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by Jennifer Nine
'm just this guy, named Hawksley Workman, from Canada," says the astonishing boy onstage. Deadpan, like. And you'd half-swear he's giving you that shrugging, self-effacing, no-nonsense half-apology you've come to expect from a cold country full of hearty people who say please and thank you and excuse me and how's-it-goin' like it's written into their genetic makeup. Except if you're watching - and if you're there, you most assuredly are, doubtless with incredulity and bemusement and glee - you've already heard Hawksley Workman soar through a wriggling, willful, lustful and occasionally distinctly odd selection of the love songs from his debut Loose album For Him And The Girls in a voice that growls and stutters and loops-the-loop. And then heads effortlessly skyward to tease whatever celestial rock critics are up there into pronouncing the words 'angelic' and 'delicious' and, inevitably, 'we haven't heard a set of lungs like this since Jeff Buckley joined us.'
Back here on terra firma, the earthbound critics scratch their heads in yet more bemusement at his lightning-fast vaudevillian turns, and songs about tarantulas or waving so hard at your departing loved one that you break your wrist, and pauses for imaginary cigarettes smoked with lounge-lizard louche charm, and between-song banter about being a dog in a past life. Add to that the fact that his introductory press biography insists, deadpannishly of course, that Mr Workman is a tapdancing janitor in a dance academy, and it's hard not to feel a sneaky admiration for a performer who has decided that his real CV - poet, drummer, major label producer for recent Atlantic signing Sarah Slean, former teenage cable-channel talk show host, musical-theatre performer, choirboy and local guitar teacher in addition to creator of some of this year's oddest and most touching songs - wasn't quite enough. So let's talk about the telling of lies, you say, Mr Workman.
"Well, that's easy. Generally speaking, you get sent to the principal," he says, deadpan. Let's say you're no longer in high school near Huntsville, Ontario, though. You're now a twenty five year old mult-instrumentalist singer-songwriter sidling around the UK, either prancing onstage solo or opening for fellow Loose artist Chris Mills (and then sitting in on drums for his set like heartbroken folky alt.country is something you can keep the beat to without turning an eyelash). And people want to know who you are, so you tell a few porkies when you're telling people about yourself, and mostly of course, people are delighted but a little confused. After all, most bands anywhere, but perhaps particularly Canadian bands, stick to the straight and narrow. Hawksley puts on a dopey-sounding Canadian rock musician's voice.
"Oh, you mean like something that says 'Yeah, uh, well, first we practiced in Brampton, right, but we found a good space in Ajax, right, so we moved there, right, so that was like a big part of our sound...'" He shrugs.
"To me, they're not really lies. Are they? I guess they are, but it's more just that I think it's more... interesting. Lies are... meant to hurt people, which these aren't. Actually, I don't even think they're that fictitious. The other day, you know," he confides,
"I was writing a letter to a friend of mine who is a brilliant performance artist, and I always think I'd love to collaborate with her because I'm inspired by what she does. So I always ring her up with these cockamamie ideas - scams, really - like, 'hey, let's put on a travelling show,' or 'hey, do you want to judge a dog show?' Nothing ever materialises, of course, but I realised when I was writing to her and saying that this is what I want to do, that the long and short of it is that you can have enough good ideas in one day, that you can almost just have to be content with the fact that you had those ideas and never did anything with them. Sometimes, I'm content that my little fantasy is played out in my own brain, and that in fact the payoff is as good as if it were real. Like, oh well, it didn't happen ... but it felt like it did. And I retained that wonderful memory as if it had, so it might as well have..." He drifts off.
"So where were we?" He puts on the dopey voice again.
"Oh yeah, so we were in Ajax, right...'"
"You know, I guess when people started to comment on the fact that my bio had some tall tales in it, I wondered why anybody would be interested. It's funny, because this keeps coming up in interviews now. At first press were just happy to be entertained by it rather than think that there's something to be uncovered. The risk to me of becoming boring was far greater than the risk of seeming insane or a complete liar," he adds cheerfully.
