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Mary Spender on how she ended up writing a John Mayer song (sort of)

John Mayer (left) and Mary Spender
(Image credit: Joseph Okpako/WireImage; Future/Olly Curtis)

Mary Spender is unusual among YouTube guitarists because she’s best known for her original music. 

In March, John Mayer teased the release of his single, Last Train Home, with a TikTok clip of the video. A few days later, Spender had written, recorded and released a video of her vision of how the full track might sound, beating Mayer to the punch. 

Luckily, Mayer took it well, promoting Spender's video on his Instagram and making a cameo in the follow-up. She told us how it happened...  

How did you get the idea to write and release John’s single before him?  

“I saw social media going wild and I just got a butterfly of inspiration. I just went ahead and did it. I didn’t expect him to see it, let alone what happened next. It was a time-sensitive situation because I thought the single was going to be released that Friday, and it was Tuesday when I started recording the song and filming the process. 

“Sometimes I get that moment of inspiration, and I was like, ‘Oh god this is such a good idea. Someone else obviously thought of it already, surely?’ Luckily no one had. I felt like I found my niche on a platform like YouTube, where it’s so difficult because basically everything has been done already. This was actually an original concept.“  

Were you more inspired because of that deadline? 

“Most definitely. The only reason I make anything is because I give myself deadlines. That’s the beauty of YouTube. To be able to crack the platform you have to be consistent, so you have to give yourself deadlines. Then the audience kind of helps you. They might get a little bit disappointed if you don’t release the video every week. 

“It definitely helps you figure out exactly how to get things done, and then it also helps you avoid perfectionism. Once you start realising that you need to get something out of your brain, you then make space to move on. You’ll probably have learned a lot from that process anyway so you’ll be able to move quicker and possibly get a bit closer to where you want to be.“

Be honest: which version of Last Train Home do you prefer? 

“That’s a difficult question! I’m still just glad that he had a sense of humour about it. I’m not even sure how I would feel if someone wrote my song before I did and released it online just from like a few snippets, but now I think it will be something I encourage from my audience. 

“I think they’re both really cool songs but once I heard his version I was like, ‘Oh no, he knows how to write a song. I’ve still got a lot to learn.’ I’m really proud of my version, but he’s John Mayer. He wins.“

What did he say to you about your version? 

“I’ve been very private on purpose about the conversation behind the scenes, because it’s so special to be able to talk and have a conversation with someone you’ve admired for 14 years. All I can say is he spoke to me like a peer, and that was very generous of him. 

“He contributed a voice note to the second video as a way of completing the story. Again, he didn’t need to do that. He’s a smart guy because he understands the power of YouTube, TikTok, all those things. He’s very open-minded when it comes to someone like me where I’m not just a singer-songwriter, I’ve also got to play this other game. 

“Having some acceptance and understanding from someone who’s been much more in the traditional music industry but who understands how the game’s being played now, it’s really eye-opening and a good affirmation. Like, ‘Okay, I’m on the right path for me.’"

John could show off a lot more than he does but instead he just creates tasteful music

What did you use for amp sounds?

“I was using a Victory Duchess, and then I was using the [Universal Audio] OX Box [load box/cab sim]. I think I was using the Sultans of Clean preset. I am a huge fan of just being able to get things down as quickly as possible, so that being set up just straight into my UAD Apollo X4 means I can capture electric guitar sounds swiftly and get the sound out of my brain.“

John has massive cross-genre appeal. Why do you think that is? 

“I think he’s used songwriting to transcend as a guitar player. He’s not just a guitar player. He’s an exquisite singer-songwriter, amazing lyricist, and the fact that he can do what he does on the guitar but he has some restraint. He could show off a lot more than he does but instead he just creates tasteful music.  

“He’ll drift from genre to genre – blues, country, pop, and now he’s headed into 80s yacht rock. When a musician is so well-versed and can apply that to songwriting the way he does, I don’t know how you could not like his music because there’s something for everyone."

I like to think I sound like me now, but he definitely inspired me. Battle Studies is one of my favourite records

What John Mayer influences do you hear in your own songwriting and playing? 

“I like to think I sound like me now, but he definitely inspired me. Battle Studies is one of my favourite records. Just the timing of when it came out and where I was with my own music, it suddenly clicked everything into place. I was like, ‘That’s the kind of storyteller, singer-songwriter I want to be.’ 

“I’ve been inspired by other artists like Andy McKee, Joni Mitchell, Ariel Posen, Joey Landreth and blending all of them. It’s not like I’ve just been inspired by John Mayer. What I love about all those artists is it’s all about the story, and guitar is just the tool to get it out of your system. I think that’s where I drift to: confessional lyrics and sharing that we all have a lot of feelings.“