Mayer Hawthorne: The Vinyl Junkie

His debut album “Strange Arrangement” marks a more than promising beginning for a successful music career. Keeping in mind that major artists are now knocking on his door, one can only assume what the future has in store for Mayer Hawthorne.

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If you name the most interesting new recording artist to have emerged in 2009, the list probably encompasses only a small number of worthy candidates. For the sake of music justice, make sure to add the name Mayer Hawthorne. The 29-year old musician hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan created quite a stir for himself within just a few months, due to his fine interpretation of classic 70’s Motown Soul. With his fairly distinct fashion aesthetic and his undeniable musical talent, Hawthorne infused a breath of fresh air to a musical genre that has been on its death bed for some time. His debut album “A Strange Arrangement” has been embraced by critics and fans around the globe. Word on the street is that Peanut Butter Wolf – founder of Stones Throw Records – signed him after hearing only two songs. If you need further proof that this self-proclaimed vinyl junkie is making great music, maybe the twenty-seven sold out-concerts on his European Tour will convince you.

After Hawthorne and his talented band The County prepped and ran a sound check through the set before his gig at the Bohannon in Berlin, we had the chance to catch up with him to chat about various topics, including his musical beginnings, personal style, and highly successful European tour amongst others.

Interview: Petar Kujundzic
Photography: Andrea D’Aquino

First of all, thanks for your time. You must be pretty exhausted after 8 hours on the road. Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

How do you do? This is Mayer Hawthorne – Dapper Gentleman and purveyor of timeless music. Born and raised just outside of Detroit in Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Tell us a little bit about your musical development and beginnings as a recording artist?

I was very fortunate to grow up in a very musical-inclined family. My father plays bass guitar – even to this day he still plays bass in a band in Detroit. He taught me how to play bass when I was six years old. My mom plays piano, dances and sings. Neither one of them had much success in the music business, but they taught me what I needed to know. They used to play me records all the time; buying me records you know? I had a Fisher Price as my first record player in the early 80s. So they played Michael Jackson, Blondie – whatever was popular at that time, including all kinds of music from the Beatles, The Birds, and The Who among others.

In High School I started to find my own path in music, especially through Hip-Hop. I started listening to LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Nas and Mobb Deep and I really got deep into that. I even started a Hip-Hop crew with some of my friends. Eventually this led to me being a Hip-Hop DJ and producer for the past twelve years.

This Mayer Hawthorne project really came about from being a Hip-Hop producer and having clear samples. And trust me, it’s a royal pain in the ass to clear samples. It gets outrageously expensive. I also played in all kind of bands ranging from rock bands to funk banks. So I said to myself, “You play all these instruments.You’re in all these rock bands, funk, punk bands, so just make your own music to sample so you don’t have to pay nobody to clear it.” Basically Mayer Hawthorne first started out as some sort of an internal thing, for my own personal use. I never thought that anybody would hear those songs until Peanut Butter Wolf heard them. He told me to record a whole album off this material and eventually we put it out on Stones Throw. The funny thing about it is that this was not my initial plan. I never planned on becoming a soul artist since I wanted to make it in Hip-Hop. But honestly, you cannot turn down an opportunity like working with a legendary label such as Stones Throw. I recorded the whole album and here we are.

Speaking of Peanut Butter Wolf. How was your first meeting with him?

I met him at a party in Los Angeles when I moved out there through a mutual friend who introduced us. She’s a close friend of mine and initially I used to play my Mayer Hawthorne songs only to my closest friends for fun. They would come over to my house just to kick it. I played them a couple of Soul tracks that I made just for laughs really. When she introduced me to Peanut Butter Wolf she told him, “Yo Wolf, you really need to hear these Mayer Hawthorne joints.” Wolf gets like a thousand demos a day and everybody’s trying to hit him up and put out records on Stones Throw. Obviously he did not seem to be that interested in me sending over songs to him at first. However, he wrote me back like six weeks later after I sent him over my material. I haf already forgotten all about it. He was like, “Yo I just listened to your songs and this shit is bonkers. What is this that I’m listening to?.” He didn’t understand what it was. He thought I had the rights to an old record that I dug up. And I responded him, “No, this is my music. I wrote the songs, played every instrument and sang on it.” He could not believe it. He wanted to put it out ASAP and he wanted me to go to the studio and record a whole album of my material.

Definitely a good story for a come up in the music biz. Since you played all the instruments and produced all the records on your album, could you tell us a little bit about the creation process of your debut album “A Strange Arrangement” ?

I recorded the first two songs without any special formula to it or anything. I was just experimenting and having fun. When I went back to record a whole album of material I tried to keep the same mindset and still didn’t have any formula prepared for it. Just relax, experiment and have fun. Hopefully you can hear that when you listen to the album because the main ingredient of the album is fun.

I played most of the instruments on the album and I definitely got help from some friends that are incredible musicians on some parts. However, I tried to play as much as I could since this was part of the challenge and part of the fun for me. If you would see my studio you would probably crack up. I’m an independent artist on an indie label with virtually no budget. I use the cheapest equipment available… nothing fancy at all. I sang most of the vocals on my album through an old pair of headphones because I don’t even have a good microphone.

I spent a lot of time experimenting, with a lot of trial and error involved in the recording process. I’m an absolute perfectionist, the type of guy that records a bass line a hundred times in a row until it sounds exactly the same way I hear it in my head. I hear the songs incredibly vividly in my head. The challenge for me is always to get it out of my head and on to a tape like I hear it. So that is basically what the recording process was like.

It’s definitely a great result. It seems that your music is reflected in your sense of style. What’s your influence behind how you put together a fit. The tie has sort of become your trademark, where’d that start from?

