Mayer Hawthorne digs up the roots of Motown soul.
“What do you mean these are your songs?” asked Stones Throw Records frontman Peanut Butter Wolf after first listening to Andrew Mayer’s demo CD. According to Mayer, the one-man soul revivalist who records as Mayer Hawthorne, Wolf couldn’t believe his songs weren’t some long-lost vintage soul. “He really didn’t get it at first, which has been a common reaction from everyone, especially when they see what I look like,” says the 30-year-old white dude originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It took a good deal of convincing for him to believe it was really me singing those songs and playing the instruments.”
The avid vinyl collector and longtime DJ pristinely re-created the dusty authenticity of Motown soul on a lark—“as a challenge for myself,” he says. A graphic designer by trade, Mayer never intended the recordings to amount to anything. Yet shortly after a move to L.A. in 2006, a mutual friend brought the concept to Wolf’s attention, and he was sold on it. In the years since, it’s become Mayer’s full-time career. His album, A Strange Arrangement, is out now, and he’s just begun headlining his own tours.
When we catch up with Mayer on the phone from the Stones Throw offices in L.A., he’s still a bit sluggish from the night before. “I’m just trying to recover from a sold-out Roxy Theatre last night. It was bananas,” he says. “[The club] said they hadn’t had a show there like that in a really long time.”
This popular embrace of classic soul has been making waves for a few years now. Obviously, there’s Amy Winehouse (and, perhaps more importantly, her producer Mark Ronson); there are also acts such as Duffy, Jamie Lidell and Alice Russell in the U.K. But most of these artists reappropriate the style for their own purposes. Winehouse pines about rehab and “fuckery,” Duffy seems more marketing vehicle than anything truly genuine, Lidell has added a fair bit of electronics to the mix, and Russell, well, she’s incorporated soul into a world all her own. Mayer has stayed much more true to the roots of the sound.
“I grew up just outside of Detroit, listening to all that Motown stuff with my dad,” he says. And it shows. A Strange Arrangement sounds as if Berry Gordy were Mayer’s executive producer, Smokey Robinson his vocal coach, and Little Stevie Wonder his sometime lunch date. In reality, Mayer’s own dad, an active musician, taught him to play bass guitar at a young age; Mayer later picked up the drums, took piano lessons and, in high school, discovered hip-hop. He’s spent more than a decade as Haircut, his rap-oriented DJ and production persona.
“That was another inspiration behind creating the first couple Mayer Hawthorne songs,” he says. “Clearing samples is an absolute nightmare, so I thought, I play these instruments, why don’t I just make my own songs and sample myself?” That casual attitude permeates the whole project: Mayer says his songs “just get beamed down from the sky.” (He refers to the moniker as his “porn name”: his last name coupled with the name of the street where he grew up.)
When Peanut Butter Wolf asked about his goal for this project—which Mayer continually makes clear was just for kicks—he responded, “Well, I just want to get the album pressed to vinyl so I can play a real record of it. That’s all I really need.” Now that that’s a reality, he says, “Anything beyond that is a huge bonus for me. I’m definitely in bonus land right now.”
Mayer Hawthorne funks it out at darkroom Friday 25.