From Bob Dylan’s paradigm shifting love affair with electricity to David Bowie’s transformation from baroque rock star into androgynous space creature, popular music seems to attract restless innovators who have introduced new modes of artistic expression into our collective vocabulary. Here in Canada, Hawksley Workman has been going through his own quiet revolution. His creative journey has taken him from the sleepy town of Hunstville, Ontario to the very forefront of the Canadian art and music scene. We caught up with him just before he went in for rehearsals for his set at the Muskoka Sound Festival to talk about the trajectory of his creative career.
Workman admits that he’s been feeling reflective these days as the glides into middle age. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the release of his debut album, For Him and the Girls, a milestone that has prompted him to look back to where the journey began.
“I was lucky,” Workman says. “My folks were both musical, my dad had a drum set in the house and he was kind of fanatical about music. Looking back now, I think music was abnormally present in my life back then. There would be records playing from the moment we got up till the moment we went to bed, and I thought that it was normal. It’s only now as an adult that I realize that wow, that’s totally not normal.”
It wasn’t just his parents who helped nurture Workman’s musical aspirations. “When I went to high school inHunstville, they had a lot of these wonderfully rebellious teachers who provided a lot of opportunities for artsy kids like me. But I always had it in my mind that I was going to be a professional, even when I was a kid.”
“I remember that even then I decided that music was what I was going to do. I didn’t do drugs or alcohol; I didn’t really have friends in high school. I was very much in my own world of practice and focus. I look back now and I don’t necessarily recognize that person anymore. In some ways I wish I still had that myopic drive. I think I still do, but I just apply it to my career rather than practicing paradiddles or something.”
It seems natural enough then that after 12 solo albums, two Junos, and a number of high-profile production credits under his belt, Workman finds himself restored to his natural habitat behind the drum kit with his new band Mounties. The Canadian supergroup comprised of Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays and Limblifter’s Ryan Dahle released their debut album, Thrash Rock Legacy, earlier this year. Workman sounds positively giddy when talking about his latest project.
“With the drums, the emotions are instant. There’s no consultation going on. It’s muscular freedom.”
“I couldn’t even begin to tell you what the Mounties record has done for my heart and soul,” Workman gushes. “I can only say that there’s something authentic about it, and I don’t think I would have come to that record with the right mindset had I not had a 15-year career touring and releasing records and all the other things I’ve done over the years. I wouldn’t have had the swagger coming into that record because the overplaying of the drums on that record is preposterous. I would fire a drummer who played like me if he was trying to join my band. But there’s something musical about it. In Mounties, Ryan, Steven, and I are all frontmen with healthy frontmen egos. Our egos tend not to clash into each other’s lives, but we certainly like Mounties as a platform for us to “give ’er”, for the lack of a better word.”
It’s the elemental nature of percussion that Workman loves. “It’s pure. It’s totally pure. The voice is pure too, and in the new record I’m working on there’s a lot of improvised lyrics. But the voice requires words, and more often than not you have to write those words in advance. But with the drums, the emotions are instant. There’s no consultation going on. It’s muscular freedom.”
While his work with Mounties has allowed Workman to tap into the primal pulse of creative expression, he has worked on another project that is distinctly grander in scale. Workman has trodden the boards in his one man play The God That Comes, a musical adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Described as an “outrageous theatrical adventure into the red-lit underbelly of sex, violence, Greek myth and regret“ by The Chronicle Herald, the play has opened up a wholly new mode of artistic expression for Workman.
Musing about the grand vision behind the play, Hawksley acknowledges that it is a departure from the imagistic, impressionistic nature of his songs. The God That Comes really is kind of big, but in a way it isn’t. It comes down to our own little self loathings and secrets. It’s really a play about loving someone who is unlovable. The play is about the king, and how we try to love this guy despite his shortcomings.”
Workman feels that his theatre work allowed him a level of freedom of expression that was missing in pop music. “I think at the time I had a lot of anger and I wanted to comment very specifically on politics – Canadian, American, and world politics,” says Workman. “I wanted to write a protest record, but the anger was so seething that I knew that if I directed it into a pop record, it just wouldn’t work.”
“There’s no real room in the culture for protest songs anymore. I mean you’ll hear people lament ‘Where are the artists, why aren’t they singing out against this?’ And in some ways culturally we’ve been conditioned to believe that protest music died with the ‘60s. I know that baby boomers love to maintain their own mythology and so that the moment, there’s not a lot of room for protest music. So I think the play is a protest song wrapped in a piece of theatre.”
“There’s no real room in the culture for protest songs anymore.”
Workman finds the theatre to be a sphere that is crackling with creative potential. “It allows me as a performer to reach into a lot of the different aspects of performance abilities. Theatre feels somewhat limitless, like a vast landscape. When it comes to music, I’m well aware of the conventions that one is to follow if one hopes to have a successful music career. Theatre is unfettered from the conventions that in rock n roll start to wear away at your resilient spirit. In theatre there’s an openness to be completely risky and completely creative. “
Reenergized by his work with Mounties however, Workman is back to chasing his musical muse on a new solo record that will be released next spring. Entitled Old Cheetah, the album features Workman on most of the instruments, with Ryan Bays from Hot Hot Heat contributing piano, keys, and banjo. “It takes a page out of Mounties’ irreverent creative spirit, and it takes a page out of The God that Comes’ theatricality.” What’s clear is that Hawksley Workman’s protean spirit continues to evolve in unexpected, non-linear ways. He exudes an enthusiasm for the creative endeavour that suggests that, even after 15 years in the business, his best work is yet to come.