Mayer Hawthorne: Not Your Typical Soul Singer

Mayer Hawthorne (aka Andrew Cohen) brings a light-hearted geekiness to soul music. Hawthorne talks with host Michel Martin about his musical journey from Hip Hop DJ to falsetto crooner and performs songs from his album A Strange Arrangement.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. When you first see Andrew Mayer Cohen, aka Mayer Hawthorne, your first question might me: Is this guy for real? He has the look of a guy who doesn't get out of the library much with a cardigan, dark, thick-rimmed glasses, and he sings in a falsetto from a genre whose heyday was decades ago. But Mayer Hawthorne really loves his Motown throwback soul music, and now he, along with his band, are winning over audiences and critics with their easy rhythms and full-bodied harmonies.

Hawthorne grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and got his start as a hip-hop DJ. He's currently on tour, supporting his new album, titled "A Strange Arrangement.� And Mayer Hawthorne joins me now in Studio 4A to talk about his musical journey, and his band is also here.

We're delighted to have everybody here. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. MAYER HAWTHORNE (Singer): How do you do? Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Why don't you introduce the band though, before we get started.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: All right, well first of all, everyone in my band goes by their Mayer Hawthorne name.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: So I'm going introduce everybody by their Mayer Hawthorne name, and then we'll give you the real names, too.

MARTIN: Okay, just in case there are papers out there somewhere.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: On keyboards and vocals, we have Quincy McCreary(ph), aka Eugene Doheeney(ph).

Mr. QUINCY MCCREARY (Musician): Good morning.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: On the guitar and vocals, we have Tofer Moore(ph), aka Jimmy Yellowstone(ph).

Mr. TOFER MOORE (Musician): Yes, yes.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: And then on the drum set back there, we've got Quinton Joseph(ph), aka Sweet Baby Lorraine(ph).

Mr. QUINTON JOSEPH (Musician): Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: On the bass guitar and vocals, we've got my man, Joe Abrams(ph), aka Leon Wolverine(ph).

MARTIN: So do I get a new name? Can I get one?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: What's your middle name?

MARTIN: Denise.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Denise, and what's the street you grew up on?

MARTIN: Lincoln Avenue.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Denise Lincoln.

MARTIN: Denise Lincoln?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: There it is.

MARTIN: Okay, there is it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You're hired.

MARTIN: I feel like I might regret this, but I don't know why. Anyway, so how did you fall in love with soul?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: I grew up just outside of Detroit, Michigan, in Ann Arbor, listening to Motown and oldies, with my father. And I would ask an incessant amount of questions about every song that came on, you know. That's the Four Tops, you know, that's the Temptations, that's David Ruffin. I always wanted to know everything I could learn about the music.

MARTIN: In fact, you play quite a few instruments, and you played on the album�

Mr. HAWTHORNE: I played�

MARTIN: �most of the instruments, and you also did your own backup. Is that right?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: That's correct, yeah.

MARTIN: And why is that? You just�?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Well, part of it is the challenge of playing the whole thing myself, and then the other part of it is, you know, I hear the songs very vividly in my head, the complete arrangement of it, and you know, it has a certain feeling that is difficult sometimes to explain to another musician. And you know, if I can just play it myself, it's easier.

MARTIN: Is it hard now, though, that you're on tour, to give up control, now that you have to introduce the other folks?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: No, because my band is made up of all my favorite musicians in the world, and each one of them is better than me at any of the instruments that I play. So it's really easy to hand the controls over to them.

MARTIN: So why don't we play something from the new album. What do you want to play first?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: We're going to play the first song that I ever wrote. It's called "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out."

