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Arts and Music

Mayer Hawthorne: Yacht Rock Rapper

Where Steely Dan meets the Beastie Boys

Sexy and Steely Dan are generally two words that tend to be mutually exclusive of each other. That is unless you’re chatting with soul man Mayer Hawthorne, whose latest album Where Does This Door Go, finds him incorporating that as part of his mission statement third full-length album. It is part of a vibe he manages to incorporate through these 14 songs that found him going from doing all knob twisting in the studio to working with a cadre of producers. Being as Hawthorne usually plays most of the instruments on his recordings, it was a strategy he wound up being well pleased by.

“It definitely took a lot of pressure off of me, made my job a lot easier and allowed me to take a step back from the production and really allowed me to focus on the songwriting,” he shared from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. “When you’re producing everything yourself, which I did on the first two records, sometimes you’re just so wrapped up in getting the greatest snare sound in the world that you forget about the song, which is of course the most important thing. Working with guys like Pharrell Williams, Jack Splash, Greg Wells and all these other legendary dudes definitely allows me to focus on the songs.”

As for the aforementioned Steely Dan, the man born Andrew Mayer Cohen is a diehard fan whose affinity for the yacht rockers immediately placed him on common ground with Williams. Songs like “Reach Out Richard” and “Wine Glass Woman” sound like lost Walter Becker/Donald Fagen outtakes with the latter particularly benefitting from some very Larry Carlton-like riffing and soloing. It was all a natural outgrowth of the love that Cohen and the N.E.R.D. frontman have for the storied jazz-rock outfit.

“We really connected over Steely Dan and wanted to go there but even the most diehard fan like myself can admit that there’s nothing really sexy about Steely Dan. It’s very [dorky] music for jazz nerds,” explained Hawthorne. “Pharrell and I both like to make sexy music so we tried to take that Steely Dan element but keep it sexy. And I think that’s how we brought it to 2014 but we snuck a little Fagen in there for sure.”

This diversity in the studio found the Ann Arbor native going beyond the retro soul ghetto he was sharing with the likes of Robin Thicke and instead incorporating a slightly more experimental vibe into this batch of songs. The echoey nuances, squiggly synth washes and loping bass of “Allie Jones” carry the whiff of old school reggae while Hawthorne indulges his hip-hop roots via the smooth grooves of “Crime,” where rapper Kendrick Lamar stops by to drop a few rhymes. Lamar’s contributions are no surprise given the fact that Hawthorne often DJs at clubs in the towns where his band plays while on tour.

Music has always been a constant in his life. His bassist father, who continues in a band, first put a Fender Jazzman in young Andrew’s hands when he was roughly five or six. The younger Cohen’s childhood memories include time spent in the family business, Great Lakes Hardware and Auto, where his family would always “bump Motown in the store and on the way there.” High school found Hawthorne a huge Prince fan and even bigger Funkadelic/Parliament head, all while playing bass in a jazz-funk trio. But it would be rap that wound up not only luring him to California but inadvertently creating the Mayer Hawthorne persona.

“Rap was my first real love when I really started going out and discovering music for myself and breaking away from what my parents taught me; I really fell in love with rap music. LL Cool J on cassette tape. Run-DMC. I love Mobb Deep and J. Dilla was later on,” he recalled. “Of course that changed my life in a whole other way. I used to be a hip-hop DJ and I started making original soul music as a way of sampling myself royalty-free.”

Shortly after moving out to California, the Michigan transplant ran into DJ/producer/Stones Throw label owner Peanut Butter Wolf at a party. Although the latter “wasn’t feeling” the aspiring hip-hop star’s rap demos, he was intrigued by a pair of scratch soul tapes recorded in Cohen’s bedroom that were more of an afterthought. After releasing the 2008 7-inch single “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out/When I Said Goodbye,” the newly-christened Mayer Hawthorne dropped his debut A Strange Arrangement the following year with sophomore bow How Do You Do getting released in 2011.

Over time, Hawthorne’s talents found his music winding up on an episode of Ugly Betty, getting sampled by Pitbull and performing at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic held in his Ann Arbor hometown at Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House, before more than 105,000 people. Self-admittedly “one of the doper highlights of my career,” Hawthorne was stunned when he was asked to appear on an episode of Live from Daryl’s House, where he performed alongside host Daryl Hall and guest Booker T. Jones. For a kid who cut his teeth on R&B and blue-eyed soul, it was a dream came true.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” he said with a laugh. “I got to put the sunglasses on, do the ‘Private Eyes’ guitar dance and trade verses with Daryl Hall. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Mayer Hawthorne will be appearing on Feb. 25 at Webster Hall, 125 East 11th St., 212-260-4700 www.webster and on Feb. 28 at Warsaw, 261 Driggs Ave., 718-387-0505