In 2008, I had the unbelievably good fortune to spend a whole week with John Mayer, talking about songs, and finally being in the studio with him. I blogged in detail about it on an old website, but the things I learned still come up almost daily. I was recently asked about it, so I thought I would post it again here. Enjoy!
This week, I’m one of a group of ten singer-songwriters who are lucky enough to spend a few intensive evenings with John Mayer. I wanted to write a few thoughts, reactions, and anecdotes from the sessions, as a way for me to process the experience and information, as well as sharing the experience with other people. I know I’m in a position that about 4000 other people in the immediate vicinity would sell limbs to be in, so I thought I’d share a bit of it as faithfully as I can. Obviously the things I remember most are the things that resonate with me currently. A few of his stories and points I will obviously be paraphrasing, and they might already be infused with my own perspective. Hopefully my friends and colleagues who are also in the room can chip in some of their memories and insights.
Firstly, John Mayer is cool.
Cool in the best, nerdiest way, which is to say that he was totally present with us in the room. There was nowhere else that his mind was other than completely focused on us and our songs. He had also spent the day checking out our Myspace pages, googling us, listening to our music, and seeing what we were up to.
Habits of success.
I think this was the first symptom of a habit that is most likely one shared by successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. Throughout the evening, it was obvious that this permeates his whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing that’s bad?’
His Berklee backstory.
He talked a little about his experience studying music at Berklee. Initially he arrived in the Fall of ’97 as a guitar player, wanting to be ‘the best guitar player’. In the break between Fall and Spring that year, he did some serious thinking about exactly he wanted as a musician – what did he need to SAY and DO as a musician, above everything else? Maybe unsurprisingly, it was not wanting to be a guitar wanker (my paraphrasing there). He recalled having a very distinct and transformative realization that he literally referred to as an ‘epiphany’: that he essentially wanted to be ‘listenable’. He wanted as many people as possible to listen to his music. He then spent the Spring semester not so much in the classroom, but rather in his dorm room, writing songs and recording them. At which point the rest is history (somewhat). He had got what he needed out of that experience, and then left to pursue it.
On studying music
He was incredibly positive and affirming about being knowledgeable about the technicalities of music – at the same time as being obviously very intuitive and knowing how and when to ‘turn it off’. The point of study is to develop instincts that become like muscle memory. But that it is brilliant to be able to ‘reverse engineer’ songs; ie, being able to identify the ‘DNA’ of songs so that when you hear something you like, knowing how to do it yourself.
On a technical point though, he also encouraged caution about doing things musically just because you can, now that you know about it. Musical ‘events’ in a song should serve a purpose and function. If they don’t, then sometimes you risk doing things that come off as being showy, and alienate listeners. Ultimately, the majority of people don’t know what that chord is, they just know how they feel when they hear it. So if it is a musical moment in the song, save it for when you are actually making a point!
John Mayer as ‘critic’.
Which brings me to another point. I was feeling a combination of trepidation and curiosity about how he would fare in the role of ‘critic’ of other people’s songs. Part of me wondered whether people who do something at such a level of proficiency just have an innate intuition about it, but not necessarily the diagnostic capacities that make for a good teacher.
The answer in this case was pretty clear. His experience gives him a pretty powerful insight into other people’s writing, and he was able to see into the anatomy of our songs with the expertise of a surgeon. He approached each not from any formulaic idea of songs, but first understood what was the character of each artist and song, and worked from there. Rather than going into laborious detail about that, I thought I’d write a few of the main points that I learned that I related to my own writing:
- The chorus is the most important part of your song. If it has no chorus, then there has to be some main idea, main image, that should have neon lights around it that lets a listener know that it is the bit they should walk away singing in their head.
- A song title is your best friend. It will define the chorus or hook, and is the point of the whole song. The title is the gold nugget you’re looking for at the first available moment. You can even work backwards: if you’ve got a great title, and you find a way to sing it that feels good, then you’ve got a chorus. Once you’ve got a chorus, you’ve almost got a song. Also, a song’s title should make you want to listen to that song. If someone picked up your CD in a shop and looked at the back, would they want to hear the songs?
- Phonetics. The way a song feels in your mouth should be natural. It shouldn’t require aural aerobics to get the words out. Some of the best songs are great because of how good it is to just hear the sounds of the words – and how satisfying it is to sing along. The extension of this is that ideally the way to write a song is doing music, melody, and lyrics as an entwined process, so that you’re not ultimately twisting one to comply with the other.
