In the early 2000s, when Andrew Mayer Cohen was in his 20s, he moved from his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a hip-hop DJ. He had been DJing clubs and parties in Detroit but was ready to take things more seriously.
At a party in L.A., the artist now known as Mayer Hawthorne handed hip-hop producer and Stones Throw record label owner Peanut Butter Wolf a demo: Wolf said the beats were no good but loved the soul samples in the background. When Wolf found out they weren’t samples — Hawthorne had created all the soul sounds on his own, playing all the instruments, to avoid paying to sample classic soul songs — Wolf suggested he pursue soul music.
Hawthorne has since released five albums — including For All Time, released on Oct. 27 — and continues to tour, pursue side projects and collaborations, and DJs parties and events. With his glasses, coiffed hair, and suits and loungewear, he’s like the Buddy Holly or Hugh Heffner of contemporary soul music.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Hawthorne recently over Zoom about his latest album, upcoming tour, his unexpected beginnings as a soul singer, and what he's learned from collaborating with younger artists.
Describe the plan going into this most recent album: How did this new batch of songs come together, and what did that process look like?
I did a lot of mushrooms and came up with a lot of super psychedelic sounding stuff. This is definitely my most psychedelic record. I was listening to a lot of Ethiopian and Turkish jazz and African funk.
I’ve been really obsessed with the song “Mot Adèladlogn” by Tèshomè Meteku, and music from Mulatu Astatke. I remember buying a Mulatu LP at a record fair in the mid 2000s for like $10 and now it's a thousand-dollar LP. Ethiopian music can be dark and mysterious sounding, and that really hooked me.
But the really big thing is that I met someone and got married. This album is a lot about finding real love that is for all time.
Congratulations. That’s a big milestone.
Dating in L.A. is brutal. It can be a very lonely place. I’m so unbelievably grateful to the universe for sending me my wife. I definitely went through some dark times, so this album is a celebration of love.
So much of your music is about love and romance. What’s different or unique with this new batch of songs?
It’s definitely the sexiest album I've ever made. I'm predicting a baby boom in 2024. Music about love is the music I probably love the most, like Isaac Hayes and Barry White. All the best Beatles songs are about love.
I think prior to this record, I was known for bitter, angsty breakup songs. My (2016) Man About Town LP was all about frustration and loneliness and the inability to find love and happiness. They are still fun songs, but I was trying to hide the sadness in the fun. This new record is like a 180 from that.
Typically, where do new song ideas come from for you?
My best ideas come when I’m in the car. When you’re driving you switch off part of your brain, and something else pops up, and it frees up something in your brain. Mayer Hawthorne songs just come out of the sky. It’s more about me trying to reverse engineer out of my head and get it on tape. I don't usually come up with something on the spot like I might when I work with other artists. Mayer Hawthorne stuff is more personal.
Sometimes I come up with demos that I think would be cool for another artist, and they’ll listen and say well this is amazing but you are the only person who could do this song. I have my own unique style of songwriting and the only thing that matters with music is that you do something unique and original that can cut through the noise, and that’s not easy.
You produce and write for other artists, including Doja Cat. What’s your approach to producing? When other artists come to you and want to collaborate, what do you think they’re looking for, exactly?
I’m at the point where I have some experience under my belt and something to offer when I work with younger artists. Sometimes they don't know the difference between a pre-chorus and a bridge or a major triad and a minor 7th chord. Some don't play an instrument, they just do everything in FruityLoops. It’s very liberating and so much fun. It's inspiring for me.
I love being around the energy of young people, it keeps me young. Blu DeTiger played bass for me on my record, and I’m in awe of her playing. She’s incredible. I worked with Jordan Ward a lot, and his writing is so instinctual and creative. I get more out of these sessions than they do. It helps me so much to not become that old cranky guy and say music now sucks. I don’t ever wanna be that guy.
You were nominated for a GRAMMY Award for the special box set of your 2013 album How Do You Do, and nominated again for your work on Doja Cat's Planet Her. How have those nominations affected your musical career?
It’s always cool to be recognized by your peers in the business, people I have tremendous respect for. It feels cool to be part of something. We’re all out here working hard, but you never know what will be a hit or what will have an impact. You do the best you can all the time and cross your fingers, and if you're lucky, some shit really goes.
To have started the way I did, as a DJ from Ann Arbor who moved to L.A. and tried to make hip-hop music, and ended up sort of accidentally having a career in soul music, and now still being here and being involved with someone as cool as Doja Cat. It's so cool to stay relevant in that way and have so much fun doing it.
You started off as a DJ, and you still DJ for parties and events. How do you approach DJing, and how has it evolved over the years?
I’ve been DJing since high school. I still consider myself a better DJ than a musician or singer. I can DJ with my eyes closed, it's like second nature to me at this point. So much of it is just reading the room. You have to know instinctively what to play at the right moment to make people move.
I DJed a pool party for Kourtney Kardashian and she wanted only 1950s music. That was so much fun, playing doo wop and sock hop jams. I love things like that, I had so much fun. I did a Star Wars disco party for Disney recently, and got to pull all my Italian disco, spaced-out vocoder jams, and electronic shit. That was so cool. I love doing that. DJing is still my number one love.
Your vinyl collection has been described as "insane." How so?
That is accurate. I listen to so many styles of music, and I collect everything from Doris Day records and the Chordettes to Sun Ra and British psych rock. I’m all over the map.
