John Mayer: 'You can't make music as a famous person'

In the US, guitarist John Mayer is seriously famous – helicopters over his house-type famous. He gives Angus Batey his view from inside the 21st-century celebrity circus

'I basically visualised a record called Battle Studies as a way to sum up the last two years of my life: what I've learned and what I've seen and what I think I know," says John Mayer, folding himself into an armchair in a recording studio in Hollywood. Those two years, in which he went from winning Grammys and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone to finding out that your love life can make you fodder for celebrity gossip hounds, have provided plenty of material. And that album title, inspired by a book whose author was a 19th- century French military strategist, has set the tone for a record made by someone emotionally and physically under siege.

The only thing the average British music fan knows about Mayer is that he's had, or is having, an on-again, off-again relationship with Jennifer Aniston. The more informed might know him as a middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter. The average American music fan, by contrast, reckons the 32-year-old is one of the sharpest songwriters and finest guitar players of his generation, that he makes music that connects and unites blues guitar buffs, girls seduced by his lovelorn vulnerability, and guys who feel that listening to a Mayer album is like opening a series of supportive letters from an elder brother. Having convinced a mass audience of his talent, he now faces the problem of proving that he's still talented now that he's supermarket-magazine-cover famous in the States.

"You can't make music as a famous person," he says. "Famous people make really bad records – so I make music as a musician. I've read people say I was the shit, and I've read people say I am shit. I don't have to prove anything any more – all I have to do is play. Now my motivation is not so that people know my name, it's not so I can make money, it's not so I can meet girls – my motivation is to prove to people that you can buck the trend: that it's not an absolute that if you can be really successful, then you're gonna start sucking."

In the UK, Mayer is, at best, a cult hero: he's played alongside Eric Clapton (a key influence as well as a friend) at Hyde Park, is able to sell out medium-sized London venues, but he is yet to have a hit over here. If he was British, his quirky character traits and high levels of extra-curricular achievement (he's been an Esquire columnist, performed standup comedy well enough to be offered a television series, and does his own graphic design) would see him hailed as a quintessential eccentric, a national treasure. However, there's a long tradition of huge US acts – the jam-band players such as Dave Matthews he came up alongside are one example – who simply don't make an impact here.

In the States, though, "huge" is the word to describe him. His three studio albums and slew of live recordings have sold upwards of 10m copies and won him seven Grammys; and, at the time of writing, he's the seventh most-followed person on Twitter – his 2.5m followers put him behind Barack Obama and Britney Spears, but comfortably ahead of Demi Moore, P Diddy and Lance Armstrong.

Part of that Twitter popularity is down to Mayer's droll sense of humour translating well to the medium ("I'm so tired I think I get the Doors"). But his affability, self-deprecation and readiness to unpick his serial neuroses mean he's become arguably the best person to turn to for an inside-looking-out view of what it's like to be a part of the 21st century's obsession with celebrity.

He maintains a cheery detachment from the tabloid interest in him, even after the attentions of the paparazzi forced him to move out of his Los Angeles home (he splits his time between there and a flat in New York) and temporarily relocate his music-making operation to a rented house in a gated community, as far away from the centre of LA as it's possible to get without leaving the city. But he knows that neither his fans, nor even the merely curious – who he reckons account for all but about 150,000 of those Twitter followers – have much time for a rich rock star banging on about how hard it is to live life at the end of a long lens.

"What's the last thing people want to hear?" he asks. "Me asking for their complete understanding of what it must be like. Asking for their …" – he almost sneers the word – "empathy. I'm not gonna ask you to bleed for me: it's ridiculous! I have a Ferrari! I bought a Ferrari and drove it to Las Vegas on the day I bought it. What's more ridiculous: putting 600 miles on a black-on-black 599 Ferrari the day you get it, or having somebody call your best friend and ask if you're still dating that girl?"

While Mayer won't talk about "that girl," or anyone else he's dated, it's no real stretch to see Aniston as the ghostly muse who stalks Battle Studies. The likes of All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye ("You say you wanna try again/ But I've tried everything but givin' in") and the sparse, epic Heartbreak Warfare ("If you want more love, why don't you say so?") are obviously written about someone real. It's clear how much work goes in to balancing his need for privacy with the honesty he believes his music has to have if it is to remain authentic and relevant – and he seems to believe that if the music rings true, he might be able to drown out the voices of those cynics who contend that his love life is a publicity stunt.

So Battle Studies reflects both Mayer's new and unasked-for status, and his need to allow his work to stand as an honest and open response to who he is and where he finds himself. Little wonder he had to construct his own fortress of solitude in which to start creating it. He and his engineer, long-time friend Chad Franscoviak, built a studio in a rented house in suburban Calabasas, as much for practical reasons as artistic ones. The house is on a private street some distance from public roads, so hard to find that when TV stations decided to track him down and helicopters started broadcasting footage, they were actually showing a neighbour's roof.

New environments, new modes of working, are all part of Mayer's commitment to staying in touch with his art – to keeping up his end of what he terms "the contract" he has with his audience. The Battle Studies mindset has been almost monastic: about putting in the hours, working to dig out the magic rather than expecting it'll come to you as a right.

"It's very, very difficult to want to give 14 hours a day [to making a record], to continue to choose music over a lifestyle," he admits. "This is the part in a lot of people's careers where they usually come in to the studio for four hours a day. I'm not a four-hour-a-day guy, but I can definitely feel the pull: do you wanna go into a room where you're basically gonna excavate, emotionally, for 12 hours? Or do you wanna go to a restaurant where everybody gives you golf claps for what you've already done? As you go up this ride – with each click, by click, by click, on this rollercoaster – more things become threats than not.

"I could walk downstairs right now and go, 'Guys, I need to take the day off. I could be in a car going home in five minutes, and nobody would complain. Who's gonna stop you? Nobody. Nobody stopped me the day I was real sad – 'cos you don't buy a Ferrari when you're happy: you buy a Ferrari when you're sad. You buy a Ferrari when there's a piece missing inside of you. All of these things are absolute tickets out of the game: you have to enjoy your life without indulging so much that you lose it. And I feel it: I feel the ghosts of everyone else who's fallen off the edge of the rollercoaster, all the time. But you still have to live your life, and you still have to have fun; and you have to learn how to have fun but still do the work."

Battle Studies is out now on Columbia


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

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