Mayer Hawthorne digs up the roots of Motown soul
By Joshua P. Ferguson
Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine 09.25.09
“What do you mean these are your songs?” asked Stones Throw Records frontman Peanut Butter Wolf after first listening to Andrew Mayer’s demo CD. According to Mayer, the one-man soul revivalist who records as Mayer Hawthorne, Wolf couldn’t believe his songs weren’t some long-lost vintage soul. “He really didn’t get it at first, which has been a common reaction from everyone, especially when they see what I look like,” says the 30-year-old white dude originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It took a good deal of convincing for him to believe it was really me singing those songs and playing the instruments.”
The avid vinyl collector and longtime DJ pristinely re-created the dusty authenticity of Motown soul on a lark—“as a challenge for myself,” he says. A graphic designer by trade, Mayer never intended the recordings to amount to anything. Yet shortly after a move to L.A. in 2006, a mutual friend brought the concept to Wolf’s attention, and he was sold on it. In the years since, it’s become Mayer’s full-time career. His album, A Strange Arrangement, is out now, and he’s just begun headlining his own tours.
When we catch up with Mayer on the phone from the Stones Throw offices in L.A., he’s still a bit sluggish from the night before. “I’m just trying to recover from a sold-out Roxy Theatre last night. It was bananas,” he says. “[The club] said they hadn’t had a show there like that in a really long time.”
This popular embrace of classic soul has been making waves for a few years now. Obviously, there’s Amy Winehouse (and, perhaps more importantly, her producer Mark Ronson); there are also acts such as Duffy, Jamie Lidell and Alice Russell in the U.K. But most of these artists reappropriate the style for their own purposes. Winehouse pines about rehab and “fuckery,” Duffy seems more marketing vehicle than anything truly genuine, Lidell has added a fair bit of electronics to the mix, and Russell, well, she’s incorporated soul into a world all her own. Mayer has stayed much more true to the roots of the sound.