Music Interview #004 - Mayer Hawthorne
Music Interview #004 - Mayer Hawthorne
Here's James Harry Ewert Jr. with the 411 on Mayer Hawthorne. Figured it would be good to put up right before his sold out show at Congress Theater on Friday April 2nd here in Chicago.
Just before I heard Mayer Hawthorne’s music I was listening to the The Four Tops thinking, “Why don’t they make ‘em like they used to?” I was listening to the golden oldies, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Manhattans, The Drifters, The Cadillacs; the whole lot of them and I couldn’t understand why so few contemporary bands weren’t even so much as imitating the sweet sounds that emanated from Detroit and LA in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
Surely there were still women out there who squeal like Diana or twist like James, but why was I not hearing them? I mean, I’m not a total music snob, but I do spend many late nights in front of the computer scouring the Interweb tubes for musical relics, and I’ve spent countless afternoons drifting away to records from better years. The only group that came to mind was JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, which holds more than just a candle to their predecessors, but even so, there had to be more music out there and with a farther reach then our native JC Brooks. [And there certainly is, just not in the places I was looking] Then it happened. We were listening to a familiar record in the Post Family studio, one I had peripherally enjoyed dozens of times before. It was down tempo sometimes, but up-beat and snappy at others and it had all these real funky licks inserted throughout. It was the singer though, that most caught my ear. I knew it wasn’t Smokey Robinson or Ben King, it was obviously someone different, someone who was channeling them somehow. The voice, a pitch-perfect falsetto, gracefully careened off the walls and resonated in that exact way I was yearning for. I asked aloud what, “old Motown singer” it was? Then someone introduced me to Mayer Hawthorne, but only as a contemporary artist and not the oldie I thought he was.
I still had no picture of who this man could be. Out of ignorance I visualized someone like JC Brooks, only because he was my most recent point of reference. I went another two or three weeks repping this new guy I just heard, Mayer Hawthorne, to everyone and their mothers (no joke, I actually told several moms and dads to check him out thinking they’d have an appreciation for his old-school sound). Then, one evening in front of my word machine, it dawned on me to find a video of this mythical Mayer Hawthorne. I couldn’t believe what was before my eyes. For a second I actually wondered if it was Rivers Cumo via the Buddy-Holly-video fame.
I felt like I had been tricked, like I had unknowingly bought into some clever musical marketing scheme millions were sure to fall prey to. I started asking around, and sure enough, the dorky bespectacled white kid I saw boppin’ around LA on sunny day eating hot dogs while kids skateboard around him in the Maybe So Maybe No video was in fact Mayer Hawthorne—the man who was playing them like they used to. I remember thinking while watching that video, ‘This guy’s going to make someone a lot of money soon.’
Hawthorne is definitely an optical illusion, seemingly a square-peg in a round hole. Yet, upon closer inspection, he’s clearly just a hip circle with a square blazer and a pair of fresh argyle socks to match. His musical story is definitely a compelling one. Raised in a musical family in Ann Arbor, MI, Andrew Mayer Cohen (his birth name), is the product of an amalgamation of musical influences that swirled around Motown in the ‘70s. Mayer is full of juxtapositions. While he studied computer science in college and shopped at J-Crew in high school, he hung with the hip-hop crowd and even played on a bill with Eminem before he hit it big. He’s just as apt to cue up Snoop Dog or Janet Jackson as he is Tool, Iron Maiden, or Barry White. In the 2000’s, while spending time in a rap collective called Athletic Mic League he began DJ-ing in Detroit and LA under the moniker DJ Haircut, a nickname he picked up in the local barbershop, and for years that was his thing—being a hip-hop DJ.
