Mayer Tunes Up Songwriters

During a June visit to Boston for two shows at Fenway Park with Dead & Company, songwriter and guitar titan John Mayer ’98 gave a songwriting master class at the college. Professor Pat Pattison handpicked six top songwriting students to present their original songs in Mayer’s class held at the Berklee Performance Center. The “six incredibly frightened students,” as Pattison joked, each performed a song onstage for Mayer and 500 jubilant peers looking on, and then listened as Mayer provided generous, constructive feedback, and shared the wisdom he has gained as one of his generation’s most celebrated writers and performers.

“If you’re a songwriter in the room, we already know each other,” Mayer said, setting a tone of camaraderie. “There is no luxury form of songwriting. It’s no easier for me than it is for you. We go to the same place. We try just as hard for just as long.”

Throughout the two-plus-hour event, Mayer kept the atmosphere welcoming, whether it was through offering lyric-writing advice (“Make things tangible,” he said), or keeping it light with a relatable, self-aware sense of humor (“Oh my God, I’m back in the BPC talking about flat-sixes!”). In turn, his cool-professor vibe helped give all the songwriters confidence to deliver their impressive songs and not to flinch when he suggested they sing something again with a new line or chord change, and sometimes harmonized with them on a second run-through.

First up was Callie Sullivan singing “The Sinner.” Mayer complimented her on her lyric couplets: “You are the summer, I am the winter/ You are the Bible, I am the sinner.” The song’s tonal center was A minor, and Mayer suggested she play it again with an unexpected D chord at the coda. An audible “Ah” of approval swept through the audience as members heard the change.

Hearing Charlotte Lessin sang her song “Faith,” Mayer was enthusiastic. “The music sounds like the message of the lyrics,” he said. “I know you from this tune.” He noted the juxtaposition of Lessin’s piano accompaniment and harmonic choices with the specificity of the lyrics. “You are delving into the abstract,” he said, “flying over an idea rather than parachuting into it. I want you to be weirder. Say things that only you understand.”

After hearing Brian Walker sing “Let Me In,” Mayer said, “I’m going to be a little harder on this one because it wants to be in the pop realm.” He advised Walker to spend further time on the lyrics. “Your fun with this song is over,” Mayer said regarding bursts of inspiration vis á vis the effort required to craft a finished song. “It will be all work from here. Crack the code.” As an example, he suggested Walker try reversing the order of the lines in his final chorus.

Mayer followed the epic workshop session with an impromptu performance at the piano of “Simple Song” (unreleased) and “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me,” from his Search for Everything album He spoke about his lyrics and offered a glimpse of the inner-workings of his own process. Afterward, he waxed reflective, saying that songwriting is a mystical process of elusive self-discovery where you “try to truly see yourself in a way that’s just beyond—most of the time—your ability to comprehend.”

His parting words to the students again emphasized that they are equals. “I promise, you are real songwriters . . . You’re just waiting on a check,” he said, adding that turning this into a career is close on the horizon. “You’ve already crossed all the divides except the one where you get to do it for a living, which you’re on the edge of doing.”