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Q&A: Mayer Hawthorne

The soul singer discusses his music career and Michigan sports

Soul singer Mayer Hawthorne’s new record How Do You Do has been widely praised as one of the best albums of the year, and his sound has been compared to that of R&B greats like Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, and the Stylistics. Not bad for a Jewish kid from Michigan. DJ and songwriter Andrew Cohen, 32, devised his stage name by pairing his middle name — Mayer — with the name of the street he grew up on — Hawthorne. Davy Rothbart has known Hawthorne since their high school days in Ann Arbor, Mich., and during Thanksgiving weekend the two hung out in their hometown over a big football weekend; Hawthorne spoke of his favorite sports memories, detailed his winding journey to stardom, and explained why women need to stop grabbing his ass.

Your new album dropped a few weeks ago, and you’ve just come off a nationwide tour. It’s nice to see you back in Michigan, putting on a halftime show for the Lions’ Thanksgiving game from the basement of your parents’ house. As an Ann Arbor native, what were your favorite teams growing up?

It was a great time for Michigan sports. You had the 1987 Tigers, who came from behind to win the AL East on the last day of the season. You had the Bad Boy Pistons bringing back-to-back championships to Detroit, and then you had the Fab Five at U of M. I went to Steve Fisher’s basketball camp and Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, and Jalen Rose ran drills and gave us pep talks about having the will to win. I also spent a lot of time at the Big House. My dad had season tickets, and every Saturday we’d ride our bikes to the stadium to watch Michigan football. One of my favorite memories is from college, the Ohio State game in ’97, when we beat the Buckeyes on the way to the national title. I was in the student section, probably belligerently drunk by 11 a.m., and when we won, me and all my homeys jumped the railing and raced past the security guards onto the field. Brian Griese and Charles Woodson and the rest of the players all had roses in their hands and were stampeding around, giving out bear hugs to total strangers. Definitely one of the most joyous celebrations of all time.

When did you first start getting into music and what was your first band?

In middle school I’d mess around in the basement with my good friend Andrew Wilkes-Krier, who lived down the street. We didn’t have a name for our band, we just liked making noise. Of course, he went on to become Andrew W.K. Then in high school, I started a punk band called Something Like That. Later, I played in a funk trio, but I started getting really into rap music. I was hooping constantly with my friends who played on the Huron High School basketball team — I’d rotate between point guard and shooting guard, but I wasn’t very tall then, and not good enough to make varsity. In the summertime, we’d roll to Burns Park or wherever we could get a game going, and play for hours, and then go to somebody’s house and try to make hip-hop. We called our crew the Athletic Mic League, because we’d all gotten to know each other through playing sports.

The thing was, we didn’t have a DJ. We just all liked to rap. All the rap crews at the time — Run DMC, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Gang Starr, Eric B. & Rakim — had a DJ and we were like, “Damn, someone’s gotta be the DJ.” I volunteered. I’d always been a record collector — other kids wanted G.I. Joe for Christmas, and all I wanted was records. So I bought a pair of Technics 1200s and locked myself in my room for a summer, and when I came out I was the DJ for Athletic Mic League. After college, I kept making music with those guys as a hip-hop DJ and producer.

Was music paying the bills? Or were you working other jobs on the side?

Making music was just my passion. My income came from every kind of job you can imagine. I did some graphic design. I shingled roofs. I did light construction. I worked at a driving range — I was the guy who drove the tractor around picking up golf balls. I worked at a software store. I also worked at Borders books national headquarters, which was based in Ann Arbor. I was a tape backup systems operator. Basically, they had a giant vault of old super-archaic data backup tapes that looked like eight-track cartridges, and every couple of minutes a six-digit number would flash on a big screen and I’d have to go back in the vault and hunt for the tape and put it in the computer. That was my job. It gave me plenty of time to think about music.

What inspired you to make the move to Los Angeles?