Siamese Dream from Smashing Pumpkins is one of my favorite albums of all time. I used to set my alarm clock in high school to Helmet because it was the only way to get me out of bed. I recently got on a plane to Toronto just to go to this crazy record convention for super vinyl nerds like me. It’s an expensive ass habit, but vinyl is my thing.
You live-streamed “Wine and Vinyl Hour” DJ sets from your house during Covid. How did that come about?
It’s something I do anyway at home, just spinning records and having wine, so my manager said why not just turn the camera on and let other people in on it?
It turned into this thing and became bigger than me. People started showing up just to talk to each other. It was something to look forward to every Thursday and it turned into this big community I was not expecting. It was amazing.
Since 2015, you’ve collaborated with producer Jake One on the boogie funk group, Tuxedo. You’ve released three albums and done multiple world tours. How did that project come about? How is Tuxedo different from your solo work?
Tuxedo is just Jake and I making songs we want to ride around in my 87 Benz and listen to for fun. Jake and I both have successful careers without it, so Tuxedo is just icing on the cake. That's why it's good. It’s a celebration of having a good time and dancing and being happy. It’s about joy.
You told the Detroit Free Press in 2009 that Mayer Hawthorne is a character torn in time between 1965 and 2009, heavily influenced by Motown and '60s soul, but moving the music forward and creating something new. How has your character evolved over the years?
Over the years, Mayer Hawthorne has definitely become less of a character. It comes much more from a genuine place of my real life, as I get older and experience things and live life.
When you’re young you don't have much experience, so you have to make stuff up. Then you live and you can tell your story for real. As I get older, it’s much more the real me you’re getting, which is very cool, and scary at the same time. There’s less to fall back on.
And how do you make '60s soul sound new?
I never want people to hear my records and wonder if it's new or not. When you listen to this new album, it's clearly influenced by the Delfonics and Isaac Hayes and Steely Dan, but there’s no way you're confused and think it's an old record you missed from the '70s. I’ll never do classic '70s Philly soul better than the Delfonics. Plenty of artists do regurgitation of something old, but I’m all about putting my new spin on it.
I grew up in the Detroit area, but Motown had long moved to California and there was nothing really left. I grew up listening to J Dilla and Slum Village — that was my music, not my parents' music. Classic soul music had a profound effect on me, but I learned more about it from hip-hop producers who sampled it than the actual artists.
Your debut album, Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, came out in 2008 on Stones Throw. It was soulful and fun and also very youthful; it sounded retro and modern at the same time. You were 29 then.
I just really wanted to make it as a rap producer in LA, and was so excited to meet Peanut Butter Wolf. I met him at a party and gave him my rap beats. He said they were terrible, but asked about the soul samples. They weren’t samples; I had made them on the side so I could sample myself for free and not have to pay for royalties. He said you're not that good at making rap beats, but youre good at making soul, so you should do that.
I thought for sure it would be a side project. I didn't think there would be a possibility of that being my trajectory. But then it just connected with people. I was like holy s—, now I have to perform these songs live, and I had never sang in front of an audience and I didn’t have a band. I was like how does anybody do this? It was so unorthodox.
How did you get into hip-hop initially? What/who were you listening to? What was the appeal?
Rap music exploded in Ann Arbor around 1993. If you didn't have Black Moon's "Enta Da Stage" or Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle on cassette or CD you were wack. My friend's high school rap group needed a DJ, so I saved up and bought two used turntables off eBay. I had about a dozen 12" singles from Nas, Pharcyde and Wu-Tang, and I practiced scratching and mixing in my bedroom all day, every day.
I think I was mostly drawn to hip-hop because it was different and rebellious. My parents hated it, so it made me love it more.
Did you always want to pursue music seriously or were there other pursuits you had considered?
My dad is a bass player and he taught me to play when I was 6 or so. I wanted to play drums but my parents didn't want me banging on s— all day in the house. I would do my own Michael Jackson performances just for my family with the one sparkly white glove.
I was in a bunch of bands throughout middle school and high school, including one experimental rock band with Andrew WK who was my neighbor growing up. I studied computer science in college but it was mostly to please my parents.
I always knew I wanted to make music, but I never imagined I would be a soul singer. I never sang in any of the groups I was in, I was always the bass player or the DJ somewhere in the background.
You’ve had a great 15-year run so far.
I wake up every morning still unbelievably grateful and thankful that I get to do this for a living. Part of the reason I’m still here is that I always expected one day it would be over. I just try to have as much fun as I can while I'm doing it. I just never want to be boring, or middle of the road, that’s the worst.
I’m still learning so much. Every time I do a session with a 19-year-old from the UK, I learn so much also. I’m supposed to be the veteran in the room, but I learn just as much from them as they do from me.
You’ll do a short tour in January and February. What do you have planned for those shows? How has your live show evolved over the years?
The tour is called Hawthorn Rides Again. We will switch things up with new band members and live drums. I’m not the same 20-something guy I was when I first started touring. I feel like I'm a different person, so I want the show to reflect that.
It will sound as close to the record as possible. I can't stand it when I see a band and it doesn't sound like the record. Mainly I want the tour to be a joyous celebration of love.
Looking ahead, what’s next for you in 2024 after the tour?
I'm really looking forward to writing and producing more with other cool artists like MAX, Eyedress, Aaron Frazer, and Blu DeTiger. When you're working with other artists you just gotta cross your fingers and hope that the songs actually get released.
I've been working on so many cool projects behind the scenes and a lot of them are finally coming out. It's an exciting new frontier for me. I have so many artists on my dream list to work with. Rosalía, if you're reading this, call me.
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