That all changed when a copy of the somewhat silly, somewhat serious side-project he had been working on landed in the hands of Peanut Butter Wolf (aka) Chris Manak, owner of the Northwest-based label Stone’s Throw Records. Even Manak had trouble believing it really was DJ Haircut laying down the tracks he was hearing. After a few evidentiary meetings, Mayer Hawthorne became real and appeared in the form of a beautiful red heart-shaped record, which required an expensive but fitting pressing method. The physical record itself can be seen in the music video for Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, where its vibrant red-magenta color nearly glows against the contrast of a black-and-white setting. The video for the song, a heart-felt ballad about a relationship that, as the title suggests, Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, follows a sharply dressed Hawthorne as he goes about town drifting from one beautiful woman to the next. The heart-shaped red record serves as a visual metaphor for Hawthorne’s heart as he happily hands it out to anyone willing to accept it.
It hasn’t even been two years since Strange Arrangement (Stone’s Throw Records) was released, but it’s already breaking onto the Billboard charts, and though it may be a sad realization, it’s only a matter of time before one of Hawthorne’s tracks finds itself in a commercial for the latest Prius or Audi.
Mayer Hawthorne was in a record store just outside of Philadelphia when I called him.
He told me he was wearing an argyle sweater that was most likely with a slick pair of slacks and thick-framed spectacles. Two nights earlier he had played at the Paradise in Boston, just the fourth show of a three-month world tour that will take him and his band The Country from coast to coast and through a handful of countries. He’ll be playing a sold-out show in Chicago at the Congress Theater April 2nd and will be hitting the festival circuit this summer and will surely be a pleasant surprise for many drugged-out dance-hippies.
It’s tough sometimes to interview musicians while they’re on the road. Publicists often set up several-hour long blocks of interviews and the artists punch through them one-by-one, usually getting asked the same questions dozens of times. It’s the interviewer’s job to break through that monotony and sometimes take the musician off guard, but that’s assuming there is a guard to begin with—and in Mayer’s case there wasn’t so much as a facade. Generally the interviews take place during the few moments of respite the musicians get during a grueling tour schedule, which makes it even harder to break through to what they’re really thinking about as they spit answers back at you. I was Mayer’s first interview of the day and his attitude was business-like. His voice was low and deep, a stark contrast to soulful falsetto he sings in. His cadence was punctuated with ‘you know,’ a nod to his Detroit roots. He sounded a little tired, and quite frankly, I would be too had I been through the whirlwind of the past two years like he has. His name, a product of porn-name game where you use your middle name and the name of the street you grew up on, is quickly becoming the mostly unlikely porn name to called “household”. Though it may be a stretch to say Mayer Hawthorne is single-handedly bringing Motown and Soul back to the forefront of music, he’s at least leading the charge. His blend of vintage rhythm and blues, Motown, and neo-soul-revival continues to turn influential heads. He’s worked with Snoop Dog, Ghostface Killa, and has taken the same stage as Smokey Robinson.
Even though Mayer gave me nearly 20-minutes of his time I didn’t get in many of my questions. I never found out who the last person he said “I love you,” to was, what he thinks about hippies, or why everyone doesn’t love Electric Light Orchestra as much as he and I do. I did, however, find out that Mayer is a cookie connoisseur, allergic to chocolate, and yes ladies (and gentlemen), he is single.
James H. Ewert Jr: How’s the tour going?
May Hawthorne: It’s a little grueling, but you know, it’s a blast. I’m having the time of my life. Each show on this tour is better than the previous one, so I got no complaints.
JHEJR: Who are you playing with right now?
MH: I’m on the road with my man DJ House Shoes and the lovely Nikki Jean, Ms. Nikki Jean and my band The County, of course.
JHEJR: Are you sick of answering the same questions about soul music and being white and from Detroit?
MH: I’m sick of being asked the same questions, but I’m not sick of answering questions. You grew up in Detroit; how does that influence your music? I get ‘em all.
JHEJR: Do you read your own press?
MH: I do periodically if there’s something interesting. I honestly try not to pay too much attention to it.
JHERJ: It’s been about two years since this whole Mayer Hawthorne thing took off, right?
MH: Not even, it’s just been over a year.
