In Conversation: Mayer Hawthorne

Where does that door go, exactly...?
Mayer Hawthorne

With his new, third solo album ‘Where Does This Door Go’ ready for release, on July 15th, Michigan-born and California-based singer Mayer Hawthorne is about to take some substantial steps forward in his career.

Having issued his superbly soulful 2009 debut, ‘A Strange Arrangement’, on influential hip-hop label Stones Throw, Hawthorne today finds his home at the major label stable of Universal Republic. But there have been no shackles imposed on what was his sound: a classic-soul concoction recalling the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes.

(Clash actually interviewed Hawthorne around his first album – find that Ones To Watch piece here.)

Now, with ‘Where Does This Door Go’, with prodcution from Greg Wells and Pharrell Williams, Hawthorne is expressing himself with a real sense of creative freedom, channelling hip-hop influences alongside a clear affection for pop-rock and even prog-like dynamics. Of course, there’s lots of soul in there, too. But if that suggests an incoherent listen, Hawthorne’s a step ahead of you, and has crafted this third studio set in such a way that it all hangs together in a purposeful manner. The seams are conspicuous by their invisibility.

Clash caught up with Hawthorne just ahead of a recent headline performance at London’s XOYO venue…

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‘Her Favorite Song’, from ‘Where Does This Door Go’

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So, ‘Where Does This Door Go’… You’ve talked about feeling freer on this album, elsewhere. I wonder if you’d like to elaborate on that?

On this record, I really just threw all of the rules away. I decided that the only rule that I’d have is that I had to have fun. That was it. And it’s amazing what that can do for you. In the past I had a whole lot of rules, and now… I didn’t have any rules for how the songs would sound, or if I’d produce them, or if I’d be the only writer. I didn’t impose rules so far as what instruments would be used. It was really liberating.

So it was a real clean-slate style start?

I was trying to find something new. I mean, the title, ‘Where Does This Door Go’ – it’s about me leading myself into the unknown, and not knowing what this album was going to sound like. I didn’t know if anyone would like it, y’know? There are so many firsts on this record, so many things that I’ve not previously done before, in my life.

So did the title precede the recording of the album, almost like a mission statement?

No, not really. But the title did come to me when I was touring the last record. The title-track of the album, that was a song that was banging around in my head, but I never recorded a demo or anything. So when I went in with (producer) Greg Wells, we started cutting that, and it was like: holy shit, this is it! We got it! This is where the door goes!

And there are lots of styles at play across the album, too. So it’s not just the one door you’re stepping through.

Totally. It’s crazy, because I didn’t even realise how many influences were coming out on this record. I mean, I was listening to a lot of Steely Dan, and they’re a huge influence for me in general. And I was listening to a lot of Beastie Boys and The Cars, and The Clash. But then, someone told me, one of my friends, that the title-track sounded like Pink Floyd. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re absolutely right’. It does have elements of them in there, and that makes perfect sense because they’re one of my favourite bands.

So did you feel sort of painted into a corner with your previous albums, because of the way they were marketed, as material by this ‘authentic’ soul voice?

I mean, it was important for me to do something different. But I’ve tried to do that with each record. I’ve always been about moving the music forwards, and not taking it back. I can’t stand it when people tell me, ‘C’mon man, let’s take it back to the good old days’. Because you can’t go back to those days. Let’s make the new good days! And that’s what I’m about.

Is it right for anyone to crystallise a ‘classic’ sound, anyway? Surely as music progresses, one person’s so-called golden age will slip into irrelevancy as another arrives…

That’s exactly right. Let’s figure out what the new golden age is. Let’s create that! I could never go back and make another ‘A Strange Arrangement’. Even if I tried my hardest, I could never recreate that, and it’d be silly to even try. But those records, my earlier records, they’re always going to be there. And people that love them can listen to them forever. I’m really proud of them, but now it’s time to move on.

Lyrically, the sentiments on the new album seem a little more direct, compared to the reflective state of mind on ‘A Strange Arrangement’…

I think, one factor in that, is that I finally learned how to sing a little bit for this album! I’m a much more confident singer and songwriter now, and that’s something that I have to give credit to guys like Greg Wells and Pharrell Williams for, and the other producers I have on this record, as they really pushed me to the limits. They got the best out of me. It was actually really nice to be able to step back from the songs more, with other people around. I produced my first two records myself, and sometimes you get so wrapped up in getting the perfect snare sound, or figuring out the best bassline, that you forget about the song. So it was really nice to be able to share that workload, and focus on telling the best stories.

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'Reach Out Richard', from 'Where Does This Door Go', produced by Pharrell Williams

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How was giving up that responsibility, the first time you did it?

It was tough, because I’m a control freak, and a perfectionist in the studio. So it was definitely hard, and there were a lot of arguments – some really heated arguments. There were times where I was really frustrated. But it was all for the best. But I think that has to happen – if it’s not happening, then it means that the producers are not pushing me hard enough. That was the idea.

So with the help of these other producers, are you now at a point where the music, your vocals included, is coming out as you’ve envisaged it?

Well, it’s a constant learning process. Like, I just try to make sure that every time I’m in the booth, and every time I step on stage, I’m getting a little bit better than the night before. I always think back to this awesome Marvin Gaye interview I saw, when he was in the prime of his career, with ‘What’s Going On’ out, where he couldn’t be any bigger of a superstar. I’ll never forget this quote of his, where he said: ‘I hope to become a great singer one day’. That’s going to stick with me forever.

On the topic of the record’s collaborators, you’ve worked with Kendrick Lamar on the track ‘Crime’…

Kendrick… I really love his music. He is amazing, and offering something different, in the style that he wants. That track stems from when a bunch of my homies and me went up to the beach in Malibu, and we all got fined $300 each for drinking wine on the beach, which is illegal in LA. We were all so frustrated with that… like, we were mad as f*ck (laughs). So I went in the studio and came up with ‘Crime’, which is really my version of NWA’s ‘F*ck Tha Police’. It’s a much tamer version, obviously! But it’s about being frustrated with the cops. And Kendrick was the only person that I thought of, and him being from Compton, where NWA were from… He really just brought it. I knew that he would be the one to take that song over the top.

Knowing your love of hip-hop music, I wonder if it might be on the cards, one day, for you to produce a ‘straight’ hip-hop album, with a selection of MCs involved.

Who knows! Maybe… I mean, I definitely wouldn’t put it out of the equation. I love hip-hop music, and it was my first love. I mean, that’s what brought me to Stones Throw – I was trying to be like J Dilla! Coming from Detroit, I wanted to be like J Dilla and Guilty Simpson. Hip-hop is something that plays a huge part in everything I do, and there’s more of it on this record than ever before. I actually performed all of the scratches on this record – I did those myself. And that’s something I’d never done before. I’m embracing the music that I love, and that is a part of me.

So do you get frustrated, even a little bit, if people call you ‘just’ a soul artist?

Aww, I don’t even care about it anymore. I don’t think about it. I don’t care what someone calls me. Someone could call it f*cking Hungarian acid-folk, it just doesn’t matter to me so long as people are listening to it, and enjoying it.

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‘Where Does This Door Go’ trailer

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Find Mayer Hawthorne online here

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