Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Distinguished Gentleman: Mayer Hawthorne defies Detroit's odds

by Thomas Matich

In the wake of the race riots in Detroit during 1968, Barry Gordy relocated to Los Angeles and began to transition Motown Records to the west coast. Despite losing the brilliant Funk Brothers session band and valuable songwriters in
Holland-Dozier-Holland, who penned a majority of the classics, the record label continued to flourish well into the '80s with artists such as Marvin Gaye, Rick James and Lionel Richie. But the magic that defined the golden Motown sound eventually faded away. Currently, Lil' Wayne is Universal-Motown's flagship artist. A far cry from Dianna Ross and The Supremes.

In 2009, the best "Motown" music was produced by a hip-hop head from Ann Arbor. And like Barry Gordy, Mayer Hawthorne relocated to Los Angeles a few years ago. Who could blame him? Detroit is about as an attractive place to live as it was in 1968 when the city was burning. But, the music is still great.

Mayer Hawthorne's debut album, A Strange Arrangement, is one of the most lovable records to come out of Detroit in years. It's got the soul of Smokey Robinson and the sonic boom of J. Dilla. Hawthorne cut his teeth in Ann Arbor for years as "Haircut," rapping and DJing with the Now On and Athletic Mic Cub crews. While AML beast Buff 1 might have been your textbook emcee (and a magnificent one) who was getting some NahRight love and poised to make some waves, it was Andrew Mayer Cohen's "porn name" incarnation that went from silly side-project to album deal with Stones Throw and turned into Detroit's next Madonna story.

It's a pretty big deal because in some ways there wasn't a lot to be excited about for Detroit music this year (especially compared to the last couple years). Certainly, national bands weren't as interested in playing here as much as they used to. Moondagger didn't get a 10.0 on Pitchfork. Reunions of irrelevant old garage rock bands didn't do it for me. And as much as I love these guys, there's got to be more ways than this of proving to Time Magazine that Detroit is the coolest place for "young creatives" to live...

So yes, the best thing about Detroit this year was Mayer Hawthorne. And he doesn't even live here anymore...

But he will be at the Magic Stick on December 19th for a show no one with good taste in music should miss. Deep Cutz spoke with Mayer in anticipation.

Thomas Matich/Deep Cutz: How are you?
Mayer Hawthorne: I’m well, thanks.

Where are you?
I am in Los Angeles right now enjoying a few days at home.

I'll be there for the holidays, looking forward to warmer weather.

Well, it’s not real warm right now it’s raining and cold. It's probably not that much different from Michigan at this point [Laughs].

Well, it feels good to hear something that is R&B, soul and hip-hop influenced that isn’t using auto-tune.

[Laughs]. I’d have to agree with you on that.

You know, Jay-Z had “Death of Auto-tune,” but you turn on the radio and you still hear that auto-tune. Do you think you’re helping getting back to regular singing?

I don’t really think about it too much. I’m not one to knock what’s popular, if that’s what people want more power to them. But I’ve always thought that most of the songs that I’ve heard that are using auto-tune I’d like them better if they just sang it. And even for me I listened to Kanye’s 808s album where he used auto-tune the entire album and I personally enjoy real singing a lot more even if it's not great singing I'd much rather hear someone not sing it that well than hear it through auto-tune. It feels more genuine that way.

And it’s funny when you got someone like R. Kelly that actually has a good voice and is using auto-tune. It’s like wait a minute!

Yeah, there are a lot of artists like that. T-Pain is actually a pretty solid vocalist. He can sing well without the auto-tune so yeah it’s confusing but that’s what’s crackin’ right now.

When I go through my iTunes your record always follows-up Maxwell’s BLACKSummers'Night. Both you guys put out really fantastic albums. I was wondering if you had a chance to listen to his record and what do you think of what he’s doing right now?

I have a great deal of respect for Maxwell. I haven’t had a chance to really dig into his album but I was extremely impressed at his numbers when his album dropped this year. I’m not an industry stats guy but I remember it being one of the highest selling albums for the first week that it was out and that was really impressive to me, being an artist that hasn’t been in the spotlight for a while.

You and Deastro have been the two artists from Detroit that were nominated for Pitchfork's new artist of the year. I think in Detroit most people, in 2008 and 2007, if they were betting on the next big thing to come out of the area, they were definitely thinking Randy Chabot/Deastro. It seems that even though his album was great you’ve had the most success this year and I was wondering how you feel about that?

Well, all I can say is that I am just as surprised as everyone else; I mean it’s been a really wild ride this past year since I’ve been with Stones Throw. I don’t think anyone that I know could’ve ever predicted how much attention this project would receive and how well it would do so it’s thrilling and surprising for me.

Deastro is so heavily tied to Detroit and people were betting on him. You’re in L.A. and you’re having all this success, do you think if you were still in Detroit you would be having the same amount of success?

