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Mayer Hawthorne: ‘If You Don’t Like Steely Dan, I Don’t Like You’

Mayer Hawthorne

For his third record, Where Does This Door Go (Universal Republic), released July 16, retro-soul smoothie Mayer Hawthorne was determined to do more than just break the rules. “I took all the rules that I had and I threw every single one of them out,” admits Hawthorne. “Left to my own devices, I would have ended up with an album that sounded very different than this.”

To aid the personal boundary-breaking, the Michigan-bred Hawthorne, 34, enlisted some of modern pop’s most progressive minds to help with the production on Where Does This Door Go, a roster that includes Pharrell Williams, Jack Splash (R. Kelly, Kendrick Lamar), and Greg Wells (Adele), among others. The result is a more expansive affair than Hawthorne’s Motown-inspired 2011 breakthrough, How Do You Do. The new effort touches on smooth-grooving hip-hop (“Allie Jones”), bossa nova (“Backseat Love”), and a yacht-full of Steely Dan.

We sat down with Hawthorne at the Universal offices in Manhattan to chat about the influences behind the Door.

“Really early on I made this video on my computer — a big collage of all my favorite door scenes from movies. There are so many good ones. Beetlejuice is the best, so many good doors. Alice in Wonderland has a bunch of doors. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Matrix, the Adjustment Bureau. Those movies are all about not knowing where the door will go. That’s what this album’s all about.”

Steely Dan
“So much Steely Dan in this album. My motto’s always been: ‘If you don’t like Steely Dan, I don’t like you.’ Steely Dan is a great divider among music fans. Either you love it or you don’t. I don’t know anyone who kind of likes Steely Dan. It’s very divisive. Fortunately everyone who I worked with on this record really appreciated it. I think even people who like Steely Dan as much as I do can admit that there’s nothing sexy about Steely Dan. And so basically what I tried to do on this album was to take Steely Dan and make it sexy.”

Ann Arbor, Michigan
“My parents were definitely hippies. They were products of that era, for sure. I grew up in Ann Arbor, which is a radical hippie town, left wing. They have the hash bash there, you know; it’s one of the biggest marijuana legalization rallies in the country. Ann Arbor is also thirty miles from Detroit, so I got a lot of that soul coming from Detroit, and hip-hop like Slum Village and J Dilla, Eminem. It’s also a college town, so there’s people coming in and out from all over the world all the time. It was an incredibly well-rounded place to grow up musically. Iggy Pop and Bob Seger were from Ann Arbor, too.”

“I was very selective about the producers I worked with on this record. I met with a million people, and ended up picking a small few that I felt best understood my vision: People that were very musical, people I thought had something to add, people that would push me and, especially, people who had a positive attitude. It was amazing how many people I met that just didn’t have a good attitude. Any kind of negativity in the studio can be really hindering.”

“There was a running theme in this record, and that was not giving a fuck about what ‘It should sound like.’ The songs on this record are coming of age songs and, most of all, they’re stories. There’s an incredible focus on storytelling on this record, which is something Pharrell was really passionate about. [Steely Dan’s] Donald Fagen is really good at this. He just tells stories in the most vivid manner possible. I really concentrated on that for this record: Telling stories in the most detailed way.”

David Lynch
“This album for me was really about a journey into the complete unknown. It was about doing things differently than my last two records and stepping outside of my comfort zone. Previously I had worked on everything myself. This time I wrote with other writers, I did not play all the instruments myself, I and worked with other producers. And David Lynch is the master of the unknown. I got the idea for owl that’s sitting on my shoulder on the album cover from Twin Peaks.”