If music school grades are a barometer of success, John Mayer should be living under a bridge busking for nickels.
During an abbreviated tenure at Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1998, the now platinum singer/songwriter found himself out of his element and overwhelmed. He had no formal musical training and his class marks reflected his lack of preparation.
"They were pronounced like 'd-d-d-f-f-f-f-f ' — like static," he said of his grades during an interview in New York's Central Park. "So I had to kind of totally burn that bridge because I didn't know what I was doing. But Axl Rose wore a kilt and like a catcher's outfit and no one really questioned that, so I hope no one ever questions the Berklee thing."
Such scholastic failure has caused many musicians to place a classified, sell their guitar and amp and get a job in real estate, but Mayer was undeterred by criticism from his professors and peers. After leaving Berklee, Mayer moved to Atlanta and started writing songs. Since he couldn't find a band, he started performing as a solo act. (Click here for photos.)
"I just didn't want to spend two years looking for a band, making excuses," he said. "'Cause when you work for yourself, all you have to do is make an excuse and you can go to sleep for a week. I wanted to get started playing acoustic clubs."
Mayer quickly made an impression in the Atlanta music scene. Less than a year after his arrival, he recorded and self-released his first disc, Inside Wants Out. In part, he was motivated to create the album by enthusiastic fans at his gigs.
"I'd do a show and at the end people started going, 'You got a CD?' and I went, 'No,' and they'd put their $20 back in their pockets. When that happens enough times you go, 'I'd better record one.' "
In 2000 Mayer played the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, and his earnest renderings of songs like "Back to You" and "No Such Thing" blew away an A&R man from Aware Records, a division of Columbia. The next fall, Mayer started recording his major label debut, Room for Squares, with producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews, Ben Folds Five).
"I am really lucky," admits Mayer. "By the time I came to a record company, I had already built my own little world. So I went up to them and said, 'Here's what I am. This is what I do. Would you like to help me?' I think that's the only position you should be in. If you are a young artist, you should never wait for someone to say, 'Go.' "
In June 2001, Aware released Room for Squares. Three months later, Sony reissued the disc with a bonus track. Exactly a year after, the disc is perched at #15 on the Billboard albums chart and has sold well over 1 million copies. Mayer has documented his sweet success by saving answering machine messages.
"I got my brother calling me to congratulate me on the gold record," he said. "Then I have Elton John calling me saying congratulations on entering the top 20, and then the call saying, 'Hey, you're platinum.' "
Much of Mayer's popularity has stemmed from exhaustive touring. He's the kind of artist who people see live, then rave about to their friends. And even though he's spent much of the past year on the road, he's still found time to write new material.
"I think the expectation is for an artist to make one record and go another three years without creating another song," he said. "For the most part, I'll write a song in one night and go, 'How could I not?' It's just in me. It's not a cocky thing, 'cause I feel pretty objective in the sense of what I don't nail and what I do. And I just know I have more nights of going, 'Well, I'm going to go shopping tomorrow because I know I'll make the money back next year.' "
Many artists who have risen to Mayer's heights have become obnoxious and arrogant. While the singer/songwriter is unquestionably confident, he's developed a reputation for being friendly and easygoing.
"I like being a nice guy," he said. "I think a lot of artists are purposely not nice because they feel like it really augments their whole image. I like the idea of not having an image to uphold. I like making records and being good at making records and playing the guitar and singing. And when I am off the job I'm like, 'Hi, how are you?' It must be hard to be a hard ass because it takes a lot of dedication to ignore someone."
Jon Wiederhorn, with additional reporting by SuChin Pak
and John Norris