The Mayer of Motor City

Photo by Todd Cooper

Although singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/DJ/producer Andrew Cohen wasn't even born until the end of the '70s, his sound — at least under the stage name Mayer Hawthorne — is firmly rooted in '60s and '70s soul. It was in L.A. that Cohen veered away from his DJ start, caught the ear of Stones Throw label head Peanut Butter Wolf, and launched his Hawthorne project. The first album, A Strange Arrangement, was all swanky grooves and buttery Barry White-lite vocals. For his next project, the just-released How Do You Do It, Cohen based himself in soul-central — Detroit, Mich. — to record.

"I wanted to capture that soul and that grit that I grew up with and loved," says Cohen. "It's easy to get soft out in California. The weather's perfect and life is pretty easy out there. It can make you lazy if you don't have a strong work ethic. I'm really glad that I got that from Detroit."

Except that Cohen was born and raised (according to his Stones Throw bio) in Ann Arbor, Mich., less than an hour’s drive from Detroit, but a world away. Ann Arbor is a college town; Detroit is, according to TIME Magazine, 50 percent functionally illiterate. Ann Arbor was ranked among the "Five Great Places to Retire" by Fortune Magazine in 2010, Detroit was ranked 6th in the U.S. for violent crime just five years ago. But it's obvious that the place lends mojo to Cohen's work: "Most of the best music in the world came out of Detroit," he says. "It has to do with diversity and it has to do with struggle."

About How Do You Do It, Cohen says it's very much a soul record, but with the sophomore effort he's refined "my own real Mayer Hawthorne sound." That sounds, he says, incorporates other styles of music he grew up with, from new wave and surf rock to The Beatles and Frank Sinatra. And especially hip-hop. 

The goal, says Cohen, is "to move the music forward and not be taking it back." His recording techniques are based in modern technology, including some Moog equipment: "We use the Voyager in the live show. There's material that I'm recording for the next album that we're using the Memorymoog on."

Cohen is already at work on his third Mayer Hawthorne album. The soul persona suits him, though, and of the stage name, he says it’s just a name. “I'm not an actor. If I was playing some character, I don't feel like it would be very believable. People are smart and they'd see right through that.”

What Hawthorne fans could (just possibly) be surprised by on future recordings: a talk box. Leading up to Moogfest. Mayer Hawthorne is touring with electrofunk duo Chromeo. P-Thugg, Chromeo's Lebanese-born keyboardist, is known for his use of a talk box.

"The biggest element that we share is that we really love to have fun with the music," says Cohen of his tour mates. That, and, "I've been a huge fan of the talk box since Roger and Zapp. I'm an enormous Roger Troutman fan."

For full Moogfest coverage, click here.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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