Soul training

Suddenly, Mayer Hawthorne is running retro-pop
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 22, 2009

WHO’S THE NEW GUY?: Mayer Hawthorne doesn’t pack the vocal prowess of Boston’s own white-soul survivalist Eli Reed, but his music is years more contemporary.

Mayer Hawthorne rose to instant retro-pop acclaim the same way that everyone from Al Green to Michael Jackson moved on up — work and luck. A long-time DJ who was born in snow-white Ann Arbor, he left home to seek hip-hop fame in Hollywood after outgrowing Detroit’s rap scene. Once out West, he recorded two soul tracks that he planned to share just with friends, but they wound up wowing Stones Throw owner Peanut Butter Wolf and Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, both of whom helped establish him as new black music’s unlikely alt hero. Pretty standard, really, but still a huge surprise to the Motown native, who comes to Great Scott on Tuesday.

“This all just happened last November, so I had to drop everything in order to become Mayer Hawthorne,” says the renaissance talent born Drew Cohen. “Even the [stage] name was sort of last-minute. Mayer Hawthorne is really my porn name: ‘Mayer’ is my middle name and ‘Hawthorne’ is the street that I grew up on. For whatever reason, though, this whole thing has caught on, and now it’s out of my control.”

Although unlikely, Hawthorne’s rise wasn’t quite as unbelievable as some on-line rumor mills have suggested — he wasn’t an obscure shut-in making laptop rock in his Underoos. As DJ Haircut — before he donned a cardigan and dropped the universally adored single “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” — the vinyl-minded turntablist/producer racked up props and paychecks, both as an A-list Sunset Strip party jockey and as a member of Detroit’s well-regarded Athletic Mic League (alongside Buff 1) and his electro-soul squad, Now On. He was even represented by the all-powerful Agency Group, and it seems he knew the right people who knew the right people.

“These songs were experiments for fun on the side,” he says of his secret jam sessions. “They were for me to see if I could really do it. At first, I only had two songs, and no plans to do more, when I played them for a friend who knows Peanut Butter Wolf. After that, when she introduced me to Wolf and didn’t say anything about my hip-hop stuff, I was like, ‘Cool — thanks for shopping songs that I didn’t even want anybody to hear.’ But then he wrote me about a month later asking where I dug up these old records. When I told him that was me singing and playing all of the instruments in my bedroom, he flipped out and asked if I would do a whole album.”

The subsequent debut, A Strange Arrangement, is a spread so sweet that it should come with gravy and two biscuits. Hawthorne doesn’t pack the vocal prowess of Boston’s own white-soul survivalist, Eli Reed, but his music is years more contemporary, with easy hooks and magical bass loops that are certain to arouse teens, parents, and even estranged cousins who live in Greenwich Village and are too cool to like anything. Homeboy also has a metaphorical look fit for intergenerational appeal — three-piece leisure suits with fresh kicks on the hoofs. And he claims he never dreamed of this.

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