JHEJR: Has it been difficult to keep a level head during all of this?
MH: It’s not difficult for me. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve always been, you know, diggin’ for records, making music that I love and going around and performing it. I try to just stick with the program and with what’s been winning for me.
JHEJR: Are you still able to sit down and write and play music in the same way? Has your creative process changed at all because of your success?
MH: I still make all my music in my bedroom at home and I do it pretty much the same way that I always have. I think that’s why it’s been working… I live in Los Angeles now, yeah that’s different. I’m in West LA. I love it. It’s motivating. I wake up and it’s 80 degrees and sunny and warm and it just makes you want to get out and get something.
JHEJR: Do you have a really posh place out there?
MH: I actually just, as we were leaving for this tour, a couple days before leaving, I just moved into a new place. It’s nice to have a little more room for my records. I pay rent in LA, but I wouldn’t even say that I live there anymore.
JHEJR: Have you had any ‘ah ha’ moments during this whole whirlwind, a moment where you’re like is this really happening right now?
MH: I was informed about a month ago that I’m going to be sharing the stage with Smokey Robinson at South By Southwest this year, and at the time I was like, ‘oh word, that’s dope.’ I’ll be looking forward to that. Just a couple days ago I was going back through it in my head and was like ‘holy crap, I’m about to do a show with Smokey Robinson.’ My knees are gonna be knockin’ up there. I don’t get nervous for shows, but this is Smokey Robinson we’re talking about.
JHEJR: Does it get hard for you to find time to yourself while you’re out on the road? There’s always something to do, or someone to talk to or something to record, is that hard?
MH: It’s getting harder and harder for sure. It’s more and more difficult that’s why I cherish my times when I get to dig in the record stores like this. It’s kind of the only time I get to myself to just kind of do my own thing. I try to get back and see my family in Michigan as much as possible. That’s where I can get a little peace and quiet.
JHEJR: Are you getting many sampling requests for your songs?
MH: Yeah I get a lot of people chopping my stuff up. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I have been kind of surprised that the majority of the people approaching me for collaborations and what not are hip hop artists. That surprises me, but I guess it shouldn’t. It’s a lot of cats like Ghostface and Snoop Dog and I was just talking to Chuck from the Cool Kids the other day and I had no idea he was even think he was paying attention, but he told me my album was one of his favorites.
JHEJR: Do these people just call you up outta the blue? Are you like out at a record store one day and Snoop Dog calls and is like ‘What’s up, this is Snoop.’?
MH: That is actually generally how it happens. When I got the call from Snoop, I was eating breakfast in LA and my manager says ‘hey, hold on one second you gotta talk to somebody and it’s Snoop Dog.’ It’s always a surreal experience.
JHEJR: Are you writing music out there on the road? When can we hear something new?
MH: Well, I’ve got all kinds of new songs coming out soon. My cover of James Pants Thin Moon just came out. I got a track that I just did with a hip hop producer named Knots, that’s coming out soon. There’s a lot of new music that’s just kind of waiting to come out soon that I’ve been storing up. I’m always working constantly, I’m an animal in the studio. I’ve always got a new song to record and you’ll be hearing some new stuff.
JHEJR: Are you a perfectionist in the studio?
MH: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t take myself all that seriously as a person, but I take the music extremely seriously. I’m definitely a perfectionist in the studio and making sure that I’m doing it justice.
JHEJR: So is it a stressful process in the studio?
MH: Well, if you’re not having fun with it, what’s the point? As soon as this because a thing where it’s not fun for me anymore, you won’t be hearing from me. I’ll be out.
JHEJR: Isn’t that something that really gets lost sometimes making music and recording and doing interviews?
MH: I think that’s the number one killer of great music and great artists. When they lose their fun is when they tend to lose me.
JHEJR: What’s the biggest show you’ve played so far?
