Interview: Mayer Hawthorne, Who Really Did Write and Perform Everything on A Strange Arrangement

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Ann Arbor, MI native Andrew Cohen had been earning his bona fides on the deejay scene for nearly a decade before stepping into his Los Angeles bedroom last year and recording A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw) under the name Mayer Hawthorne. The album, which showcases the singer's Smokey Robinson-meets-Curtis Mayfield falsetto over drums that bang as hard as any Dilla track, is both refreshingly current and self-consciously reverential of the past. The effect is jarring at first, sounding almost like a "What if..." mash-up mixed by Daptone--but Cohen's debut, equal parts hip-hop and Motown, has an undeniable charm.

A 29-year-old bespectacled white guy may seem an unlikely choice to help usher soul music into its next incarnation, but Hawthorne, clad in perfectly fitted jacket and tie, displays an earnestness and respect for his forebears that dispels most notions of hipster posturing. In a van "somewhere between Denver and Omaha," the singer spoke to SOTC about cassette players, breaking the rules of soul music, and convincing his boss that his songs weren't covers.

Is it true you never meant for the songs on A Strange Arrangement to be released?

Yeah, definitely. The album was more an experiment on the side for fun. I never intended for these songs to be heard by the public or released by a label. I never sent them to anybody or shopped them around until [Stones Throw founder] Peanut Butter Wolf asked me to send them to him.

Why didn't you want to shop the album around?

I was focused on hip-hop, man. I wanted to be a hip-hop DJ and producer and I still will do that but I'm having a lot of fun with this right now. This is the first time that I've ever been the frontman and lead singer of a group. I've been deejaying way longer than I've been singing. I still consider myself a much better deejay than a singer.

Is that modesty?

Definitely not. I've been deejaying for over a decade now and singing for a matter of months.

So what were you doing before the singing jones started?

I was deejaying regularly in Detroit with DJ House Shoes and producing for various hip-hop crews. That was my main focus. Even when I made the move out to Los Angeles [four years ago], it was to pursue a career in hip-hop.

When did you realize the soul stuff you were doing might blow up?

Uhhh, I don't know that I ever did. I met Peanut Butter Wolf at a party in L.A. and was introduced by a mutual friend who I had played the Mayer Hawthorne demos for. When she introduced me to him, she didn't mention anything about the hip-hop that I was pushing at the time, but Wolf was intrigued and asked me to send him the Mayer songs. I actually forgot all about it and he wrote me an e-mail a month later saying, "Hey, I just listened to these songs. These are great. What is this?" He thought it was an old record that I had found that I was going to release. I had to keep explaining to him that this is new material that I wrote, sang, played, and produced.

He didn't believe you at first?

No, he really didn't. When we met again, then he really didn't believe it. It took a good deal of convincing for him to understand that those were really my songs.

Is that because you don't look the part of a traditional soul singer?

Definitely. And that's been pretty much the reaction across the board for everyone that's heard it. But I guess that kinda tells me I'm doing it well.

How was the album recorded?

I recorded everything in my bedroom in L.A. I play the majority of the instruments on the album. That's part of the fun for me. I'm not an accomplished guitar player so I had a lot of help there. But there are no samples or anything. It's all live.

There are a lot of artists today that seem to be playing the funk and soul vibe for laughs or irony. Are you concerned about not being taken seriously as an artist?

I honestly don't really think about that kind of stuff. I just do what I do and I have fun with it. I have the utmost respect for the art form and I take the music very seriously. But I don't necessarily take myself seriously as a person. I'm a serious student of the music and a perfectionist in the studio though. I'll record a bass line 100 times in a row to get it to sound exactly as I hear it in my head.

How do you define "soul"?

Simply, it's music that comes from the soul. I don't think there really are a whole lot of rules, but I certainly try to break them as much as possible. There are a lot of things on my album that you would never hear on a traditional soul album and a lot of that comes from my hip-hop and rock background. I'm definitely not interested in creating a retro or throwback soul album. My goal is to give you that warm feeling you get when you listen to classic soul and Motown, but it's very important for me to be moving the music forward and pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable.

When recording the album, was that boundary-pushing a conscious reaction to the classics or is that just how it naturally progressed?

It's definitely a conscious thing, but I do think some of that happens subconsciously coming from a hip-hop deejay/producer background and also not even being alive during the classic Motown era. Somebody asked me the other day, "How did they come up with the names for the groups back then?" I was like, "I don't fuckin' know. I wasn't even alive then!" [Laughs] I think by default, it's impossible for me to really create a true retro soul album just because I'm a product of the 1980s and 90s--the hip-hop generation.

So after all those years of being the guy in the background, is being a frontman getting more comfortable?

Yeah, definitely. It was difficult at first for sure. It's not an easy thing to step up there and just jump in and have all the attention on you the whole time. You really can't let your guard down at any point during the show or take a break. Whereas I used to be the DJ or the bass player or the drummer and be in the background and the spotlight wasn't always on me. So it's a very new experience and I'm still definitely getting the hang of it, but it's been a lot of fun. It gives me a lot of freedom to experiment and step outside of my comfort zone and push myself to go over the edge. It's to the point now where it's so surreal, it's comfortable. I've just kind of accepted it now and am going with the flow.

What was the first album you were obsessed with?

Maaaaannnn, I've been listening and collecting records for so long now, that's tough. But I do remember borrowing my dad's tape of The Police's Synchronicity and wearing it out and every time it wore out, he'd make me buy another one. I think I went through two or three copies of that. And Michael Jackson's Thriller, of course. Growing up, though, we listened to a very diverse mix. The Beatles. The Byrds. The Who. But there was definitely also a lot of Motown, Four Tops, Temptations etc. I was really lucky to grow up in a musical household and got a really good, well-rounded experience.

So what are the three classic albums you could never live without?

Oh my gosh. Ummmm. The Police's Synchronicity, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, and Slum Village's Fantastic, Vol. 2.

What do you bump in the van on the way to shows?

We got a tape player in the van so I've got all my classic rap cassettes on the road with me.

Tape player? You're truly keeping it retro, huh?

Yeah yeah. For sure. Ice Cube, Masta Ace, and Too $hort.

I figured you'd have an 8-track player in there.

Naw, that's Peanut Butter Wolf's thing.

Mayer Hawthorne & The County perform Thursday at the Knitting Factory, Friday at the Mercury Lounge, and Saturday at Brooklyn Bowl.


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