Two songs was all it took to propel Andrew Mayer Cohen onto a trajectory of superstardom he otherwise may have missed. Rapping and spinning tracks as DJ Haircut, the Ann Arbor, Michigan native had dreams of hip hop glory, so moved to Los Angeles in an effort to make it big. When a few chance soul songs he'd recorded on a whim ended up in the hands of Peanut Butter Wolf—head of the innovative label Stones Throw Records—in 2008, he somehow found himself reincarnated as Mayer Hawthorne, the smoothest crooner around with a falsetto made for the late night.
His debut album, A Strange Arrangement, was released last October, and it garnered both critical and popular acclaim. His recent showing at Coachella earned rave reviews. Mark Ronson may have brought on some of the resurgence of the "retro-soul" movement with Amy Winehouse a few years ago, but Hawthorne is taking it to a new level with his own brand of the classic genre—adding in slinky tinges of R&B and jazz with vocals that tug so hard at the heartstrings, even grown rappers might shed a tear.
At his concert in DC last month, we were able to sit down with the smooth operator himself, discussing everything from his musical roots and days as DJ Haircut to the unwavering support from Snoop Dogg, and why hip hop sounds better on a cassette tape.
Your musical development is a pretty varied and interesting one, and surprising for many people who don't expect to hear your sound from a white artist. What led you from hip hop production and rapping to Mayer Hawthorne and essentially revitalizing soul music for a new generation?
I was raised on soul music, and The Beatles and a lot of Motown, The Birds, and The Hollies. My father played music, and my mother played piano and sang and danced. My pops taught me how to play bass when I was really young, and when I got a little grown and found my own voice and music it was through hip hop.
I really fell in love with hip hop music. I started listening to LL Cool J and Public Enemy, NWA and Wu Tang and Nas and Jay-Z, and it was my favorite shit. I couldn't get enough and I started making my own hip hop music, producing and DJing. And then when I moved out to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I met a gentleman by the name of Peanut Butter Wolf, who was the CEO and president of Stones Throw Records. I was really trying to make hip hop music for a living but he had heard these strange soul demos that I did on the side and really fell in love with them, and asked if I'd record a whole album's worth of that material for Stones Throw. It wasn't really what I was trying to do at the time, but it was such a good opportunity to work with a label I loved and respected, so I said "Whatever, I'll do it."
Little did we know that we'd receive this much attention. I figured that I'd just have my little soul project on the side and continue on my merry way making my hip hop and DJing. No one had any idea that I'd be doing tracks with Snoop Dogg and touring the world making soul music.
What was the very first record you ever bought?
The first record...See, my parents used to buy me 45s [rpm singles] all the time, when I was a kid before I could even read the labels. They'd buy me Four Tops, The Supremes, Michael Jackson, The Police, Queen, The Beach Boys...But I think the first album I bought with my own money was actually The Police's Synchronicity. I remember I bought it on cassette, after I had borrowed my father's cassette tape of it and completely wore it out and he made me buy a new one.
You're known to be a huge fan of the cassette tape format. What's the appeal?
There's just something about cassettes—I'm an album guy, and unless I'm DJing, I don't like to hear one song here and there; I like the complete album experience. So tapes are incredible for that because you just put it on and go, and there's no track separation. It's a journey that you're on until you have to flip the tape—it's a lot like a record in that way. Tapes are analog, there's a lot of hiss and all kinds of unexpected things in there that you can get that really adds to the experience for me...it's got that warm sound to it. I personally think that hip hop sounds best on cassette, just my personal opinion. For the most part, everything sounds better on vinyl, except for hip hop.
Your dad still plays in a band, right?
My dad still plays in a band in Michigan to this day.
Have you two collaborated at all together, or has he made any contributions to songs on the album?
Not yet, but I just sent him a new song and I'm hopeful that I'm going to get him on it. He plays pedal steel guitar, as well as guitar and bass, and he sings—he's pretty much a beast.
Did you draw a lot from his musical styling in crafting your own sound?
Definitely, he had a lot of records that he was always introducing me to. He owned a hardware store called Great Lakes Hardware and Auto, and I used to go to work with him all the time and we'd listen to Motown in the truck on the way. I learned a lot about music from my Pops.