Mayer Hawthorne is something of an accidental soul singer. Born Andrew Cohen in Ann Arbor, MI, the 30-year-old Hawthorne began producing hip-hop in his late teens and eventually moved to L.A. with his "hip-hop-electro-soul" crew (as he himself put it), Now On. That's where he saw his future until a mutual friend, Nicole Skaggs, introduced him to Peanut Butter Wolf, the DJ and producer behind the Stones Throw label and trumpeted the two songs he'd recorded under an alias and sang in a fragile falsetto. Soon that became his main gig, and a year's worth of whirlwind activity got underway. Hawthorne still seems a mite surprised by the sudden attention, not to mention crunched for time, but he was genial and open when he sat to hear a selection of eMusic tracks at the lobby of a motel near the airport in Portland, Oregon.
Oh, that sounds like a Willie Mitchell production right there. It's definitely got that southern sound to it. It's beautiful. It could be an instrumental and stand on its own as a work of art. Then when you put the vocals on it, it takes it to another level.
When did you start singing like this?
Oh, I'd never claim that I could sing like this.
OK, then when did you start singing in this basic style?
About a year ago. I just signed to Stones Throw in November, and at that time I'd only ever recorded two songs.
That's almost unbelievable — not to call you a liar, it's just remarkable. You've been in the music business for a while; you know how rare that is.
Yeah. I've been playing in bands since I was in high school. My dad taught me to play bass guitar when I was six years old. I used to sit in with his band; he's been playing in bands my whole life. He still plays in a classic-rock band to this day, in Ann Arbor. He taught me to play when I was really young. I used to sit in on drums with the band, or bass, and he'd play pedal-steel guitar. He was always more of, like, a rockin 'country-western guy. I never really got into the country stuff. I don't know, maybe you can hear a little of it on "Let Me Know" — there's a little twang on there. It's more soul.
Were you just playing whatever instrument was put in front of you as a kid?
I always wanted to play the drums. The drums to me are always the most important element of any song. If the drums are not hittin', I just can't get with it. It's that animal rhythm instinct: I just wanted to play the drums so bad. But my parents didn't want me to be banging all over the house. But you can play bass in the headphones.
Has your dad responded to the album?
My dad's kind of funny. He tries to pretend he doesn't really pay that much attention to it, that it's no big deal, then he'll ask me when I'm gonna get a real job and shit. As soon as I leave the room, he'll email his friends and say, "Oh my god! Check out my son! Look what he's doing!" When it comes down to it, I know he's proud of me. He's always been very supportive. And he's the one who got me into music in the first place.
What was his record collection like?
It was very well rounded. We used to listen to a lot of Beatles and Beach Boys and the Byrds, but also Earth, Wind & Fire and Queen and the Chambers Brothers and Ray Charles.
Were you paying attention to more current stuff, growing up?
Yeah, I was. When I was young-young, my parents 'music is the music I was first introduced to. Then, I wasn't paying much attention to the current stuff. I remember listening to the J. Geils Band and some of that '80s stuff, too. But I didn't start getting into my own musical identity until I was in high school, getting into hip-hop.
I don't know this one. It's definitely garagey, sort of Sonic Youth-sounding.
It's before Sonic Youth. It's also from Ann Arbor.
MC5? I don't know, Bob Seger is the only other one I know.
Oh yeah, Iggy and the Stooges — Iggy even went to Pioneer High School. I think it was Ann Arbor High School at the time. Iggy is awesome, man. He puts his whole everything into his performances — he's an animal.
Did this stuff create any kind of musical shadow over Ann Arbor?
Not so much for me, anyway. My parents didn't listen to Iggy and the Stooges, and by the time I got to the age where I would've got into Iggy, I was already veering toward L.L. Cool J and Public Enemy. I missed it, I think. I just came up a little too late for this pocket.
I think about someone like the legendary radio DJ the Electrifyin 'Mojo, who played anything he felt like and created a unique character of taste that seems to define a lot of what comes from Detroit and Ann Arbor. My friends from there always seem to be into adventurous stuff. It almost seems like an island where certain things really caught on.
It is, definitely. You've got stuff like Detroit jit and ghetto-tech; it still gets played on the radio out there, and I don't know anywhere else except Baltimore and Chicago have it, and not to that extent.
A friend from there forwarded me some YouTube links to a local after-school dance-party show . . .
