July 17, 2018 04:35 PM

If you’d released an entire album of John Mayer music — as Lindsay Ell recently did — surely there’s one thing you’d want to know more than anything else: What does John Mayer think of it?

Ell, who’s known for her guitar skills and whose single “Criminal” is now climbing the charts, had met Mayer only once before she released The Continuum Project — her interpretation of his critically acclaimed 2006 album— and that was as a fan at a meet-and-greet event. When the album debuted on May 25, she didn’t hear a peep from the 40-year-old artist, who’s just wrapped his summer tour with Dead & Company.

But just days after the release, fate stepped in while Ell was dining with a friend at a West Hollywood steakhouse.

Lindsay Ell
Manny Carabel/WireImage

The friend did a double take, turned to Ell and said, “John Mayer is sitting at a table over there.”

“I said, ‘Stop joking, stop playing with my emotions,’” Ell, 29, recalls to PEOPLE.

Then Ell looked over and, sure enough, she saw her guitar hero for herself.

“Out of all of the restaurants in Los Angeles,” Ell says, “John Mayer happens to be three tables away from me.”

Conscious of her manners, Ell noticed Mayer hadn’t yet ordered — “I hate interrupting people during dinner” — and she went over to introduce herself.

“I was just like, ‘Hey, John, I’m Lindsay, I recorded Continuum,” Ell says.

Mayer instantly knew who she was and told her that he’d heard of the project, but that he hadn’t had a chance to listen to it yet. Ell recalls: “He said, ‘I can’t wait to hear it. I’m honored. Honestly, thank you.’”

In turn, Ell thanked Mayer for recording the album — and she offered a small disclaimer. “Please don’t judge my guitar tones,” she pleaded.

John Mayer
Gary Miller/Getty

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The imaginative album is actually the result of a “homework” assignment given to Ell about 18 months ago by Sugarland member Kristian Bush, who produced her 2017 album, The Project.

During their first meeting, which was supposed to last an hour but stretched to three, Bush asked Ell to name her favorite album, and she instantly identified Continuum. Bush then gave Ell her marching orders: Record the entire album yourself, playing all the instruments yourself, in the studio by yourself. And do it all in two weeks.

“At the time, I was like, I’ve got this, because I’m a studio nerd,” Ell says.

But the assignment turned out to be much more difficult than she’d imagined. “I could sing you the [Mayer] guitar solos, but when you need to take something and recreate it in your own voice and then listen to that coming back to you from the speakers, you just need to learn it at a deeper level,” she says.

Little by little, as Ell dissected the album for her interpretation, “the gears clicked in my head,” she says, and she began to discover what she wanted for her own music.

She had loved Continuum, she says, without knowing why, but “by recording it, I figured out why. And so it really gave me the template to record my own album, The Project. Even the single I have, ‘Criminal’ – I had recorded that song five times before I even met Kristian, and it wasn’t until doing The Continuum Project that I found the right formula to put it all together.”

Lindsay Ell's The Continuum Project
Joseph Llanes

The assignment, she adds, wasn’t originally intended for release, but after word about it got out, “fans just got so excited that they were like, ‘Lindsay, we want to hear The Continuum Project,’ so we decided to put it out. We were like, why not? Show them the journey.”

Ell is obviously proud of her effort — but don’t ask her to compare it with the original. “John’s version,” she says, “will always be the perfect version.”

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The success of “Criminal” and the release of Mayer project are just two reasons for Ell to celebrate her year so far. Sugarland tapped her for their tour, on dates from July 19 through Sept. 9.

A native of Canada, she’ll also open for Keith Urban at all seven of his dates in her home country, as well as in Rogers, Arkansas. Ell sings with Urban on “Horses,” a cut on his recently released album, Graffiti U.

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