LEXINGTON, Ky. – It’s Monday, lunchtime with a performance in Baltimore on tap for the evening. But as the noon hour hits, Mayer Hawthorne is just looking for some quiet.
“Sorry, dudes,” he says to nearby pals as he attempts to converse by phone. “I’ve got to do an interview. You don’t have to leave. You just have to not say anything.”
The fun-loving pop-soul stylist is surprisingly soft-spoken when he outlines his newest and most progressively minded album, “Where Does This Door Go.” Maybe that’s because he wants to let the record’s narrative-heavy, soul-saturated tunes – all of which he wrote or co-wrote – speak on his behalf. They certainly do a commendable job of setting a mood and carrying a groove.
“I definitely did not have any set sound in mind for this record when I went in the studio,” he said. “I intentionally threw all the rules away. The only rule I kept was that the music had to be fun. Consequently, the record was very liberating for me. Instead of worrying about what the album sounded like, I just focused on having fun with it. That allowed all my other influences to come out like Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, (techno music pioneer) Juan Atkins and Black Sabbath, ... a whole bunch of stuff I’ve always loved that has never come out in my music before.”
Admittedly, none of these inspirations surfaced noticeably on previous records fashioned by the Ann Arbor, Mich., song stylist born Andrew Mayer Cohen; his stage name of Hawthorne comes from the street he grew up on. A fertile city for music, Ann Arbor also sits just 45 miles west of Detroit. So rock and soul were in abundance during the singer’s childhood.
“Ann Arbor is very close to Detroit, so we got to hear all that great Motown and Detroit soul. But Iggy Pop is from Ann Arbor. So are Bob Seger and the MC5. Man, there is so much other great music that’s from that area. There is a lot of rock ’n’ roll. But it’s very diverse.”
The sounds explored on Hawthorne’s first three albums centered on self-produced, retro-inclined soul that used high-tenor R&B vocals to color songs rich in groove and sass. The culmination was the 2011 hit “The Walk,” a mix of brassy soul and bad attitude brought to life in a video that had Hawthorne and a paramour settling differences with a protracted gun battle.What Hawthorne, 34, reveals on “Where Does This Door Go” is a richer, vastly more modernized pop sound that enlisted a host of top-drawer producers, singers, rappers and writers that included Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Jack Splash, Oak of Oak & Pop, and Greg Wells. The myriad styles converge on the single “Her Favorite Song,” a work grounded in steamy funk but accented by bossa nova-style background vocals.
“This is the first time I’ve recorded with other producers. A lot of these songs were just written on the spot in the studio. I would sit down with Pharrell or Greg Wells or Oak and just start jamming. A lot of them were written in a very spontaneous manner in a very short period of time. So it was very free form.
“But I’m also a firm believer in that you have to write what you know. Otherwise, it’s just not going to be believable. This album is very story-driven. It’s a storyteller record. That was one of the things Pharrell was adamant about, that I just tell a story in the most detailed manner possible. These are all stories – real stories from my life, mostly from my youth. It’s a very coming-of-age record.”
But Hawthorne has hardly abandoned tradition. Prefacing the release of “Where Does This Door Go” by less than a month was a new studio album by Booker T. Jones, the legendary soul keyboardist and frontman of the groundbreaking instrumental R&B troupe Booker T. and the MGs. Hawthorne sang vocals on the title tune, “Sound the Alarm,” and then reprised the song in performance with Jones on “The Tonight Show” in August.
“That was so much fun,” he said. “Booker is a legend for a reason. He wrote ‘Green Onions’ when he was, like, 16 years old, and I got to work with him. I actually got to work with a living legend. That is an amazing thing.”