As is true with many of the new breed of male singer-songwriters occupying the same cultural blip, there's plenty to dislike about Atlanta-based musician John Mayer: his goody-goody sincerity, his polished presentation, his loosely handsome good looks. Like his labelmate Pete Yorn, he reminds you of one of those guys in high school that the bullies never got around to beating up -- an oily charmer who somehow tricked everyone into believing he was a sensitive soul just looking for a place to hang his hat.
But give even a cursory listen to Mayer's 2002 debut, Room for Squares, and you'll find that that's exactly what he is. It's a good time for guys like this: Everybody's looking for a little reassurance that things are gonna be OK. Room for Squares packs more hugs than a Dave Matthews video, with Mayer wondering aloud (in a voice not unlike Matthews' own) about the little insecurities that riddle his days, while the burnished, surprisingly sophisticated pop-rock supporting him answers all his questions. It's regular-guy music that's so well conceived, it makes David Gray look forced and Ryan Adams look like a bar-hopping fake. During a phone interview, Mayer just confirms the sense of good-natured inevitability his record oozes.
Asked how he got into music, he replies, "I was always around music, you know? Growing up in Connecticut, there was a piano in the house from the time I was born, and I just gravitated toward it. I started banging out notes and realized that the more you go to the right, the higher the notes go, and the more you go to the left, the lower the notes go. And then, in fourth grade, you pick up the violin -- then drop that in fifth grade for the brass. And then, when I was 13, I started playing guitar, and I haven't dropped it yet. I think that's proof positive that I should be at this, if I started when I was 13 and I'm still playing. You know?"
Hard to argue with that, especially since it seems like something those high school bullies would've done. Besides, from Mayer's perspective, he's had enough of that already: "'Welcome to the real world,' she said to me/Condescendingly," he sings on "No Such Thing," which opens Room for Squares in a blur of quickly strummed acoustic guitars and agile drums. "Well, I never lived the dreams of the prom kings and the drama queens/I'd like to think the best of me is still hiding up my sleeve."
The Chicago-based indie Aware Records agreed -- and signed Mayer in the fall of 2000, the latest in the label's long line of vaguely rootsy artists it would break on college campuses, via one of the industry's most respected grass-roots promotional infrastructures. Aware had struck gold many times before: Hootie & the Blowfish, Train, Matchbox 20, Dovetail Joint, the Verve Pipe, and Better Than Ezra all started with the company and its influential series of compilation CDs. All soon left for greener pastures -- a trend that Aware spiked in 1997, when it inked a unique distribution deal with Columbia that allowed bands to record for both labels simultaneously while enjoying the strengths of each. When Aware released Room for Squares in June 2001 and interest around Mayer began to pick up, Columbia exercised its end of the deal and repackaged the record for release a few months later.
Of course, this would be one of those reasons Mayer should be easy to dislike: Hootie? Train? Better Than Ezra? Not exactly top-shelf groups to rub elbows with. Still, Mayer easily stands out from the pack, thanks in part to the legitimate skills he picked up from a short stint at Boston's Berklee School of Music and in part to the fact that he doesn't look like the Train dude. Room for Squares isn't adventurous, but it is modest, well crafted, and genuine -- which, okay, yes, probably is a nice way of describing Cracked Rear View. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hit a certain spot.
"The story's actually a lot more synthetic than you'd think," Mayer says of his relationship with the label. "I met a great lawyer who was willing to promote me. He sent out my records to labels, and Aware was one of his first ideas. He knew my music well enough to know it was gonna take a smaller label to do it, and he was right. Aware was the label."
Today he doesn't mind Columbia's extra heft behind the project, as it's landed him a platinum record, slowly but surely.
"I think in some ways Dave Matthews and David Gray -- those were the right people to look up to, in how they were discovered by people," he says. "It's hard to remember now that Dave Matthews was never really forced on anyone; he didn't have a huge radio or video presence. Everyone made a personal choice to get into his stuff, and everyone did it at the same time. The best thing that could happen for me is for two people to hand each other my CD at the same time."
Though probably not what the Sony suits had in mind, it's that kind of word of mouth that has worked to distinguish Mayer's talents from the dozens of guitar-strumming fellows wearing their hearts on their sleeves -- "Pete and Ryan and me, we're all different," he says of his new buddies. "What connects us is that it's refreshing."
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