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