My theme lately seems to be dealing with musicians with personality flaws, and having to be an advocate for myself in these dealings.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon with several other students from all over to meet John Mayer at a program through the Grammy Foundation. It’s really quite a smart program. It has an agenda of course – the Foundation wants you to become a voting member of the Academy (which we all did), and to be a part of their industry network list. In return, we got to spend two hours watching John’s sound check (he was performing last night at the N.O. Arena), and had an intimate Q&A session with him afterward.
Again – my theme. He doesn’t have the best reputation among non-pop musicians, for lots of reasons. On the other hand, I was very impressed with him. He was articulate, knowledgeable, and not at all the prima donna others make him out to be.
Some notable points from the sound check:
1. It was wonderful to see an artist who was tech-savvy. I deal with a lot of people who don’t know how to use a fader on a soundboard, never mind have all the board patches memorized for his drummer’s kit.
2. It was interesting to see first-hand how he handles balance at such a large venue. As the main guy, he was up front. The rest of the band’s sound was almost a watermark on the page. We were a few feet from the stage and could barely hear the drum kit – the drummer was Steve Jordan, by the way (Steve was the drummer for Stevie Wonder, Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers, & even Eric Clapton at one point). Later, he explained it in a way that didn’t make him sound so narcissistic. You never see a band of all-stars. It doesn’t work. “A band needs to be a game of Indians and Chiefs, otherwise it’s all Chiefs – and then there’s a battle”.
3. Even at his level, it was refreshing to see them messing up and redoing things until the sound was ‘right’. It was refreshing to see them having to teach the drummer a new piece mid-sound check.
4. One thing I was impressed with (not so much his guitar playing – but I’m constantly surrounded by amazing guitarists) is his vocal control. For an artist to sound nearly identical in a live performance as he does on a recording means a few things – 1. They don’t use a lot of touch-ups to his voice on the recording. 2. His recordings aren’t completely (although I’m sure there are some) full of retakes for skips and jumps of the voice. He had control of 6ths, 7ths, 9ths.. again, it was nice to see.
Some notable points from the Q&A:
1. I really enjoyed his role model approach to being a “star” and partying all the time. He flat out said that he parties, but he has a limit – because there’s nothing more revealing of what you’ve done the day before than your throat. It’s always the first thing to hurt when you’re sick, always scratchy if you’ve been drunk the night before. You can be a garage band and drink all the time, but if you’re performing night after night, you need to preserve your voice. It’s an instrument. It even has a case!
2. People he looks up to? Stevie Ray Vaughan & Eric Clapton.
3. Elton John was talking to him one day after some personal relationship drama came out. With a pat on the back Elton John said, “See? You’ve made it. Welcome to the land of bullshit!” (That was in response to “when did you realize you “made it”?”
4. My favorite question someone asked was “Did you turn out to be the artist you expected yourself to become?” His answer – yes. He said “there’s always unexpected things that come up. I even think I expected that there would be unexpected things that would come up early on”. He went on to talk about a photo he saw of himself recently at 17, in a goofy t-shirt that said “Soil Me” – one of those hot-press t-shirts you can get done at the mall. He laughed, had no idea how or why he made the shirt in the first place, but thought to himself ‘that was John Mayer at 17.”
He ended with telling us all to be a freak, to be freaky, to be different. He said he was so convinced that the world was going in a more outward direction – the 60s came, free love happened, and then the world closed in again. Pretty soon the world will be loops and robots playing sound bytes. There needs to be some freaky people who are prominent in the world doing their own thing regardless of the status quo, or we’re all screwed. Good point, Sir..
Anyway – that was my four hours with John Mayer. I got to shake his hand, take a couple photos with him (they haven’t been emailed to me yet), listen to a private concert for a few songs, and learn a little bit about a lot of things… and hey, now I can vote for Grammy Artists!