Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Mayer Hawthorne: Decadent Soul

Mayer Hawthorne
Mayer Hawthorne Mayer Hawthorne Mayer Hawthorne Mayer Hawthorne

Veteran-soul-influenced US singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist/DJ Mayer Hawthorne returns this month with his long-awaited third solo album - the intriguingly-titled “Where Does This Door Go” - alongside the lurching funk groove and sweet harmonies of its falsetto-enhanced offshoot single “Her Favourite Song”.

Indeed, boasting input from such “name” producers as Jack Splash (Alicia Keys/Cee-Lo Green), Oak & Pop (Nicki Minaj/Chris Brown) and the currently-ubiquitous Pharrell Williams (Robin Thicke/Daft Punk), “Where Does This Door Go” finds Hawthorne blending his signature classic soul vibe with wider influences ranging from Seventies jazz/rock legends Steely Dan and funk/soul icons The Isley Brothers through to doo-wop and pop balladry, in addition to the modern-day flavours of hip hop and even dubstep. All of which results in an eclectic 14-track set, whose moods vary from the cool swagger of “Back Seat Lover” and springy sex-funk of “Robot Love” to the haunting string-laden balladry of the title-track and murky, bass-pumping hip hop atmospherics of the party-themed “Crime” featuring Compton-rapper-of-the-moment Kendrick Lamar.

Born Andrew Mayer Cohen on February 2, 1979 in Ann Arbor, Michigan to musically-oriented parents, Mayer began his career on metro-Detroit’s club scene as a hip hop DJ under the name “Haircut”. Following which he would in 2006 move to Los Angeles, California where he would eventually sign to eclectic hip hop head Peanut Butter Wolf’s revered indie-label Stones Throw (also home to Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson plus The Motor City’s late hip hop producer extraordinaire J Dilla).

Persuaded by the aforementioned Wolf to forgo his hip hop career to become a soul singer and in turn changing his stage-name to “Mayer Hawthorne” (a combination of his real middle-name with the street he grew up on in Michigan, Hawthorne Road), Mayer - despite no previous vocal-training - would in 2009 release through Stones Throw his self-written-and-produced debut album “A Strange Arrangement”. Whose throwback classic soul feel (taking in influences from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Barry White and legendary Sixties-Motown production/songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland) would ultimately attract sufficient attention to lead to a major-deal with his current label-home of Universal Republic. Who in 2011 would go on to release Mayer’s critically-acclaimed US R&B Top Ten sophomore set “How Do You Do”, whose predominantly-Seventies-soul vibe would prestigiously garner public praise from such contemporary musical icons as Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, John Mayer and Snoop Dogg.

… Which conveniently brings us back to today. As an articulate and blue-leather-biker-jacketed Mr. Hawthorne relaxes alongside “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis over early-evening drinks in trendy East London boutique hotel The Malmaison to discuss his aforementioned new third LP plus his evolution from underground hip hop DJ to internationally-acclaimed retro-influenced soul man.

The thinking behind titling his new, third album “Where Does This Door Go”

“As a title “Where Does This Door Go” basically represents a journey into the UNKNOWN. You know, it’s about going through a door where you have no idea what’s on the other SIDE. Which for me is really what this album WAS and what it still IS - because it’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done BEFORE! You know, I didn’t know what it would end up SOUNDING like, I didn’t know if anybody’d LIKE it... I just had no idea what to EXPECT - and to be honest, I STILL don’t really know what’s through that door!”

How Mayer breaks down the record in general

“This album is mostly a coming-of-age tale that’s made up almost entirely of stories from my youth. You know, it’s about growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and being a wild, dumb kid and really finding my way, finding my path… Which is why everything is from personal experience and all the characters I’m singing about in songs like “Wine Glass Woman” and “Allie Jones” are REAL. I mean, it was actually Pharrell Williams I think that really got me focused on talking about just pure, real-life shit - mainly because we bonded so much over the tremendous appreciation we both have for (legendary Seventies US jazz-rockers) Steely Dan and the way Donald Fagen’s storytelling is just so incredibly visual. You know, for this record I really did try to focus on just telling the most vivid and detailed story POSSIBLE. Which is why I thought a lot about not just Donald Fagen and Steely Dan, but also the work of dudes like Billy Joel and even rappers like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay-Z, Nas - mainly because all those people are so good at really bringing you into their world and making you feel like you’re actually THERE.”

His early musical influences growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan

“Obviously I grew up in a very musical family. Like my mom does musical theatre, while my dad - who taught me to play when I was really young - still to this day plays in a BAND. Which meant I was really, really lucky to get a very diverse musical education. Like with us being in the Detroit area, not only was Motown - which my parents listened to a lot - all around, but for my generation there was also Detroit techno, a lotta Detroit hip hop like Slum Village and J. Dilla and Eminem... Plus we also got a lot of rock-&-roll and pop and FOLK music! Like Iggy Pop went to my High School; Bob Seger is from Ann Arbor; (hard-rock singer/songwriter) Andrew W.K. was my next-door-neighbour growing up... So yeah, I did come up around a very diverse local music SCENE. Plus with Michigan being sort of right in-the-middle of the country, I also feel we get all the best from all AROUND. You know, East Coast, West Coast, Down South - we get it ALL!”

How, after moving to LA in 2006, Mayer morphed from local Michigan hip hop DJ “Haircut” to internationally-acclaimed vintage soul singer/songwriter “Mayer Hawthorne”

“Well, ever since High School I’d been a hip hop DJ. So when I moved to LA that was what I really wanted to DO. You know, I didn’t move out there to be a SOUL singer. I mean, one reason I was so excited to meet Peanut Butter Wolf - who runs Stones Throw Records - was because one of my heroes, J. Dilla, had done exactly the same THING - i.e., moved from Detroit to LA and signed to STONES Throw. But then, when I played Peanut Butter Wolf some of my hip hop shit that I’d been working on, he didn’t like ANY of it! But what he DID like was the soul demos I’d done in my bedroom that I’d really just made so I could sample myself ROYALTY-free! You know, because I was a broke-and-struggling DJ, to avoid paying for samples I’d started basically doing my own SOUL tracks!... So yeah, he was like ‘Why don’t you record some more of those SOUL songs for me and I’ll put them out on my LABEL?’... So - even though up till then I’d only really sung in the shower and had no idea what I was doing singing-wise - I DID! And while I obviously do feel I know a lot more now than I did then, to get from that point to where I am today has basically just been one long LEARNING-process for me! Because singing soul was just something I never thought I’d ever DO!”

The album “Where Does This Door Go” and single “Her Favourite Song” are both released July 15 through Universal Republic Records

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