In 2008, I had a extraordinary experience of spending a week with John Mayer, working on tunes and at the end of the week taking a song into the studio and having Mayer produce it. I made a point of absorbing as much as I could during that week. It was visceral and obvious that Mayer has certain habits that contribute to his success.
The first habit I noticed is most likely one shared by many successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. It was obvious that this permeates Mayer’s 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 I would do differently? Why do people like this?’
No one is ever going to force you to write ‘Top 40’ music, but having an active curiosity about what people like and why they like it can help bridge the gap between your own authentic voice, and effectively communicating what you have to say to a listening audience.