Los Angeles-based musician Mayer Hawthorne is known for his old-school style of Motown and other classic soul—think Isaac Hayes, Holland-Dozier-Holland or Barry White—but Hawthorne adds a modern twist.
On his last album, “Where Does This Door Go,” Hawthorne brought on musician and producer Pharrell Williams—who has worked with Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar—to add that trendy electro sound to the record.
Hawthorne has a new record out. It’s called “Man About Town.” The Frame’s James Kim spoke with him about how personal events in his life inspired the new album, how his dad wanted him to have a back-up plan, and how the Detroit auto industry shaped his musical style and taste.
How much of your personal life bleeds into the songs you write?
The songs that I write ... a lot of times it's literally what happened to me that day, like "Get You Back." "Get You Back" starts with, "When you spoke, you were throwing those words at me. I didn't even understand what I did wrong. I got on a plane to Miami and when I got back you were gone." I wrote that song as it happened, and some of those stories are not easy to tell. It's heartbreaking. There were moments that weren't fun for me, but that's what people connect with. It's real.
What was the music scene like in your hometown?
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and there's been so many cool music people that have come from Ann Arbor. You know, Bob Seger and Iggy Pop, and Andrew W.K. was my next door neighbor growing up. I have photos of me and him as kids partying hard [laughs]—and, obviously, we're 25 miles west of Detroit and everything comes from there.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to become a musician?
I got super lucky that both of my parents are big music people. They had a big record collection. And my dad still plays bass and sings in a band in Detroit—he's 66 years old—and they gig hard. He knew how difficult it was to make it. It's nearly impossible. The chances of you being a successful musician are really slim, and he knew how hard it was. So he was like, "Yo, you better get that degree, bro."
What did you study in college?
I studied computer science at the University of Michigan.
Was there ever a point in your career that you thought that it was too tough to continue and that you might call it quits?
[Laughs] I mean, every day I have those thoughts of, "What if I just went back to being a computer programmer," or, "What if I just got a job in real estate." I would make a lot more money [laughs].
What's the initial starting point of writing one of your songs?
The way that I write songs is I never sit down and try and write a song. I write all my songs when I'm either driving around or when I'm in the grocery store. A song will pop into my head like a bolt of lightning out of the sky, and then I gotta check my cart and run out to the parking lot and sing into my voice-memo recorder. And everyone looks at me like I'm a crazy person.
Do you ever pay attention to how your music is received critically?
I've always gotten mixed reviews on everything I've done, which I think is great. Honestly, I make the music that is dope and I make the music I wanna ride around and bump in my car. If I'm the only one who wants to listen to it, then that's cool, man!
What is it about listening to music in your car that gives you that feeling?
I think that comes from growing up in the Motor City. The thing to do after school in Ann Arbor was to post up in your car—whoever had the dopest car, which was not me [laughs]—we would post up underneath the arch of Huron High School where you got the best echo-y acoustics underneath the tunnel there. You blasted what you thought was dope and everybody would just hang out and battle like that.
There's always gonna be that Detroit soul, hip-hop and Iggy Pop mentality of not giving an eff in everything that I do, but I gotta make music that I love, that's it. You gotta be genuine. People can hear it, people can tell immediately if it's genuine or not.
Mayer Hawthorne kicks off his tour in May in support of his new album, "Man About Town."