MARTIN: All right, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out")

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You know, NPR, I know you think we can all make it work out, but I got to tell it like it is, and I don't want to make this any harder than it needs to be. So don't cry.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: (Singing) Don't wanna see your tears. Oh, baby, it'll be okay. And I don't wanna see you crying, darling. Ooh, no way. But it just don't feel the same. Just don't feel the same. For I don't know what you're about. Know what you're about. And I guess that I don't love you anymore and I'm sorry but it just ain't working out. I'm sorry. It just ain't gonna work out. It's just ain't gonna work out, girl. I'm sorry. It just ain't gonna work out, no girl. I don't want you to be sad, girl. Ooh, I don't want you to be afraid. I know that you will understand my way, ooh-hoo one day. No need to be upset, girl. Just don't understand. Ooh, please don't scream and shout. Please don't scream and shout. I know that you were hearing wedding bells, but I'm sorry 'cause it just ain't working. I'm sorry. It just ain't gonna work out. And it just ain't gonna work out girl. I'm sorry. It just ain't gonna work out. It just ain't gonna work out, girl.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Short and sweet.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're speaking with Andrew Cohen, better known by his stage name, Mayer Hawthorne. His new album is called "A Strange Arrangement." And we just heard "It Just Ain't Gonna Work Out."

So Mayer, I have to ask, what's up with all these Mac Daddy songs on this album where you're giving somebody the pink slip relationship-wise? What's going on?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You know, I've been a hip hop DJ and producer for the past 10-plus years and you know, hip hop does not lend itself as well to songs about relationships and heartbreak and I think all these songs have sort of been building up for the past 10 years and now that I've got this soul outlet, they're all sort of flying out at once. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Okay, but how come you're doing all the flying out?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: I know.

MARTIN: That's what I'm saying. What's all the flying out is on your end?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: I know. I know. I make mistakes too. I get dumped.

MARTIN: On the other hand, you've got - how can we put it - this kind of nerd-boy persona going on here.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Yeah. I mean I guess I've always been sort of a nerd. I mean I'm a music nerd. I'm a vinyl record collector and I studied computer science in school and that's just sort of who I am. But, you know, my nerdiness has allowed me to get to where I am with the soul music and the all the studying that I've done in breaking it down over the years and figuring out what makes a great soul record.

MARTIN: Now how did you go from being a hip hop DJ to a R&B crooner?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Well, that was never really my game plan. I moved out to Los Angeles about three years ago to pursue a career in hip hop music. And I ran into the CEO of Stones Throw Records, a gentleman by the name of Peanut Butter Wolf, and I knew about Stones Throw. It was one of my -already one of my favorite labels. But I was still pushing my hip hop music, but when I got introduced to him, I was introduced by a mutual friend who had heard my Mayer Hawthorne demos.

I recorded a couple of songs of this soul music just sort of for fun on the side as an experiment and I really had never planned on those songs ever being released or even heard by the public. But my friend who had heard them, she said yo, Wolf, you got to hear these Mayer Hawthorne songs. Peanut Butter Wolf wrote me back about a month later and he said hey, these tracks are fantastic, but what is this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You know, who is this? And I said well, it's me. They're my songs. I played all the instruments and sang everything and recorded it all in my bedroom. And once he realized that that was what was going on, he asked me to record a whole album's worth of material for a film through, so that sort of changed the course my life significantly.

MARTIN: How do you feel about it?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You know, in some ways it's a little frustrating that I spent that long, you know, trying to make it in hip hop and then it was a project that I never even planned on releasing that ended up getting all the attention. But, you know, you've got to be happy about anything that people are feeling that much. I have so much fun making this music that...

MARTIN: And firing all these girls, whoever they are�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Firing them all - yeah. But, you know, it's...

MARTIN: In song at least.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: This past year has just been unbelievable. I mean it's really surreal.

MARTIN: Let's play something else. What else do you want to play?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: I think let's do my version of Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky."

MARTIN: Okay. Here it is.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Then we're going to segue that into an original of mine called "Green Eyed Love."

MARTIN: All right.

(Soundbite of "Mr. Blue Sky")

Mr. HAWTHORNE: (Singing) Sun is shining in the sky. There ain't a cloud in sight. It's stopped raining everybody's into playing, don't you know. It's a beautiful new day, hey, hey, hey. Running down the avenue, see how the sun shines brightly in the city. On the streets where once was pity. Mister blue sky is living here today, hey, hey, hey. Mister blue sky, please tell us why you had to hide away for so long? So long. Where did we go wrong? Hey there mister blue we're so pleased to be with you. Look around see what you do and everybody smiles at you. Hey there mister blue we're so pleased to be with you. Look around see what you do and everybody smiles at you.

