“I’ll admit I took some singing lessons,” says 32-year-old Mayer Hawthorne of performing live during his current tour. Singing lessons or not, Hawthorne’s voice is atmospheric; a potent brand of seductiveness, the kind of crooner-style soul to make love to, and his command of it is all the more striking given that during the first 31 years of his life, he hasn’t taken a single singing lesson.The record Hawthorne speaks of is How Do You Do, his second since being signed to Stones Throw in 2009, and his first since inking a deal with Universal Republic. Has major label-backing changed the way the neo-soul singer from Ann Arbor, Michigan works? We’ll let him answer that one. Here is Hawthorne on maintaining his silky voice, collaborating with Snoop Dogg, and the pressures that come with success.
How’s the tour coming along?
It’s been great. The best part is that you always get to see new reactions to the new songs, which is fun. Detroit is always a special stop-off for me, since it’s home. Orlando was surprisingly really good too. It’s always the ones that you’re not expecting to be good like Orlando that end up being the most fun.
I actually saw you in Toronto in 2009. You were getting over strep throat and had to cancel a bunch of shows beforehand. How is your voice holding up this time around?
It’s actually fine now that I’ve learned my lesson. I mean, it’s always a struggle when you’re doing really long tours, but you learn. When I first started singing I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was having to figure my voice out all the time, and now I’m a lot more comfortable on stage. I’ve learned so much in such a short time about how to use my voice properly and take care of it and I’ve had no real issues lately.
I’ve always found it hard to believe you’ve never taken a singing lesson in your life before.
Well, I’ll admit I did take a few lessons for this album, from John Mayer’s vocal coach, actually. But, I’ve learned a lot about my voice. Mainly it’s just doing 400 shows over the past 3 years.That’s where you really learn from experience and the trial and error of it all, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also toured with Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, I did a few shows with Bilal and Erykah Badu, all these amazing vocalists, which always helps.
What was touring with Bruno Mars like?
Oh man, all my tours and all the artists I’ve performed with have been so fantastic in their unique way. The Bruno Mars tour was interesting. There were a lot of screaming 12-year-old-girls all the time, but I had to learn from experience that those people are really fun to play for too. They were some of the best crowds we’ve played for, because you know, young people get the most excited for music, it’s awesome.
How did recording for this album differ from the first one? There must have been a lot of lessons applied there, from getting so popular so quickly.
Yeah, well I went back to Detroit to record the majority of this record for that reason. I didn’t want to lose that grittiness that everybody loved about the first record. I recorded everything myself, and I played even more instruments on this record than I did on the first one. But it’s definitely a step up from the first record in every area. The singing is obviously elevated, because I took lessons. I’ve actually learned how to sing a bit. I’m also better at all the instruments that I play, I’m a better producer, and arranger of songs, and all that just adds to making a better record.
You’ve been with Stones Throw since 2009, but when did you actually sign with Universal Republic? That must have had an influence on this album.
I actually signed with them about halfway through recording the new record. A lot of the recording was already done before I signed. It’s always a really scary thing signing with a major label. I was pretty terrified that they were going to come in and change the whole sound of the album. But so far, it’s been an incredible experience and I think that every little success we have and every person that comes to the show and knows the words and sings along, that gets the label more excited and more on my team. It’s the whole “trust my vision” approach.
How did you convince Snoop Dogg to sing on that track “I Can’t Stop,” and not rap on it? What did that conversation look like?
Well, he asked me what he had to do to get on this album, and I told him there’s no rapping on my album, you’ll have to sing. He was like, “What up, let’s do it,” and of course, the whole time he was dropping some Snoop-isms with a whole bunch of his own flavor. He was calling everybody ‘nephew.’ He’d be like, “Okay, let’s do it, nephew. I ain’t scared, nephew.” I didn’t really know how he was going to do it, I’ve never heard him do anything like that before, but that’s always the goal, when working with another artist, especially one that’s as well known as Snoop, I’m always trying to get them to do something that hasn’t been done before and get them out of their comfort zone.
How did your song wind up in the Spike Jonze and Kanye West collaboration, We Were Once a Fairytale?
One day some Spike Jonze people hit me up and said that they wanted to use my song in the film, and all I knew about it at the time was that Jonze was directing, and it was starring Kanye. And, you know, Kanye has looked out for me a lot. He’s blogged about me and tweeted about me. I hadn’t met him yet at the time, but I’ve also always been a huge Spike Jonze fan, so of course I was excited they wanted to use my song. I was actually really pleased with the film too, I thought it was fantastic.
You’ve also become something of a style icon these days, with GQ featuring you recently in a style profile. Does that put pressure on your image?
Kind of, but I’ve always taken a lot of pride in my style, and you know my motto has always been “flashy but classy.” Style is something that I’ve always held to, so it’s just about the idea of wearing whatever you feel confident in. If you’re walking around wearing whatever you think is dope, as long as you walk around and you say, “I feel like a million bucks,” then everybody will say “Hey, that guy looks like a million bucks”.
How would you define your sound at this point in time?
I just call it soul music because that’s what it is. Really, I could give a fuck about what people want to call it. They can call it space orchestral punk music, but as long as they’re listening to it and talking about it, that’s all I care about.