Mayer Hawthorne - Haircut's worked it all out

Mayer Hawthorne has fans in Ashton Kutcher and John Mayer. Guy Adams meets a rising soul star with shades of Jarvis Cocker

In the winter of 2005, a little-known hip-hop DJ called Andrew Cohen, who performed under the stage name Haircut was driving to a party in Detroit. Suddenly, a love song popped into his head. Unable to write it down, he picked up a mobile phone, and sang the entire composition – lyrics, melody and all – into his voicemail. The next morning, nursing a minor hangover, he laid down a demo version of it in his bedroom.

Four years and several lucky breaks later, Cohen has undergone a major transformation. Friends still call him Haircut, but he's more widely known as Mayer Hawthorne, a Billboard-charting new artist whose debut album, A Strange Arrangement, was released in September to extraordinary acclaim. The track he wrote during that late-night car journey is now his breakout single: "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out".

If you haven't yet heard of Hawthorne, chances are you'll be instantly hooked. He's a dreamily original artist, who draws on the noblest traditions of Motown and soul, with an alluring modern quirkiness – a trick last pulled by Amy Winehouse.

The album, for its part, will no doubt turn into one of those records which, like every Moby record, gets endlessly (and lucratively) sampled by the score-writers of expensive TV adverts. Hawthorne's unique "sound" and manner combines the timeless elegance of Barry White or Marvin Gaye with the raised eyebrow of, say, the Divine Comedy. You don't have to take my word for it, either. Ask, oh, Ashton Kutcher and Perez Hilton, or Mark Ronson and Snoop Dogg. They have all recently pegged A Strange Arrangement among the best new records of 2009. Ask John Mayer, and Gilles Peterson, who did the same, or Vanity Fair, which gave him a glowing profile. Don't ask Cohen, though. At the eye of this storm, he oozes laid-back befuddlement. We meet at a Los Angeles mall, a stone's throw from Culver City, where he lives. He's about to perform for Saturday afternoon shoppers, whose numbers are boosted by a couple of hundred hardcore fans who are attending a somewhat surreal showcase staged by KCRW, a public radio station that is to California's music lovers what Radio One is to British teeny-boppers. He seems cutely amazed at his sudden modishness.

"Mayer Hawthorne started out as an experiment, a little project I did on the side while trying to make it in hip-hop," he says. "It's incredible how it has just taken off. We get this huge range of people at our shows, from high-school kids, to college kids, to their parents. There are always forty and fiftysomethings in the crowd. I did an in-store appearance in Amsterdam recently, and a 60 year-old couple drove 120 miles just to meet me. It's kind of awesome."

The varied audience is testament to Hawthorne's eclectic musical heritage. Cohen, 30, grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, listening to the record collection of his blue-collar parents, which mostly consisted of 1960s and 1970s soul. He got into hip-hop at high-school, and for most of his adult life worked as a graphic designer by day while performing with a rap collective called Athletic Mic League by night.

"Soul music isn't the only place my sound comes from," he says. "When I mix drums, for example, I'm not trying to mix them like Smokey Robinson. I want them to sound more modern. I also listen to heavy metal, like Tool and Helmet and Iron Maiden. And some of that comes out in the album, too. You've also got a wailing guitar solo on a track called "Green Eyed Love" that you'd never hear on, say, a Motown record."

He recorded the first Mayer Hawthorne track in his bedroom, playing all the instrumental parts, singing all the vocals, and mixing them on basic equipment ("Mayer" is Cohen's middle name, "Hawthorne" is the street he grew up on). A handful of two-track demo CDs were made, passed to friends "for a sort of joke," and forgotten about. In 2006, Cohen moved to Los Angeles in an effort to make a living out of hip-hop, with a group called Now On. One night last year, he was introduced to music mogul Chris Manak (aka "Peanut Butter Wolf") who owns the influential LA label Stone's Throw Records. Mayer Hawthorne came up in conversation.

"My friend, who introduced us, mentioned it," recalls Cohen. "I was a bit pissed-off, because I was trying to pump my hip-hop career, but I sent the songs to Peanut Butter Wolf anyway. About a month later, he emailed saying, 'I just listened to the tracks. This is awesome... who wrote them?' He couldn't believe they were my tracks. He thought they were old songs I'd got the rights to." Soon afterwards, Hawthorne was signed-up by Stones Throw.

Like the original demo, the album was recorded by Cohen, in his bedroom. He first performed in public a year ago and in January, his debut single, "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out", was pressed on red, heart-shaped vinyl. It sold out in three days; copies are now changing hands on eBay for upwards of $50 (£30).

"At first, the idea of making an entire album, from something I'd never thought of as more than an experiment, was really daunting. But as I started doing it, it ended up being really easy. The songs just kept coming," he says.

The resulting record's 11 tracks are each, in their own way, zingers. Part of their appeal is Hawthorne's fresh, and playful tone. Part is his persona, which combines the manly knowingness of, say, Barry White with the unapologetic geekyness of Jarvis Cocker, or Buddy Holly. His wardrobe reflects the latter two: it consists of ill-fitting charity-store suits, and square spectacles.

"I used to have to wear glasses, but then I got Lasik done, so I don't actually need them any more. They're a prop. As to clothes, well I wish I could afford a stylist. But I'm an indie artist, with no money, so I usually shop at Value World, where suits cost about four bucks."

His MySpace page includes a feature called "ask Mayer," in which fans email for advice. Hawthorne posts video responses. "People email about everything, mostly to do with relationships," he says. "I've been fortunate to have been through many different types of relationships, and a lot of the album is me putting out real feelings, so I take it seriously. I'm not the Love Guru. I just tell people what I would do."

For now, the self-effacing charm is attractive. The difficulty will be repeating the trick: it is, after all, hard to sound fresh second time round, Still, four years after a "eureka" moment in his car, Cohen feels like both a blast from the past, and a breath of clean, fresh air.

Mayer Hawthorne's single "Green Eyed Love" is out on Monday

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?