Published Aug 02, 2013Heavily influenced by the Detroit music legacy, it's been established that Mayer Hawthorne loves him some vintage Motown soul and R&B music. But he's a self-described musical connoisseur — and by handing over the production reins to the capable hands of A-list folks like Pharrell Williams, Greg Wells and Jack Splash, new album Where Does This Door Go reps a more holistic musical tenor. Free to focus less on production and more on lyrical storytelling, the Ann Arbor, Michigan native and former hip-hop DJ lets the totality of his musical influences (Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Pink Floyd) run free within an eccentric, modernized and steady project. His falsetto vocal delivery sounds more charismatic, his lyrical storytelling more buoyant, and guest appearances from artists like Kendrick Lamar and Jessie Ware feel more likely than out of the blue. The former DJ Haircut is super cool about it all, but there's a sense it's the album that threatens to be Mayer Hawthorne's mainstream breakthrough.
Listening to the album, it was like, if there was anyone on the fence when to comes to Mayer Hawthorne, this is the album that gets them on board. What did you consciously want to do different with this album?
Everything. Everything was completely different on this album. It was very intentional. I had done two albums where I had produced everything myself, played everything myself, wrote all the songs. I'm really proud of those records, they will always be there but it was time to do something new.
What was it like handing over the production reins? Did you feel fully comfortable doing it?
It's not easy for me. I'm a perfectionist. And I'm kind of a control freak in the studio. But, you know, if you're going to hand over the reins to somebody, who better than Pharrell Williams and Greg Wells? It ended up making me a much better producer myself, so...
The album title Where Does This Door Go refers to the unknown? Was there a bit of fear in making this record?
I just threw every single rule that I ever had out and the only rule that I kept was that it had to be fun.
I'm hearing elements of Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, some soul pop type R&B?
Aw man, it's a major shift.
It's a major shift. All of my musical influences kind of shine on this record. I grew up listening to bands like the Cars, Steely Dan, the Byrds, the Beatles and all that stuff. The Rolling Stones… actually I didn't like them as a kid but I really like them now. Pink Floyd — I mean all this stuff is all over the album.
So what was the creative process like? And how was it different compared to making the previous albums?
Some of these songs were written on the road for the last record. I wrote them while we were on the road. But then a lot of these songs were written literally like on the spot, in the studio. I would walk in — sometimes I would be meeting a producer for the first time, ever. It would be like "What up?" and let's write this song. And there were times when — like a song like "The Innocent" where I woke up that morning in Miami and wrote the entire song in the shower. I then ran over to the studio all hype and recorded the thing in like two hours. There really were no rules. Every song I just tried to let them create themselves, you know?
How long did it take to make this album?
It was made in L.A. and Miami. Both very sunny, warm, tropical places and I think you can definitely hear that in the record. My last album I went back to Detroit to record it, as I wanted to maintain that Detroit sound. But on this album I really didn't give a fuck at all, whatever it is is what it is. But from when we really started going hard in the studio, I'd say it took about six to eight months to get the album done. I recorded like maybe 40 or 45 songs for this record.
So was a producer like Pharrell completely driving this project? And what was it like working with Kendrick Lamar?
Pharrell wanted me to really focus on storytelling. He definitely had a big hand in the direction of the record. He was the one that really got me to focus on just telling the most vivid story possible. And then as far as Kendrick, I had gone to Malibu Beach with a bunch of my homies and we all got tickets, fined $300 a piece for drinking a glass of wine on the beach.
And we were so fucking pissed! And we just thought it was so wack [laughs]. I just thought that was the wackest shit ever and I went in the studio to write the song "Crime." It was kind of my version of NWA's "Fuck the Police." I was just like Kendrick is the only dude that could do this track and really take it to the next level. Him being from Compton where NWA are from seemed like the perfect fit. And he killed it.
At what point did it occur to you that you were becoming less of a DJ and more about being Mayer Hawthorne? And when did you become cool with that?
Aw well, I mean it's all one. It's all a part of me. There is more DJ Haircut on this new album than ever before. And I still DJ all the time, every chance I get. I'm DJing in Chicago tomorrow night.
So at the end of the day, how to do define your sound? Or do you let other people do that for you?
Aw man, I don't care what you want to call it…
Some say "retro."
Call it like… [laughs]… I'm trying to think of a good one. This has been my thing lately, trying to come up with a new genre of music. Ah, I mean like "Bolivian Folkstep Wave."
Nice. [Laughs] I don't know. I don't care what you want to call it man. I always say, I don't care what you call me as long as you call me.
And is your style just a part of the music?
Aw man, the motto is "Flashy But Classy." All the time. I get it from my grandmother and my great aunt. That's where I get all my style from.
Your stomping ground of Detroit is obviously going through tough times right now. Do you ever see the region become as big musically as it was back in the Motown days?
They are going through some tough ass shit right now.
I don't have any idea what it was like in the Motown days. I wasn't even alive then. But I do know that there is an insane amount of creativity and I think maybe not having as much to work with and dealing with what we've been dealing with forces you to be more creative. I grew up in Ann Arbor. We weren't rich but I had what I needed. I think we dealt with what we had and it forced us to be more creative. I think that it a big part of what makes Detroit music so amazing. We think really differently.
Do you still have your ear to the ground in terms of what's happening musically in the Ann Arbor-Detroit scene?
I try to stay in tune, always keep an ear to the street.
How do you define success for this album?
I don't make music to be the most popular artist in the world or to sell the most records. I make music that I think is dope. Whoever likes it, I think that's amazing, I love you. And whoever doesn't, that's totally fine too. I love you just the same. There are a million other bands you can listen to out there. The goal is just to keep making music for a living. That's really it.