A camera follows Mayer Hawthorne through a dark corridor and into a bar. “I know it’s been a long time since I released any new music. I promised when it rained, it’d pour. It’s time for Tropical Storm Hawthorne,” he deadpans. “I’m ready.”
The Detroit soul singer’s album-announcement YouTube clip was a parody of Justin Timberlake’s video earlier this year, and represents Hawthorne’s relationship with pop. “I take the music very seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously,” he says. “Having fun is really what it’s all about.”
Video: Mayer Hawthorne on the song “Reach Out Richard,” from his new album “Where Does This Door Go”
His third album, “Where Does This Door Go,” due July 16 on Republic Records, proves his point. While Hawthorne self-produced his first two releases, the retro-soul-styled “A Strange Arrangement” and “How Do You Do” (which have sold 71,000 and 102,000, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan), his latest features a whole cast of producers: Pharrell, John Hill, Jack Splash, Greg Wells and more, presenting a new strain of hip-hop soul that could bust him out of “critically acclaimed” territory and into a higher level of stardom.
“I wanted to do something completely different. I did the first two albums myself. I’ll always have that,” he says. “But the music has to evolve and grow.”
Before hitting the studio, Hawthorne met with dozens of the biggest producers in pop, “then I narrowed it down to the guys that understood my vision,” he says. The sessions challenged Hawthorne. “[I’d hear] ‘OK, you’ll work with John Hill today.’ I’d never met John Hill in my life. So I’d say, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Let’s write a hit song.'”
Each producer formed his own idea of Hawthorne’s future, and helped mutate his soulful sound. (Pharrell, he says, “saw me as a stadium rock artist, like Freddy Mercury. He got me thinking bigger.”) But the goal was always the same: “I wanted to make an album to throw on at a house party, fun from beginning to end. A Dirty Mind or Doggystyle. And in a perfect world, this record will be played at every grocery store in America for the next 40 years.”
Video: Mayer Hawthorne on the song “The Stars Are Ours,” from his new album “Where Does This Door Go”
First single “Her Favorite Song,” featuring British siren Jessie Ware, is a good start: a hopelessly gyrating bassline, slowed-down percussion and Hawthorne’s punchy falsetto. “Where Does This Door Go” retains Hawthorne’s hooks and soul in a brassier, bolder package.
Video: Mayer Hawthorne on the song “Her Favorite Song,” from his new album “Where Does This Door Go”
Hit producers may boost Hawthorne’s profile, but he’s always promoted himself with a sly grin. In 2011, he broadcast his own halftime show during the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game as an alternative to Nickelback. His debut single was released on a red, heart-shaped 7-inch record. This summer, hipster burger chain Umami will feature the “Hawthorne Burger.” Other promotions will play on the album’s title “and the journey Mayer will take you on,” Republic senior VP of marketing Frank Arigo says. “His sense of humor makes it easier to promote his music.”
“We just try to be unique,” Hawthorne says. “Our most successful marketing tools have just answered the question ‘What would be the most fun thing to do?’ It’s hard work to think outside the box, but I’m from Detroit. We have a hard work ethic instilled in us.”
Hawthorne will play “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on release date before a summer tour with OneRepublic, but expect more creative Mayer-isms pushing the record through the fall.
As he says, “We’ve got a million ideas.”