So often acts are labelled as the “new” this or “the 21st Century’s answer” to that without being allowed to shine in their own right. The burden of being called the new face of modern Motown music is something that could hang around Mayer Hawthorne’s neck like a dead weight, but the Michigan born singer and producer has taken everything in his stride and come out smelling of roses.
Mayer Hawthorne may seem to have sprung from nowhere to be 2009’s most unlikely musical hero, but the hip hop nerds will remember him as a member of Athletic Mic League and the LA group Now On. Holding production duties under the alias Haircut [right? How can you not love him already?] he made sure the beats bumped and heads got to nodding without any indication of what his solo work would produce.
The transition from Haircut to Hawthorne came about when some tracks he’d recorded came by the ears of Peanut Butter Wolf who promptly signed him to Stones Throw, home to Madlib, Oh No and J Dilla to name but a few. Still, though Mayer’s music doesn’t fit in with those luminaries, it is the feel of his songs which get him noticed. He’s not just taking influences from the Motown of the 60s nor is he trying to imitate them to make a hit, it’s as if he’s actually hopped in a Delorean and gone back to that era to record the songs.
Perhaps the litmus test for the singer was playing it to this humble blogger’s Dad, who grew up in the 60s and is a self-confessed music snob. Within a few tracks, the eyes were closed and the lips were persed – he had passed with flying colours. To get the backing of someone with thousands of records, a vast number of which came from the heyday of Motown, is an indication of not being a flash-in-the-pan.
Ballads and upbeat numbers both appear in his debut album ‘A Strange Arrangement’ showing his willingness to cover both sides of the spectrum and not try to put all his eggs in one basket. With help from his backing group The County, who have appeared in videos on the label’s YouTube as part of his Barber Shop Quartet, the harmonies on the album are as sweet as can possibly be, before he flips the switch and brings out the horns for some dancefloor action.
Something else which got Hawthorne noticed and one which pleased vinyl junkies across the globe was the creative marketing of his releases. In a short space of time, he has released a track on green vinyl, a four-inch vinyl and the pièce de résistance – a heart shaped red vinyl. If that isn’t a reason to get excited about what’s pressed on them, then all hope is lost.
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So there it is, a nerdy-looking white guy has dropped one of the albums of the year by doing what so many others try and fail to achieve – making a type of soul that could stand up for itself in the Motor City’s halcyon days. With the man himself about to hit London to show that he can do it live too, it would be foolhardy to miss out. Big things are coming from the man they used to call Haircut.