Bing Search

Mayer Hawthorne makes his (retro revival) mark
His third album opens the 'Door' to Pharrell, other producers

By Danielle Cheesman
Special to MSN Music

Mayer Hawthorne is a self-described "control freak." And so, after producing his first two albums himself (think: Motown- and Mayfield-inspired sounds), letting some of that creative control lie in the hands of producers like Pharrell, Jack Splash, John Hill and Greg Wells for his third effort, "Where Does This Door Go" (think: additional Michael McDonald inspiration), was, admittedly, a challenge. "It was frustrating for me for sure," Hawthorne says.

But the Michigan-born and bred singer isn't opposed to change. Beginning his career as a hip-hop DJ — who began playing instruments and singing on his own (despite not having any vocal training) to avoid paying for samples — Hawthorne entered the industry as an artist only at the urging of Peanut Butter Wolf, head of indie label Stones Throw Records (under which Hawthorne was signed until he joined Universal Republic's roster). Soon after, he was honing his vocal chops on tour with the likes of Amy Winehouse and receiving accolades from the infamously temperamental Kanye West.

A single conversation with Hawthorne will afford you knowledge of his equal affection for Barry White, Black Sabbath and the Beastie Boys, but he's much less likely to categorize his own music, saying, "I don't even care what you wanna call it; you can call it Bulgarian folk wave." Eh, we won't. We'd much rather define "Where Did This Door Go" as a retro revival of summer soul.

MSN Music: At your Bowery Ballroom show, you closed with "Reach Out Richard," which is about your father, who was also in the audience. How did he react to hearing that song?

Mayer Hawthorne: I was really scared to play that for him. I kept that under wraps for a long time. I just didn't know how he was gonna react to it; that's an emotional song. It's about my dad picking me up from jail, which is not really a moment that we love to talk about. He was definitely moved by it. He was just glad that, uh, everything worked out. [Laughs]

Live Music blog: Mayer Hawthorne live at the Bowery Ballroom

It was produced by Pharrell Williams.

Indeed, the man of the hour.

Did yours and his recording processes mesh in the studio?

We definitely had some arguments. But I wanted to work with Pharrell because I knew that we had similar tastes in music. We really bonded over our mutual love of Steely Dan. I was definitely not used to having somebody else tell me what to do, but if you're gonna give control up to someone, let it be Pharrell. And, at the time, Daft Punk ["Get Lucky"] was not out, Robin Thicke ["Blurred Lines"] was not out, and there were a lot of people that said, "Why do you wanna work with Pharrell? He hasn't had a hit in 10 years." But I knew that he didn't care about making hits; he wanted to make timeless music, which is what I'm always about.

What do you hope to achieve with this album?

I told all the producers that I wanted to make my "Thriller." And it didn't have anything to do with what I wanted it to sound like; it was what it wanted it to feel like. I wanted this to be the album that I would throw on if I had a party at my house. I usually play Prince's "Dirty Mind" or Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle," a classic party record like that. It was also music that was designed to be listened to on a boat. I grew up on Lake Michigan, my dad had a boat and we'd go fishing and tubing. And the music that we would listen to was music that made us feel good.

What is your first musical memory?

Man, my parents had a big record collection, and one of my earliest memories in life is, before I could even walk, I remember crawling down the hallway in their old house in Detroit and I had a record in my hand and I was scraping and scratching it all up and I remember my mom meeting me at the end and being so pissed. It was probably something like Blondie, "Heart of Glass" or Queen, "Another One Bites the Dust" or the Cars, "Just What I Needed." I remember having all those 45s back in the day.

During the show, you also told a tale about receiving a tweet from Bootsy Collins. Was that true?

[Laughs] No. That's me putting it out in the universe. Maybe if I say it enough, it'll really happen.

Well, what is the greatest compliment you've received from another artist?

The guys from Nickelback called me a douchebag on national Canadian television. That was one of my proudest moments. The biggest douchebag in music calling me a douchebag. That was a really good indicator that I was doing something right.

OK, so no collaboration with Nickelback on the horizon. Who would you like to work with?

I would really love to do a song with Rihanna. I think she's incredible. I think she's just come so far. And she really has become a great vocalist. I love her attitude right now: She makes music for herself and doesn't care what anybody else thinks. That's exciting to me.

Bing: More on Mayer Hawthorne

Do you feel you've finally come into your own as a vocalist?

I think I've come a long way. I always think about this Marvin Gaye quote from this interview that he did I think right when "What's Going On?" came out and he was one of the biggest stars in the world and a super veteran vocalist at that point, and he said, "I hope to become a good singer one day." [Laughs] That always stuck with me. I just try to make sure that every time I get onstage or in the recording booth that it's a little bit better than the last.

Who would fans be surprised to learn that you listen to?

Um, Helmet. They have an album called "Meantime"; it's like super straight-edge hardcore; it's f---ing awesome. I love the Smashing Pumpkins; they're one of my favorite bands. There's a really awesome punk band from Detroit called Negative Approach.

What's one musical trend or song you'd like to go away?

I am definitely not a fan of Auto-Tune. I just think it completely sucks the emotions out of music. I would so much rather hear somebody sing off-key than hear somebody sing perfectly with Auto-Tune. It's just not interesting to me. Life is not perfect, so why should music be?

What is your theme song?

[Laughs] Oh man, I think my theme song definitely changes every week, but, um, right now it's Barry White's "Playing Your Game, Baby."

If you had to listen to one artist for the rest of your life, who would it be?

Just kill me.

What do you hope listeners do after hearing "Where Does This Door Go"?

Something positive. That's all, really.

Keep up with MSN Music. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

featured videos
more on msn music