The Accidental Career of Mayer Hawthorne

Patricia Lim

Back with his new album, “For All Time”, Hawthorne reflects on a life of happy surprises

By Jeff McCord

Not so long ago, he was DJ Haircut, a member of Ann Arbor’s Athletic Mic League.

“I was a DJ for a decade before I released my first record,” he confesses

Mayer Hawthorne (real name: Andy Mayer Cohen, he took Hawthorne from the name of his family’s street) is sitting with me after his Studio 1A session, dressed to the nines for an afternoon gig on the radio. His band was adorned in matching diamond checkered pants. 

He’s all about style, Hawthorne, whose manicured soul/funk hooks have a way of embedding in your cortex. He’s on, if you count his side group Tuxedo and other offshoots, his eleventh or so release. And none of it was ever intended.

“I was making soul samples in my bedroom, literally in a closet in Michigan.” To avoid paying the fees associated with sampling well-known artists, Hawthorne created his own. Moving to Los Angeles, he took his DJ gear, samples and rap beats along, playing them for Chris Manak (better known as Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of Stones Throw Records) when he ran into him. 

Hawthorne recalls Manak’s reaction. 

“I gave him the demo of my rap beats, and he was like ’Yeah, these rap beats are not good. You’re not good at making rap beats. But you’re really good at making the samples, the music behind it. Why don’t you try doing that instead?’”

With Manak’s promise to release them on his label, Hawthorne did just that. 

A young Mayer Hawthorne aka DJ Haircut and the Athletic Mic League

“Even when we did put the first record out, I just assumed it was going to be like a one-time thing and that I would go back to deejaying full time. It just ended up being way bigger than anybody thought it would be. And I’m still here, like, you know, 15 years later, I’m still making music.”

“I never had any delusions that I would be a singer. When I went to record the first album, I pretty much exclusively sang in a pillowy falsetto voice because that was how everybody I had listened to did it. And I didn’t really know that there was another way to sing. It was really crazy. I mean, I listened to a lot of Curtis Mayfield and the Moments and the Chi-lights and the Stylistics and I just wanted to sing like Eddie Holman, because I thought that was like how everybody sang. After when I went to record the next album, I actually took some vocal lessons from this guy named Roger Love. And he was like, ‘Yeah, there are actually other ways to sing.’ Blew my mind.”

So did the reaction, not only to his heart-shaped red vinyl debut single, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” but his debut album, A Strange Arrangement. For Hawthorne, it was clear there was no turning back. 

Briana Washington and Sophie Giuliani in Studio 1A / Patricia Lim
Mayer Hawthorne in Studio 1A / Patricia Lim
Benji Demps in Studio 1A / Patricia Lim

That was in 2009, and things have never really stopped. There have been gold records, network TV appearances, a stint on a major label, Grammy nominations. 

Not bad for a guy who’s essentially a record geek. He has thousands of songs in his head, his enormous record collection makes him the DJ among LA celebs. 

Album artwork for Mayer Hawthorne’s new album, For All Time

For the new album, For All Time, released last fall after the worldwide pause, Hawthorne recalls what set him off.

“What usually happens is I have a spark that sets the whole thing in motion. And on this particular album, it was a song called “Without You”. I wrote and recorded that song. I was listening to a lot of Ethiopian jazz and Turkish funk and Iranian disco, and I used some Middle Eastern and African sounds. I wanted it to feel like you were in a Moroccan jazz club listening to it. When I finished that song, I was like, okay, I think I got something here. This is going to be the vibe for the album. Everything came after that.”

The single, “The Pool”, is a sneaky subterfuged earworm, part eastern, part spaghetti western, pure Hawthorne. 

“The challenge is, how do I make my music and incorporate some little elements of that? Because if I were to just make, first of all, I’ll never make a Ethiopian jazz record as good as Mulatu Astatke, so why would I even bother trying to do that? The challenge is, how do I incorporate certain elements but still make it my music and still make it have that pop sensibility?”

He seems to have solved the puzzle. Hawthrone is out on his first tour in quite a while, incorporating DJ after-parties into some shows (including Austin). He’s rolled into Austin on a particularly cold and wet day. I ask if he’s missing sunny California. 

“I’m married now, and I’ve got my first kid on the way. We just moved to Pasadena. It’s a nice, quiet lifestyle. It has become harder and harder to leave, for sure. Yeah, the tours have gotten shorter and shorter, because I don’t like being away from home as much anymore.”

It’s a stylish home most of us have seen, at least the music room, regularly featured on his Wine & Vinyl Hour on YouTube. An aficionado of wine (of course he is) as well as music, it has become yet another surprise hit. 

“A very similar career thing where I literally was just doing it for my own enjoyment in my house during the plague. And my manager was like, ‘Why don’t you just turn the camera on and let other people watch?’ And I just thought that it was going to be like this little fun thing. And now it’s become like a business, I’ve launched my own wine club (The Wine And Viny Collectors Club), so it’s pretty amazing.”

Yeah. All of it.

I don’t know. Looking back on it, you know, it was all a good lesson for being open to what the universe brings you and just not being afraid to try something new. And even if it feels crazy, you never know.”

FOLLOW MAYER HAWTHRONE


MUSICIANS: Mayer Hawthorne – vocals; Sophie Giuliani – guitar; Allee Futterer – bass; Benji Demps – drums;

Briana Washington – keys

CREDITS: Producer: Deidre Gott; Production Assistant: Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman, Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Cameras: Patricia Lim, Michael Minasi; Edit: Michael Minasi; Host: Laurie Gallardo

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