Mayer Hawthorne is one of the biggest stars soul music has seen in years, and also the most unlikely. Hawthorne born Andrew Mayer Cohen in Ann Arbor, Mich. started his music career as a DJ. To avoid paying for vintage soul samples he wanted to use, he recorded a few of his own soul tracks, playing all the instruments himself and singing for the first time.
"When I was making rap beats, I would have to pay thousands of dollars to clear one sample," Hawthorne said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I couldn't afford that. I had to figure out a different way to do it."
Those demos took on a life of their own and eventually led to his 2009 debut, "A Strange Arrangement." Following that album's unexpected success, he released his second LP, "How Do You Do?," last year.
Hawthorne performs Sunday in the Town Ballroom (681 Main St.) with his live backup band, the County.
>How do you see "How Do You Do?" as a progression from "A Strange Arrangement"?
It's sort of like what Guru says on [the Gang Starr album] "Moment of Truth": "The style of beats is elevated, the style of rhymes is elevated, but it's still Guru and Premiere." [Referencing the song "You Know My Steez."] It's still Mayer Hawthorne, it's even more Mayer Hawthorne than "A Strange Arrangement," but every aspect of it, from the songwriting to the production to the arranging to the playing, I think is better.
>Are you saying that you think it's a stronger album than "A Strange Arrangement"?
I do, because I didn't really know a lot about what I was doing when I recorded "A Strange Arrangement." That record was more like a collection of songs that I would want to sample if I was a rapper. "How Do You Do?" is a much more accurate picture of the real me.
>How has your relationship with soul music changed since you've taken off?
I probably have an even greater appreciation for soul music than I did before. With the new album, I realized that soul music is definitely bigger than I thought. "How Do You Do?" incorporates all the other music that I grew up listening to and loving. A lot of people think I live in some kind of time machine where I only listen to Otis Redding on vinyl. I grew up listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and LL Cool J and Slum Village. You know, I don't even know what it was like in the '60s. I wasn't even alive then. So what I've really learned about soul music is that, it can still be soulful music without sticking to something old. I want to move the music forward, not take it back.
>Did touring change your sound? You record everything yourself on the albums, but when you're playing it live you've got your backup band, the County.
Well, I'm one of those guys who, when I come to see a band live, I want to hear the songs like I know them. I want to hear them like they are on the record. So I try to be fairly true to the record for the most part.
>Would you consider recording an album with a band, instead of recording it on your own?
It's hard for me because I'm kind of a control freak [laughs]. I play all those instruments and I love playing those instruments. So I guess it's kind of selfish, maybe, but I want to play it all on the record. I think a big part of what made people connect with "A Strange Arrangement" was that it was really raw, me in a room by myself.
>Where do you see the connection between soul and hip-hop music?
Well, hip-hop music was born from soul music. It's wild that I grew up in the '80s and '90s listening to rap music, and then I started making hip-hop music, and then I kind of did it backward from there. I started learning about soul music through hip-hop, and then I started making my own soul music, and now, hip-hop artists are sampling me.
>So it all came full circle.
And even back around again.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.
TICKETS: $18 advance, $20 day of show