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Mayer Mentors

 
  Phil Farnsworth

On October 8, before a capacity crowd at the Berklee Performance Center (BPC), President Roger Brown explained the roots of Berklee's good fortune in securing a weeklong residency with pop superstar John Mayer. According to Brown, late one night Mayer sent the president a text message asking about paying a visit to Berklee. "John wanted to come to Berklee and work with student songwriters on developing their writing," Brown recalls. "I asked when he wanted to do it, and he said, ?Next week.'" At Brown's behest, a team of faculty and staff members quickly set up an itinerary for Mayer that included visits to classes taught by his former teachers, the BPC clinic, workshops with songwriters, and sessions in which Mayer produced demos of songs by three student songwriters.

Songwriting Workshop

Writing Division Department Dean Kari Juusela and Songwriting Department faculty handpicked 11 student songwriters and their work as the focus of Mayer's residency. During his first meeting with the group, Mayer told the class, "I googled you and went to your MySpace pages to check you out before I came here. Some of you are doing really great things."

Mayer then recalled the path that led him to songwriting. "I came to Berklee wanting to be the best guitar player anywhere," Mayer said. "But after a little while, I had an epiphany, I decided that I wanted to make the kind of music my friends at Berklee would listen to at night when they were tired of working at music all day. That quest to be listenable has taken me on the best course of my life and into songwriting."

 
Dennis Montgomery III invited John Mayer to sit in with his ensemble and give an informal clinic.  
Phil Farnsworth  

Mayer then invited the participants to play their best or newest songs. In response to each student's work, he offered encouragement, asked questions, and tossed out musical ideas. "Why did you choose to go to the minor-IV chord so soon?" he asked Keppie Coutts. "I think you should save that, make it an event that comes unexpectedly a little later." Enthused, he told Alison Rapetti that her song "Amelia" was "as good as anything on the TV series Grey's Anatomy," (whose episodes regularly feature new artists' music). In providing feedback to Lee Moretti, Mayer said he thought her tune was totally "radio-ready in terms of its musicality." After Liz Longley sang, Mayer remarked that her song didn't sound like a radio hit. "But that's not a criticism," he added. "This is more of an art song. An album needs some of both. I give my record company an album with three songs for radio and others that say what I want and that I'll look forward to playing live."

Mayer listened intently to each song; gave the writers ideas about structure, harmony, and lyrics; and tips about how he develops his material.

"I was astounded at how fearless these students are," Mayer remarked after the week was over. "As a friend of mine said so well, when you're starting to really tap into a creative process for the first time, ?You don't know what you don't know.' That makes for such great writing. When everyone went around the room and played their songs, I was bowled over at how effortless it was for them to play songs they hadn't finished or had written just days before. No ego, no inhibitions. Just an astounding fluency in composing and expressing their ideas. It was shocking to me personally because to be quite honest, I've stopped doing that - until meeting the students, that is."

Mayer ended the first session, which ran four hours, by jamming on the blues with faculty member - and Mayer's former guitar instructor - Tomo Fujita. The duo followed with Mayer singing his song "Gravity" and inviting the crowd to join in with background vocals. An astonished Fujita recounted that the next morning his e-mail inbox was stuffed with messages from fans in his native Japan who had already seen the jam that had already been postedon YouTube (visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-MAYC4k15Y).

 
  From the left: Keppie Coutts, Mayer, Mike Aljadeff, and Jonathan Carr recorded song demos together in the studio.
  Mark Small

Come Back to Class

The next day, Mayer paid a visit to the traditional gospel ensemble led by Associate Professor Dennis Montgomery. When Mayer wanted to play guitar with the group, Montgomery shifted gears and called some r& b tunes. Aside from discussing specifics with the bassist and guitarist, Mayer gave an impromptu clinic that touched on various topics. Later that afternoon, he dropped into Livingston Taylor's "Stage Performance Techniques" class for an informal discussion with another of his former teachers on subjects that included guitar playing, live performance, and music business. Taylor brought out his acoustic guitar and prevailed on Mayer to play a few things. Afterward, Mayer stuck around to talk with students.

Anticipation was high for Mayer's midweek clinic in BPC that was open to the entire Berklee community. Hours before it began, a line of students stretched around the building and down Boylston Street. The patient waiters hoped to be among the lucky 1,200 the hall can accommodate. After President Brown's introduction, Mayer took center stage and told the crowd that the theme for his clinic was turning the information they receive from teachers in their classes into inspiration. He told the students to find a way to take the technical and theoretical ideas and apply them in a personal way. Mayer also advised students to establish specific goals for their projects and recordings. "Define your expectations," he advised. "Is your recording one that will sell 50,000 records or a million? I know people who have sold 2 million records but were not satisfied because they hadn't defined their goal well enough to know if they'd reached it." He also said artists should never kid themselves into thinking that they are smarter than those they are trying to reach. "You'll find out that the public is smarter than you every time," he emphasized.

Throughout the two-hour session, Mayer shared anecdotes and kernels of knowledge and answered questions from the audience with the wit, timing, and delivery of a stand-up comic. He also played solo versions of his songs "Waiting on the World to Change," "Stop This Train," "Gravity," and an as-yet unfinished song. Additionally, he invited Fujita to join him onstage again to play the blues. After the clinic concluded, Mayer stayed for quite a while signing CDs, guitars, and T-shirts and chatting with students.

