Interview: Mayer Hawthorne
The fast-rising young Detroit soul man is dressed for the big time.
Fri Oct 28 2011
Photograph: Kevin Scanlon
It's tempting to imagine that Mayer Hawthorne was born not in his birthday suit, but wearing some kind of natty three-piece number—and maybe singing doo-wop—such is his sense of personal style and disarmingly smooth croon. Though he was in fact born Andrew Mayer Cohen in Michigan (and presumably naked), the singer cheerfully admits he's always been a snappy dresser, even through an endless series of odd jobs: "Even in school I made sure that we kept it classy."
Accordingly, when Hawthorne and his band stroll into the green room before playing The Late Show with David Letterman, the singer is wearing a red suit, black-and-red sneaks, cream Wayfarer shades and a black tie. His band is decked out in matching red sweaters with black elbow patches. "TV smiles, everyone!" yells the bassist; the whole group laughs, but it's a fair bet that they know they've got something special going on.
With a shiny new album, How Do You Do?, on a shiny major label (Universal), Hawthorne is in the enviable position of doing something unique right now. It's not that his music is especially weird or avant-garde; far from it, he plies an elegant mix of vintage soul stylings with killer grooves. But that mix is all his own. "I grew up in the '80s and '90s listening to Public Enemy and Mobb Deep and the Smashing Pumpkins," he says, calling from a pre-Letterman tour stop in St Louis. "I don't even know what it was like in the '60s—I wasn't alive then—so the Mayer Hawthorne sound is taking what I can learn from the classics, and blending it with my hip-hop DJ and producer background and punk-rock bands that I played in as a kid."
As an indicator of how broad the singer's appeal is, check out the YouTube teaser video released before the album dropped, which features famous fans pretending to be Hawthorne: Bruno Mars, Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Deepak Chopra... Wait, Deepak Chopra? "Deepak has been a Mayer Hawthorne fan since the beginning—from jump street!" Hawthorne grins. "What a good guy." He cites a Chopra quote about hanging out with "people who don't think inside the box or outside the box, but people who believe there is no box. What a way to sum it up there."
TONY first spoke to Hawthorne a couple of years back, when the singer was touring his debut album, A Strange Arrangement, which essentially started life as a bunch of demos on which he played all the instruments, attracting the attention of Stones Throw Records boss Peanut Butter Wolf. A lot has happened since he released his first seven-inch single on red, heart-shaped vinyl, not least visiting Brazil last year with Amy Winehouse. "We were actually the last band to tour with Amy Winehouse," Hawthorne says. "She was fabulous, and it was a situation where I really thought she was back on the right track and getting her act together. She was just captivating."
Hawthorne, one senses, is a hardy performer. He's a Detroiter, for starters ("I think that Detroiters are some of the most resilient people in the world") and strongly focused on having a good time. He mentions a Brazilian culinary highlight, wherein he and the band feasted on skewers of chickens' hearts ("It still sounds gross to me, but it was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life"). It's also apparent that Hawthorne's charm isn't lost on the ladies. The new album's opening track, "Get to Know You," is a saucy "why don't we" invitation addressed to a shy date. "It's the male perspective, without a doubt," says Hawthorne. "I wrote that song somewhere in Europe, like Brussels Airport, waiting for a plane, and probably met some beautiful thing the night before. That's the sort of thing you run into constantly as a touring musician who's always on the move."
Is he a bit of a heartbreaker, then? "I've been really lucky to have had my fair share of relationships over the years and experiences to draw from," says Hawthorne. "But I would say that I generally am not the one doing the heartbreaking [Laughs]. Maybe when I'm writing these songs, that's my way of getting back, being the heartbreaker in my own little fantasy world."
Lately, Hawthorne's dream world has found him writing a Mr. and Mrs. Smith--style music video for new single "The Walk," in which he and a model have a domestic shoot-'em-up. For a man who got shot in the head with a blank bullet on set, Hawthorne is remarkably chipper about the experience: "I got to be Bruce Willis for a day, that's every guy's fantasy."
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