Mayer Hawthorne never realised he had a voice. The ever-dapper 30-year-old – born Andrew Mayer Cohen – had other things on his mind. Making a solo record, let alone trying to sing on it, wasn’t even on the agenda.
“I never thought that anybody would actually hear these songs that I was doing, you know?” he offers in his relaxed Detroit parlance.
“It was really just a side project,” he continues, falling silent for a moment. “Man, I wanted to make it in hip-hop. I never had plans to be a soul singer, let’s put it that way. This was really just an experiment that exploded accidentally.”
It might seem an odd assertion on hearing A Strange Arrangement, Cohen’s luminous debut as Mayer Hawthorne. The album, recorded for the most part in Cohen’s bedroom and released through Los Angeles alternative hip-hop imprint Stones Throw in September, has all the crackle-flecked, dust-hazed qualities of a vintage Motown 7”. Then there’s that voice; a timbre that floats in and out of falsetto with such effortless and purity that you’d swear he’d been singing since the cradle.
“I just sang on these tracks because I didn’t think anybody would ever really hear them,” he laughs, chatting on the phone from his adopted LA home on the eve of his first Australian tour. “So you know, I’ve had to learn how to use my voice as an instrument very quickly and had to become a singer very quickly.”
Suffice to say, he’s had little trouble convincing the wider populace of his credence. Since Cohen dropped his swooning first single, Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, on heart-shaped vinyl mid-year, names from Snoop Dogg to uber-producer Mark Ronson have publicly sung his praises, anointing the multi-instrumentalist as soul’s new voice.
Maybe So, Maybe No
But as Cohen goes onto explain, the Mayer Hawthorne project was more to do with practicality than any grand plan. Having spent the majority of the 2000s working as a hip-hop producer – cutting records with Michigan crews Athletic Mic League and Now On under his DJ Haircut moniker – Cohen found himself bogged down in the logistics of the craft.
“Mayer Hawthorne actually came from the necessity to just create more work,” he offers. “As a hip-hop producer I was just finding myself having to clear samples all the time and it’s a royal pain in the ass and really expensive, so I said to myself ‘Well, I play all these instruments and I’ve been listening to this kind of music my whole life, so why don’t I just make my own samples?”
Bar the horn section, Cohen played and recorded all the instruments that appear on A Strange Arrangement in his bedroom studio. He even used a pair of old headphones as a vocal mic, to give his voice “that magical old sound”. The results – from the bouncing soul hook of You’re Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Nothin’ to the glowing harmonies and twinkling piano of Make Her Mine – could happily sit alongside golden era Smokey Robinson or Curtis Mayfield.
In many ways, it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. Cohen’s musical history runs deep. Growing up in Ann Arbor, to the west of Detroit, his family home was filled with the sounds of soul.
“Both of my parents were very musical,” he explains. “I was extremely fortunate to grow up where I did, first of all. To grow up near Detroit is incredible. But yeah, my mum played piano and sang and danced, and my father played bass guitar in a band, and he still plays in a band to this day in Detroit.”
Cohen began playing from the earliest of ages, and by the time he was a teenager he was proficient across a range of instruments. “My dad taught me to play bass guitar when I was about six years old and they were always buying me records and 7”s, even before I could read the labels.
“There was Motown, for sure, but also the Beatles and The Hollies, The Police, Queen – it was everything – and it gave me a really well-rounded musical education, which I’m very thankful for.”
One of A Strange Arrangement’s most fascinating moments is second single Maybe So, Maybe No, an odd, swirling, psychedelic cut originally released by little-known Detroit group the New Holidays in 1969. It says a lot about his approach. Cohen may be mining the past, but he isn’t about to make soul by the numbers.
“I’ve always sort of been drawn to songs that are a little off the norm, but are still catchy,” he says. “The original New Holidays version is really sort of bizarre. That’s what, I think, really drew me to it. It’s super catchy and it’s a brilliant song, but it’s kind of weird and strange and unlike the majority of stuff from that era.
“That’s kind of why my album is called A Strange Arrangement, because I like to think that most of my songs are a little strange as well. I never wanted to create a throwback album, you know. It’s really important for me to be moving the music forward, always. I want to make sure that I’m adding something new and bringing the music forward and making it current, no matter what kind of music it is.”
That said, Cohen isn’t about to start taking himself too seriously. “I still consider myself a much better DJ than a singer,” he laughs.
“I mean, singing and making a record like this was just never something that I expected to do. But you know,” he pauses, laughs again. “Once something like that emerges, you’ve just got to go with the flow.”
Mayer Hawthorne plays the Corner Hotel on Saturday, January 9 with Amp Fiddler and Quantic.
A Strange Arrangement is out now through Stones Throw/Fuse