Mayer Hawthorne Talks Hip-Hop, Fashion and His Favorite Band From Dallas.
For whatever reason, I still remember quite clearly the moment when my friend Noah introduced me to Mayer Hawthorne's music a few years back.
It went something like this: Knowing that I enjoy soul music, Noah called me over to his computer and he hit play on “A Strange Arrangement,” the title track to Hawthorne's 2009 debut for Stones Throw Records.
“Pretty great, right?” Noah asked.
I agreed. It just sounded so classic — interesting because the soul revival movement that so dominates the indie landscape today wasn't yet fully underway and, as Noah explained, this Hawthorne guy wasn't some undiscovered old soul singer from back in the day.
“He's completely new,” Noah continued, explaining that he'd come across the singer on a Wilco message board, of all places.
“I think he's around our age. Just some nerdy white guy from Detroit or something.”
It was tough to figure out how to react to a reveal like that. Was I to be impressed because this nerdy white guy was recreating so beautifully a traditionally black sound from decades back? Or was I to be unimpressed since, as a nerdy white guy myself, I too have always enjoyed the sounds of Motown and Stax?
Eventually, I bought the record and settled on the former notion. And despite the glut of similarly inclined singers who've risen to fame since I came across A Strange Arrangement, my opinion of Hawthorne has never wavered.
I think a large part of this has to do with the fact that Hawthorne, for all his effort, isn't the greatest singer in the world. And yet that's what makes his songs sound so authentic.
He's not some singer following a trend, settling upon soul music because his voice fits it. He performs it because he clearly has a love for it — and if his voice comes shy of a few notes, then so be it. It only ends up making his often lovelorn-centric offerings sound that much more like the genuine article.
A couple EPs and full-length offerings later and that much still rings true about Hawthorne's musical efforts, with one exception. Three years into his career as a soul singer, his vocals have somewhat improved. Not, thankfully, to the point of losing their charm. But improved nonetheless.
That much will be on display tomorrow night at the South Side Music Hall, as hawthorne and his backing band The County take the stage as part of the nonstop tour they've been embarked upon since the release of A Strange Arrangement and through last year's How Do You Do. In advance of that performance, I caught up with Hawthorne over the phone earlier this week to talk his hip-hop beginnings, his flair for all things fashionable and his interesting appreciation for a long-forgotten Dallas soul outfit.
Let's start by talking for a second about your Impressions EP, something I've wanted to ask you about for a while. You covered a song called “You've Got The Makings of a Lover” from an old Dallas band on that release.
Yeah! The Festivals! I just found another .45 from The Festivals! I thought I had them all, but I just found a new one in New York before that I'd never seen before. It's amazing. Every record I've ever heard from those guys is sick.
What do you know about those guys? There's not much info out there about them.
All I know is that I read somewhere that they're from Dallas. And that every song I've ever heard from them is the shit. They make kind of weird songs, man. Their chord progressions are real unexpected and their harmonies are amazing.
They just make fun music, and I'm all about fun, and I'm kind of strange, too. I like strange music, so it hits both of those.
I know you have a history of being a DJ before you became this soul performer. Are you just a big crate-digger? Is that your thing?
Yeah. I've been digging and collecting vinyl records since before I could read the labels on them, man. Since I was a little kid.
Is that how you got into the whole soul sound?
I learned a lot about soul music through digging for the samples for my favorite hip-hop tracks. I was a big hip-hop fan. Still am. I love rap music. I learned a lot about soul music through hip-hop and kind of reverse-engineering that formula.
But, being from Detroit, you're also from one of the birthplaces of that sound.
Yeah, I grew up in Detroit. But I grew up in the '80s and '90s. I wasn't alive in the '60s and '70s. So I don't know what it was like back then.
I grew up listening to Public Enemy and N.W.A. and Slum Village. I also got a healthy dose of, like, Detroit techno and electronic music as a whole, which is just huge in Detroit. And also a lot of punk rock, like Iggy & The Stooges and MC5 and all that and the White Stripes.
All that kind of got smashed together to get my sound.
You were in some punk rock bands before doing this soul thing, I know. What was it about the soul stuff that resonated with you, with the labels and with your audiences so differently?
You know, I think the magic behind Mayer Hawthorne was that, when I made the first couple of demo songs in my bedroom, it was music that I was just doing for me. And I never had any plans to release it to the public or to sell it or anything. It was really just shit I was doing for fun, just because I loved it. And I really think that was the secret to making it good.
Was that a tough lesson to learn?
Well, when you're making music, it's tough sometimes to look at it from that perspective. You want to be successful, and you want people to buy your records and come to see your show. So you start thinking, 'What can I do to get people to like it?' And it seems like such a simple thing to just make music that you love. But it's not always that easy to see it that clearly.
Is it weird then, that the thing you settled upon, even if it was an introspective thing for you, became such a popular movement in modern music?
I don't know. It's definitely not what I expected to happen. But it's not what I expected to do, either. I always thought I'd have a career in rap music. Honestly!
But soul music is sexy. And sex sells, I guess.
I know you just launched a fashion line, too. Wristwatches, right?
Yeah, I just released an amazing collaboration between me and this really amazing watch company called Flud Watches. The main thing that really attracted me to this company was that they were matching new watches that were just totally innovated and not like anything else I've ever seen. And anything I do, I'm always trying to be innovative and do something new and different. And it was a great opportunity between two innovative brands to come together and do something cool.
Soul music has always had an emphasis on style and a certain aesthetic. Is that part of what drew you to this as well?
For sure. My motto is always “Flashy, but classy.” You've got to be unique and stand out from the crowd and be original, but keep it classy at the same time. And I think we definitely achieved that with this watch.
You talk a lot about being original, but most people describe your sound is retro. Are you OK with that?
I don't really mind being called retro, I guess. Everyone's got to be called something. I don't care if you call me electro bro-beat chamber music. You can call it whatever you want — goth fruit-rock or whatever. I'm always about doing something new and music the music forward and not taking it back, but I don't care what you want to call it, so long as you're listening to it and telling your friends about it.
Are you surprised that the soul revival thing has had the staying power it has shown?
I mean, it definitely keeps getting bigger and bigger. A big part of that on our end, is that we just work harder than anyone else in the business. We're the hardest-working and in show business, for real. And we always make sure that every show is better than the one before. We just work really, really hard to make sure no one wants their money back when they come to see Mayer Hawthorne. That's the big secret to our success.
Have you ever had to do that? Give people their money back?
[Laughs.] No. But if they want their money back, they can have it.