The New Dance Show. I used to watch that every day, religiously after school at four o'clock, I'd come home and watch The New Dance Show. I loved it. It was fascinating. There's a predecessor: the reason it was called The New Dance Show is because the original show was called The Scene. It's incredible if you can catch some of the old clips from that show: it's like Soul Train or American Bandstand, but hood-pass. A lot of electro stuff and house: it was hood, though. That stuff was a big part of my childhood. We've been trying to get copies of that show for a while now. I spoke to R.J. Watkins, the original host of the show, on the phone recently. He told me there's a DVD coming out of it, but I haven't seen it yet. I just called up his company and said, "I'm looking for clips from The New Dance Show," and his secretary said, "Hold on one second." A second later: "This is R.J. Watkins." I was a little shook, actually. I didn't know what to say: "Wow, you are the R.J. Watkins."
Did you go out dancing much?
I didn't go out with the intention to dance — I'd go out just to go out and just happen to dance. When I was younger, I was into breakdancing, and that was more like my teens. As I started DJ'ing, I kind of flipped to the other side of the turntables, and I didn't do as much dancing myself. Now I'm getting into it.
For the stage? You're gonna have some moves up there?
Yeah! You've got to have some moves. It's entertainment.
It's definitely got a DJ Premier feel to it. It's got kind of a weird beat from Primo, though. You can always tell Primo right away from his drums. He's used almost the same drum kit for almost everything. [Laughs] He's incredible, though: just his longevity and his ability to turn out dope beat after dope beat after dope beat. It's unbelievable.
What was your impetus to start producing hip-hop?
I was really into hip-hop. I was playing in an instrumental funk trio at the time and we would have some of our MC friends come and rap with [us] — it was kind of like porn music. I decided I would make a couple of beats and play them for [the MCs] when they came over. I started making beats on the computer with a little one-track editing program, where I had to copy and paste over. This was in '96. I actually did go out and buy a Boss Doctor Rhythm [drum machine], which I wish I still had. I probably sold it at a yard sale. I'd kill to have that back; I have to get one of those. But I was never that into drum machines; I was a big computer nerd.
What's different about producing now?
It's not that much different. My knowledge is vastly different, but my technique is not all that different. I still do a lot of things really manually and still do things in a very analog, old-school fashion. I feel like a lot of modern recording equipment is almost too good to get that vintage sound. I do a lot of experimenting in the studio, really spending a lot of time just messing around and seeing what kind of sounds I can get. I don't think there's a limit to the amount of options you can have, but you don't need that much to get it done.
This is a real weird beat for Madlib. I usually know his stuff right away.
Well, he puts out about 8,000 records a year.
Literally 8,000. There's no way you can keep up with it. He's a machine.
He recently said that most of what's coming out now is stuff he's been sitting on for years.
It's true. He's got enough material for the next 15 years or something, just waiting to come out. I'm constantly amazed by that guy.
I wanted to ask about signing to Stone's Throw.
I moved to L.A. with my hip-hop crew, Now On. The goal was definitely to come to a bigger entertainment scene where we could really make a career making hip-hop music.
I had recorded the first two Mayer Hawthorne songs right before we moved. It was really just for fun — an experiment on the side, that I never had ever intended for those songs even to be heard by the public, let alone released. I never sent them to anybody; I'd play them at the family barbecue to get a laugh. When Noelle Skaggs introduced me to Wolf she didn't say anything about Now On or any of the hip-hop stuff I was pushing. She said, "Wolf, you've got to hear these Mayer Hawthorne songs." I was like, "That's not even important." But that was what he wanted to hear.
When I first sent him the tracks, he thought they were an old record that I'd dug up and re-edited or something. He was like, "What do you mean these are your tracks?" I said, "These are my songs: I wrote these and recorded them and played all the instruments and sang everything myself." When he was finally convinced it was really me, he was totally blown away and asked me to record a full album's worth of material for Stone's Throw, which is something I never even thought about doing before.
At first it was like, "Whoa!" I never even thought about what Mayer Hawthorne even was. It was a made-up name. It was my porn name! I took my middle name and the street I grew up on: My name is Andrew Mayer. It was a quick thing I came up with just to have some kind of name for it. It was not something I was concentrating on or developing at all. I had to drop everything I was working on just to figure it out.
I was thinking it sounded like Ornette Coleman at first, but then there are scratches on it.
This isn't so much about who the artist is as where it came from: a compilation titled Gilles Peterson presents Brownswood Bubblers Three from last year
Sounds kind of Sa-Ra-ish. I actually was in the Brownswood basement. It was dope, man. That's where he keeps all his records, so you know I was in heaven there — way more than I could count. He's got records hanging off the ceiling, they were overflowing. He doesn't even live there, you know. I didn't get enough time to dig around; we recorded a podcast for his website, and it was a lot of fun. Pretty much anything you pull out at random is the shit.