"I just wanted to be entertaining. And to entertain myself too. It would have been a real bore to write a real bio. Because I lived that life. I find my grandparents' lives intensely interesting but anytime I ask them about it, I have to twist their arms in order to get any answers... to them, they lived that life, and to them, making it through the Depression and having to hook horses up to the truck because there was no money to buy fuel, to them that was boring. Even if to me it seems phenomenally interesting and heroic and full of poetry and beauty."
The word vaudeville, you say to Hawksley, can sometimes be used in conjunction with your work.
"It sure can," he replies, and then adds, with that combination of seeming forthrightness with a touch of youthful gosh-gee impressionability that fairly quickly tells you there's mischief behind it,
"Yeah. Vaudeville. Is that an actual town, do you think?"
"When I was just in Hollywood," he adds,
"I saw this video tape outside the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum where this fellow could turn his head around 360 degrees. And it was the most ghastly thing I'd ever seen. And I imagine that he could have gotten a job in Vaudeville... and I hope people aren't quite as disgusted by me. But I know what you're saying. Still, I don't think my thing is schticky. I think that folks who come to see a rock and roll show aren't maybe used to as much chit-chat. Or makeup. Or whatever. Yeah, I've got some schtick. But too, because I haven't played in England with a rock and roll band, there's simply less rock and roll ratio to onstage antics in my shows here. But there's not even really much onstage antics," he adds, passing quickly over his tendency to tell stories about being a dog or a Christmas tree in his past lives.
"I guess I do love performing. I've done theatre and musicals and I love all that stuff. And I guess when I was younger and thinking about what I would do, I could hear and see what I wanted myself to be doing, but I think I was just too lazy to do it. I'm pretty sure that I imagined that one day when I wasn't too lazy, I thought would do and sound like what I do and sound like now. Does that sound pretentious? I just got off my ass. It's really hard work going out of your way to make something better than just what you could fart out without much effort."
Still, it's a little more of a risk standing up there and doing things that leave a significant sub-section of the audience wondering whether you're genuinely daft or just using your set as an opportunity for a very long (and admittedly very funny) shaggy dog story. As it were.
"I think that I would rather run that risk than the risk of people thinking 'Geez, this guy is as boring as the last guy'. To me that's far more risky. To me there is very little risk involved in standing out, even if at first it seems for the wrong reasons - like, 'this guy is full of schtick.'"
Let's rewind a little. Long before the janitorial work at the dance academy - or growing up in Huntsville, depending on which version you prefer - there must have been a point at which you began thinking about making records, you say.
"I started recording when I was about, maybe, twelve, but my first real effort came when I was nineteen. The 'okay, I'm going to make a record' record. But all that time from twelve to 21 or 22, I just didn't think that the words I was writing were the ones I wanted to be writing. Plus I thought I was wimping out a little on the music, and the music I was hearing in my brain wasn't the music I was writing. Those first recordings were maybe a little folkier than what I'm doing now. In a lot of ways, though, I think they were just experimentations. How you could use the studio as a tool fascinated me when I was younger. Some of my early songs, my mum sang on because I was too shy to sing. I'd sung in choirs since I was tiny, since I was a little kid. But I was frustrated that I couldn't write words like all the people I respected. I'd think, 'Hell, how come these words are affecting me so deeply, but every time I write something down it looks so crummy?'"
The change, he says, came
"when I decided that I would just try to sound like me instead of emulate. Not that I have ever been a big emulator, but to a degree when you're just so inspired by somebody it's almost your only lead, it's like the fingerprint on the matchbox that you think you'll dust this until you figure out where it comes from. But then it occurred to me: hey, what if I just sing like I think? And then it just started to work and it started to really please me and I thought 'I'm getting somewhere.' For ten years you think, 'You know, this is all not quite what I think it should be.' I think I had a sense of the aesthetic that I was after but I just couldn't attain it at the time. Then again, I think a lot of great artists hate what they do, and it's lucky that it even gets to the mixing stage, because you try to throw it over a bridge but somebody saves it. But I actually am pretty content to a degree, with what I'm doing now. I think, too, that after hating what you do for so long, you can almost jump off a bridge yourself, unless you start to just be happy that you're going to progress from where you are."
