Q&A: Sharing the Wealth: Catching Up With Mayer Hawthorne

mayer-hawthorne-2013_eleanor-stills-678x452 Giving up the reins is very hard for Mayer Hawthorne. The 34-year-old hip-hop-DJ-turned-soul-crooner has carefully managed every aspect of his life, including writing and producing his first two releases himself: A Strange Arrangement (2009) and How Do You Do (2011). For his third full-length album Where Does This Door Go, being released today, Hawthorne decided to step out of his bubble and bring in some famous friends to help get the job done. The result of this loosened grip is 15 tracks dripping with myriad influences that include the Delfonics, Michael Jackson, NWA and Steely Dan. “There’s a lot of Steely Dan in this album,” stresses the Michigan native. The new LP has Hawthorne simultaneously embracing his hip-hop past while continually pushing himself to the musical limit. It seems mighty hard not to listen when Pharrell Williams is one of your coaches. FILTER caught up with Hawthorne in his new hometown of Los Angeles to discuss drinking on the beach, collaborating with Kendrick Lamar and the best albums for a house party.


What does this new album mean to you? Mayer Hawthorne: It’s the first album that I’ve done which I did not write myself, produce by myself and play all the instruments. I had other producers on this record for the first time including a lot of incredibly talented producers like Pharrell Williams, Greg Wells, John Hill and Oak Pop. What was it like to hand over that power?  It was a little stressful, but also very liberating. It allowed me to really step back from the actual playing of the instruments and what not, and it allowed me to really put all of my focus on the songwriting and the storytelling. This is definitely the most “storyteller” album that I’ve done so far. There is a definite focus on telling the most visually stimulating—and vivid—stories that I could tell and really paint the cinematic picture for the listener. That concept was something that came from talking to Pharrell about our shared love of Steely Dan. There’s a lot of Steely Dan in this album, but there’s a lot of hip-hop in this album as well. I’ve been a hip-hop DJ my entire life; that’s something that a lot of people don’t know about me. I think on the first two records [that] was something that I sort of tried to distance myself from, but on this album I think it really just shines through. I decided that it was time to throw all the rules out. Is that what the title of the album refers to? Throwing the rules out and looking into the abyss? There are a lot of different meanings for a lot of different people, but yeah, Where Does This Door Go is sort of about a journey into the unknown for me. It’s about creating an album in a completely different way than I’ve ever done before. Also it’s kind of about not knowing how it’s going to turn out or not knowing how people are going to respond or react to it; not knowing where it will take me. Throwing all the rules out and just focusing on having fun was the best thing that I ever did. That was the only rule I had when making this record: it had to be fun. And I definitely think I got that across. This is by far the most fun record that I’ve ever made. When I set out to make this album, I went into a lot of the producers meetings for the first time and I told them I wanted to make my Thriller. And I didn’t mean it in the sense that I wanted it to sound like [Michael Jackson’s Thriller], I meant it in the sense that this is my version of the album that I would want to throw on at a house party. When I have people over for a house party, I always throw on Snoop’s Doggystyle or Prince’s Dirty Mind—an album that is all killer, no filler. Every song could be its own single; jam after jam after jam. That’s the album I wanted to make. I think what I’m most proud of about the record is that it doesn’t sound like anything else that I’ve ever heard. Speaking of firsts for you, what made you decide to feature Kendrick Lamar on “Crime”? There’s actually a story to this. I had gone up to Malibu with a couple of friends and we all got tickets for drinking a glass of wine on the beach, like $300 fines for basically chilling and drinking a glass of wine! It was so infuriating to me and so frustrating that I went into the studio and I went into the studio and basically wrote my own version of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police.” It was just the culmination of my frustration with Los Angeles beaches and not being able to party on the beach. I tour all over the world and we go to South America, Spain, France and Australia. Everybody parties on the beach and it’s so much fun. We have some of the most beautiful beaches in Los Angeles, and in California, but we’re not allowed to have fun on the beach! That was how the first verse of “Crime” was born. The second verse is about being [growing up] in Ann Arbor and having our house parties broken up by the police being loud and having too much fun.

Kendrick was the only person that I thought of for this track. He’s from Compton, where N.W.A is from, and he’s young and rebellious and exciting. I met Kendrick at SXSW and we had talked about getting back to LA and getting to the studio and doing something, but when it came time to cut that song, he wasn’t available. The label sent a bunch of other artists suggestions of who we could use for the song and I just said “No, no, no. It has to be Kendrick. Kendrick or nobody.” And until like a couple of days we had to turn the album in, it was nobody. Then, lo and behold we got a call from Kendrick’s engineer saying we were going do it. I was super excited that Kendrick’s schedule cleared up, and he brought exactly what I had envisioned for the song. He just absolutely killed it; it really took that song over the edge. It’s definitely the most Tupac-style verse that he’s ever done and probably my favorite Kendrick verse ever. There are certain track titles on your new album that need to be defined in the Mayer Hawthorne dictionary. Care to shed a little light on some of your new tracks? Sure, it’s the Detroit crew! We really speak our own language. I don’t notice it because I use it all the time but we can just have conversations and no one will understand a word of it. And I don’t even realize it! “Reach Out Richard”: The only thing you need to know about this is that Richard is my dad. Once you know that, it’ll sort of just click. That was, by far, the hardest song that I’ve ever had to write and record. Pharrell really pushed me to the edge of insanity on that one and I fought him hard. I still tear up a little when I think about that song; it’s very close to me. So close that I almost didn’t put it on the record, but all my friends that heard it said “you have to put it on the album. You have to.” Pharrell called me every day to make sure I was going to put it on the album. He called me every day to say “Yo, you’re gonna put “Reach out Richard” on the album, right? You have to put it on the album.” It was his favorite one that we did. That was a heavy one [for me] though. “Wine Glass Woman”: This is one of those real storyteller songs; it’s about a woman who struggles with alcoholism. That’s the basic gist of it. That’s one of the best beats that Pharrell has ever done. I remember being in the studio when he was making that track and just thinking “Wow, this is the track that everyone wants Pharrell to make for them, and he’s making it for me.” “Back Seat Lover”: This is simply about wanting more from a relationship but settling for less. We all know what that’s like, right? F Taken from FILTER Magazine. Published July 16, 2013.
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