. It’s a slippery tight rope Mayer hasn’t always walked successfully, leading many critics to beg the question: which side will he ultimately choose to pursue and with how much success? Mayer’s dilemma is nearly as old as the advent of the teen idol itself. Everyone from Elvis Presley to The Beatles, The Beach Boys to David Cassidy, Leaf Garrett to Rick Springfield has wrestled with the transition from teen heartthrob to legitimate artist with varying degrees of success. It’s safe to say, however, most teen idols never make the transition at all (Backstreet Boys anyone?). Yet, out of all the mainstream music industry heartthrobs of the new millennium, John Mayer possesses a distinct advantage over his contemporaries: whether he’s rockin’ radio friendly folk-pop a la Jack Johnson or fiery Stevie Ray Vaughn influenced blues riffs, Mayer is an extremely accomplished and adept musician in his own right. After writing, performing, and co-producing nearly all of his four full length albums, Mayer has proven his chops beyond the shadow of a doubt. On the flip side of the coin, Mayer also actively maintains a tabloid presence that consistently subverts his artistic credibility. Ultimately, John Mayer has the potential to not choose between both of his personalities but be the architect of his own design by marrying his public personas. It’s a feat few have pulled off but if Mayer can manage to have his cake and eat it too he will have secured himself legendary status. The only catch is: will the public let him? Time will tell.
John Clayton Mayer was born on October 16, 1977 in Bridgeport, Connecticut but grew up in the nearby town of Fairfield. The young Mayer became enchanted with the guitar after watching actor Michael J. Fox jam out “Johnny B. Good” [sic?] in the popular 80’s science fiction film, Back to the Future. Mayer received his first guitar at age 13 and was introduced to the work of his idol, Stevie Ray Vaughn, a short time later when his neighbor gave him a Vaughn cassette tape. After two years spent honing his guitar chops, Mayer began playing local blues clubs while still in high school, eventually forming his own short lived rock band, Villanova Junction. The teenage Mayer mostly stuck to cover material but felt the impetus to write his own songs after landing in the hospital at age 17 for a cardiac arrhythmia, leaving the young musician bedridden with nothing better to do. After graduating from high school, Mayer spent 15 months working at a gas station, saving up enough money to buy a 1996 Stevie Ray Vaughn signature Stratocaster. At age 19, Mayer attended the prestigious Berkley College of Music in Boston but dropped out after two semesters, relocating to Atlanta, Georgia to form the band, LoFi Masters, with musician friend Clay Cook. The two man band quickly established themselves on the local club circuit but broke up when Mayer wanted to take their dirty rock sound into a more mainstream pop direction. Mayer soldiered on as a solo artist, eventually hooking up with producers Glenn Matullo and David LaBruyere, who agreed to record Mayer’s debut EP. Largely comprised of material co-written with Cook for their previous band, the self released Inside Wants Out (1999) firmly established Mayer’s heart-on-sleeve folk pop sound, and although it contained an early version of the future hit, “No Such Thing”, the EP attracted little attention.
Undaunted, Mayer and LaBruyere hit the road for various tours of the South, picking up fans through word of mouth one show at a time. A showcase gig at the 2000 South By Southwest music festival caught the ear of the Aware label, who signed Mayer later that year. Aware spread the word about Mayer by including his original songs on various promotional compilations before releasing his Internet only debut full length, Room for Squares (Aware) in 2001. Produced by longtime Dave Matthews Band board’s man, John Alagia, Room for Squares streamlined Mayer’s acoustic folk pop into pristine pop songs emphasizing the young artist’s husky vocals. Album sales were sluggish at best but that all changed after Columbia Records bought out Aware and re-released a re-worked version Room for Squares with new artwork, the added track “3x5”, and a massive publicity campaign. The inescapable singles “No Such Thing”, “Why Georgia” and particularly “Your Body Is A Wonderland” made Mayer a near omnipresent radio presence throughout 2002, and secured the easy on the eyes pop star a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance for “Your Body Is A Wonderland”. Mayer’s acceptance speech caused some confusion when he referred to himself as a sixteen year old, leading many to assume he actually was a teenager at the time.
Mayer revealed his more musically proficient personality with the 2003 live album, Any Given Thursday (Aware/Columbia). Recorded in Birmingham, Alabama on September 12, 2002, Any Given Thursday showcased Mayer’s eclectic jam heavy side, giving way to even more Dave Matthews comparisons, introducing his legions of fans to John Mayer the guitar hero rather than John Mayer the heartthrob poster boy. The official sophomore full length, Heavier Things (2003 Aware/Columbia) returned to the non-threatening breezy folk-pop of Room for Squares this time with a few more jazz oriented overtones. The dichotomy between Mayer’s heavier live sound and cotton candy studio albums wasn’t lost on critics, and although Heavier Things received generally positive reviews Mayer came under critical fire for not attempting to realize the potential heard in his live material. Heavier Things wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessor but that didn’t stop the single, “Daughters” (basically the twin sister of “Your Body Is A Wonderland”) from becoming another contemporary radio hit, winning Mayer two more Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Mayer returned to the live format with the as/is (2004 Aware) series of select full concert recordings from his 2004 tour, exclusively available as downloads through iTunes. A best of compilation, simply titled as/is (Aware) culminated highlights from the entire as/is live series, and was released on CD in the fall of 2004.
In various monthly articles penned for Esquire magazine, Mayer hinted at retiring the sensitive pop persona that made him a superstar in order to pursue a heavier blues sound. Mayer kept up appearances in the early half of 2005 by collaborating with legends like Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and John Scofield, even earning some hip hop cred as a guest artist on albums by Common and Kanye West. His third full length, Try! (2005 Aware/Columbia) was released under the moniker, John Mayer Trio, and saw Mayer joined by seasoned session players Pino Palladino (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums). Recorded live during the trio’s fall 2005 tour, Try! featured all new blues rock material aside from two Heavier Things tracks (“Something’s Missing” and “Daughters”) and cover versions of Jimi Hendrix’ “Wait Until Tomorrow” and Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman”. The album earned Mayer his best reviews to date with many critics lauding the album’s inspired bluesy rawness. John Mayer Trio has been on hiatus since the fall of 2006 but Mayer has promised a second trio album to be released in the near future.
If Try! marked the beginning of a new chapter in the John Mayer songbook, Continuum (2005 Aware/Epic) realized the full potential of Mayer’s artistic ambitions. Reunited with trio members Palladino and Jordan, and featuring guest artist like Ben Harper and Roy Hargrove, Continuum successfully galvanized Mayer’s adult contemporary pop persona with elements of blues and traditional soul music that touched on more mature themes as heard in the Iraq War protest song (and first single) “Waiting on the World to Change”. Continuum returned Mayer to the top of the charts, remained in the Billboard Top 100 for a over a year, and garnered five Grammy nominations with Mayer winning two awards for Best Pop Album and Best Pop Song with Vocal for “Waiting for the World to Change”. Around this time Mayer also released the The Village Sessions EP (2006 Aware/Epic) a collection of Continuum demos and appeared on the popular BBC live music program, Live from Abbey Road. A deluxe version of Continuum was released in the winter of 2007 with a companion EP featuring six live tracks recorded during the Continuum Tour. Mayer recently released another live album complete with a companion DVD titled, Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles (Aware/Epic), featuring all three John Mayer incarnation with an acoustic set, a John Mayer Trio set, and a touring band set.