Today I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in on a clinic at Berklee. Clinics give students the opportunity to sit before some world renown musicians and hear them talk about their craft and their experiences and do some Q&A. If they are lucky even get a short performance. So not being a musician (yet) and not having been to a clinic I didn't really know what to expect. What I got was a year's worth of advice and an awesome show.
So at this point I'll divulge that the artist giving the clinic was John Mayer a former Berklee student (are you an alum after only 2 semesters?). There is this perception that he is an arrogant prick, based on media coverage and what not, but I am happy to report that he is anything but. The two and a half hours that he spent with us, the Berklee community, were deep, well thought out, well received, and anything but arrogant. I had even heard from people at Berklee that he had somewhat turned his back on the college and was almost ashamed of his affiliation, but today he spoke highly and we even discovered it was he who reached out to come for the week (that's right he's been sitting in on classes and jamming with students all week.)
I walked out of the clinic not only inspired, but in many ways happier than I have been in a while. To realize that you can be as big (read rich and famous, which he confirmed for all of us) as John Mayer and still be real, still be grounded, and still have a real sense of who you are and where you came from.
So let me share a little about what I took away from John today.
Define expectation. If you ever expect to be satisfied in life, to feel like you reach your goals, you have to define your goal. You can go out and sell 2 million records and not feel accomplished if you never set the bar. But if you set the bar at 5000 copies sold and you sell 5000 then you can take yourself out to dinner because its real and you did what you wanted to and now you can set more goals. I guess you hear that over and over that you have to set goals. Realistic goals and long and short term goals. But you never really see the application of it. John Mayer is someone who has set clear goals and accomplished them. He wasn't a factory produced star, he as he says wasn't rich because he is famous, he earned both because he worked hard, set goals, and is talented.
Information feeds inspiration. You have to know the basics and the facts before you can take it and create something. If you don’t know the basics to songwriting you can’t build off it. Inspiration doesn’t exist in the ether. The ether isn’t real, it isn't something you can grasp. The same thing goes about the internet. John touched on how he used to read blogs about himself and even write a blog, but he quickly came to a new conclusion. If it happened on the internet, it didn’t happen. You can’t GO somewhere on the internet, your ass is in a chair. If you want to go somewhere you have to get up and go.
Feel it. Along the lines of knowing the information, you have to feel the inspiration and know both your ceiling/boundaries and understand it. He is able to make a connection because he doesn't write songs for other people. He puts himself in other peoples shoes and writes the song for himself. I think that is what makes him relate able and genuine. He talked a little bit about how you do have to make some sacrifices to be successful. You have to learn to compromise on things that can be compromised and hold strong on others. His song Stop This Train was an example on something he wouldn't compromise because every aspect of that craft was essential to the meaning and vision of that song. As opposed to say another song that may be able to stand on its own for a radio edit if you take out the second verse. From a life standpoint I think this is extremely important to realize that you do have to make sacrifices and compromise on things to move forward and to really succeed. If you are unwilling to do so you are closing the door on a million opportunities, because you were afraid of give up a little part of yourself. But be true.
Solitary refinement. John joked a little about how he used to at 23 be able to dumb himself down to impress or hang with younger girls. He would use his songs to get what he wanted. But he had reached a time in his life where he couldn't justify pretending to be immature than he was. He talked about a time in your life, when your insides come screaming out and say hey, I’m down here. This idea of self discovery. The idea that we all will eventually grow up. We spend a month or two away from mom and dad and our friends and we meet new people and really enjoy freshmen year. But then the reality sets in and you wake up one day and are like WHERE AM I? WHAT AM I DOING? When he wrote Stop This Train, he had gotten diagnosed with double kidney stones and was medicated and almost bed-ridden. It was a time when solitary confinement allowed him to dig deep and tap into that inner self. When this happens don't run home. Go for a walk. Go explore Boston and leave the axis of evil (Mass Ave and Boylston the main part of campus). It isn't solitary confiment, it's more solitary refinement.
I think this was the part that hit home the most. I thought I had done that discovery part freshmen year, but when I got to Australia, way farther from home and friends than I had ever been that voice inside totally took over. John talked about how its a scary and sometimes dark voice/feeling. In Australia it totally was a really dark part of my life. A lot of self-discovery and inner thoughts questioning what I had done to that point. What I was going to be doing the next part of my life and really asking who I was? I wrote a lot here about some of it, but some of it was more private and more important for me to know and not necessarily share with everyone. I still keep it and look back (and think this will be a great song someday) and think about how important that time was. I believe this is why John is so grounded and so real and personal, because he has gone through this. He was able to pull himself away and really discover himself, the true self, not the media portrayed self. If you look at some of these stars who came of age in the spotlight their image of self is that image that is portrayed because that is all they know. They are never alone to really see the real them. Or by the time they are alone after failed marriages or dipping careers it's darker and scarier than if they had experienced it normally.
The fact that John Mayer stayed with friends, not at the Four Seasons. The fact that he doesn't have an assistant or security or an entourage allows him to stay connected to reality. He mentioned Chris Rock and how he is so successful because even though he may have a house outside the city in a gated community, he stills goes into the village once a week, shows up at the Comedy Cellar and tries out his new material. He reads it from a paper or from his blackberry and he nails some and he bombs some. But it's an experience he can't get being holed up away from everyone.
Perhaps that's why John's relationships with these uber celebrities don't work. He doesn't like the spotlight. He doesn't like having to travel in Black SUV's and to fight away the constant surveillance. He understands the balance between personal and private and although he may have had a connection with Jennifer or Jessica, he couldn't maintain his identity by being with them. He had to stay true to himself.
I have a new respect for John Mayer and it gives hope that there are musicians in it for the music. It also inspires me to set goals for myself and to get out there and do it. Because "if you start something today, in two weeks you will be two weeks better at it."