 
Mayer studio session attendees, front row, left to right: Mike Aljadeff, Stoddard Blackall, Will Wells, Tomo Fujita, Ali Rapetti. Back row: Jack Perricone, Keppie Coutts, John Mayer, Erica Stenquist, Liz Longley, and Lee Moretti.  
Phil Farnsworth  

Final Project

The next morning, Mayer was at Mix One Studios (a few blocks from Berklee) sitting next to engineer Ted Paduck (an assistant professor of MP& E) to produce demos for Keppie Coutts, Jonathan Carr, and Mike Aljadeff, three songwriters from the workshops Mayer conducted earlier in the week. For these three students, having the opportunity to work with Mayer on their songs was the chance of a lifetime. And those whose material was not chosen for the demo sessions were also involved throughout the recording process. "My song wasn't chosen, but all of us felt blessed to be part of this," Ali Rapetti recounts. "We learned so much just being there. In the sessions, it felt in a way like my song was being worked on. Through this experience, all the songwriters formed bonds that I know will last for years."

First up was Australian-born Keppie Coutts who sat in the studio alone singing and playing acoustic guitar on her ballad "Waiting for the Avalanche." Mayer guided her until she got a performance he felt had the right energy and emotion. Coutts came into the control room for the playback. As they listened, Mayer told her, "I've never heard anyone finish a phrase the way you do - beautiful."

Earlier in the week, Mayer and Coutts decided that a string quartet was the right instrumentation for her song. After staying up most of the night before the session to write the arrangement, Songwriting Department Chair Jack Perricone rehearsed the parts with the Boston String Quartet, a local ensemble that includes Berklee student violinist Anastasia Sukhopara. After the group played the chart a few times with the track, Coutts and Mayer asked for some conceptual changes to the arrangement. Perricone took out a pencil and eraser and quickly reworked the parts. The quartet then got a take that pleased everyone. Afterward, Perricone confided that while he was a jingle writer in New York he learned the skill of completely changing an arrangement on the fly while the studio clock is ticking.

Next up was Glaswegian pianist/singer Jonathan Carr, whose song "The Joke's on Me" called for a rhythm section comprising student bassist Chris Brown, drummer Massimo Buonanno, organist Dane Farnsworth, and Carr playing acoustic piano. Mayer worked up a hip-hop beat for the song on his drum machine. The rhythm section locked into the groove, and by the third pass the group had a take that felt right. Curious to see whether the group could do one more take without pressure, Mayer said, "You got it. But I want you to play one more. Think of this as your victory lap." Afterward, Mayer broke out his electric guitar and recorded a few tracks.

"When I wrote that song," says Carr, "I had in mind to make the instrumental section sound a bit classical and have violin play the melody. When John put his guitar parts on it, the song went in a different direction. We were able to be very honest with each other as he tried different things. He was great - so tasteful. He really took the song to a new level."

During the last day of Mayer's residency, the artist worked on Mike Aljadeff's song "Chicago." Aljadeff played acoustic guitar, along with Farnsworth (organ), Brown (bass), and renowned Nashville studio drummer Eddie Bayer. It was a bit of good fortune that Bayer, who has played on 10,000 songs during his career, happened to be at Berklee doing clinics for the MP& E, Percussion, and Songwriting departments. Professor Pat Pattison invited Bayer to play on the session, and he signed on enthusiastically.

"I have been a huge John Mayer fan since I was about 13," says Aljadeff. "One of the best things about all this was having John explain his thought processes on some of his best tunes and help me apply them in my song." Aljadeff overdubbed additional rhythm guitars, including Mayer's suggestion of a percussive track created by miking an unamplified solid-body electric guitar. After Aljadeff did his vocals, Mayer sang backgrounds and played guitar on the song.

 
  During a clinic at the Berklee Performance Center, Mayer invited Assistant Professor Tomo Fujita onstage to play the blues
  Phil Farnsworth

Parting Shot

"After my session, we turned off the lights and listened back to all three songs," says Aljadeff. "John spoke to us from the heart. He gave each of us an Olympus LC 10 recorder so that whenever an idea comes, we can record it on the fly. He told us that he had gotten a lot out of this experience too and that we will hear our influence in the songs that will be on his new recording. He said this week allowed him to revisit the things that inspired him to go into songwriting."

"As a producer, musician, and person, John is direct, inclusive, open-minded, humble, smart as hell, generous, and hilarious," Coutts says. "He made us feel like there is a bridge that links what we're doing now to the vast world of possibilities in music. That's cool in my book."

"John said he wanted to show us the transition from writing the song to the studio production," said Carr. "He chose three very contrasting songs, and they turned out better than any of us had hoped. We'll always treasure this experience."

After completing the week, Mayer gave his take on the experience. "I think the best way to describe it is that I had my gutters cleaned creatively," Mayer said. "Every record that you make, every hit song you have, every successful experience that you have sort of leaves an emotional residue. Witnessing these kids access their creative side the way they did was a reset for me. There's no ladder we climb as creators. We're never better than sitting down in front of our instrument and reaching for what we want to say with total abandon. The process stays the same, even if the world around it changes. I had forgotten it, and I probably will again at some point.

"When I climbed into my car and headed out of town that Friday night, I was overwhelmed. I listened to the songs we'd recorded about 10 times, and I was proud, sad, and excited. Proud of the kids, sad that I'm 10 years removed from the experience of being at Berklee, and excited at the idea that if these writers and performers will be among those making the next generation of records, the future of music will be bright."