Mayer Hawthorne never planned on being a soul singer, much less the hottest white soul singer of 2009. Heck, he never even planned on being Mayer Hawthorne.
Before the smoothly seductive single “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” caught the attention of Stones Throw Records, his California label, Andrew Mayer Cohen was an aspiring hip-hop artist known as DJ Haircut, an identity he established with southeastern Michigan groups such as Now On and Athletic Mic League before moving from Ann Arbor to Los Angeles four years ago. Now, however, he’s being celebrated for his debut album, “A Strange Arrangement,” which was released in September to rave reviews from critics and peers.
Producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Adele), for instance, crowed, “I have no idea what this is, old or new, but it’s (expletive) good!” John Mayer was impressed enough that he got ahold of Hawthorne and asked him to open two shows for him, including a New Year’s Eve date in Las Vegas. And Snoop Dogg recently reached out to Hawthorne to remix one of his tracks.
“It’s been an insane whirlwind for me,” says Hawthorne, 30, who’s been so busy that he adds “it’s really hard to justify even paying rent” in Los Angeles anymore. “It’s really surreal. When I first started recording songs for this album, I don’t think anyone — including myself or my label or my friends — would’ve ever expected that it to receive as much attention as it did. “This was really just sort of a side project for me. It was something I was doing for myself, just an experiment on the side. I assumed I would put this album out and carry on with my hiphop career, but that hasn’t been the case. It’s gotten so much bigger than I ever anticipated.”
Hawthorne — whose stage name combines his middle name with the name of the street he lived on in Ann Arbor — credits his parents with introducing him to soul music. “They were buying me records before I could even read the labels on ’em,” he recalls. His father, who owns an auto parts store, played a steady stream of Motown and classic rock for his son and also taught him to play bass at “an insanely young age.”
“I remember one of the first albums that I really was obsessed with was the Police, ‘Synchronicity,’ ” Hawthorne says. “I borrowed my dad’s cassette tape of it and wore it out. I remember he made me buy him a new one ’cause I ruined his by playing it so much.”
Hip-hop — particularly artists such as Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Nas and De La Soul — gave a teenage Hawthorne his “own musical identity in high school,” but it didn’t diminish his homeschooled love for soul.
“Hip-hop music draws extremely heavily on soul music,” Hawthorne notes, “and I got into producing hip-hop, which in turn led to me digging for a lot of the samples that are used in a lot of my favorite rap songs. That kind of brought me full circle back to soul music.”
He was writing songs from the time he was in high school, but Hawthorne says that it took awhile before he was satisfied with his work.
“I never felt like I was a good songwriter until recently,” he explains. “I don’t know what happened; something kind of clicked in me and ... I actually started writing good songs. But it took awhile.”
He also has no real explanation for where “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” came from. “Like most of the songs I write nowadays, it feels like it beamed out of the sky,” says Hawthorne. He actually cooked up the song while he was driving to a party at a friend’s house in Detroit and called his home voicemail to preserve the ideas.
“When I got home that night from the party, I recorded it,” he adds. “That was the first Mayer Hawthorne song.”
Hawhthorne thought he was signing a one-off singles deal with Stones Throw Records in Los Angeles for “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” but company owner Peanut Butter Wolf sent him a contract for an album and convinced an initially reluctant Hawthorne to work up 11 more tracks that range from the smooth Chicago flavor of the title track, “Maybe So, Maybe No” and “Green Eyed Love” to the buoyant Motown bops of “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” “Make Her Mine” and “One Track Mind.” But even with its success, Hawthorne contends there’s room for improvement.
“I’m still very much learning how to be a singer,” he says, “ ’cause it’s something that’s relatively new for me. I’ve been making music for over 10 years now, but this my first foray into singing. I’ve had to really learn to use my voice as an instrument and take care of it, which is something you take for granted.”
He’ll have time to keep studying. Though he has other musical projects in mind, including a “new wave album,” Mayer Hawthorne, soul singer, is his primary concern these days — and for the near future, at least.
“I’m pretty focused on supporting this album now,” Hawthorne says. “I’m gonna be on the road for a while. But I’m always working on new music, always thinking about new music and working on a few different projects. I’ve got songs written for the next Mayer Hawthorne album as well ... but this Mayer Hawthorne album has me pretty tied up right now.”
Mayer Hawthorne and Will Sessions perform Saturday (Dec. 19) at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. Call (313) 833-9700 or visit www.majesticdetroit.com.
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