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Mayer Hawthorne's "The Ills"

The Mayer on creating a live show, Katrina and just how good he himself is

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Mayer Hawthorne isn't the first stage name for genre-hopper Andrew Cohen. For years, he performed under the name Haircut as part of the California hip-hop trio Now On and Michigan-based crew Athletic Mic League. It may be the one, however, under which he earns him the most fans.

Though Cohen now makes his home in Los Angeles, A Strange Arrangement—Mayer Hawthorne's debut LP—exhibits obvious soul influences that come from his youth in Ann Arbor, Mich. After all, he grew up 45 minutes away from the home of Motown.

"The Ills," then, finds him where Curtis Mayfield's sense of social awareness and brassy, polyrhythmic workouts meet up with Beck's white boy funk and falsetto. A hyperactive bongo beat fuels Hawthorne's anthem about rebounding from adversity, citing the single "mama [who] can't raise her son" and the Hurricane Katrina tragedy where "good people lost their lives" as "ills of the world."

We exchanged e-mail with the hardworking Hawthorne hours before he hit Chicago for a pair of shows in one day. He's currently on a tour that extends to Thanksgiving and takes him across the country and Europe.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: As an upbeat, optimistic tune about bouncing back from adversity, "The Ills"—like much of A Strange Arrangement—sticks to pretty simple, classic soul themes of life and love. There's an undercurrent of social awareness with the references to single mothers and Hurricane Katrina. What caused you to use those as examples?

MAYER HAWTHORNE: A lot of my friends growing up had single Moms for parents. And now that I'm a little older, some of them are single parents themselves. I was really blown away by the lack of resources allocated to the Katrina tragedy. I wish I had more money and more influence back then. The idea is to stay positive though. There are a million""Ills of the World" that I could have written about. Those were just the first two that came to me.

Compared to the rest of the album, "The Ills" seems a bit less retro. You make your classic soul and Motown inspirations pretty evident throughout A Strange Arrangement, but what are some of your more contemporary influences?

I still listen to a lot of hip-hop. I liked the Santogold album, and the new Bird and the Bee. Hanne Hukkelberg is my favorite right now. Anything with great (and strange) songwriting.

Obviously you were born after the Motown era had passed, but what impact did growing up near Detroit have on this album?

Detroit has more soul than any city on Earth. You can feel the soul in the air, yet hardly anyone in the Detroit area makes real soul music anymore. There's a ton of incredible hip-hop, rock and electronic music though, and that had a significant effect on my album as well. 

When did you start writing songs for the Mayer Hawthorne project? What made you realize that it could become something a lot bigger than just a casual side gig?

I never intended for those first few songs to ever be released to the public. It was Peanut Butter Wolf who realized it could be something bigger. But I don't think anyone expected it to get this big. When I signed to Stones Throw last November, I had only ever written and recorded 2 songs.

How have you tackled the challenge of recreating these songs live that you recorded pretty much (or all?) on your own?

My live band, the County, is composed of all my favorite musicians from Detroit and L.A., so it probably sounds better than the album. We put a lot of work into really creating a show, instead of just getting up there and playing songs. You get your money's worth when you come to see Mayer Hawthorne & The County. If you're not having fun, it's your own fault. 

Is there any shift in mindset when working on Mayer Hawthorne material as compared to the hip-hop work you do as Haircut with Now On and Athletic Mic League?

It's a completely different animal. I'm doing nearly everything by myself, and there's no sampling. But the underlying constants are still there: good songwriting and fun.

I've that you might be putting out another Mayer Hawthorne record but that you were also working on a new wave album. Are there any genres that you absolutely won't try?

I'm working on all kinds of new music. I love it all. Anything creative.

Mayer Hawthorne & The Country plays Local 506 Monday, Oct. 5, with Buff1 and 14KT. Tickets for the 9:30 p.m. show are $10.

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