Depending on when you’re reading this, Andrew (Drew) Cohen — who became a bar mitzvah 20 years ago at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor — may be crooning his soulful original hit songs to throngs of fans in Auckland, New Zealand, or Sydney, Australia. Or in Indonesia, England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Germany or Austria, if you’re a little behind in your reading.
Cohen, 33, has hit the big time in the music world. On Feb. 23, he kicked off an aggressive 5-1/2-week, 27-show, nine-country world tour. His stage name: Mayer Hawthorne — a combination of his middle name and the street he grew up on.
Andrew’s on a hot streak. Time Magazine put one of his songs on its top 10 list for 2011 — a tribute to Detroit called “A Long Time.” He’s been on Letterman’s late-night fest and on Conan O’Brien’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s shows, too. He’s opened for Stevie Wonder in Las Vegas. Snoop Dogg is a fan of his; the two have recorded together. Other celebrities — John Mayer, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Perez Hilton and Deepak Chopra — have tweeted their admiration. His irresistibly ear-catching tunes have appeared in major movies and TV shows. He’s doing what he loves and getting rave reviews worldwide.
What could go wrong?
Well, there’s every young person’s recurring nightmare that some day, when you become world famous, your mother gets the urge to tell stories that you prefer remain private.
But fortunately for Andrew, his mother’s stories are more endearing than embarrassing.
Kathi Cohen, who until recently worked at the Jewish Community Center in Ann Arbor, remembers her son’s intense appreciation of records as a 3-year-old. Thanks to a family friend in the record business, little Andrew would get 45s, which he would play on his Fisher Price turntable. “He listened to them constantly. He learned to recognize what the labels looked like,” she says. “That’s when we knew he was musically oriented. He’s always had such an amazing ear for music. He listens to a song and hears everything.”
So a career in music for Andrew is no surprise. The Cohens are a musical family. Andrew’s father, Richard, plays bass in the Ann Arbor-based classic rock band the Breakers. Kathi used to play guitar as well. In interviews, Andrew often credits his parents for his musical talent. His dad taught him the bass at age 6. He learned to play other instruments — guitar, piano, drums — by going to band practice with his dad and filling in for absent musicians.
What is surprising is Andrew’s fame and prowess as a singer. No years of voice lessons. No American Idol aspirations. “He would sing around the house, and he would play in bands, but not as the singer,” says Kathi.
“When he was at Tappan Middle School, he sang in a school play. It was Guys and Dolls, and he sang ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.’ At that age, a lot of the kids’ voices were changing, but Andrew did great,” she recalls. “It was his only play. It was something I made him do, but he never went back to it.”
After Tappan, Andrew attended Huron High School and the University of Michigan, where he graduated with a degree in computer science. (Yes, he’s a computer nerd, says his mom.) He also played basketball in the Maccabi Games and attended U-M coach Steve Fisher’s basketball camp.
With some of his basketball friends, he was a part of a local hip-hop group, Athletic Mic League, performing as DJ Haircut. He also had a variety of odd jobs — graphic design, shingling roofs, light construction, working at Borders headquarters and driving the tractor that picked up golf balls at a driving range.
In 2008, Andrew and two friends moved to Los Angeles to see if they could make it there in the music business. A challenge that seemed insurmountable turned out to be a big break. The group found that they couldn’t afford to pay for the rights for the old soul songs they wanted to sample. That’s when Andrew started to create his own song samples to save money.
As fate would have it, his samples caught the ear of Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of Stones Throw Records. To Andrew’s surprise, he received a contract to record an entire album. Called A Strange Arrangement, it was released in September 2009. A month later, one of the songs, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” was chosen as a Starbucks iTunes Pick of the Week.
The new album, How Do You Do, is also generating enthusiastic response.
A proud mom, Kathi was especially pleased to be in the audience when her son performed on the Late Show with David Letterman. She said Andrew was particularly proud to perform on Live From Daryl’s House — a hit Internet program from the home of Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates fame. Andrew performed on the show with Hall and his band and the legendary Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MGs.
During the program, Hall marveled at Andrew’s knowledge of classic soul and how he captures and blends the Motown, Philly and Memphis sounds with flavors of hip-hop in his own songs. “I owe that to my parents,” he said. “They got me started.” Andrew talked about his early start as a record collector then showed Daryl a photo. “Some people carry pictures of their kids in their wallet,” he said. “I carry a photo of my vinyl record collection.”
Says Kathi: “We still get excited whenever we hear him on the radio. Last night, my husband was in the hot tub when one of his songs came on. That makes us smile.”
And what do the neighbors on Hawthorne Street think? “Oh, they’re all big fans,” she says.
“I’m just happy that he is getting to do what he loves doing,” she adds. “I’m definitely a proud mother.”
A Mayer Hawthorne Sampler
Want an introduction to the music of Mayer Hawthorne?
• On Thanksgiving Day 2011, in the basement of his parents’ home, Mayer Hawthorne and his band mates, which this time included his dad on bass, performed an alternative Detroit Lions halftime show live on the Internet. The 10-minute, four-song medley, provides an excellent sampling of his music.
• A combination that worked well together, Daryl Hall and Mayer Hawthorne performed each other’s songs together on the hit Internet show Live From Daryl’s House.
• Or for something a little different, check out Mayer Hawthorne’s version of “Christmas Time Is Here.” “All the best Christmas songs were written by Jews,” he notes.