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Berklee News

Building a Universe One Song at a Time

John Mayer urges students to stay focused on the music.

By Susan Gedutis Lindsay
October 6, 2004

John Mayer
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
John Mayer has made a commitment to connect with his audience, and it was clear on his recent visit to Berklee, that he's holding to it. On September 18, Berklee students lined up around the block for admission to the standing-room-only event in the Berklee Performance Center, and were granted a full two hours of straight talk from one of today's most popular singer/songwriters. Mayer's message was as clear to students in Boston as to those who had gathered via video conference in Los Angeles: What's this songwriting business all about? It's about the music.

There was no rockstar pretense as Mayer walked on stage in faded jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. He sat down and picked up his custom-model Martin guitar and started into the mellow groove of "Clarity," from his Heavier Things album. While the screams and resounding applause that immediately erupted from the crowd indicated that even music students aren't above hero worship, it was clear that Mayer's sincere approach, as well as his guitar and songwriting chops, had as much to do with the enthusiastic response as his celebrity status.

It was fitting that the very first clinic ever given by the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter with a triple-platinum record under his belt would be at his alma mater, and his advice couldn't have been more carefully tailored to the audience. It was, in fact, the first time Mayer had been back at Berklee since he left six years ago-but he spoke with assurance and clarity, and also with great humor. When someone somewhere shouted, "My body is your wonderland," Mayer looked to his roadie offstage and said with an easy smile, "Ken, write that down. That's only the second time I've heard that."

Mayer said that he had spent a lot of time thinking about what he'd most like to say to Berklee students, and as he spoke, it became apparent that he had been reminiscing about his own college days.

"I know exactly how you're feeling," he said, specifically to freshmen only in their second week of classes. "You get to strap your wings on now because you get to do 24 hours a day what you were fighting to do maybe 90 minutes a day, or 2½ hours a day." He wanted them to recognize how important it was that they had decided to pursue music. "If you're like me, half the people you talked to said, 'Go for it' and the other half said, 'Don't go for it.' You're here because you made the decision, not because there was a consensus."

Mayer answered several student questions during his two-hour clinic.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
For that reason, Mayer encouraged students to use the time at Berklee to learn as much as possible, and forget about the proverbial networking approach to Berklee. "Number one: I don't think that you have to walk around with a pad for the contacts and the connections," he said. "Use those little notepads for something else. Write lyrics." Making music and making friends, he said, is much more important, because in the professional music world, that's how most connections are made, through friendship. "Most people will do for their friends, not their connections."

He also told students that it is determination and drive, not passion, that sustains music careers, and that a steady and sincere desire to communicate through music is critical.

"Your friends may have picked up a guitar or bass at the same time that you did but they couldn't hack it, not because their hands didn't work, but because they couldn't take the lineage of it. They couldn't take knowing that it was going to take a long time to learn something," he said.

Improving, he said, is really about building a musical toolbox, and he only fully realized the value of what he learned at Berklee through years of intensive songwriting. "The reason that you learn [music theory] is you're taking something that began as impulse or sentiment, something very impalpable, and are learning to turn that into musical information, so that it can travel from person to person...take that math and turn it into color as fast as you possibly can."

One example for him was the wealth of songwriting knowledge he developed in Pat Pattison's songwriting classes at Berklee. "I learned so much in that class, in terms of how to approach things, what kind of taste to go for, about rhyming schemes, and about how things sound...when you know that these songwriting elements are there in a song, they become an option. The more you learn, the more you have available to you when you sit down to play." He still has Pattison's book Writing Better Lyrics , and refers to it often.

Among the many subjects Mayer talked about were songwriting, learning music, and playing with Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Mayer does most of his writing in ProTools, the digital recording software/hardware system. He'll lay down a guitar or rhythm track, then work out melodies and lyrics by keeping the focus on phonetics-how the words sound. He also points songwriters toward developing "events"-a catchy hook, a turn of phrase, or a compelling riff-in their songs to help distinguish each verse and chorus. He encourages aspiring songwriters to listen to a lot of music and develop their own style by what he called "subtractive synthesis"-discovering what one does want to do by first identifying those clichés or tired licks that one doesn't want to do.

Mayer believes that his own successes are partly the result of dedication to the song, and partly to good fortune. He encouraged students to focus on writing music that they like, and said that much of his success has come because his tastes are well-calibrated to a wide spectrum of tastes. He doesn't write specifically for an audience, but feels that his musical choices-very round, complete, and colorful melodies-resonate with a lot of people.

"As long as you're writing songs that you really like, then you shouldn't have to worry because the rest is in the stars, in terms of who else likes it too," Mayer said. "That's what makes people sell a gold record, and some people play in Cambridge for 40 people. But it's no less's just really a matter of who's lining up with what you're putting out."

"If you play because you love it, it'll just happen. You build your universe one song at a time."

Susan Gedutis Lindsay is the senior writer/editor for Berklee Media and author of See You At the Hall: Boston's Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance (Northeastern University Press).

Grand Stand

MusicDish Network Promotes 60's Love Child Astrella-Celeste

MusicDish, an Internet music magazine publisher and artist marketing/development firm, is proud to announce the addition of Pop/Jazz singer Astrella Celeste to the MusicDish Network roster. Combining a variety of online viral marketing strategies, the MusicDish Network will be coordinating a broad campaign in support of her debut album "Blue Star" (the Spanish translation of Astrella Celeste).


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Formed in December 2005, J-Music Distribution representatives brought their business vision to "MIDEM, The World Music Market's 40th Edition" conference in Cannes, France.


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