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Breaking: Mayer Hawthorne

October 21, 2009 2:56 PM ET

Who: Michigan singer/multi-instrumentalist/producer whose month-old debut of retro-soul gems, A Strange Arrangement, is earning him fans like Justin Timberlake, Mark Ronson and John Mayer, who ­Tweeted, "Record of the year goes to Mayer Hawthorne," and then invited the rookie to open for him on New Year's Eve.

Sounds Like: Hawthorne's self-produced tunes are an eerily accurate homage to the Motown hit machine: Think Funk Brothers-style grooves, luxuriant harmonies, Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting chops and sweetly naive vocals that recall Smokey Robinson and the Chi-Lites. "I always tell people, 'It's not a soul revival, it's a good-songwriting revival,' " says the 30-year-old. "I try to write timeless material, so hopefully kids will be digging my albums 30 years from now like I'm digging Lamont Dozier right now."

Street Cred: Hawthorne got his start in the Nineties Michigan rap crew Athletic Mic League — he was known as DJ Haircut then — and played on a bill with a pre-Interscope Eminem. "I'm a much better DJ than I am a singer," he says. "I've been DJ'ing for 12 years and singing for one."

Back Story: After moving to L.A. with a hip-hop group, Hawthorne made two soul tracks in his apartment on a whim — playing nearly all of the instruments himself and recording the vocals through headphones (he didn't own a good microphone). The songs had such a convincingly vintage feel, they fooled his rec­ord label. "They thought it was an old record I dug up," recalls Hawthorne. "They were like, 'What is this? Do you have permission to reissue it?'"

Style Points: To match the music's clean-cut vibe — "No cussing," he points out — Hawthorne rocks an in-your-face version of nerd chic: Buddy Holly glasses, bow ties and argyle sweaters, all with sneakers. "I keep it classy," he says. "I shopped at J. Crew in high school, I studied computer science. I was a nerd nerd, now I'm a music nerd."

Get It Now: Click the video above to watch Hawthorne running down his favorite Motown tunes.

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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