John Mayer: My Atlantic crossing

John Mayer is a Grammy-winning superstar in America so why is he unknown over here? David Sinclair finds out
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The Independent Culture

He is the Roger Federer of rock 'n' roll. In much the same way that the greatest tennis player of the modern era is able to glide around the court, making any shot work from any position without apparently breaking sweat, so John Mayer plays and sings the most incredible sequences with an almost supernatural ease. He's even got a similar haircut.

The thought occurs to me as Mayer strikes up a song called "Belief" at the start of his set at the Forum, in north London. First he sets up this complicated, yet graceful riff which runs through the verse. A lot of talented guitarists would struggle to get it sounding right, but he just knocks it out, as casually as you please. Then he starts singing the melody, a beautiful, airy theme which cuts right across the rhythmic pattern of the riff. Again he makes it look and sound easy.

Yet he is performing so far within his capacity that he now starts absent-mindedly pumping his leg on a different beat again. Without looking remotely flashy, this sequence alone reveals him as one of the most rounded musicians currently on the campaign trail.

But there is a catch. In America, Mayer is a superstar. His albums sell in the multi-millions and he is revered as a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter of supreme talent and sensitivity. But in Europe, three studio albums into his career, he is still struggling to make a mark. Why is this?

"I was working out in the gym this morning," Mayer tells me, sitting in a central London hotel room, "and I saw a whole block of All Saints videos. I'm sure you could ask them or Robbie Williams the same thing about why they are not successful in America. The American singer-songwriter is to Europe the way Europe's dance music is to America. I don't know why. There's a certain lack of gimmickry to what I do that makes people in England go: 'Where's the thing?' I'm not an icon. Not even in America. I'm a good music provider, and I'm fine with that. I'm a quality music manufacturer."

Could it be that Mayer makes it all seem too easy and straightforward? His new album, Continuum, is a sensationally classy piece of work - soulful tunes, elegant, blues-tinged guitar playing, sophisticated modern rock music of the highest order. But some British commentators have criticised it for being too "thoughtful" and "studious".

Athletically built and 6ft 4in tall, Mayer has a patrician bearing. At 29, he's like a younger version of Sting, insofar as he doesn't try too hard to conceal his own effortless superiority. His parents were teachers and he grew up the middle of three brothers in a family where a lot of lively debate took place over the dinner table. "Trying to impress my mother with words was one of my favourite pursuits. That's irreplaceable in terms of an education," he says.

But at school in his home town of Fairfield, Connecticut, Mayer was a consistent under-achiever. "I was always last in class, hopeless at sport, always the kid who lost his permission slip to go on the school trip. Then I picked up the guitar and it was a whole different life for me."

Mayer came to music through the blues-rock playing of the late Texan guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. So besotted was Mayer that as soon as he was 18 he went out and got the initials SRV tattooed on his arm. Through Vaughan, Mayer discovered Jimi Hendrix, whom he has since come to regard as the ultimate guitar hero. "Who I am as a guitarist is defined by my failure to become Jimi Hendrix," he wrote in an appreciation of the guitarist which was published in Rolling Stone magazine. What did he mean by that?

"Most guitar players strive to incorporate some, if not all, that Hendrix was doing," he tells me. "And we beat ourselves up for not being able to do it. But we're all still making music. We've become successful at whatever we're doing, but in our minds we've failed something. If I could've sounded completely like Jimi Hendrix - even at the expense of my career, of being called a copycat - I probably would."

Mayer makes a good stab at sounding like Hendrix both on Continuum where he tackles "Bold As Love", andon last year's live John Mayer Trio album, Try, where he pulls off a no-overdubs version of "Wait Until Tomorrow". However, Mayer's obsession with the guitar and guitar heroes might come as a surprise to anyone who was only familiar with his first two albums - Room For Squares, (2001) and Heavier Things (2003) - where he presents himself as an acoustic, soft-rock singer-songwriter more in the style of Jack Johnson than Jeff Beck. What accounted for the detour?

"You can't sell out on your first record," Mayer says, a trifle defensively. "It's impossible. I see it as a beginning. The trouble was that I'd moved down to Atlanta after dropping out of Berklee [College of Music in Boston] and I didn't have a band and I had to eat and sleep somewhere. So I started playing acoustic. It was just about putting a record out and getting a deal and writing tunes. If I'd started doing the blues-rock thing I would not have got to put out four albums on Columbia."

Mayer's theory is supported by the fact that while his first two albums both sold millions, the much superior Try, which features him accompanied by Pino Palladino (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), proved less successful. "Columbia weren't into it," Mayer says. "I took great offence. But it was interesting. Like any relationship, you learn about what the people you're dealing with are really all about when times are tough."

Continuum combines the melodic charm of the first album with something of the guitar chops of the live album, so theoretically everyone should be happy. Mayer is certainly pleased with himself.

"I started out as a guitar player," he says. "My singing and songwriting are all meant to support my guitar playing. That's why I love Continuum so much, because it's in equilibrium."

Continuum is released on Columbia