It’s funny because people see the suit, tie and sweater and finding out about it just now. But even when I was a Hip-Hop DJ and producer, I was wearing argyle sweaters, collared shirts and ties. So it’s really been an ongoing thing for me. I’ve always been a classy dresser, always trying to keep it classy. It just happens to fit really well with this music that I am doing now. It’s really no new thing for me.

A main thing for me is to make sure that I always add something new. I wear a lot of vintage suits and vintage clothes and what not. But I always make sure that I spice it up with something new. You have to have that balance. I don’t live in the past. I’m a new, young artist living in 2010 and I always look into the future. So you have to keep that balance of respect for the past and vision of the future.

About the past and future-relationship in your music, the Retro-Soul movement has seemed to be some sort of an on-and-off movement. Where do you see yourself and your position in that area? Is there any chance that we will witness any cross-genre projects from you in the future?

Absolutely. I am only here on this earth for so long and I’m trying to release as much music as I can while I’m here. I am constantly working on new music. Even on the road, I was in the studio in Paris when I was there. A week ago I was in a studio in Erlangen, Germany. I record on the road whenever I can. I’m always working on new music, all kinds of music. I just finished a track with Snoop Dogg and I just did a song with Freeway for his new album. Currently I am working on some boogie funk stuff and on a New Wave album with producer 14KT. I am also about to do some Brazilian Bossa music for this new do-over record for Stones Throw. I’m all over the board trying to diversify.

I’m definitely getting excited about that Brazilian part.

[Laughs] Yeah, this will be great.

Being on tour in Europe you obviously meet all kinds of people. Maybe you can tell us a little bit of your experiences while being on the road? Interesting places you’ve visited?

To sum it up… Amsterdam is always good, Vienna last night was incredible, Paris was off the hook and London was amazing with two sold-out nights. We haven’t really had any mediocre shows yet. Every show has been crazy. We feel like we’ve been really fortunate. This is really the first tour that I’ve been on where literally every show was bananas. You can definitely feel the buzz even as we go along. We have another sold-out night in Berlin and it will be just as crazy, I’m sure. It’s a trip for me. It’s crazy to experience it and watch it unfold before your eyes. I was signed to Stones Throw Records not even a year ago and the album just came out over here in Europe a couple of weeks ago. To see the response like this it certainly blows your mind, you can’t even wrap your brain around it. I’m enjoying every minute of it, trying to make the most of it. So far it’s been incredible.

Where do you see the biggest difference between the European and the US audience?

The biggest difference that I’ve noticed is that the European audience is a little bit more open minded as far as what they will dance to is concerned. If you want the people to dance in the US you have to come with very specific things. People in the States are a lot more pickier on what they will dance to. Europeans will dance to everything as long as you can dance to it [Laughs]. And I most definitely feel that.

You seem to have mad love for the old school since you’ve released your single “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” as a heart-shaped 7” vinyl. So what about your record collection at home? Any recommendation for fellow vinyl lovers among our readers, as far as quality record stores in the US and Europe are concerned?

Oh yeah. I just had to ship a whole bunch of records back to the US. When I’m on the road I buy so many records. That’s one of the big bonuses for me. I pretend like this tour is really about the shows but for me it’s really about the records and the food [Laughs]. The shows are just a bonus. For real, I’m a huge vinyl junkie! I dig for records any chance that I get. My manager is constantly yelling at me because I’m always late for the sound check because I’m in the record stores. It really is a blessing. In decent stores you can find all kind of crazy material that you never even knew it was out there. Seriously, there are so many great record stores in the world. You really have to go to them and dig as long as you can.

27 concerts in a row sounds pretty exhausting. What can you tell us about your preparation process before each concert?

I’ve learned a lot about my voice from being on the road like this and taking care of myself. That’s a big part of being on the road. Singing my ass off and giving 100% every night, leaving it all on the stage takes a lot out of you. It’s important to keep your immune system up, stay healthy and eat well. I really had to learn how to consider my voice as an instrument and to really take care of it. You got a baby and you need to take care of it… my voice is no different and that is like my livelihood. That was a tough transition for me because I’m used to just not giving a fuck. I really had to step back and learn how to take care of myself. That’s one of the big things that I learned about preparation for shows out here and it’s important. We do vocal warm ups every night and we are not just playing songs but actually preparing. This not a concert, this is a show, we’re really giving everything into each performance. The hardwork translates into hours of rehearsals everyday. We make it our goal to make sure that nobody leaves disappointed. Everybody who comes to see a Mayer Hawthorne show, they leave like “Got damn, that was the greatest show that I ever saw in my live!”

What are your thoughts on the current situation of the music industry?

People complain about the music industry all the time. It’s been going for a hundred years. To me it’s the same as it always has been. There’s a lot of garbage out there and there’s some great music out there too. Especially with the power of the Internet connecting everybody and everything. The whole world is becoming so small. As an example, I am finding about dope artists in Sweden and Norway every day. I think it’s easier than ever to find great music that’s out there. I’m really positive about the current state of the music business. I have so much great music to listen to and it’s better than ever. I am really excited for music right now.

We believe that your music is not only an ode to past times. It could show established and upcoming artists a new direction. What is your advice to them?

My number one advice for people that try to make it in music is be original, be creative and don’t try to do what other people are doing. Do your own thing! That’s the most important thing as far as being an artist is concerned.

What’s in-store for you in the next twelve months and ten years?

Ten years? Hopefully I’m still making music for a living. That’s my main goal. Make a comfortable living through music and not to have to sit behind the desk doing something that isn’t so much fun. I am constantly working on new music and I’m releasing as much as I can, as fast I can. I’m the kind of guy that just wants to get it out there. Be on the lookout for a lot more new music from me in the next few weeks and years. It’s gonna be an exciting run.

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