"It's not a little bit different," Mayer Hawthorne says of his forthcoming album, Where Does This Door Go. "It's a lot different." For his latest effort, out July 16th, the neo-soul singer tells Rolling Stone he threw out all of his previously self-imposed rules. The result is a radical left turn from the classic Holland-Dozier-Holland-style sound that comprised his first two efforts. "This is the album I always should have made," he adds. "I truly did not give a fuck on this album. It was very freeing for me."
The singer – who was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has since relocated to Los Angeles – says Where Does This Door Go allowed him to explore all his varied musical influences, from hip-hop to funk and metal. "This is the album that is truly me," Hawthorne says. "It was really about a journey into the unknown, doing something totally different and not knowing where it was going to go or how people were going to respond to it. And if that means really having that sort of DJ Haircut side of me come out and my hip-hop background, and my love for Michael McDonald and Steely Dan and the Cars. . . I used to be a metalhead, too, back in the day. I listened to Iron Maiden and Helmet and those are influences that have finally gotten [a] chance."
Hawthorne's writing and recording process changed noticeably for the album, too. "This was the first time ever in my career that I've had a surplus of songs," he says. "For the first two albums, it was like, 'Oh shit, we have nine songs and I need to write one more so I can have enough for a whole album,' you know?" On past albums, Hawthorne says, he played nearly every instrument on the albums. Working with a dream team of producers for Where Does This Door Go, including Pharrell Williams ("He really got me to focus on the storytelling aspect"), helped Hawthorne refine his focus. "This time it was like a completely different experience working with all these other producers," he says. "It took a lot of the work out of my hands when I'm not doing everything myself. It helped to just focus on being creative and writing."
For his first two albums, 2009's critically acclaimed A Strange Arrangement and 2011's How Do You Do, Hawthorne admits he felt restrained by the Motown-soul sound for which he'd become known. "In the past, I've approached the songs with a certain sort of box that I was in where it had to sound a certain way," he explains. "I was very focused on maintaining my Detroit roots."
Comparatively, Where Does This Door Go has a very California vibe to it, he says. Specifically, the singer points to "Crime," a smooth, G-Funk-style ode to having parties broken up by cops, as stylistically West Coast. "It's really sort of my 'Fuck Tha Police,'" he offers. "It's a very smooth song but it has a very underlying sort of N.W.A. vibe to it, as far as the content." To flesh out his vision for the song, Hawthorne recruited Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, who spits the first rap verse to ever appear on a Hawthorne cut. (Snoop Dogg guested on How Do You Do's "Can't Stop," but Hawthorne insisted he sing for it.) "Kendrick was the only person that I wanted for that song," he says of "Crime." "It was just like, Kendrick being from LA and being from Compton and being a young, upcoming rapper, it just seemed like it would fit so perfectly. He brought that youthful angst and that sort of Tupac vibe. It really came out."
Other highlights include the slinky, reggae-drenched "Allie Jones," the Steely Dan-influenced “Backseat Lover," and "Her Favorite Song," the Jessie Ware-assisted lead single anchored by a funky bass lick and a hip-hop beat.
Hawthorne heads to Europe later this month with his band, the County, before returning Stateside for a string of shows in July. "We've already learned the whole album," he says. "We started real early because I knew that these songs were going to be difficult. It's something that we're extremely focused on." The singer feels the album is well-tailored for a live setting. "There's so many elements in this album that everybody can sing along with. It makes everybody a part of the show."
"Any time we do a Mayer Hawthorne show, we're always trying to make sure it's the best show you've seen in your life," he adds. "I want to make sure that nobody ever wants their money back when they come to see Mayer Hawthorne."