(Soundbite of song, �Green Eyed Love�)

Mr. HAWTHORNE: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh, my love, my green eyed love, you know when push comes to shove I need you. Yeah, you're in my blood. Woo-oh my love, unlawfully wed, take me outside of it all when I'm stuck in my head. Yeah, well they say, they say, they say that you're no good for me. Ooh, but I know, I know, I know now that's a lie. Oh, sometimes, sometimes I just don't know anymore. Yeah, but I never want to say goodbye.

MARTIN: Very nice. Very nice. Very nice.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Andrew Cohen, known as Mayer Hawthorne. His new album is called "A Strange Arrangement." So why do think people are responding to you? You mentioned that this is kind of a accidental thing for you. This wasn't really what you'd planned. What do you think people are responding to?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: The only thing that I can really boil it down to is that it's the fun factor of it and that, you know, I'm having so much fun with this music. And I think it really comes out in the music and, you know, everyone just wants to have a little fun. And...

MARTIN: Can I ask you about the race factor?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Sure.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of people think of soul as an African-American art form.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Sure.

MARTIN: Right? And is there - are there any feelings about your being a white guy from Ann Arbor taking up the soul mantle?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You know, I think the majority of the people that hear my music for the first time have no idea what I look like and, you know, the general reaction has been shock. You know, when people really - they see a photo of me afterward and, you know, that sort of tells me that -at least I got the vibe down and nobody's, you know, really had too much to say about that yet, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah. I know it's interesting because sometimes there are white artists like Collie Buddz in reggae, for example...

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...who's from Bermuda, people are like what's up with that? On the other hand, do you feel you have an extra hurdle of sincerity to cross or are we over that?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: I'm sure I'll run into it at some point. But, you know, hopefully people can listen to it with an open mind and appreciate the music for the music and not pay attention to the color of my skin.

MARTIN: What's next for you? What do you want to do next?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Well, we're going to be touring, you know, clear through 2010. But I'm already working on songs for the next album and I'm also working on a couple other music projects as well, you know, some hip hop, some boogie funk. I'm not going to limit myself. I'm always experimenting and trying new things and trying to move the music forward. You know, it's very important to me that even with this project that I don't create a throwback or a retro album.

You know, I wanted this album to have that timeless feel to it and, you know, I wanted people to get that warm feeling that they get when they listen to classic Motown or soul. But it's important to move the music forward and, you know, to be trying new things and to bring it to a new generation.

It's really important for me that kids that are listening to this music that are growing up right now don't feel like it's their parent's music. It's new. You know, I'm a new artist living in 2010 and that's a big deal.

MARTIN: Andrew Cohen, known as Mayer Hawthorne. His new album is called "A Strange Arrangement." It is available in stores now. For more information about the band, please check out our Web site at npr.org.

All the best to you.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Oh, thank you so much.

MARTIN: What would you like to go out on?

Mr. HAWTHORNE: We're going to go out with a bang. On the last song that I wrote for the album there was a lot of heartbreak and emotional outpouring on the album and I felt like I needed to balance it out with a little upbeat positivity. So the last song that I wrote is a song called "The Ills."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Here it is "The Ills."

Mr. HAWTHORNE: It refers to the ills of the world, as I call them.

MARTIN: All right. Mayer Hawthorne, thank you so much for visiting with us.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you again for having us.

(Soundbite of "The Ills")

Mr. HAWTHORNE: (Singing) Woo, woo, woo. Baby's gone and father's gone, can't live with what he done. You know now Mama's home. She can't afford to raise her son. You know the ills of the world, they can get you down. You know the ills of the world, they can get you down. Ah, ah, ah...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of "The Ills")

Mr. HAWTHORNE: (Singing) ...baby, baby. Way down in New Orleans, the city screams. We got a black and white. But (unintelligible). Ooh (unintelligible) with people walking out. You know they need a day, they hope and pray but it was just too late. And now the families (unintelligible). Didn't have to be that way. You know the ills of the world, they can get you down. You know the ills of the world...

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