LOS ANGELES — "The first version of Heavier Things had Pharrell [Williams of the Neptunes] on every song," John Mayer deadpanned backstage Thursday at the Staples Center. "But there were too many parentheses."
The always playful Mayer was joking about the idea of recording an album of collaborations to follow up his triple-platinum Room for Squares. It turns out, though, there is one special guest from the hip-hop community on the album. The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson plays drums on the opening number, "Clarity."
"It was really fun for me because I think he kind of came like, 'All right, who's the white boy who sings the song about making love to the girl? What's this all going to be about?' " Mayer recalled. "And I think when he heard it he was like, 'OK, I'm kind of interested in this, I kind of like where this is going.' And so it really turned into this kind of a hip-hop tune that breaks into an acoustic song in the middle. And his playing on it was just the jump up-and-down factor in the control room. When he plays it's just, it's serious."
Just as the music to "Clarity" was a stretch for Mayer, the singer/songwriter pushed himself lyrically to come from a different, more optimistic angle.
"A lot of songs that I write are about not knowing and being lost and feeling cornered," he explained. " 'Clarity' is about a feeling that doesn't even last as long as a song does. [About] every once in a while, when everything lines up ... you know, 'I got extra on my paycheck, I got Monday off, and this girl loves me.' It's kind of like waking up to that for a minute. I'm an a--hole because I don't have enough fun with myself. I take myself too seriously a lot of the time and so 'Clarity' is my reminder to myself — 'Dude ... you don't even say "dude" enough. Just say "dude" every once in a while and don't worry about it.' "
Mayer is hoping "Clarity" will be the second single from Heavier Things, due September 9, but for now he's focusing on the first, "Bigger Than My Body." And no, he's not obsessed with bodies.
"I knew when I wrote that song that damn, I'm gonna have to explain another 'Body' song," Mayer said of his follow-up to the Grammy-winning "Your Body Is a Wonderland." "It's dumb luck. And it wouldn't have been as good a song if I had changed the title, believe me, I thought about it."
The former student at the Berklee College of Music wrote "Bigger Than My Body" after going to a Coldplay concert and feeling inspired to not only make music equally as moving, but to explain that feeling in words.
"I was trying to explain that feeling you get when you listen to really great music," he said. "I remember saying to somebody, 'It's like wanting to be bigger than your own body and wanting to get out.' That's what good music is. That's what Pearl Jam did to me when I was in high school and that's what Stevie Ray Vaughn did to me in college. ... It just makes you go, 'Why can't I get this out? I'm not as good as that and I want to be.' I started a song that really made me feel that again, and so the song is called 'Bigger Than My Body.' "
Mayer described the single as "just one big promissory note."
"Everyone thinks that after winning a Grammy and selling a butt-load of records, you've arrived. [It's like,] 'Oh, you've made it. Oh, go be John. You're in orbit,' " he said in a variety of voices. "But that really is off of one record. ... It's like, 'No, hold on a minute.' ... I don't feel at all like I've gotten to where I'm gonna get to. And it's a feeling that all artists have when they listen to other artists' music. They go, 'I'm nowhere.' And 'Bigger Than My Body' is all about not being close to the mark. Sometimes the most frustrating thing as an artist is not hitting the mark and having everybody around you going, 'Target hit! You got it. You got it.' And sometimes it's just about trying to get even more on target. I feel like this record for me is for where I am at the moment — a lot more on target."
Musically, like much of the music on Heavier Things, the single relies on Mayer's electric guitar prowess rather than the jazz-influenced strumming on Room for Squares (see "John Mayer Leaves Wonderland, Gets Heavy On New Record").
"I feel like I need to use the adjectives people use in cologne ads. It's got a woody kind of treble," Mayer joked. "No, uh, it's a heavy groove kind of up-tempo rock song. ... It's supposed to be a drive-fast song."
"Bigger Than My Body" will hit radio and video outlets in late July or early August. In the meantime, Mayer can be seen on tour with the Counting Crows and Maroon 5 (see "John Mayer, Counting Crows Bring 45-Degree Metal To Los Angeles"). The trek next stops in Selma, Texas, on Thursday.