Hawksley Workman has always been something of a Canadian secret. Over the past decade, the Juno Award–winning singer-songwriter has released ten critically acclaimed albums on which he played most, if not all, of the instruments. He has produced records for the likes of Tegan and Sara, Great Big Sea, and Serena Ryder, and plays shows to consistently packed houses across the country. Musically, the Huntsville, Ontario native transcends definition and expectation. On the same album, you might find soft acoustic ballads, sexually charged rock, and glam-cabaret numbers, all enhanced by Workman’s soaring voice and nuanced lyrical sensibility.
Despite his seemingly endless store of hummable tunes, Workman’s name has scarcely risen above a whisper south of the border, leaving his legions of Canadian fans simultaneously puzzled and eager to keep him to themselves. This month, however, the secret is out, as Workman has just released his ten-year-old debut album, For Him and the Girls, in the States. Canadian fans needn’t feel cheated: Workman will soon release his eleventh and twelfth albums. Meat will be out on January 19, and Milk will be digitally released over a five-month period beginning in the new year. In addition, Workman will embark on a twenty-two-city national tour in the spring.
In the midst of preparing for his big year to come, Workman was kind enough to sit down with me and chat about his upcoming albums, the limitations of genre, growing up in rural Ontario, and more. What resulted was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Canada’s most hardworking and gifted musical virtuosos.
You have two new albums coming out in 2010, and one of them, Milk, is set to digitally release all the music before the physical product actually comes out. Why did you choose that strategy?
Now that I’m without a major label (which is a blessing), we just decided that we would do things unconventionally. It’s hard to know how to play the game anymore — there are no rules. For a while, it was sort of our standard idea that [illegal] downloading was somehow helping [the indie musician's] cause. Now I’m not so sure. I’m starting to feel the pinch of it. But using the internet as a way to sell music is incredible.
You’ve always had a very distinctive, cryptic web presence. Your Twitter account and mass emails are full of riddles and ambiguities that really draw people in.
A lot of people I know have decided to embrace the internet in its entirety, and I don’t know if I could go quite there. So I meet in the middle and just do what I feel comfortable with. Twitter seemed like my kind of thing. It’s 140 characters, sort of like Polaroids.
That’s a great way of putting it, because I find that your music is characterized largely by its use of imagery and atmosphere. Your lyrics are much more rooted in poetry than narrative. Is that intentional? Do you generally find yourself gravitating toward depicting a series of images rather than a linear story?
I’m a horrible storyteller. It’s my nature to speak in images. I live in a rather cloudy, constant state of observation, which is a hassle for anybody who’s with me. What happens is a convoluted clump of images ends up being the song. It’s not very tidy. I used to beat myself up about it. I always wished I was a songwriter who could tell a story, but I think I’m more of a songwriter who paints a dozen or so pictures.
Along with being visual, your music is very whimsical. Do you find music to be an escape through which you can shape an idealized world?
I do, now that I think of it. My first couple of records were very idealized. I was a kid who never really experienced anything, so I was trying to write from a place of, “What if I had these experiences? What if I had these great lovers? What if I’d been to these great cities?” And what’s interesting is that when you live a little and you have these experiences, the fantasy kind of morphs into a complicated reality. You don’t realize when you’re young how horrible it can all be.
This growing awareness of the world’s harsh realities is especially apparent on 2006′s Treeful of Starling.
You’re right, Treeful was my big political record. I tried to be elegant about it, because a lot of the political songs that have been written post-Vietnam have not really lasted. “Born in the U.S.A.” has a real shelf life. I’d love there to be more political music. I wish people were speaking out more.
This month, you released your first album, For Him and the Girls, in the States. It came out domestically back in 1999.
Yeah! Why did you pick that album as your American debut?
I’m one of those artists who thinks the story of my career makes a little more sense if you read it in order. [Meat and Milk] would confuse a lot of people who thought they were coming to me for the first time. But I don’t know how I’m going to draw the parallel between what I was ten years ago and what I am now, because there’s just a lot of life between now and then. Nobody tells you that things are so difficult. They don’t teach you what you really need to know.
Do you still feel good about For Him and the Girls?
Oh, yeah. It’s a scary record for me to listen to. I hear a very young and naïve, very strange fellow on there, who had never been on an airplane, who had never been anywhere, who had never had a real relationship. It’s like time travelling. I don’t even know how I made that record. I broke a lot of rules, and I don’t even remember quite how I did it.
What else can we expect from the new albums?
Both records are cohesive, but they don’t sound anything alike. Milk is an electro Europop record produced officially by a Swedish dude, [Martin Trome,] which I’ve never done before. Thematically speaking, the records are funny because they were written between the end of a devastating relationship and the beginning of an absolutely brilliant relationship. I don’t know how to say that in code; I’m going to have to work on that. I usually try to avoid bringing that kind of stuff to my public life, but it’s kind of inevitable.
