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It’s easy to see Mayer Hawthorne merely as a Motown throwback R&B crooner, one of the key purveyors of the musical style that’s been perplexingly dubbed both “neo-soul” and “retro-soul.” But the Ann Arbor native’s musical interests range far beyond the hooky old-school grooves for which he’s become famous. Hawthorne—born Andrew Cohen—cut his teeth as a hip-hop DJ before Stones Throw Records’ Peanut Butter Wolf heard his soul-inspired side project and insisted Hawthorne cut an R&B record.
Hawthorne’s debut LP, A Strange Arrangement, gave Hawthorne his mainstream breakthrough and drew praise from such disparate sources as John Mayer and Kanye West. His new record, How Do You Do, arrives October 11; it’s been preceded by the single “The Walk,” a sweetly vindictive put-down jam that could give Cee Lo a run for his money. Before his Halloween-night show with Chromeo at the Electric Factory, The A.V. Club chatted with Hawthorne about the variety of musical styles on How Do You Do, and his song being used by Spike Jonze and Kanye West.
The A.V. Club: Lyrically, “The Walk” is one of the darker, moodier songs you’ve done. Can we expect more of that from How Do You Do?
Mayer Hawthorne: You can expect more of everything on How Do You Do. It’s A Strange Arrangement elevated in every way. Everything is elevated, from the playing of the instruments to the singing to the songwriting to the production. It’s just about doing something different and moving the music forward and doing something new. It was mainly about blending the soul music that I’ve become known for with all the other styles of music that I love and listen to. It’s creating my own unique Mayer Hawthorne sound. There’s definitely hard rock stuff, bossa nova, new wave, Frank Sinatra—I don’t know what you call that style of music—but there’s a ton of stuff in there. All the kinds of music I listen to are starting to blend in now. But it’s definitely a soul record. It’s very soulful.
AVC: Are you sick of answering questions about “neo-soul?”
MH: Not sick at all. I don’t care what people want to call me as long as they want to talk to me and talk about me. I don’t get sick of any questions.
AVC: Why do you think people are so eager to ask those questions, or to classify it as such?
MH: I think everybody has to call you something. Everybody wants to put you in a little container. It’s all good. It doesn’t bother me. I mean, I wouldn’t classify it as that. I’d just call it “soul music.” Or just “good music.” Whatever people want to call it, that’s cool. Call it “jamboree music.” I don’t know, I’m just making shit up. Whatever you want to call it is cool.
AVC: You jumped from doing mostly hip-hop to mostly soul-inspired music. Are there any other styles you see yourself tackling in the future?
MH: You know, I think it’s going to be like a kind of progression from here on out. I don’t put any kind of limits on myself. The formula is not having a formula. Who knows? I listen to so many different kinds of music, and I love it all and I want to do it all. I don’t know what the next thing is going to be. You know, who knows?
AVC: How did your song wind up in Spike Jonze and Kanye West’s film We Were Once A Fairytale, and how did you feel about that?
MH: We got a call from Spike Jonze, and he asked me if he could use my song. I’ve been a big Spike fan since forever, so of course I told him, “Hell yeah.” It was cool. I really loved that film, too. I thought it was great. It got really mixed reviews, but I thought it was great.
AVC: What the fuck’s going on in that movie, anyway?
MH: [Laughs.] I’m not going to try to explain a Spike Jonze film. That’s up to everybody’s own interpretation. I thought Kanye was incredible in the film. Having talked to him personally, recently, I realized that it was actually a great performance in the film. A lot of people, when they saw the film, didn’t feel like he was acting. They just thought that was his regular character. But I didn’t get that from talking to him. He was a really good dude. But I don’t know him all that well. But I thought it was a great film, and I was glad to be a part of it.
AVC: You’re co-headlining with Chromeo this tour. How did that come together?
MH: I’ve known those guys for a little while, and I have a lot of respect for those guys. They really know how to have fun with music, which is a big deal for me; fun is number one with everything I do. So I was excited to get on the road with these guys, because I just knew it would be a good time. I’ve covered a couple of their songs, and they did a remix for me for [Hawthorne’s new song] “A Long Time.” That’s the extent of the work we’ve done together. I’m very excited. I can’t wait.