Mayer Hawthorne is not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve. The writer/producer/multi-instrumentalist/DJ/rapper and possessor of the smoothest tenor this side of Smokey Robinson strutted onto the music scene with 2009’s A Strange Arrangement, a collection of seductively soulful tracks that payed tribute to his Detroit roots. The Motown-esque arrangements and masterfully crafted pop hooks (not to mention his perfectly tailored suits) saw him labeled as something of a retro ’60s throwback, although one with serious cred. But his latest long-player Where Does This Door Go sees Hawthorne take a great leap forward…one decade, to be exact.
The new record moves away from the Motor City melodies of past work, and towards the champagne shimmer of slickly produced late-’70s “yacht rock” popularized by acts like Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, and Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson. But don’t start thinking it’s just an oldies retread. On this album he gets production help from modern day hit-making maestros like Pharrell Williams, Greg Wells and Jack Splash, as well as vocal appearances from Kendrick Lamar and VH1 You Oughta Know artist Jessie Ware. With this blend of cutting edge and loving nods to past musical greats, it makes perfect sense that Mayer Hawthorne would be named Hard Rock’s very first Artist of the Month.The honor brings with it certain privileges, and Mayer was able to pull some (guitar) strings to get us deep inside the off-limits Hard Rock memorabilia vault at the company headquarters in Orlando, Florida! Picture an attic the size of a Costco filled with walls of legendary (and often autographed) guitars, racks on racks of iconic stage-wear, gold records and other priceless artifacts. Now you’ll have an approximate idea of the awesomeness. But trust us, it has to be seen to be believed. For music fans, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
Speaking of “stuff”, sheer amount of stuff is overwhelming as you enter, and it’s impossible to decide where to look. But Mayer knows what he likes. He zeros in on a slender red velour track jacket. The distinctive Neverland Ranch patches point to the original owner, the King of Pop himself. “That might be my favorite thing in here. Michael Jackson is my whole childhood,” he gushes.It’s so hard to choose favorites, though. No matter who you are -or how famous you are- there’s something in this vault that can take everyone’s breath away. Hard Rock historian Jeff Nolan acts as our guide, and he keeps the hits coming with an insane lineup of jaw-dropping items. From seemingly out of nowhere he produces the Rickenbacker double-neck guitar played by Getty Lee of Rush during the Permanent Waves tour in 1980. Now that multi-instrumentalist Mayer has incorporated playing guitar as well as bass into his live performances, he might have to invest in a similar model. If we see him rocking out on one of these bad boys, we’ll know where he got the idea! From KISS bassist Gene Simmons’ axe-shaped guitar to a zebra-print Stratocaster played by Foreigner’s Mick Jones, and even a six-string played by former-Beatle George Harrison during his solo years, the epic instruments are endless. A late ’60s Fender Mustang, originally owned by British soul-shouter Eric Burdon of the Animals and War, particularly grabs Mayer’s attention. “My dad’s got a ’65 Mustang, too,” he says. “That’s the guitar that I borrow every time I home to Detroit. I go over to his house and say, ’Dad, let me borrow the Mustang. Not the car, the guitar!'”
Jeff steers us over to a table with battered case resting on top. We swear we hear angles sing as he cracks it open to reveal the holy grail of electric guitars: a 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul. As if that’s not good enough, this particular Les was used by the Rolling Stone’s Mick Taylor on the tour to promote their landmark 1972 album Exile on Main Street. And it ain’t just pretty to look at. “It sounds pretty good when it’s plugged in…Or so I’ve been told!” Jeff says with a wink in his voice.But Jeff’s not even close to done. Lady Gaga’s head-dress, starched stiff and perpetually fluttering, delights us all. On one rack Mayer spies a green tour blazer, emblazoned with “Luke Records” on the back. He immediately identifies it as belonging to 2-Live Crew’s Uncle Luke. “I used to listen to them back in the day! My parents would get so mad, they’d try to hide all of my 2-Live-Crew tapes.” We even sneak a peak at fellow Detroit native Madonna’s yearbook, complete with her name misspelled. Can you imagine that happening today? Heads would probably roll…. It all ends far too soon, and the time comes to seal the vault up once more. But not before Mayer leaves a little something of his own for generations of rock fans. His custom-made leather jacket, pants and one-of-a-kind NIKE Air Max 1 iD shoes serve as his own contribution to the 77,000 item collection! Considering the immortal rock legends that Hard Rock has worked with over the years, it must feel pretty damn good to be tapped to work with these guys. “I was super humbled that Hard Rock decided to make me their first Artist of the Month,” Mayer told us before kicking off the program with a live performance. “Number one, not number two! I’m all about moving the music forward always, and being the first person to do anything is what I’m all about.”
A music buff even in his early years, Mayer is no stranger to the Hard Rock Cafes. “I remember going there with my parents and having some chicken tenders and checking out all of the guitars in the cases. I wouldn’t even get to the table, I’d just be running around looking at James Brown’s cape, Mick Jagger’s shoes and Keith Richard’s guitars. It was like heaven to me.” And as every kid knows, you couldn’t leave without getting some swag to show to your classmates. “We always wanted a Hard Rock t-shirt. Man, you weren’t s–t if you didn’t have a Hard Rock shirt!”
The Hard Rock franchise, famous world-wide for preserving rock ’n’ roll relics for all to enjoy, is becoming a friend to more and more contemporary musicians. They’ve recently launched their own record label to break up-and-coming bands into the mainstream, and now the new Artist of the Month program will give musicians exposure by playing the video for their latest single every 90 minutes in each of their 138 restaurants worldwide. All totaled, that’s over 1,000 times a day! Not a bad deal.
The video currently taking the cafes by storm is for Mayer’s single “Her Favorite Song,” a track that funks you up before lulling you down with a rhapsodic chorus that hits you like whiff of perfume on a summer sea-breeze. Our prediction? This silky smooth cut will take on the ubiquitous “Blurred Lines” for chart topping ’70s-tinged pop supremacy. The video is just as memorable, giving a hilarious take on the popular truism that all men are dogs by showing a nightclub totally populated by canines.
Although it’s always risky filming with animals, Mayer had nothing but praise for his furry co-stars. “They always tell you, the number one rules of making videos or films is don’t ever work with kids and don’t ever work with pets. But these dogs are pretty incredible. There are no special effects in post! Everything you seen them doing on the screen is how it happened. These dogs were blowing me off the screen.”
But they sure as hell can’t blow him off the stage! Mayer and his musical brothers in “the County” capped the day off with a killer live performance in the front of the Hard Rock offices! He starts things off with “Backseat Lover” the opening track on his latest album, and then gets folks singing along with the anthemic “Hey, ho” chorus of the Pharrell-produced “Stars Are Ours.” He obviously does the obligatory (and sizzling) run-through of the new single, before ending the set with the track “Reach Out Richard,” written in honor of the man who made him fall in love with music: His father. Surrounded by decades of musical history, it’s a fitting personal tribute, and more than a little touching.
“We’ll be here every week, right?” he jokes as he unplugs after his set. “Mayer Mondays in the lobby.” We’d come back for that!