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Fresh Music: Mayer Hawthorne

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Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written and Interviewed by: Jesse Carr

Mayer Hawthorne sounds and looks like an anachronism, and in today's over-crowded instant-share, instant-listen, instant-forget music scene, that's a rare quality. Hawthorne's throwback arrangements are completed without samples and he sometimes uses recording techniques like crooning his lyrics through headphones to add some old time grit to the vocals. But, as scores of small labels can attest to, attention to detail insures neither  success nor notoriety. So Hawthorne's appeal must be a testament to something greater than geeky recording techniques or music lessons that help him strum the guitar and get the right tone on a rim shot. He's got the swagger of an urban pop star without resembling anything remotely close to it. Instead of black Dior shades, he dons large, retro-inspired spectacles. Instead of a Louis Vuitton monogrammed scarf over a black leather coat, he keeps it classic with a houndstooth blazer and bird-in-hand knot on a tie. So, while making music reminiscent of another time and place, he's also pulls off a look and feel to match.

The formula has been successful thus far, as Hawthorne is now pounding the pavement stateside on a one and a half month tour that began in Fort Lauderdale and culminates in his hometown, Los Angeles. This grueling tour follows another that brought him through Europe, all in an attempt to bring spread the Hawthorne brand. Mayer has certainly garnered alt-appeal already, and he is inching towards more mainstream notoriety, as he recently recorded a remix for Snoop Dogg's "Gangsta Love," which includes both his voice and production. Snoop, a soul fan himself, apparently plans for more collaborations with the young man from Ann Arbor, Michigan  in the future.

Hawthorne didn't begin his career in music with the goal of making retro-soul. Like many others who began as DJs, his discovery of the rich, multi-faceted sounds of yesteryear came from finding samples. But while mixing records and making music in Michigan, he also ventured out into writing and performing hip-hop tracks under the moniker Haircut. And while the Haircut project is on hold while he tours as Mayer Hawthorne, he still DJs gigs, like the famed LA Afternoon party, the Do Over, where flexes his skills as a music selector.

Hawthorne's soul project began as a sort of side venture, and when Stones Throw Records' Peanut Butter Wolf heard an early collection of tracks, he met with Hawthorne and eventually signed him. So, with the sensibility of a hip-hop producer, rapper, and DJ, Hawthorne makes music that is meant to sound like the original sample sources for the tracks he grew up listening to. Instead of mining for rare 45s by Syl Johnson, now he's making original tracks that feature loud snares and heavy bass grooves in homage.

Freshness recently tracked down the busy artist during a stopover on his European tour, and we are excited to present an interview that explores his hip-hop and soul roots. We also get a look at some of the differences among audiences abroad, lean about his art direction for his unique videos, and much more. We also have a track for download that was recently released in conjunction with his domestic tour. Click after the jump for much more on Mayer and his neo-retro-soul sounds.

Many who know your work are aware of your involvement in all areas of the production of your tracks. You play all of the instruments on your debut album and none of the music is sampled, but as a DJ and Hip-Hop producer, you are very well-versed in sampling. Talk about the difference in texture and feel by playing your tracks as opposed to building them from samples.

I started making soul music so I could sample it for making hip-hop tracks. 90% of Hip-Hop classics start with a dope sample, but sampling can get expensive! When I record with live instruments, I try to make something that people would wanna sample. Many times I'll even play something live, then sample myself and chop/loop it to give it that feel.

As a hip-hop DJ and producer, you obviously come across soul and funk samples regularly. For the song, "Just Ain't Gonna Work it Out," for example, the drums sound like the frequently-sampled "Get out my Life Woman" break. Did you begin to collect and appreciate soul music by way of hip-hop samples or were you already a fan of soul?

I was a soul fan before I got into Hip-Hop, but rap music introduced me to so much great soul that I would never have discovered otherwise.

What are some of your favorite soul tracks that were sampled by hip-hop producers?

The Charmels "I'll Never Grow Old" gets me every time.  Also, Esther Phillips' "That's Alright With Me" and anything by Syl Johnson. Ahh there's so many!

I heard the late DJ AM and other prominent DJs say that DJing at the LA Party, The Do-Over, is like a rite-of-passage. Describe your experience DJing there. What makes the place so special?

The Do-Over is amazing because you can pretty much play anything there. It's such a music-lover crowd. People come to hear things that they don't hear anywhere else. I DJ'd there a few weeks ago and played all Booty / Ghettotech music and the crowd went nuts. You just can't get away with that anywhere else.

Could you name a few other contemporary soul acts that our readers should check out?

I honestly don't listen to that much of it.  Although, I'm lovin' the Budos Band right now!

Much has been made of your background in music, but can you tell our readers about your experience with other forms of art, like the fine arts or film? It seems like your videos have some very deliberate art direction. From the skate-video fisheyes to 60s TV color palates, the visuals for your songs are striking. Do you have any sort of background in either film or the fine arts? How do you arrive at concepts for your videos?

I love making videos and I'm extremely hands-on about it. Many of them come from my own concepts and I always work very closely with the directors / producers. I used to make films with my friends in the neighborhood on an old 8mm camera. VHS too. I love it. I would do a video for every song if I could.

A prominent sector of our audience has an interest in sneakers. Recently, you had a collaborative Nike Dunk with JGoods. Can you describe that collaborative process? How satisfied are you with the final product?

Goods reached out about doing a shoe.  I'm a big sneaker head and when I saw his previous work I was like "daaaamn!" I told him I wanted something classy on an SB Dunk High and he did the rest.  He surprised me with the finished kicks in Minneapolis. They came out super fresh. I wore them in the "Easy Lovin" video.

There is constant banter about the vitality of contemporary hip-hop. What about soul music? Is soul music dead?

Not as long as I'm around.

The audiences for soul music differ all around the world, and it's well known that the UK audiences are traditionally more receptive it. What are some differences that you've noticed about the reception of your music abroad vs. the domestic reception?

I think people are a little more open minded outside of the US. Americans are sheep when it comes to the radio and TV. They're not as interested in discovering alternative music. A lot of people think the term "Northern Soul" comes from America, but it's actually from Northern England. For whatever reason, they've been championing soul music forever.

Your sound is one that reminds listeners of old recording techniques. I read that you have recorded some vocals by singing through headphones. What other techniques can you share that lend a vintage feel to your productions?

Most producers / engineers think you get a more "vintage" sound by amplifying a bass or guitar and micing the amp. All the classic Motown hits were recorded without amps. The musicians plugged straight into the board using direct boxes.

Stones Throw is an important label in the American independent landscape, so how does your Mayer Hawthorne work fit the label?

It fits because it's creative and different. Stones Throw has always been about introducing people to new sounds and things that they wouldn't hear on another label. It's also all about FUN!

With the success of your work as Mayer Hawthorne, can we expect to see any more of your work as the hip-hop act Haircut?

I'm constantly working on new music in many different genres. You definitely haven't heard the last from Haircut.

As a way to wrap up the interview, can you recommend to our readers, who may not be familiar with classic soul staples, a single album to get them acquainted with the genre?

Curtis Mayfield's "Curtis" album would be a good start. If there's a hell below, we all gonna go!