Mayer Hawthorne considers L.A. to be the best food city in the world right now — a fairly bold claim from a man who plans his tour to target the places in the world where he wants to eat. This Culver City foodie names the Westside’s Apple Pan as his favorite spot, swearing it makes the best banana cream pie in the world. He also slyly notes that a few guys working there look as if they probably opened the joint back in 1947.
Andrew Mayer Cohen, aka Hawthorne, approaches his music with the same zest as his culinary cravings. As a DJ, producer, singer and songwriter, he reaches into various genres of music, but finds himself pulled back into soul every time.
As a young kid, he performed as Michael Jackson for his family, sequined white glove and all. As an adult, his work with other artists he's looked up to, such as Pharrell Williams (on 2013's Where Does This Door Go), and Memphis soul legend Booker T. Jones, has helped him explore the depths of his own soul. His soon-to-be-released Man About Town (out April 8 on Vagrant Records) gets deeply personal on topics of love, loneliness and heartbreak in the City of Angels.
Hawthorne kicks off his national tour at the Observatory in Santa Ana on May 4, and will open the Santa Monica Pier concert series in July. In the meantime, he spoke with L.A. Weekly about his ghetto house roots, the greatest day of his life, and the surprising reason he made the youthful switch from hip-hop DJ to soul singer.
You’re diverse in your music talents and tastes. Tell me about some of your different projects.
I did a side project called Tuxedo, with my producer friend from Seattle, Jake One. It was like a disco-oriented project that came out last year. I did another project called Jaded Incorporated with a producer from Detroit, 14KT. That is like new wave ghetto house. It’s a really weird one, it went over a lot of people’s heads. I think people who only know me as Mayer Hawthorne were probably shocked. I’m glad I got it out there, because it’s a big part of who I am. That Detroit ghetto house was part of my childhood; that was the music we would listen to in the clubs and when we would drive back and forth from Ann Arbor to Detroit.
What inspired you to go into music?
I was very lucky that both my parents are very musical. My dad taught me bass when I was 6. He still plays and sings in a band in Detroit. My mom is into musicals; I think she’s doing Bye Bye Birdie next week.
Were you into rap as a kid?
Yes, that’s what I fell in love with. LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer was the first tape I ever bought. It was so different and rebellious. My parents hated it, so I loved it even more.
How did you evolve into an R&B sound?
I was making rap music, and started DJing toward the end of high school. I was sampling old soul records, like my heroes … Diamond D, Pete Rock and J Dilla. That was how I learned of soul music, through samples. I figured I'd make some of my own samples so I wouldn’t have to pay for them. It was really the thrifty Jew in me that made me start wanting to make my own soul music.
What was challenging about making your new album, Man About Town?
The stories are so personal. This album is really about living in Los Angeles and being surrounded by people all the time and still feeling incredibly lonely. It’s about my search for love. Trying to find that one person in a sea of 10 million that you can spend the rest of your life with. Some of those stories are extremely personal and not easy to tell.
Which song has changed the most for you now in hindsight?
“Book of Broken Hearts” definitely went through a bunch of different versions. I started writing it a few years ago. At one point I thought I would send it to Erykah Badu, then as it evolved, I thought I had to do it. Happens with a lot of my songs; no one else can do them, which is, well, maybe means I’m doing something unique.
You played with Booker T.?
I met him at Daryl Hall’s place. He does this show called Live at Daryl’s House and the day I was over there, Booker T. was there as well. So I got to play bass on "Green Onions" with Booker T., which was probably the greatest day of my life. He asked me to sing a song on his last record.
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Who would you want to work with if given the opportunity?
Rihanna. I think she’s so interesting as an artist. Her story is amazing and she has evolved in a crazy way. She’s become an incredible artist.
How have you evolved?
I had no idea what I was doing when I first started making music. It’s hard for me to listen to my early stuff. When it comes to singing, I think that’s the No. 1 thing that has improved. I didn’t know the first thing about how to sing. It’s an instrument like anything else, like a piano. My writing, singing and storytelling [has changed]. That was something Pharrell Williams really brought out in me on my last album, the importance of telling a story in a detailed manner, really painting a picture and creating the most vivid imagery possible. The goal is to bring you into my world.