MH: So far, we just did the first show of this new tour and it was at Webster Hall in New York and it was over a thousand in the house and it was pretty big for me. As far as a Mayer Hawthorne headlining show goes, that was probably the biggest for me. We also sold out the Roxie Theater in LA and that was a big deal for me. Probably the most important for me was my first ever show in Detroit city, a couple months ago at the Magic Stick. All the shows have been great, but it’s just so important to me personally to have the city of Detroit behind me and to have them believing in what I’m doing.
JHEJR: Do you change your set much between shows?
MH: Yeah, my band is just so amazing. When Teddy Pendergrass passed, we were in Australia doing a couple shows out there and I said to the band, look we got to add Love TKO to the set—tonight! We just did it and it was great. That’s the kind of stuff that I love about playing with this band, they’re just so talented.
JHEJR: How did you meet your band?
MH: I grew up with them in Detroit. Most of them are friends of mine from school and I just could not have been more fortunate to have a crazy set of circumstances that I just happened to grow up with some of the greatest musicians in the world.
JHEJR: Have you had a lot of friends coming out of the woodwork?
MH: Oh yeah, everybody comes out when they see you on Jimmy Kimmel on TV. All of a sudden your cousins that you never saw in your whole life come out and now they’re your cousins again.
JHEJR: Any old flames wanna come say what’s up?
MH: Yeah, there have been a couple of those, you get it all.
JHEJR: You single now?
MH: Yeah, it wouldn’t be right.
[Don’t know what to link here…. Weird video of Mayer DJ-ing while some weirdo break dances or a short video of Mayer telling a stupid joke or Awkward interview with Mayer]
JHEJR: Time for the quick question and answer part of the interview
MH: Great, this is the part I like best.
JHEJR: What’s going on in Detroit?
MH: You don’t want to know.
JHEJR: Ice cream or cookies?
MH: Cookies for sure, I’m a cookie connoisseur. I’ve never been a huge ice cream guy, I’m not anti-ice cream, but can’t go wrong with cookies.
JHEJR: You like Girl Scout cookies?
MH:I do, I’m especially fond of girl scouts.
JHEJR: Which kind?
MH: I’m equal opportunity when it comes to that. I don’t think there are any bad ones, peanut butter patties are off the hook. I’m allergic to chocolate though, which is something everybody is always aghast by, but I guess it keeps me in shape.
JHEJR: Monocle or pocket watch?
MH: I got to go with pocket watch; I think a monocle is a little stuffy.
JHEJR: Argyle or plaid?
MH: Argyle, that’s an easy one.
JHEJR: Four Tops or The Temptations?
MH: I’m wearing an argyle sweater as we speak.
JHEJR: Four Tops or the The Temptations?
MH: Oh, you can’t make me pick between those.
JHEJR: Tribe Called Quest or Wu-Tang?
MH: That’s impossible, they’re not even comparable. I’ll go with Tribe strictly because I just saw Q-Tip, he came through my show in New York and said what’s up.
JHEJR: Turkey or Chicken?
MH: Man, the food ones, those are the hardest for me because I’m a huge food guy. Depends on what you want to do afterwards.
JHEJR: Alright say you’re going to play a basketball game afterwards.
Then chicken for sure.
JHEJR: Handshake or hug?
MH: I’m a gentlemen and all my hip hop friends are always comin’ in for the dap and I’m trying to convert them all to handshake.
JHEJR: What’s your style in 5 words or less?
MH: Flashy but classy
JHEJR: Van Halen with out without David Lee Roth?
MH: Oh, with of course, Diamond Dave, come on, dude’s incredible.
JHEJR: Do you have your shit together?
MH: [hesitates] Yeah, I’m gonna say yeah only because if I didn’t I’d be worried about me.
JHEJR: Who’s your best friend?
MH: My family.
JHEJR: Guilty pleasure music?
MH: I have a lot of guilty pleasure music, but to me I don’t feel guilty about it. One of my favorite albums of all time is Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation and a lot of people consider that guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel guilty about that it’s great music.
MH: Oh, I got another call coming in. I got to let you go.