- A song is 3 things: lyrics, melody (which includes harmony), and pulse (or rhythm). If all three of those are strong, then your song has the potential to be a hit.
- Oats and marshmallows. There are words and images that convey detail, emotion, and power (the ‘marshmallows’ in the cereal box). Then there are others, that we’ve all heard a million times, that are blunt and dry (the ‘oats’). People like the marshmallows. Find and use ways to say things that are evocative and personal.
- Be patient and cautious with melody. Once you open your mouth and start singing an idea, it’s very hard to ever sing anything else over a rhythm part you’ve laid down. Take a few extra moments to just listen to any music you’ve written before committing to a melody.
- Listening from a distance. Listen to songs you’ve written as if they just came onto the radio – as if you hadn’t written it. Is it something you’d want to keep listening to?
- Leaving a trail of treats. Songs are essentially a series of ‘events’, whether that event is lyrical, or it’s drums coming in or dropping out at key moments, or it’s vocal harmonies, or it’s the subtle way you change the chorus at the end, or it’s the way the melody lifts in verse 2. These ‘event’s are like a trail of treats for a listener throughout a song. And you don’t have to deliver the treats all at once at the front end, but pick key moments for them.
- Thanks for listening. John mentioned a technique that he uses to keep people listening til the very end, which is essentially to always do something slightly different at the end of a song that a listener wouldn’t have expected. It gives them a reason to keep listening to the end, and also a reason to listen to the whole song again.
One very awesome thing about being in an intimate session with someone I know at an intellectual level has success that has brought him fame and celebrity and all that extra stuff, is being aware that he is just a dude, doing his thing, doing it really well, and has made some good decisions. At a sort of ‘dharmic’ level (if you’ll let me go there for a moment), I appreciate the spirit of someone who inspires people to broaden their own imagination about themselves and their possibilities. He genuinely made us feel like there is an achievable bridge that links what we’re doing now to the vast world of possibility in music. That’s cool, in my books.
We recorded my tune, produced by John Mayer himself, last Thursday. It was one of the smoothest, hassle-free, to the point, snag-less recordings I’ve ever done. It was a testament to the process that this whole experience was meant to demonstrate: that if you have a good song, and a concept for production, then you can produce something beautiful without much complication.
(Also having the head of the songwriting department at Berklee write a full string quartet arrangement overnight, and then having the Boston String Quartet play on your recording helps a little).
John was great as a producer, by the way. My song, of the three that were recorded by three different songwriters, required the least technical detail or instruction or tweaking, being the most acoustic. But that was also very much part of good production, and being a good producer. As a producer, the stuff that John wanted to maintain was the subtle way my voice cracks, the hesitation in certain parts that is so much what the song is about in essence. The concept from the beginning was that the tune should be organic and acoustic, played without a click track, the time pushing and pulling with the lyric and the feeling of the song. With the string quartet, the idea was that they would have to play with the feeling of the song rather than playing to a click.
One of the most important technical things I learnt from him was that when you are recording a song, you need to maintain the melody in its purest, ‘dumbest’ form. The point of a record, other than being beautiful and listenable (and of course, and expression of your musical identity), is to communicate clearly, and from that clarity also generate familiarity for listeners. There is a temptation (that I was subconsciously caving into) to vary and embellish the melody and delivery of a song, particularly after having sung it 4 or 5 times. John noticed, and when I sung just the melody in its simplest form, the song truly started to sound like a record rather than the ‘late night acoustic lounge’ version.
The whole experience, as well as watching him produce two other completely different tracks, was exceptional. As a producer, as well as a musician — and most importantly, as a person, he is direct, on the level, inclusive, open-minded, humble, smart as hell, generous, sensitive, and hilarious. Even when he played and sang on two tracks, he was never gratuitous. He was gracious enough to actually lend his guitar and voice for these tracks, but made sure everything he did was in the service of the song, and not just sort of a ‘Ladies and gentlemen — John Mayer!’ kind of moment.
All twelve of us went into this not totally knowing what to expect, and not knowing who he was as a person. I think we pretty unanimously think the world of him, which says a lot about a person. He was a true demonstration that success and fame don’t give you license to be a dickhead. And when it comes down to it, it’s pretty simple and logical. As John put it himself, when you’ve worked with the full spectrum of talented people, and you see the effect of people who are selfish and mean, as opposed to those who are talented, generous and kind, there is no reason to not be that way. Amen.