"Auto-Tune? I don't have that. I don't even know what that is," laughs Andrew Mayer Cohen, aka Mayer Hawthorne, on the phone from his crib in L.A. Born to a musical family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised on a steady diet of the world's greatest music, the Motown Sound of neighboring Detroit (not to mention Public Enemy, Helmet, Frank Sinatra, and Ornette Coleman), Cohen earned an earnest and encyclopedic love of a classic R&B style that sounds out of place in the mix of contemporary radio's prefab robot rhythm 'n' bullshit. So when you hear one of Cohen's songs as Mayer Hawthorne—a nattily dressed, Hitsville USA–throwback, blue-eyed soul crooner—you would be forgiven if you initially mistook it for some lost and newly unearthed mid-'60s vintage pop jewel. And you wouldn't be the first.
"Peanut Butter Wolf literally didn't believe it was me," recalls Cohen of the meeting where he played the dazzling, dewy-eyed doo-wop of "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" and the wistful regret letter "When I Said Goodbye" for the Stones Throw label boss. "At first, Wolf thought maybe 'Just Ain't Gonna Work Out' was a reedit of an old song."
"Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" and "When I Said Goodbye" were the first two songs Cohen recorded as Mayer Hawthorne, and they represented something of a departure for him. Since the late '90s, Cohen had also been known as Haircut, the DJ/producer for Michigan rap crew Athletic Mic League and the electro- soulhop group Now On (on whose 2008 album Tomorrow Already you can hear the first hints of Hawthorne).
"When I first made those two songs, I was still very focused on making hiphop," says Cohen. "Those songs were really just an experiment on the side for fun, something only my family and friends would hear." However, reception from his peers was so overwhelmingly positive that he decided to try his luck with a label he thought might get it.
And after some initial skepticism, Peanut Butter Wolf did get it. In 2008, Stones Throw released "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" and "When I Said Goodbye" as the A- and B-sides of Hawthorne's first single (pressed at some expense on red heart-shaped vinyl), and that was just the start. "When I convinced him that it was actually all me singing, playing, producing, and everything, he asked me to record a full-length album just based on those two songs," says Cohen. "Which really made me have to focus, made me step back and have to figure out who Mayer Hawthorne really was."
Behind his square-bear glasses and sharp suits, Hawthorne (named for the street Cohen grew up on) is simply a testament to the grand tradition of Detroit, the very epicenter of soul. He's a cat weaned on the silky- muscular sounds of Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, witnessing firsthand the mighty snare-crack era of J Dilla (one of too many hiphop stars Detroit has seen snuffed out in the past five years), and living proof of that dying city's timeless love.
The unflaggingly earnest sounds of Hawthorne's debut LP, A Strange Arrangement, differ from other recent retro-soul excursions—such as Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It or Jamie Lidell's Jim—in their Michigan-specific reverence (an exception is the outstanding "The Ills," an upbeat, bongo-fueled Curtis Mayfield homage). It never comes off as some intentional tribute, however, just as the reflection of a lifetime loving the sounds in his backyard. "Those first two songs were pure fun, not a whole lot of thought, just natural," says Cohen. "So I tried not to overthink it for the rest of the album."
His Michigan love obviously runs deeper than any conscious intent or lack thereof, though. Cohen's moved to L.A. since signing with Stones Throw, but he still misses "the Mitten." "I love L.A.," he says. "But Detroit is my home; my family is all out there. Everybody that's out here in L.A., hopefully we can make some money out here and help out back home."
For now, though, Cohen is clearly humbled at the massive response his sound has drawn. He's collected props from music lovers worldwide, including respected tastemakers like Gilles Peterson and Mark Ronson. "It's been such a crazy ride, I never imagined it would get to what it is today," he enthuses. "It's very different from just being a DJ—I'm having to learn a whole lot really quickly—but it's been a very gratifying and eye-opening experience for sure. I hope to be able to continue to do this, and there's definitely going to be more Mayer Hawthorne music coming." Looks like it just might work out after all.