Me and two friends started a rap group called Now On that was a little more soul and R&B-influenced, with a little more of an electronic sound, and we decided that we wanted to take a shot at making music full-time. We figured that out in L.A. we’d either make it big or get crushed. Things took off pretty quickly. We had a Michigan work ethic and we were leapfrogging people, climbing the ladder by working way harder than everybody. But then we started to get hit for samples we were using in our songs. We’d have to pay thousands of dollars for the rights to sample an old soul tune before we could sell our own songs, and the more interest we had in our music the more broke we became. We were living off ramen noodles, three of us sharing one bedroom. We’d DJ a gig for 50 bucks, which was like 15 bucks each. I remember thinking, “Damn, this is gonna pay for my tacos, but then what am I gonna do?” There were definitely some grim moments. I was borrowing money from people. I thought about heading back to Michigan and moving back in with my parents.

Tell me how “the big break” came about.

I wanted to make my own samples so I wouldn’t have to pay for song clearances. Really, that’s how Mayer Hawthorne started. I recorded a couple of half-baked soul tunes in my bedroom that I could use for sampling purposes in our rap songs. They didn’t even have a bridge or a last chorus. I never dreamed that stuff would be released on its own.

Then I was at this monthly hip-hop party and a friend of mine introduced me to Peanut Butter Wolf, who runs an indie rap label called Stones Throw Records. My friend had heard the Mayer Hawthorne songs and told Wolf about them, and he asked me to e-mail him the tracks. I didn’t hear anything back. Then, six weeks later, I’d forgotten all about it, when out of the blue I got an e-mail from Peanut Butter Wolf, and he was like, “I really like these tracks, what the hell is this??” It took a while for me to get him to understand that it was really me who’d made the songs. He didn’t believe it — they sound like classic soul songs and he thought they were old demo tapes I’d dug up from the ’60s or ’70s. Once he understood that the music was mine he told me he wanted to put it out on his label. I remember he sent over the contract for what I expected would be the single, since there were just two tracks, but when I got the contract it was for a whole album. I wrote back and said, “There must be some kind of mistake. I just read this contract and it’s for a whole album.” And he said, “It’s no mistake. How would you feel about recording a full album for Stones Throw?”

As your music has become more and more popular, you’ve become a sex symbol. Does it feel weird? What’s it like to have this sudden blast of female attention?

It’s really awkward sometimes. I’ve never been a ladies’ man; I’ve always been more of a nerd. I played sports, but it wasn’t like I was ever the star quarterback. I never dated the cheerleader. I was just a music nerd. It’s weird when I read on Twitter about girls saying they want to jump my bones. Having girls grab your ass is never a normal transaction, and doesn’t really lead anywhere good. A lot of the craziest interactions stem from people being really nervous themselves about meeting me. They don’t know how to handle it — they freak out and do something bizarre, and then that makes things even more uncomfortable. My job becomes putting everyone at ease and diffusing their awkwardness.

Are you ever able to meet and hang out with girls on the road?

It’s tough. It’s definitely tough. That’s a big misconception about being a quote-unquote rock star — people think there’s a line of ladies, a woman in every city, and that we’re out there hooking up all the time. I live on a bus. We pull into a city and hopefully have enough time to load up and sound check and eat something before the show. Then we pack up and leave for the next city. There’s rarely any time to even catch a glimpse of the cities we’re passing through, let alone try to pick up chicks. When we get off the stage all I want to do is find the nearest pillow, curl up, and get a couple hours of sleep before we get up and do it all over again. The last thing I want to do is get wasted and holla at chicks. Singing is a really fragile thing. If I go out after a show, talking at a loud bar, I’m wrecked the next day and can’t do my job. I can see how it might be appealing to romanticize this job and imagine that it’s a party all the time. It’s certainly a lot of fun, and I know just how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing, but it’s also a lot of work. We put in way more hours of work than I ever did when I was working a nine-to-five. Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life. He’s also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington.

Previously from Davy Rothbart:

What’s Your Deal? With Anne Buford, director of Elevate
What’s Your Deal? With Richard Jenkins
What’s Your Deal? With Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko
What’s Your Deal? With Joseph Gordon-Levitt
What’s Your Deal? With Dominic Fredianelli
What’s Your Deal? With Bismack Biyombo

Filed Under: Music, Mayer Hawthorne, Grantland Q&A