Interview: Mayer Hawthorne
by Winston "Stone" Ford
“I’ve been getting panties thrown at me so I can’t complain.”
It seems like Mayer Hawthorne came onto the scene overnight. The Detroit area (now LA living) fasetto singer’s soulful R&B songs went from experimental side project to gracing the lips of every music critic and blogger this year and selling out shows all over the world. His album, A Strange Arrangement, dropped last month, and Mayer and his band, The Country, are in the middle of a US tour, which rolls into Washington’s DC9 this Sunday. (Buy tickets here).
We chopped it up with Mayer on his influences, his stratospheric success, and his early life as a hip-hop DJ and producer.
You were known as Haircut, the DJ and producer for the Athletic Mic League before you were a singer, so what made you decide to become Mayer Hawthorne?
I was all Peanut Butter Wolf. He was responsible for turning Mayer Hawthorne from an experimental side project in a career. Honestly, I was very focused on hip-hop–DJing and producing. That’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I was in LA to do, and this Mayer Hawthorne thing was completely an experiment on the side in my spare time. I never intended for those songs to be heard by the public or released by a label. But when a label like Stone’s Throw ask you to record an album for them, you can’t turn that down.
I keep hearing of the funny story how Peanut Butter Wolf (aka the head of Stone’s Throw Records) didn’t believe that the songs you did were yours? What happened with that?
I met Wolf at a party in LA when I moved out here. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend of mine. I sent him the tracks but I didn’t think anything of it. At the time I was really focused on hip-hop. Mayer Hawthorne was the last thing on my mind. Wolf hit me back a month later after I had forgotten all about it and he said, “you know these tracks are crazy man, what is this?” And I told them that they were my songs, and he said “get the fuck outta here, that’s not you!” And after that he said “Holy shit, you gotta record an album for Stone’s Throw.” It was mad unexpected for me. All of this is unbelievably surreal. Nobody, including Stone’s Throw, Peanut Butter Wolf, and myself anticipated this thing would explode.
What are your influences for this record?
Obviously there is a lot of vintage soul: Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, Issac Hayes, Barry White and Smokey Robinson for starters. But there is also a little Smashing Pumpkins, and Stereolab, and The Police. Honestly I didn’t really put that much thought into [what influenced me]. I made those first couple songs for me to sample and to chop up and make hip-hop tracks out of. That soul sound was the kind of stuff I was sampling to make rap tracks at the time.
I know this is cliche, but how has the growing up in and around Detroit, and it’s Motown Heritage contributed to your image and music?
Growing up in the Detroit area, you can really feel that soul out there. That Motown influence is unavoidable. It’s really a huge part of the history there and people take a lot of pride in it.
A lot of people seem to be working hard to be a soul or R&B musician from birth, but it seems like you lucked up into the gig. Do you feel like you’re the odd man out in Soul Music?
My hip-hop background definitely separates me from other people that are making Soul Music right now, for sure, but I don’t even think about it, honestly.
One of the things I’ve noticed about this album is the way that you were able to craft that old school sound? A lot of music today sounds too digital and too polished. How were you able to do it?
That’s easy. I’m on an indie label with no budget. I used the cheapest shit available. I don’t even have a good mic, so I recorded my vocals through a pair of headphones. I used ridiculously low fi equipment, so there ended up being a ton of hiss and crackle in there, which gave it that vintage, low-fi feel.
I know you played most of the instruments on this album yourself, but how did you form your band for the tour?
I definitely played the majority of the instruments on he album myself. That’s a part of the fun for me. My band is comprised of all of my favorite musicians in the world. It’s a collective of my favorite musicians from Ann Arbor where I grew up, and LA. Seriously, if I had all the money in the world and I could get anybody I wanted to, these guys would be the people I would select. I’m spoiled rotten basically.
How has the response been on tour?
It’s been pretty overwhelming actually. We’ve been selling out almost every show and I’ve been getting panties thrown at me so I can’t complain. It’s pretty surreal.
What can the people of DC expect from a Mayer Hawthorne live show?
People are getting a show. A REAL show and not just a concert. We’re not just getting up there and playing songs. It’s like a Soul Revue. We’re working really hard up there on stage to make sure that nobody leaves disappointed.
Well, I’m sure that DC will show love.
Last time I was in DC it was fantastic, so I’m expecting the same.
Mayer Hawthorne and his band, The Country, perform this Sunday at DC 9. Buy tickets here.