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Mayer Hawthorne: An Unsuspecting Soul

By Ninoy Brown, Photo by Jayne Liufeatures
Jun 14, 2009 - 2:17 PM

In the latter half of 2008, a falsetto soul song entitled “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” helped Stones Throw artist Mayer Hawthorne develop buzz. The nostalgic feel of the track and subsequent internet releases earned the Ann Arbor, MI native a following of fans yearning for more. Oh Dang! caught up with the singer to discuss soul music, cover songs, Robin Thicke, and how Mayer Hawthorne came to be.

Listen to "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out"

Listen to "Maybe So, Maybe No" (The New Holidays cover)

Oh Dang!: You started off as a DJ?

Mayer Hawthorne: I actually played bass before I started DJing. I played bass in local funk and rock bands in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. I started DJing when I got into hip-hop around ’95 or ’96. I really got into hip-hop music and got into a crew called the Athletic Mic League. We didn’t have a DJ. I had always wanted to try it out. I was the DJ/producer and we had 6 other MCs. I picked up DJing and been going strong for twelve years.

OD!: Is it true that you never received any formal singing and musical training?

MH: That’s true. I was never trained at anything. My father played bass guitar and taught me to play when I was really young, and that was not very formal at all. This is all very freestyle for me, and [I] pick it up on feel.

OD!: What made you decide to pick up the mic and start singing?

MH: I didn’t really … Soul music always resonated with me and been my favorite genre of music. When I first started digging for records, I dug for soul music. I decided one day that I was going to try to make a soul song. At first it was a joke, some shit on the side for my friends and family to get a kick out of. I never had plans to record a full album and make a career out of it. Those demo songs wound up in the hands of Peanut Butter Wolf. He flipped out and asked me to record a whole album of it. How can you say no to that? [“Just Ain’t Gonna Work It Out”] was the first song I ever recorded as Mayer Hawthorne.

OD!: So Mayer Hawthorne is a pseudonym?

MH: Mayer is my real middle name. Hawthorne is the street I grew up on in Ann Arbor.

OD!: How did you end up connecting with Peanut Butter Wolf and Stone Throw?

MH: I moved to Los Angeles a little over 3 years ago and ran into Peanut Butter Wolf at the Do-Over. I was introduced to him by a friend. She heard my Mayer Hawthorne songs and told Wolf that he had to hear this stuff. I’m sure he gets it a hundred times a day; people trying to submit demos to him. So of course he was mad skeptical. I sent him the tracks and didn’t hear back from him for about a month. I was moving and not expecting anything out of that. Out of the blue I get an email from him that says, “Hey, I like these tracks. Who is it?” At that point, Wolf was assuming that the tracks that I gave him were some old soul tracks that I dug up from the 60’s. He didn’t understand that they were new and that I had produced, written, and sang them. Once he figured that out, he sent me a contract the next week.

OD!: How’s the reaction been from folks who hear the music, realize it’s a new track, and then see you?

MH: Generally, at first, it’s like, “What the hell is going on right now? Who is this dude? What is he doing?” Shortly after that, it’s like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” It’s been very positive. I’m extremely fortunate to be in this situation that I’m in right now. The support just from these couple of songs has been overwhelming.

OD!: I read a comment on the Soul Sides blog saying you reminded him of a “Robin Thicke for people who go to Dusty Groove's.”

MH: (laughs) I like Robin Thicke. I don’t have a problem with that. I like Dusty Grooves too. I shop there; it’s a good record store. They’ve sold a lot of my records. So shout out to Dusty Grooves.

OD!: On that same note, what would your response be to someone saying that you're appropriating African-American music?

MH: Most people that hear my music for the first time are surprised to find out that I'm white. Of course I'm aware that Soul music is traditionally Black music. Perhaps it has something to do with my Jewish heritage, I don't know, but I've always been drawn to this music. I'm sure there will be plenty of people down the road that will make an issue of it, but I've worked hard most of my life to gain the respect of my peers and to educate myself on the history of the art form. I'm definitely thankful to have cats like Q-Tip, Madlib and even ex-Motowners like Hermon Weems supporting me.

OD!: How did you come up with the concept for the heart-shaped 7”?

MH: I wanted my first single to be a collector’s item for DJs. Since I’m a big vinyl nerd, I wanted the DJs to have something collectible from me and make a lasting impression that people would hold onto forever. Both of the songs dealt with love and relationships. It was a really expensive thing to do, and [I] expected them to laugh in my face and tell me to take a hike. To my surprise, they said sure.

OD!: You mentioned that the tracks you put out deal with a lot of relationship issues. How real are these songs for you?

MH: It varies. Some of them are completely fabricated out of thin air. Most of my songs deal with relationships because that’s been what’s coming out. I would say the majority of them are loosely based on real life experiences. From my life and my dealings with the opposite sex.

OD!: What can you say about your latest track, “Maybe So, Maybe No?"

MH: It’s a cover of a Detroit soul ’45 from a group called the New Holidays. It was produced by Popcorn Wiley. It’s one of my favorite soul records ever.

OD!: Do you plan to cover any more soul songs?

MH: I do have one other cover on the album. I’m not sure if I’m going to do any more. Covers are fun, though. You learn a lot. I’m a serious student of the music. I really analyze and over-analyze a song. I really study it and break it down into the very minor details, which is usually what makes the songs great. I’m constantly learning and studying great songs and trying to figure out what makes them great, trying to apply them to my own music. Doing covers is a great way to learn and educate yourself and grow as an artist.

OD!: You have a band that backs you up, right?

MH: The County is my band when I perform live. On this tour I’m playing with James Pants’ band, The Royal Zodiac. My next tour will be with my full band. They are a lot of the musicians that I grew up with in Detroit. I’m fortunate enough to play with them again. Some of the cats are from LA that I’ve picked up. They’re a good crew. [Performing] has been a learning experience.

OD!: The Detroit to LA migration. Was that a business move?

MH: It was partly business. All of us had grown up in Detroit, spending most of our lives there. We just needed change. We were sick of shoveling snow. It was a good thing for everybody. Detroit will always be my home. There’s a lot of music industry in Los Angeles, as opposed to Detroit, where there is a lot of talent but not industry. It’s unfortunate that a lot of musicians have to leave Detroit to further their musical careers.

OD!: With the success of Mayer Hawthorne, is that taking over or are you still operating as DJ Haircut?

MH: I’m still operating as DJ Haircut. I’m one guy. It’s all me. It’s just switching modes. Sometimes it’s tough to try to separate the two 'cause it’s really all just me. It’s just a mindset. But it’s all fun. I think that’s a big reason that people are drawn to it. Everybody wants fun.

OD!: What’s your goal for the project?

MH: What I told Wolf when I signed with Stones Throw was that if I had the vinyl LP for that album in my hand, that I would be good. That was the only thing I needed. Everything else besides that will be a bonus for me. When I hold the vinyl in my hand, I’ve made it. I hope to have it out in early fall. It’s called A Strange Arrangement.


Ninoy Brown is a pseudonym for one of the most Hip-Hop school counselors you'll meet. You can peep his other stuff at FOBBDeep and WireTap.

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