Especially when you’re doing something as personal as songwriting.
Somebody said the other day, “How well do people know you just based on your music?” They know me pretty good, because I find it pretty hard to fib in songwriting.
Well, in the early years of your career, you received a lot of press accusing you of developing a false persona. You published a series of personal ads in Toronto’s Now Magazine devoted to Isadora, your fictional underwater muse. [These ads were later collected into a book of poetry, Hawksley Burns for Isadora]. Then, there was a controversial biography on your website [which has been removed] in which you claimed to have tap-danced at a Dutch academy and made a living as a lake ice-cutter. Journalists raised quite a stir about these embellishments.
In the early days, I felt uninteresting to myself. I was a kid who grew up in rural Ontario. I never really fit into my surroundings, but I also really fit in. I grew up a hick and I still am one, but I also had a certain desire for refined things. Journalists definitely felt like I was trying to pull one over on them…People were saying, “Hey, we know you’re a rural kid who grew up pushing cars out of snow banks. You’re not pulling one over on us, you faux feather boa wearing…” But people are completely willing to buy into the artifice of David Bowie or Bob Dylan or any of the great artificials. There’s a certain unproductive nature to it, and I think our culture can use all the help it can get at the moment. That kind of glib dismissal just for the sake of hearing one’s own voice is a bit sad.
You’ve done a lot of collaborative work to boost the careers of other Canadian musicians: you’ve produced albums for Tegan and Sara, Sarah Slean, and most recently, Hey! Rosetta. Do you feel that this collaborative initiative is an important part of Canada’s music culture?
I’ve always wanted that. I’ve always felt like I was a good hub on a wheel that had a lot of very interesting spokes on it. Everyone I’ve worked with has had a remarkable amount of staying power, and I’ve been a part of their careers at a very early time. To think of the people I’ve been able to make records with is a bit of a mind-blow to me. Working with somebody like Slean, for instance. She’s absolutely brilliant. Tegan and Sara, they were eighteen when we made their first record together, so they were so energetic and ready for anything. With Hey! Rosetta, my job with them was to stay out of the way and keep reminding them how good they are. Most of my collaborations now are songwriting, which is, in a way, the most exciting. I realize that I’m getting older and more funny-looking, so my chances of being on MuchMusic are getting slimmer, but it’s interesting for me to write songs for these kids who are doing that.
This communal aspect of Canadian music seems to be something you’re deeply invested in, from the collaborations to your frequent participation in folk festivals.
It’s everything. I think it’s because I grew up in the church. I learned so much of the nuance of writing music and performing music by going to church, realizing that the best part of it was singing and the sandwiches afterwards. When I was in my early teens, I thought I’d go either way — that I’d either be a musician or a preacher. They both involve music and community, which spoke to me at a very young age.
Do you feel influenced by the Canadian folk tradition?
Absolutely. If you’re including Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, and Neil Young into that, our folk traditions have inspired and influenced the whole world…It’s because of our observational nature. Americans shoot first and ask questions later, and that’s not the best way to write great music. Canada is all nuance and survival, because it’s too easy to die here. The seasons will kill you. The winter will kill you. The mountains will kill you. Consequently, we’re on our creative toes to keep us warm and safe. I think we sit inside and look out at what’s going on. Then, we have a big, loud teenage brother to the south that does things that embarrass us. Our cultural disposition is very strange, but it has allowed us to develop a refined ability to make songs.
It seems that one of the more limiting aspects of the music business is the idea of genre, and any article that’s written about you will classify you differently. How do you feel about being put into these categories?
Genre is something I’m fascinated by, in that it usually comes with a hairstyle and fashion attire. On the CBC’s website [recently], they described me as hip hop, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” I mean, hip hop is what I listen to almost exclusively now, but I don’t know if I’m a hip-hop artist. When I was young, I was just under the impression that there was good and bad, not that there was a need to define it.
Which of your songs are you most proud of?
If I made the list it would be embarrassing. There are some I’ve written that I think are intimidating, like “Don’t Be Crushed” or “Ice Age.” They’re really good, and I don’t know how to do that. There’s a certain astrological alignment that has to happen. I can write a good song any old day of the week, but something that has that kind of weight to it, that’s not just me. That’s having something a little more special.
You’re participating in the CBC’s Great Canadian SongQuest, for which you wrote a song about Algonquin Park. Are you happy with how it turned out?
Yeah, it’s pretty kooky, but it’s fun. You only are who you are when you write. If you’re going through personal crisis, that’s what ends up on the record; if you’re disengaged with your career, that’s what goes on the record, and it becomes such a human experiment. So unfortunately — or fortunately — I was sick and a bit depressed when I wrote that Algonquin Park song. Maybe that bleeds into it. It wasn’t the song I was expecting to write, but it’s what got written.
(Photo by Ivan Otis)