My Week with John Mayer
|Emily Elbert with John Mayer|
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Last week at Berklee, I was blessed enough to discover that John Mayer is not only a killer musician, but also an inspiring human being and a teacher overflowing with insight. When I first fell in love with his songs I was 14—just before I got my first guitar. I learned to play by listening to his CD over and over, and picking along. He was one of my first inspirations for becoming a singer/songwriter.
Through the years, John's music has remained a favorite of mine. His style is constantly evolving to include new influences, and he continually expands his audience while holding on to those who've loved him for so long. Though he originally entered the charts with mellow acoustic crooners, his music goes eons beyond chick-flick soundtracks. Lately, he's collaborated with legends like B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Herbie Hancock. Rolling Stone calls him a guitar god—and with good reason. John Mayer is the real deal.
On the day I got word that John was coming to Berklee, I'd had a song of his stuck in my head throughout all of my classes. On my walk home from school, I blasted Continuum, and I still had my headphones on when I got home. When I checked my email, I found out that I would have the incredible blessing of being included in a small group of songwriters to take a few master classes with John over the course of a week.
I freaked out.
On Monday we all met in an ensemble room. Once John got there, we went around the circle and introduced ourselves. He informed us that he'd "done his homework"—meaning he checked out all of our Myspace pages and heard our music. This guy who we'd all adored and admired for so long actually took the time to connect to us.
We talked about music and songwriting, and he shared his wisdom with us so freely and genuinely. Eventually, he asked us each to play him a song that we were working on. From the first few chords of Keppie Coutts's two-day-old tune "Waiting for the Avalanche," it was apparent that this was going to be a powerful experience. Everyone bared their souls for a room full of people they'd just met. Everyone had something unique to offer.
John listened intently to each, and offered advice and ideas. In my own writing, I'd recently hit a standstill on a song. I couldn't figure out what direction to take it. I played it for John, and he offered his own angle on how to approach the situation. He related it to his own experience with stories that allowed us to see a little deeper into his perspective.
The following day, when our time was wrapping up, John pulled out his famous Stratocaster and jammed a bit for us. There was a huge number of people waiting outside the room. When asked to play a song, John let everybody in. The room was absolutely packed, yet from the moment he opened his mouth you could hear a pin drop.
While he played his slow-blues showstopper "Gravity" I had tears in my eyes; I was overcome with a complete, meaningful happiness. It made me realize the power that music can have—what one performance can mean to someone. The generosity that John showed in his willingness to share his incredible gift with a room full of strangers was inspiring.
The next day, John told us that he'd chosen three of the finished pieces—Keppie's song, Mike Aljadeff's "Chicago," and Jonathan Carr's "The Joke's on Me"—to illustrate some different production and pre-production techniques. With the help of John, the songwriters made subtle revisions and we all shared thoughts on ways to approach the process leading into music production. This was exciting to everyone, because we all truly loved those songs. It was wonderful to see the complete lack of competitive tension. We were in it together.
On Wednesday, John gave a workshop in the Berklee Performance Center. Students waited outside the doors of the BPC—some even camped out on Massachusetts Avenue overnight to get a spot in the 1,200-person venue. At 1 p.m., every seat was full and the place buzzed with excitement. He entered the room to a standing ovation, and earned it every step of the way. He spent three full hours playing, sharing his thoughts, and answering questions from students. We left the workshop moved and motivated.
We spent the last two days at Mix One studio on Boylston. It was so cool to see how John approached recording—his precision, his ideas, his knack for understanding the listener. Each of the finished songs is beautiful, packed with energy and musicality.
John's spirit is contagious. I have loved his music for so long, but now that I know him, my admiration and respect for him is even greater. By giving his time to students at Berklee, he fueled the fire of inspiration in us all, and that fire will continue to illuminate this school for a long time.
- Read Keppie Coutts's account of the visit on her website.