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Mayer Hawthorne Makes His Thriller

The L.A. musician on taking his third album in a different direction and why he’s no throwback artist

Mayer Hawthorne doesn’t seem to do anything halfway. In order to come up with 14 songs for his forthcoming album, the exceedingly well-dressed Michigan-born musician wrote more than 40 tracks.

The resulting mix on his third album, Where Does This Door Go, which drops July 16, blends soul, funk and classic rock in a way that feels at once familiar and excitingly new—thanks in part to collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Jessie Ware and others.

DuJour spoke to the 34-year-old artist on the eve of his album’s release; read on as he talks about Michael Jackson, sharing the spotlight and why he’s such a stickler for details.

I’ve heard that you recorded more than 40 songs for this record—is that true?
[Laughs] I recorded a lot of songs for this album. Some I wrote on the road on the tour for the last record. A lot of them—we went in the studio and wrote on the spot. In the end we decided the best move was to do it Michael-Jackson-Thriller-style and take the strongest 14 which worked together. I’m an album artist; I’m not a dude just trying to have a hit single. I respect the album as a format, and I picked the songs that complemented each other.

What are you planning to do with the songs that didn’t make the album?
Some of them will come out on the deluxe edition [of Where Does This Door Go]—it will have some bonus tracks. Some of the tracks, like “Designer Drug,” we gave away for free on SoundCloud.

There are some major departures for you on this record, like using synthesizers. What inspired these new sounds?
I’d done two albums on which I wrote, arranged, produced and played all the instruments and sang everything myself. But for me, it’s always extremely important to continue the evolutionary process. For this album I wanted to do everything different. I threw all the rules out the window.

The record also features an impressive roster of collaborators. How did someone make the cut to work with you?
I want to work with people who are trying to do something new, people that are trying to move the music forward and not take it back. I’ve never been about being a retro or a throwback artist; I’ve always been trying to do something new with music. The group of people I chose to work with for this record were ones I felt shared that vision with me. They would push me out of my comfort zone, and I could also do the same for them.

You clearly wanted a specific vibe on this record. What was your vision?
I wanted to make the record that I would want to throw on at a party. Initially I wanted to make what I call my Thriller. Not Thriller in the sonic sense—I didn’t want it to sound like Thriller—but I wanted it to be like Thriller in the sense that it was compact, and all killer no filler.

With that kind of goal and with all your different collaborators, how did you keep it a Mayer Hawthorne album?
I was definitely worried about working with multiple producers on this record. A lot of albums with multiple producers end up sounding like a mix tape, and there’s no cohesion. The nice thing is that I was aware of this from early on. Before we even got started, I knew the dangers of that and I knew going into it that I would need to be the glue that held everything together.

You grew up in Detroit but now live in L.A. How has that affected your sound?
California has had an enormous impact on my music, and I think this new record is where you finally get to hear it. It sort of crept through on the last album, but I actually went back to Detroit to record that one. On this one, I really let the California come through.

You’re a well-dressed guy. How does that play into your act?
My motto is ‘Be flashy but classy’—it’s something that I got from my grandmother and her sister. They would always show up to family functions with the wildest gear on. It was always super flashy. You always noticed them when they came in the room, but they just carried themselves with so much class and there was never anything trashy about it. That’s something that’s always stuck with me and that I always try to carry forward.

Your look can skew a bit vintage. Do you think that influences how people see you, and does that ever bother you?
I think everyone wants to put you in some kind of box, regardless of the way that you dress or look or the music you make. That’s why it’s even more important to be doing something new and trying something different. Even when I wear vintage suits, I always update them with a new pocket square or a new pair of sneakers, something that would never have been done back when that suit was made.

Speaking of updates, what’s next for you?
I’m going to be touring all around the world and eating all the best food in every city. I’m a big food guy; I like to eat well and I’m adventurous with it. The meal that I’m most looking forward to is the one that I didn’t even know existed.

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