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Interview: Mayer Hawthorne on his latest album 'Man About Town'

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Since his tender, modern soul debut with “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” Mayer Hawthorne has remained busy with all-star collaborations and inventive new records. With three studio albums (one with a Grammy nod), a variety of side projects and regular DJ gigs, the title of Hawthorne's latest album, M​an About Town, seems very apt. The Michigan­-born crooner resets his formula with sentimental, yet upbeat meditations on love, loss, and longing in the big city while riffing on his soul sound with a bit of Motown and reggae. Ahead of his performance at Mamby on the Beach on Sunday, we spoke with Hawthorne about what influenced his new album, the cathartic power of soul music, and the talent of Barry White.

Your latest album M​an About Town h​as a streamlined, conceptual feel to it. How did your approach differ from your past records?

The last album I had the chance to work with a lot of my favorite producers like Pharrell Williams, Jack Splash and Greg Wells—all these guys that I’m big fans of and that I’ve wanted to work with forever. I worked with Kendrick Lamar on the last record also. [With] the new record, I basically took everything I learned from those guys and I went back to doing everything myself like I did on the first two records. I produced and wrote and played nearly every instrument and it’s the most "Mayer Hawthorne" album yet. In some ways, it’s kind of a return to the first way that I did the first two records, but it’s also very much a progression. It’s all about moving forward and doing something new.

Can you talk about how you settled on the title and overall concept?

It’s about living in a big city like Chicago or Los Angeles, where I’ve been living for the past 10 years, about being surrounded by millions of people all the time and going to all the coolest parties and being in the scene but still being lonely. It’s about the search for that one person in a sea of millions. It’s about trying to find that one person that you can spend the rest of your life with.

What motivated you to take total control of the process on this record and what are the advantages and disadvantages of working by yourself?

I really enjoyed it. I’m kind of a control freak, so I like doing everything myself. But it’s also a lot more work, so that’s kind of the downside of it. Sometimes the process moves a lot slower; it’s really nice having someone else doing half the work. I think you really just get the real me that way. It’s the most authentic version of m​e.​

Stones Throw Records and Peanut Butter Wolf gave you your break when they put our your debut album. Do stay in touch with them?

I talk to Peanut Butter Wolf almost every day, he’s still a super close friend of mine. He put out the Tuxedo side project that I did, too. We always talk about records, we’re still big nerds with that. And I still DJ all the time, I DJed in Chicago [at East Room’s Anniversary party] not too long ago.

What’s your writing process like?

I never sit down and try to write a song. The songs usually come to me out of the blue and I’ll be in the shower or I’ll be in the grocery store and I’ll have to towel off real quick or check my grocery cart and run outside and just record it into my voice recorder in my phone or I’ll forget it. I don’t want to lose it. Those moments of inspiration, when they hit they hit just super hard and from there, it’s just trying to reverse engineer it out of my head and onto the recording.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences?

My biggest musical influence is definitely Barry White. Barry White was the guy that you danced to in the club and then when you went home to the bedroom, you listened to Barry White. That’s who I want to be as an artist. That’s my greatest aspiration is to be that guy who can bridge both of those worlds.

There's a hidden vulnerability within soul music, even in the most upbeat songs. Does that hold true on your album?

I can only speak for me personally, but there is definitely a lot of masking. I’m definitely a very positive person, but I’m spilling my guts on this album. I’m really telling my tales of love and heartbreak and sometimes the content is pretty sad, but when I’m making music, I always want people to listen to my music when they’re getting ready to go out and party or at the house party. I don’t want people to listen to my music and be down. I always try to make sure that my music feels upbeat even if it the content is contradictory.

What did you take away from working with talented producers and musicians like Pharrell Williams and Kendrick Lamar?

The main thing is the storytelling aspect of what I do. [With Pharrell] we bonded with our mutual love of Steely Dan. Steely Dan can be very divisive. You either love Steely Dan or you really don’t like them at all. The reason we really love Steely Dan—which he made me realize—is that Donald Fagen tells the stories in such a vivid and detailed manner and he really paints that picture and puts you there in that world. That was something I really tried to take with me on this new record, to try and tell the stories in the most vivid, detailed manner possible and really bring you into my world.

Do you have any dream collaborations?

There are so many people I’d love to work with. Rihanna is definitely a big one on my list right now. I really want to do a song with her. There’s another artist that I just met recently at South by Southwest, BØ​R​NS. He’s also from Michigan where I’m from and we had never met but he came to this pool party that I was DJing [at SXSW]. I’m hoping we get to do something together soon.

Mayer Hawthorne performs at Mamby on the Beach on Sunday, July 3 at 5:45pm.

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