Indie artist Mayer Hawthorne wants to go pop. For those who remember his first full-length record from five years ago, the change in direction is obvious, and Hawthorne’s publicist says as much.
“He’s relaxed his DIY ethos of crafting every song from start to finish,” reads the multi-talented R&B musician’s bio. “Now, he’s motivated to create soul music that can win—win on the radio, win on the charts, win over clubs.”
Hawthorne emerged on an obscure hip-hop record label in 2008, singing throwback R&B tunes that sounded like extended rap track hooks. It was a comfortable, eccentric niche for a self-taught singer with a good voice that lacked refinement.
With his latest release, Hawthorne is upping the stakes. His eyes are on the prize, and the prize is male vocalist super stardom. Will he make it? Hard to say. But it’s probably worth checking him out at The Jefferson Theater on September 18 just in case he does blow up.
Hawthorne spoke to C-VILLE Weekly by phone to promote the upcoming gig.
C-VILLE Weekly: I’m going to say the names of a couple singers. Give me your first reaction. Justin Timberlake.
Mayer Hawthorne: Awesome. Amazingly talented. I wanna do a song with him.
I am going on tour with him for eight weeks in Europe. I can’t wait. Those guys are some of the hardest working dudes out there, and anytime I see Bruno perform, I am like, ‘I have got to go rehearse.’ We really push each other.
I just deejayed a party with him—the pre-party for the VMAs. This was the first time I had met Robin, and he was super cool.
What do you think about all this “Blurred Lines” controversy?
I think a little controversy is good. Is it a good song? Yeah, it’s a good song. And that’s all I really care about. Any time a song is as big as “Blurred Lines,” there are going to be haters and people trying to discredit it. That’s a sign you’re doing something right.
You started out as an oddity on the primarily hip-hop indie label Stones Throw. What’s the ride been like going from that to being on Leno?
It’s been incredible. It’s always nice to see your hard work paying off. I am a work hard, play hard dude and I just want to make sure we keep growing. It is nonstop work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wake up every day and am so thankful I get to make music for a living.
How would you explain your growth in popularity?
I think it is about moving the music forward. Obviously people will always have love for classic music in general, but it’s the people that create something new that are the most successful.
As you transition to the mainstream, how do you stand out from other pop acts?
I try to make sure I am doing something nobody else sounds like. That’s one of the reasons that on this new album I wanted to do everything different. It was time to switch it up. You’ve got to keep evolving. There are always going to be people that want you to make the same album over and over, but you can’t do that.
How specifically do you make sure you keep evolving?
Singing is the thing I work hardest at. It’s a learning process. I was not a trained singer when I started, and it’s something I’ve learned how to do in the public eye. It’s not an easy thing to learn. It’s like playing a saxophone or piano—you have to treat it like an instrument. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something, so I’ve got a long way to go.
How do you use your different skills at this point in your career?
It’s always a balance of everything. There is more deejaying on this new album than ever before. I went back to my roots and did all the scratching on the album. When I’m deejaying, it’s all about getting people to move and have a good time. I have definitely applied that knowledge heavily on this album. These days, I only rap along with my favorite Mobb Deep songs in the car.
Tell me about the songwriting/producing process for you.
I recorded over 45 songs for this new album, and one of the things I tried to do was throw all the rules out. The only rule I had was that it had to be fun. Every situation was different. Sometimes I would walk in the room and say, “Hey Greg Wells, nice to meet you for the first time ever, now let’s write a hit song.” I got a lot of help from some unbelievably talented people on this album. Pharrell Williams is on the record. He got me to focus on telling stories in the most detailed manner possible. Two heads are always better than one.
I’ve heard you say you’ve moved away from some of the musicians you used to cite as influences.
I grew up just outside of Detroit, so obviously the Motown influence is super heavy there. It’s something we are really proud of. But there are so many different types of music in that area, and it’s a really diverse place musically.
The name of the new album is Where Does This Door Go. Tell me more about the meaning of that.
The album is all about a journey into the unknown. It’s about going through that door where you don’t know what’s on the other side. The cover is a representation of the fear of not knowing what is through that door but also the excitement of going on a new adventure.
I think sometimes it’s hard for R&B acts to translate live. How will you make sure the Jefferson audience has a good time?
We work harder than anybody to make sure nobody ever wants their money back when they come to see Mayer Hawthorne live. Our audiences get a real show, not just a concert. It’s a party, and I’m in charge of leading the party. Part of having this incredible live band is that I can be spontaneous. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always going to be fun.
At the risk of this ending awkwardly, I think the ladies of Charlottesville might be interested to know if you have a girlfriend.
I’m single and looking to mingle, as James Brown says.