Heart and Soul

Mayer Hawthorne’s ‘raw’ sound is a throwback to vintage Motown
Photograph by Doug Coombe

There’s an accepted device for creating a stage name if you plan to star in adult movies: Pair your middle name with your current street.

Most people consider that formula nothing more than the makings of light party conversation. But enter Mayer Hawthorne, a young, soul-singing sensation with a distinctively scratchy, throwback sound.

“Mayer’s my middle name, Hawthorne’s the street I used to live on,” the former Ann Arborite says over a fuzzy phone connection while waiting for lunch in his adopted city of Los Angeles. Then, with a hint of apprehension and a slight laugh, he adds: “It’s my porn name.”

He was born Drew Cohen, which is how he was known at Huron High School in Ann Arbor and during his brief stint at the University of Michigan. He lived in Ypsilanti for a spell, and then, three years ago, moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on his newfound identity as Mayer Hawthorne, a performer with a vocal sound that could easily have shared record bins with Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, and Barry White 35 years ago.

Cohen, aka Hawthorne — a self-proclaimed vinyl junkie, who has a collection of records numbering somewhere around 3,000 — would have had absolutely no problem with that. “My parents have always said that I was born in the wrong era,” he says. “My music just came out sounding like that, naturally authentic. Some say it’s doo-wop (not a bad term). Some say northern soul, or sweet soul. I just say soul.”

It also doesn’t hurt to have your parents pumping Detroit’s Motown sound through the subwoofers during your formative years. “There was always music in the house, music with soul. It had a profound influence on me,” he says.

It shouldn’t have been a big surprise when, after years of recording hip-hop (and a stint as a bassist for a funk trio), Cohen’s journey into soul music came out sounding so authentic. But it was a surprise, in a way. “

Mayer Hawthorne actually was a joke at first,” Cohen says. “I wanted to write a soul song, and I wanted to do it by myself. Then, one day, I was driving down to Detroit and the song popped in my head.”

The song he references is “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” the A-side of his red, heart-shaped debut 45-rpm release of the same title. In the recording, he was pretty much a one-man band, so to speak. (Whatever he doesn’t play — especially on stage — is handled by The County, Mayer Hawthorne’s changing group of musicians.) “

I recorded it — everything on it is me — and played it for a few people,” he says. “The problem was that they all liked it.” At that point, Cohen says he thought to himself, “Damn! Now I gotta try and do this again?”

In fact, it was a bit of a shock when Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of Stones Throw, the record label that released Cohen’s 45, heard it. “

At first he didn’t understand,” Cohen says. “He thought it was an old song and asked me if I did a re-edit. He didn’t believe it was me.” After Cohen reassured him that it was, Wolf sent out a contract, and 1,000 copies of the 45 record were pressed. This spring, Cohen’s debut full-length album, tentatively titled A Strange Arrangement, is due out.

Cohen says he plans to keep his sound as close to the origins of soul as possible. He records on as much vintage equipment as he can get his hands on. And, despite his record deal, he still lays down his vocal track through a pair of headphones to keep his sound “raw.” He says that recordings these days are too good, too produced, too clean, too new, unscratched.

As it turns out, his parents were indeed correct when they said he was born in the wrong era. Born an old soul? Yes. But born too late? No.

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