"Whenever I hear the term singer-songwriter, I always think of taking a nap," said musician John Mayer. "There are still a lot of them that put me dead to sleep.
"I don't think that I'm a singer-songwriter in the conventional sense. To some people I appear to be. But it's almost like I'm a band. There are bands with lead singers who are as headstrong as I am that aren't a solo act, they're just in a band. I think that's almost the way that I approach the music."
Whatever the performer's method is called, it seems to be working.
Since Rolling Stone picked him as one of the 10 Artists to Watch a few months ago, Mayer has gone from underground, coffeehouse act to buzz-bin persona. A string of sold-out shows (including his stop Monday at The Granada) has established a golden live reputation. And his studio skills have been honed through his Aware/Columbia debut "Room for Squares," which made numerous critical top 10 lists.
"I've not switched over my mode of thinking to accommodate for the fact that everyone believes that I really am selling a lot of records, and I really am selling out shows and I really am an artist that has a video ('No Such Thing') on MTV," Mayer explained.
"I'm just a guy from Fairfield, Conn., who is going through this collecting proof. That way when someone says, 'What are you talking about?' I can go, 'Look, check it out.' It's almost like I don't believe this is actually happening in public."
Despite currently being backed by the Sony machine, Mayer built his initial success through a devoted grass-roots following that embraced his mature, breathy voice and complex compositions. But he seemed to flourish prior to having a foothold in the music industry. To paraphrase a Yogi Berra-ism, Mayer was selling out shows before anybody had ever heard of him.
Perhaps this is why the gregarious singer envisions his core audience as "bright 18-
to 22-year-olds" who aren't as susceptible to the ploys of record labels force-feeding them Nickelback or The Calling.
"My generation understands when they're being sold something," the 24-year-old said. "That's a change from 10 or 15 years ago when advertising was a lot more subversive. People in my crowd have discriminating tastes in things now. They know that I'm not something that was shoved on them; it's something that they came to. The sense that everyone who comes to a show is discovering me I hear that all the time makes for a much stronger connection."
Mastering the craft
Mayer found his own musical connection at an early age. At 13, he took up guitar, aspiring to follow in the fingersteps of blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. Eventually, after a semester at Boston's Berklee College of Music, he relocated to Atlanta where he began sharpening his songwriting skills to match his fretboard mastery.
The idea of becoming the next Vaughan became usurped by the need to bring his tunes directly to the public, a la Dave Matthews.
"There was a time where I was at a crossroads between playing guitar and writing songs," he said. "I don't think there's anyone better to listen to than Dave Matthews to really learn how to bridge those things together. In his day he was brilliant it's horrible to call 10 years ago someone's day. But his new stuff isn't all that brilliant."
Is being a great guitarist ever a setback when it comes to pop songwriting?
"If there are any setbacks, I've never thought of them," he responded. "I've always approached it as a huge benefit, being able to facilitate any idea in my head. I don't ever hold a guitar and go, 'What am I trying to do? I just can't get it out.' It's almost like if I can think about it, then I can do it which is an incredible freedom as a musician. It's almost like magic, like a sixth sense."
Also adding to this auditory magic is his conjuring ability with lyrics. "Room for Squares" (the title is a riff on jazz saxophonist Hank Mobley's recording "No Room for Squares") finds a conversational style that is both self-deprecating and cunningly assured.
On the track "My Stupid Mouth," Mayer keenly recalls uttering the wrong thing during a dinner date: "We bit our lips/She looked out the window/Rolling tiny balls of napkin paper/I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker/And I could see clearly/An indelible line was drawn/Between what was good, what just slipped out and what went wrong."
Mayer insists his own stupid mouth is less of a problem than that of the character in his song.
"I can say a lot more now and get away with it because I'm 'me,'" he said. "That's one of the perks of this job is that people are willing to be more receptive to things I say more than it was before I started making records and selling a lot of them. So I have less moments of that because people are a lot more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Or is it the benefit of the clout?"
The road taken
Next up Mayer is embarking on a two-day excursion to Europe to play a Sony International showcase. ("I'm a very specific packer," he related from his Seattle hotel room before heading out the door. "I need to claim all the stuff that I want to bring with me off the bus in short notice, and I will not have a good time on the trip if I forget one thing.") After that the road-savvy musician returns to the states for another seven weeks of steady gigs.
"Something that happens when you tour a lot is you stop asking so much of every place," Mayer said. "Actually, you stop asking so much of YOURSELF from every place, in terms of being able to absorb it. There's no guilt anymore of not walking around and looking at the sights. You can't. The sights are the hotel, the bus and the stage."
Add a packed house to that list.