All right, this is a two-part answer. Part one is that I’ve spent the majority of my life in Detroit really working my ass off to make it in music and to make music for a living. I moved to L.A. about four years ago with the same goal in mind, to make it in music and I don’t think that I would be where I am today if I hadn’t made that move to Los Angeles. But I think a big part of my success has to do with my years that I spent in Detroit and the attitude and work ethic that was instilled in me from growing up in that area and working there for so long.

I get you.

When I moved out to L.A. I brought Detroit with me and everything that I do I’m representing Detroit.

So how does it make you feel that a guy who lives in Detroit, he’s working really hard and is doing as much as he can and he goes to L.A. and all of a sudden it’s easier?

It’s something that I’ve thought about a great deal and it’s something that I’m really personally hoping that I can change. One of the big goals for me with this music is hopefully I can really shine some more light on Detroit and help turn things around there.

I was watching that video where you covered M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and I’m like “This is dope, he’s like the hipster/hip-hop culture’s answer to Michael Bublé.”

Michael Bublé! [Laughs]. That’s funny cause I was just talking about that guy the other day and thinking about how cool it would be to record an album like that but to make it cool. Cause Michael Bublé’s insanely popular right now…

But he’s not the coolest guy...

Yeah, “cool” is definitely not one of the adjectives that I’d used to describe him. But I’ve been really thinking about recording that sort of pop-vocal Sinatra-style Tony Bennett album.

I think that be really dope.

I’d love to do it.

Would that be the next move? What do you want to do next with Mayer Hawthorne?

Well, I’m gonna be touring for a long time to support this album. There’s so many people out there who have still never even heard of Mayer Hawthorne so I’m gonna really focus on getting the most out of this album and introducing as many people as I can to this music. But the formula for the future is the same as it is now and it’s just to have as much fun as possible and to do whatever feels right so if that means doing a Michael Bublé then that’s what it’s gonna be.

Do you change your fashion as Mayer Hawthorne changes?

That’s interesting because even when I was making hip-hop music in Detroit I think anyone who’s ever come to see a Now On or AML [Athletic Mic League] show knows that I’ve always sorta dressed this way. Even as a hip-hop DJ I was wearing argyle sweaters, collared shirts and ties so whatever I’m doing I always like to keep it classy.

When you don’t follow a trend you stay timeless.

It’s important for me to update it always. I’m wearing a lot of vintage suits but I always rock it with a pair of Air Jordans, you know, something that brings it to 2010.

Have you had a chance to record with Ghostface or The Roots cause I read that’s something you were trying to do?

I have not but I did multiples show with both Ghostface and The Roots.

How does it feel to do shows with them?

It’s incredible. Those are artists that I’ve looked up to for years.

Most of the album deals with love songs; it’s heartbreak and the giddiness of romance. What’s the inspiration? Do you have a love interest?

Well, I mean yeah, I’m a regular guy just like everybody else. [Laughs]. I’ve had my share of love and relationships, triumphs and heartbreak. But I think the main thing, for me, I’ve been making hip-hop music for the past ten years and hip-hop doesn’t deal well with love and relationships, it’s always sorta awkward. Hip-Hop is a very raw and chauvinistic form of music; it’s not easy to make love songs in rap. So I think all of those songs have been building up over the years and now that I have an outlet to get those emotions out they’re all flooding out now.

So you’re more of a gentleman then?

Oh definitely.

This show on December 19th seems like it’ll be your biggest Detroit show ever, like a holiday homecoming.

[Laughs]. I hope so. I’m super excited. On our recent U.S. tour we didn’t have a date in Detroit and I was really upset about that so this is sorta a redemption for me, something I’ve been looking forward to for a really long time.

In this city, there’s this post J-Dilla cloud that lingers sometimes. But there seems to be even more success now, you and Black Milk are doing incredible things. Do you think you guys are making whatever dreams Dilla had come true?

Dilla is a legend. He’s one of the all time greats and he opened a lot of doors for artists in Detroit. I think what he instilled in myself and artists like Black Milk is the creativity aspect. Dilla was a guy who never did what other artists did, he did his own thing. He always kept things extremely creative, new and fresh. He was extremely innovative and I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken from him.

When you were on the cover of the Metro Times a couple months back they did a photo shoot with you in front of Hitsville and I thought “Wow, that’s a pretty bold statement.” How did that feel?

Well, I wasn’t even alive during the hey-day of Motown and I remember when we were taking those photos they wouldn’t even let us inside to shoot so we shot out front. But that to me was sorta like a message: it’s time to move on and to come up with something new. Hopefully people listening to my album feel like it’s something new and it’s progression. It’s really important for me that this new generation that’s listening to my music doesn’t feel like it’s there parent’s music. //DC//

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