A Talk With the Man Who's Saving Soul
Mayer Hawthorne has fans in the music world from Snoop Dogg to Justin Timberlake. A conversation about his influences and what's next.
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.
How did your father react to your involvement in hip hop growing up?
He doesn't have any kind of interest in hip hop at all. He was never a big fan of what I was doing with rap music. He's one of those "rap is crap" guys, but I think he's started to come around a little bit.
He's much happier with Mayer Hawthorne. My dad is one of those...he's a character. He's a musician himself; he's one of those [who say] "Yeah, yeah, yeah, call me when you're on the cover of Rolling Stone."
Doesn't seem like that's so far-fetched an idea now. How did you move from appreciating music and hip hop and into actually creating it?
I'd been collecting records forever, and I bought my first Technic 1200s right after I graduated from high school. We didn't have a DJ in the [Athletic Mic Leauge] crew and all our favorite rap groups—Gang Starr, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Black Moon—they all had a dope DJs. We were like "Someone needs to DJ." And I said, "You know what—I'm gonna just do it." I went out and bought some turntables and locked myself in my room for that whole summer; I came out, and I was DJ Haircut.
You've said that relationships are best expressed through song as opposed to rhyming, which is what Kanye West has said in reference to recording 808s and Heartbreak. What is it about the physical act of singing that allows an artist to more accurately capture the emotions surrounding love and heartbreak?
I don't really know what it is. Hip hop is a very sort of rebellious, almost chauvinistic form of music that makes it difficult to write love songs and songs that deal with relationships. It's just much more natural coming out in soul music...
How did the very first "Mayer Hawthorne" song come to life? Can you recall what led you to creating that first track as a singer?
I remember I was driving to Detroit for a friend's birthday party, and the whole song "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," was just in my head. It just came out of the sky and I heard the whole thing, bass line, drums, chord changes, harmonies and everything. I had to call myself and leave a voicemail for myself with the whole song, and I went to the party and kind of forgot all about it. Later I got back home and checked my voicemail, and was like "Oh yeah, this right here..." and I recorded it that night, I think.
The music community has really embraced you, from high -profile artists to industry people, to fans who stumble upon your music, and you very quickly made it to "Best Albums of the Year" lists. When there's all this hype, people love to peg an artist to the label of "overnight sensation," even though most artists have been producing and working in the industry for many years prior. And while it's true that you've been in the game for over ten years, the Hawthorne project specifically is quite young...
It's really new, yeah. Nobody ever anticipated that it would be this big. But, there's no such thing as overnight success, I've been working my ass off in music for over ten years now, really building my network up and making sure that when my moment did come that I was prepared to take advantage of the opportunity—and that's where I'm at right now. I couldn't be doing what I'm doing right now if I didn't put in the work and the time and the energy that it takes. There really is no such thing as overnight success.
Snoop Dogg is huge fan of yours, and he recently showered you with gifts, no?
He's been incredible, he's a big soul-head, and it's been incredible because he's one of those people I've always kind of looked up to and would be like "It'd be amazing to work with Snoop Dogg," and now it's going down. And he doesn't have to look out for me, he's got his own stuff going on, plenty of his own stuff going on...big shoutout to Snoop Dogg, because he's really been looking out [for me] and telling everyone about my music. It's just an incredible thing.
People continue to listen to the great classics of the 60s and 70s, but many critics are saying you've "saved" soul music, in a way. What do you think it is about culture right now, particularly for younger generations who may not have been exposed to that era of music growing up, that is prompting people to connect so well to your music and responding so strongly to it?
As far as my music goes, I would say that it's the fun that draws people to my music. I think they're always talking about this "soul music revival," that's kind of malarkey to me. It's more about songwriting—it doesn't matter what genre it is, I think people are beginning to realize again how important songwriting is. The song is always king, it doesn't matter what genre It is. I focus on songwriting and music that can be enjoyed forever and hopefully people will be digging for my records [in record stores] in 30 years, just like how I'm digging for records from 30 years ago.