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John Mayer sings the blues to make better pop

Singer blends old-time music he loves with new material on 'Continuum'
/ Source: The Associated Press

It took a year of playing rootsy blues for John Mayer to become a better pop artist.

The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter — best known for sensitive, soothing odes like "Daughters" and "Your Body Is a Wonderland" — abandoned his acoustic pop roots for the raw, gritty sound of classic blues and R&B last year as he searched for a more authentic musical vibe.

Forming the John Mayer Trio, he released the live disc "Try!" and went out on the road with his new band — more apt to perform the songs of Ray Charles than his own. He also put the focus more on his searing guitar play than his voice.

But Mayer has returned to the pop world with his new release, "Continuum" — finding a way to blend the authenticity of the old-time music he loves with his new material.

In a recent phone interview with The Associated Press, the 28-year-old talked about his new music — but also about his other passions, which include standup comedy, sneakers (and, apparently, NOT Jessica Simpson).

AP: The lyrics to the first single, "Waiting On The World To Change," speaks to political and social issues — a first for you. Were you hesitant to do that in the past?

Mayer: I think so, for two reasons. No. 1, politics weren't that much a part of lifestyle when I first started writing music. You cannot avoid war in life, you cannot avoid the fear of terrorism, you cannot avoid those things now, they are a part of everyday demeanor. So in that sense it's become more of an acceptable thing to comment on because it's just so much of a white elephant. Also, I think as a writer you have to gain trust ... You're not going to just start a fire just for effect. I have chosen my words on this record incredibly carefully. There's a song on this record called "Belief" — it took two years to choose my words correctly. I've never finessed the lyric in a song more.

AP: But in interviews, you speak candidly. Why are you so careful with your songs?

Mayer: Well, the song is where it counts for me. When you do an interview with me, you're talking to a cheap imitation of the person that I really am. There's no magic in my words, it's just me talking. Where it matters is the magic of making music, you have that unbelievable effect, you are really almost doing open heart surgery on people through a stereo system. That's really delicate stuff. Where a song goes in someone's heart is a completely different destination than a quote from a magazine goes. And I am respectively careful and careless in that regard. If I had two years to think of this interview answer, I would have the amazing answers of all time.

AP: Now, you've also been getting some attention for your comedy act.

Mayer: I just feel like that's my hobby. I never put my name on a marquee. I just slip in the middle of the night to try ideas out as a writer, and I defend that to the bone.

AP: Is acting the next step?

Mayer: No. Here's the thing. No matter what I do, I'm going to earn it. If I'm ever going to be an actor, I will have done four years of standup, I will have done some kind of preparation so I'm not stealing a job from another actor. That's just the way it is. I will never ever ever do enough on guitar to be able to put it down and say, "What's going on in acting?" If you told me I was going to live to 240, I would take 10 years off and try and act. I don't have that kind of time, so I'd much rather stick to playing guitar.

AP: Are comedy audiences more receptive because you are John Mayer?

Mayer: No, they're less receptive. They're saying to themselves, "Why is this guy onstage? What else do you need, rich young singing heartthrob? What do you want? I left the house so I didn't have to hear my roommate blast your music. The last thing I want to hear is you tell me jokes." So, as a writer, how do you disarm that? ... There's always a way to disarm somebody with words.

AP: On your blog, you talk about your sneaker fetish.

Mayer: I'm actually into sneakers on a design level. I've got a big design thing going on in my life right now ... I love designing stuff. I mean, my biggest dream, forget Grammys, I want to be able to design an Air Max.

AP: As a celebrity, you could probably get a shot.

Mayer: But that's not right! It's not cool.

AP: Finally, what's your reaction to the media swirl about you and Jessica Simpson? After a lot of media stories, she finally said you two were not dating.

Mayer: I wish I could answer for you, but I have to pass on that. I certainly understand the question — I've had my eyes opened as well — but I couldn't answer for you.