“I’ve been singing soul music for, like, 10 or 11 months. It’s very, very new to me but I’m getting the hang of it now and starting to find the groove.”
Mayer Hawthorne, accidental soul singer. A year ago, Hawthorne was the nom de porn of Andrew Cohen, an Ann Arbor, Mich., hip-hop producer better known as DJ Haircut (Mayer is Cohen’s middle name, Hawthorne the street he grew up on). After moving to L.A., two of his secret stash R&B cuts landed in the headphones of Stones Throw label owner Peanut Butter Wolf.
“I never intended for those songs to be released or heard by the public,” Hawthorne insists by phone while prowling the streets of Philadelphia for a cheesesteak. “At first Wolf thought they were old songs that I had dug up on vinyl from the Sixties or Seventies. He really didn’t believe it was me and it took a good deal of convincing for him to believe it. Once he realized it was really me he was like, ‘Holy shit, I wanna sign you!’”
Hawthorne played all the instruments on those heartbreak originals, one of which – “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” – is crooned in an intoxicating falsetto. The song you weren't supposed to hear is now the lead single for A Strange Arrangement, one of the year’s most buzzed about albums.
Save for an obscure cover of the New Holidays’ “Maybe So, Maybe No,” Hawthorne wrote, arranged, and played every instrument himself. The set mines Motown to be sure, but it gives daps to Dilla while cruisin’ with Smokey Robinson to keep things fresh.
“I wanted the album to give you that timeless, warm feeling you get when you listen to classic Motown and soul, but I wasn’t even around during the heyday of Motown. I grew up as a hip-hop DJ and producer. I wasn’t interested in creating a throwback or retro album. I’m trying to bring it forward. I’m trying to make music that when kids listen to it, it doesn’t feel like it’s their parents’ music.”
One listen to “Green-Eyed Love” proves Hawthorne hit the mark. It’s an ode to the sticky green disguised as a ballad, with a sound more indebted to RZA/Madlib/Dilla than Holland/Dozier/Holland. A strange arrangement indeed, but nothing compared to the strange trip that has taken Hawthorne from closet crooner to Billboard charting artist.
“It’s incredibly surreal, the whole thing. I can’t even wrap my brain around it. I just kind of have as much fun as I can and take it one day at a time.”
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