Flying Into the Radar

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"My life in the last two years has been a series of trading fantasies for the reality," says singer-songwriter John Mayer.

Sitting on a sofa in his publicist's office at Columbia Records' headquarters in Santa Monica, the lanky Atlanta resident doesn't have to go to great lengths to give examples. His major-label debut album, "Room for Squares," is steadily growing in sales, reaching nearly 250,000 with very little radio play since its release last year.

His touring success has grown even more quickly, with sellouts of theaters in the 1,500-capacity range routine in the Southeast, where he established himself as a solo performer on the college-town circuit in the last few years. Even in L.A., he's grown from two small club dates in October to sold-out nights at the West Hollywood House of Blues on Wednesday and next Thursday.

Among his fans is no less than Elton John, who was his host at dinner recently and heaped praise and admiration on the young musician in a lengthy conversation between the two that was published recently in Interview magazine.

Oh, and Mayer, 24, has just learned that he and his band have been invited to a Hollywood party with an adult entertainment company as host.

"Sometimes the reality is more fantasy than the fantasy was," he says with a sly grin. "Which is great."

Confident without being cocky, Mayer comes off as someone who believes he's destined for big things but still has a boyish, gee-whiz joy and appreciation for the trappings. The gesture from John, he says, was beyond anything he could have hoped for.

"Here's someone who has the master bedroom of the pop music house," Mayer says. "When he sticks his neck out and says, 'Welcome,' that's big."

But if life in the music world is revealing itself as more than he'd expected, the Connecticut-raised Mayer is doing the same about his own talents. The album, released first on Chicago's Aware Records and then through a deal the company has with Columbia Records (the same path taken by Train and Five for Fighting), presents Mayer as a fairly straightforward singer-songwriter. His low-key style, subtly sophisticated musical structures and lyrics both observational and romantic--his "Your Body Is a Wonderland" seems destined to accompany countless awkward dorm seductions--pegged him as a youthful version of Dave Matthews or David Gray.

Those who saw him live in the solo performances that won him the record deal in the first place knew him as an engaging, confident presence with an almost Sting-like appeal. The biggest surprise to fans, though, came about six months ago when he first started playing live with a full band.

Strapping on an electric guitar and stepping to the front of the stage mid-show, he'd unleash flurries of notes drawn straight from the Stevie Ray Vaughan school of guitar heroics.

"My brother says, 'John, why don't you jam out more?'" says Mayer, surmising that he's reluctant to show off too much after being surrounded by flash-over-substance noodlers in a year he spent at Boston's Berklee School of Music. "I can. And the next record will have more guitar playing. But I like that I haven't shown people my variables."

But he also knows that he's benefited thus far from largely flying under the pop culture radar.

"I'm glad at the time when I signed it came down to just making music. I took the low-expectations route. I'm glad I didn't have a deal with so much money that every move is scrutinized. With Aware, I had just enough money to pay off my debt. I was in the studio working on the album the second day after signing the deal."

It probably won't be that way with his next album. Expectations have risen dramatically, and from now on he won't be flying under the radar.

But he hopes to be able to go about his next career move the same way he has up to this point.

"So many things in my life appear to be noble, but in reality they're circumstantial," he says. "What I do know is I made a record that wasn't watched by a lot of people, and it seems to have turned out fine.

"I can hold it up and say, 'Look what happens when I make records this way.'" Mayer also holds up examples of other artists he feels have succeeded doing things their way. Among his current obsessions, he cites late English folk singer Nick Drake and current artists Rufus Wainwright and D'Angelo, as well as new jazz-pop sensation Norah Jones, whom he picked as the opening act for his upcoming shows.

"I think it comes down to vision, really," he says. "Bands like U2, artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan have unflagging vision--not the Madonna I-want-to-rule-the-world kind of thing, but vision of the next song. If you're not constantly holding up that template of what you want to do, you won't move forward."

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John Mayer, with Norah Jones, Wednesday and next Thursday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. Sold out. (323) 848-5100.

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