Road To The Grammys: John Mayer Shifts From Pop Idol To Bluesman On Continuum

Album of the Year nominee draws inspiration from late-night NYC walks, Al Green's recording booth.

It’s clear just from listening to John Mayer’s Continuum that he’s got a lot to say.

Filled with songs about life and death, love and loss, anger and apathy, it’s a smoky and — at times — simmering disc that gleefully tosses his status as a frat-guy favorite out the window, recasting the 29-year-old axeman as a cocksure-yet-world-weary blues crooner with a book of songs and a bag of licks for these terrorizing times.

The record — for which Mayer received three of his five Grammy noms, including a nod for Album of the Year — (see “Mary J. Blige, Chili Peppers Top Grammy Nominations List” ) — is an intense, sophisticated and certifiably accomplished effort, for sure. But to call it Mayer’s most mature is to sell both the man — and his music — short. Ever since 2003′s Heavier Things, he’s been crafting songs that delve deeper than your average sorta-crunchy/ sorta-dreamy popsmith. But with Continuum, you can tell he’s finally, well, matured.

“I believe that the album is a turning point; because from the artwork to the recording process to the songs John wrote, it’s an abandonment of one thing and a declaration of another,” said Steve Jordan, Mayer’s drummer/co-producer on Continuum. “This thing is really all about music — the whole ‘pop idol’ thing is fine and all, but this album is not reliant on that. It’s like it says in the liner notes: ‘Music by John Mayer.’ Because that’s what this album is all about.”

Recording began in earnest with a late-night session in January 2005 featuring Mayer, Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino. That session not only berthed a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” but also the John Mayer Trio, who would tour for the better part of a year and begin to work on songs that appear on Continuum (see “John Mayer Trio Geek Out With Live Album, Rolling Stones Jokes” ). And then, toward the end of that year, the band would begin work on the record — work that proved to be fruitful, to say the least.

“We recorded enough material for two studio albums, and we had debated for about a week whether or not we were gonna make it a double album. But we decided that we’d rather have one excellent album as opposed to one good double album,” Jordan laughed. “And it was an unusual situation, because we ended up taking some songs off the record that would be hits that people would die for. And as a producer, it was strange, because you’re hired to make hit records, and then you’re taking hit songs off the record.

“But basically, it came down to John wanting particular songs on the album and me wanting particular songs on the record, and so we had to make an agreement to just take ‘em both off,” he continued. “And as soon as that happened, the record came together and had this wonderful mood … this really sexy feel. John feels it’s even more of an R&B album, but I think it’s a groove-based pop album.”

Sessions would continue for more than eight months, with Mayer and Jordan crisscrossing the continent (the album was recorded at four different studios in New York, Los Angeles and Memphis) and striving to build upon that mood. It was a goal Mayer had from the beginning of Continuum, and he took it upon himself to carry it though the entire process. In addition to stepping behind the control board for the first time, Mayer also snapped some of the photos inside (including one of a studio on which he’s scrawled the phrase “This is what my heart looks like”) and co-designed the album’s somber, minimalist artwork.

“He wanted to make something that was timeless but also steeped in the times of the moment,” Jordan said. “The lyrics John seemed to gravitate towards were about inner exploration. Explaining himself now. Expressing how he feels now at this point in his life and career, what he’s seeing going on around him. There are a couple of tunes that he kind of conveys a social commentary, and that’s something he had never done before, and that was a concern for him: whether or not people would listen to him.”

And Mayer would express those concerns to Jordan during breaks in the recording process at Right Track Studios in the heart of NYC. The two would take late-night strolls though Times Square, getting lost in conversations that would eventually end up in songs like “Waiting on the World to Change” and “Gravity,” two of Continuum‘s strongest — and most personal — moments.

“John and I would just walk in Times Square and talk about life and my take on spirituality and stuff like that. It was all about exploration. Certain things were happening to him for the first time, and we just talked about things that made each other click,” Jordan said. “We were getting to really know and learn about each other, to forge this really strong bond. And that was a real fond memory of making this record.”

Another of those memories occurred down in Memphis, in a rickety brick building known as Royal Studios. Since opening in 1957, it’s been home to a host of soul legends, including Al Green, Ike & Tina Turner and O.V. Wright. And on a whim, Jordan decided to call his old friend, venerable producer “Papa” Willie Mitchell, to see if Mayer could record a track down there. And, as luck would have it, Mitchell said yes.

“Down in Memphis, it was really magical. John had written this song, and it was great, and I suggested we go down there and put a Willie Mitchell horn arrangement on it,” Jordan said. “So we got down there and we’re in this studio where Al Green recorded all these great albums, and I said, ‘Since we’re down here, and we got the horns on and they’re sounding real great, why don’t you sing a bit too?’ So John gets into the vocal booth — the same booth where Al Green sang — and Willie broke out this RCA Ribbon microphone, the only mic Al sang on. And he allowed John to sing on it. [John] was really honored and inspired. We all were. And I think that was sort of the perfect metaphor for making this album: Old and new. Timeless.”

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