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Mayer Hawthorne: From Motown to Our Town

Andrew Cohen, starring as Mayer Hawthorne

Doug CoombeAndrew Cohen, starring as Mayer Hawthorne

Feeling blue or some other hue? Drop the needle down on Mayer Hawthorne’s just-out A Strange Arrangement record and take a trip down false-memory lane, where the slo-burn stylings of the great soul brothers and sisters of yore offered such sweet solace. It’s music that can do wonders for your heart and your mind.

Mayer Hawthorne is a nom de plume, a guise, a persona, a context in which the singer (born Andrew Mayer Cohen) can lay down some of the most sweetly, satisfyingly soulful music since the glory days of the Motown/Philly soul legends from which it draws its blood.

Some facts about Mayer Hawthorne:

“I grew up on the south side of Detroit, in Ann Arbor,” he says. “I come from a very musical family — my dad played bass guitar, and he taught me to play when I was real young. He still plays in the band. My mom was a piano player; she made me take piano lessons, which I hated.”

Hawthorne’s been making music in Detroit for most of his life, both messing around with multiple instruments and tape recorders in his bedroom, and as a DJ obsessed with hip-hop. He decided to move to L.A. a few years ago with his hip-hop crew, which is how he hooked up with Peanut Butter Wolf at Stones Throw. The famously knowledgeable PB Wolf got hold of a couple of rich and tasty soul-inspired-type tracks that Hawthorne had brought for him to check out. Wolf thought it was some from-the-vaults typa thing, it sounded so good. “These must be cover versions,” he recalls thinking, “now, why haven’t I heard them before? I want more.”

Thing is, those two tracks were just some throwaway stuff that Hawthorne had recorded as sort of a joke, and hadn’t put much thought into. Plus, he didn’t have any more tracks.

“I had only ever recorded two songs,” says Hawthorne with a chuckle, “and I hadn’t even written any more, nor did I have any plans to pursue a career in soul music, or even record a full album of that material. But Peanut Butter Wolf was blown away and asked me to record more of that material for Stones Throw — and you don’t say no to that.”

So Hawthorne set out to write and record several more cuts to make an album’s worth of material for release as A Strange Arrangement. And he didn’t just write and sing the stuff, he played most of it too, which, given the feel, the warmth of the album — the authenticity and non-lame-ass vibe of the whole trip — is a jaw-dropping revelation.

Hawthorne’s new-old soul songs are so timelessly good, it makes you wonder where they came from.

“I was mainly a hip-hop head,” he says. “I’m still listening to hip-hop every day and very influenced by it, and that’s what I grew up on. You know, I wasn’t around in the ’60s, when a lot of this incredible soul music was coming out of Detroit. I grew up in the hip-hop generation in the ’80s and ’90s, so you definitely hear a lot of that influence in my album.”

That influence isn’t blatant in Arrangement’s honeyed soul tracks; Hawthorne’s hip-hop DNA runs like a basic scheme through each of the album’s recombinant “greatest hits of soul” mélanges. What he’s doing is mix-’n’-matching all of his favorite parts — playing samples, in essence — of the best soul songs we ever heard and pumping them out again in new configurations. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, pre–Ernie guitar jams Isley Brothers, James Brown, Otis Redding, Al Green, O’Jays, Spinners, Stylistics, Delfonics, Chi-Lites, Archie Bell & the Drells, they all get their nods in Hawthorne’s mix. This particular pastiching is not at all cold and calculated either, and is a methodology not too far removed from what Jeff Lynne did with the Beatles’ catalog on all those now seemingly unique ELO hits of the ’70s.

At any rate, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” is like the lost link between Smokey Robinson and Madlib, Hawthorne’s silken falsetto and choral harmonies wrapping around a chunky cut-’n’-thrust break beat. The title track recalls Earth, Wind & Fire, in which acoustic piano and horn lines caress a lovely, fluttering vocal and ’70s jazzy pop chords designed to elevate and modulate in surprising ways. The heartbreak is assuaged in a bittersweet-delicious “that’s just the way things are” (puckish twinkles added for that sweet-sighing effect .).

“Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’ ” has the bum-bum-bum-da-dump-dump-da-da beat you know from a million Motownish hits, starting with “It Don’t Come Easy” by the Supremes. “I Wish It Would Rain” is not the Temps’ original but so close musically and lyrically that it’s like a very artistic inversion of it, as if to pay tribute and say, “You like this? Well, check out the source.”

All this is juiced up considerably by the man’s production skills. It will freak you out how, on “Make Her Mine,” he nails the Motown tandem bass & drums sound. “The Ills” is a poppy-peppy horn, drums and bongos–led hybrid of Curtis Mayfield and a party scene from Starsky and Hutch. The languid lounge piano and close-miked drums (so ’70s-studio) of “Shiny & New” suggest “You make me feel brand-new” all over again, now and for all time. .

It’s sincerity that has produced the greatest music of any kind, through history, from Bach to rock and back again. In Hawthorne’s case, the finely detailed realness of his sound owes ultimately to the love and respect he has for the musicians upon whose template he’s creating his own new, personal thing. Of course, a lot of people will refer, entirely moot-pointedly, to this new Hawthorne thing as “retro.”

“It was not my intention to make some kind of throwback imitation soul record,” he says. “I really wanted to make sure that I put my own stamp on it, and I moved the music forward, and I’m bringing it to a new generation of kids who didn’t grow up on that music, or missed out on it.”

And not to get overly solemn about all that love-and-respect bizness either, Hawthorne’s serious about having a good time with this thing.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the music,” he says, “and the music is extremely sincere. But it’s the fun factor that’s missing from a lot of music these days. Everybody wants to have fun, and I’ve been trying to keep it as fun as possible while being true to the music.”

Life got you down? Brokenhearted? Distressed? Get it off your chest by writing Dear Mayer at dearmayer@gmail.com. Mayer’s been through a lot in his young life, and he’s uniquely qualified to help you get yourself together. Please include your name and where you’re from, and check stonesthrow.com for the latest answers.

Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)