The decision to make records came when, in time-honoured fashion, Hawksley decided to quit his job (though in this case, his job was teaching music).
"I had started investing my money when I was seventeen, because I figured I would never make any money. But I cashed all my investments in to buy my studio, which is probably the best decision I ever made. So when I had my own studio...." Hawksley stops and cocks his head, perhaps conscious that he hasn't mentioned dogs in the last few minutes.
"Is this boring you to tears? No? Okay, well, the fact is that if I didn't have a studio I don't think I'd ever have done anything. And in some ways, if there had been good music on the radio I might never have made a record. Cos it's way easier to just listen to music than it is to make a record yourself. You know what I mean? I think when I imagine the world that the quote unquote great composers grew up in, well, in a lot of ways they must have been very quiet places, and that would have been advantageous. Maybe a lot of times, music was made because music needed to be heard. Whereas that's not necessarily the case any more. You don't need to make it yourself in order to hear it. And if I'd really liked what I was hearing from other people, maybe I wouldn't have made any at all."
Is he content now?
"Oh, yeah. I'm definitely content with the records. For both this record and the second record [(Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves, due for release later this year] I recorded so many songs, forty songs or more. Although maybe I'm doomed to feel like I've never arrived anywhere. I keep expecting to feel like, 'oh, finally, my lilypad. My special lilypad!' But it never is quite that way. There's never that feeling of contentment or arrival. I'm happy with the product" he nods, adding invisible inverted commas, "but it doesn't feel like the race is over. When I finished that first record, I think I started recording the next one the next day. And that's tougher to do now; I didn't realise at the time that travelling and playing music and going places and stuff, it certainly cuts into your creating time. But that's a very practical thing to say," he cautions himself. "And I don't necessarily like to fuss myself with those things. That's why I don't do the dishes. I don't have any dishes. I try to eat out the window so that it all spills out on to the street..."
As for the next record, Workman confirms the impression from an advance listen that it
"rocks a little harder." There's also a great deal of references to smoking on it, for some reason.
"Yeah, maybe it's a lot about giving the body everything it wants even if it isn't good for it. I think I'm curiously attracted to the idea of putting things in your mouth. I think I find smoking quite attractive - that idea that it's kind of enigmatic," he laughs.
"It's not good for you, but it's cooler to smoke than it is to make organic carrot juice. I think people like to see their artists destroying themselves. It's like cathartic or something. Look at him smoke! Smoking himself to an early grave! And they can go home to the treadmill. I'm pretty fidgety. I think I had carpal tunnel syndrome in both my arms at one point," he interjects.
"I had extensive therapy. I don't think it was exclusively from playing drums and/or piano and/or guitar. I think it was more from intense fidgeting."
"I don't think the next record is really all that different," he considers as we return to the apparent matter at hand.
"I think it will be perceived as different, though. I think that it's maybe a little more focused and maybe a little more confident."
"It's funny, though," Hawksley muses.
"You'd think that when you are making a record, you'd be writing all the recipes down for the cookies just in case they turn out right and you want to refer back to what the ratio of chocolate chips was to salt. And then you realise that you're a big idiot and didn't take down any recipes at the time, for whatever reason. Whether it was laziness or whether your pencil broke, or whether you were cooking in the dark. I don't know. But so I guess every time, your cookies are going to be different, even though you feel like you've baked them in the same oven. And the differences, whatever they are, don't seem to be to your common monkey to be what should occur. And I'm pretty much your common monkey. And I figure if you use the same brand of chocolate chips and you're going to turn the oven to the same temperature...," he shrugs.
"But I guess there's no accounting for everything. And maybe you've moved that oven to a higher elevation... Maybe you're cooking in Katmandu now. Or maybe you opened the chocolate chips from the wrong side of the package. Or maybe somebody else went to buy your chocolate chips because you were sick in bed with a cold, and they got you the wrong brand, but you had to make them anyway because your kid's Mothers' Day bake sale was tomorrow and there was no time."
Hawksley Workman shrugs again, drifting deliciously along on a seemingly inexhaustible stream of metaphor.
"It could be any of those things. It's probably all of those things."
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001