Hawksley Workman: A hard working man
The finality that comes along with a record release is enough to rattle the most seasoned of studio veterans. For Hawksley Worman, that’s never been a problem. He rarely takes more than a day to write and record a song, and it’s not uncommon for the prolific singer-songwriter to drop multiple records in a single year. Over his decade-plus on the scene, he’s released 13 studio albums and produced more than three dozen more for artists ranging from Tegan and Sara to Great Big Sea. In this, the third installment of 21 Questions, Workman opens up on his efficiency in the industry, the album he recently produced for Fred Penner and his stance on Canadian politics following the death of Opposition Leader Jack Layton.
You’ve climbed to the top of the machine and been crushed by its unforgiving cogs on the way down. What have you learned about the ups and downs of stardom?
You realize it’s an incredible effort to get up there [and] that music is a fashion business. You’re only fashionable or interesting to the media typically for a very short window, and then that’s over. And if your sails aren’t strong enough, then for the labels and the other people in your circle, you get put on the backburner pretty fast. It’s a humbling, if not humiliating, thing to go from one day being told you’re the next big thing, to being off the radar and not having your phone calls returned anymore.
“Suicidekick” was a cynical, albeit accurate, portrayal of the mainstream media. Why did you decide to pen an attack on “newspeople… working on deadlines, lusting for human despair?”
’Cause I think that is what they are doing. I’ve always envisioned these apocalyptic political uprisings. I think we’re seeing evidence of that all over the world right now. I think we see that kind of political darkness in Canada… I think we see the light that was Jack Layton… he was honest, human and real. All of those things don’t seem particularly present in politics anymore. In a hardened world, with a hardened heart, it seems we’re giving up a great deal of our liberty in order to pursue a mercurial sense of safety. And I don’t think the media is doing much of a job of staying true.
You expressed via Twitter that you were upset by Mr. Layton’s passing. Do have any personal memories of the late opposition leader?
I communicated with him by e-mail a couple times and sat with him for a coffee once. I wanted to understand what was going on in Parliament… I wouldn’t say there’s a great deal of honour left [in politics], that’s why I think Jack Layton… Canadians got to idealize politics through his vision.
“My reoccurring despair for the state of the world seems to dissolve in my not contributing fear and anxiety to the universe.” In what ways did unplugging usher in a state of nirvana for you?
The cyclical nature of the negativity machine, which is to say media and the 24-hour-news universe, is pretty oppressive. It really seems to play into the hands of those sorts of politicians who enjoy lording over with fear and loathing. The more unplugged you can be, the better. It behooves a human to be as disconnected from that lie machine as possible and keep a safe distance from that media-based toxicity.
Are you still living less a phone, computer and TV?
How cool was it having Fred Penner make your introduction at the Regina Fold Festival a couple weeks back?
It was mental. I just finished making a record with Fred Penner.
Really, you produced it? What do you think of it?
Yeah. I think it’s brilliant. It’s like Monkeys-Beatles-Neil Diamond.
“In many ways, I’m in my own lane. I don’t vie for space on the super-commercial or the super-indie side. I exist in the middle and it’s a funny place.” Can you elaborate on that?
It’s funny because when I was looking for a label [I’d] go to an indie label like Sub Pop and it’d be like, ‘really love what you did, it’s just too commercial for what we do.’ And then you go Universal or a major and they say, ‘that’s really great what you do, it’s just a little too indie.’ I didn’t set out to be cool or try and impress the cool kids. I set out to be a popular musician. So I am in this strange lane in Canada, especially, where I’m not household-name status and I’m not wallowing away in some sort of indie netherworld either.
Long ago you told a reporter, “I’m a perfectionist in the sense that whatever I do is perfect.” Ten years later, do you still feel that way?
Yeah, I do. I took a lot of heat for saying that because I’m supposed to be a humble Canadian, and I am a humble Canadian. I didn’t mean to say that I think of myself as something that is perfect, just that I believe music is a series of moments that should be somewhat left alone, especially now in the era of digital recording. What I meant when I said that, and I still mean it, is that whatever my body produces in that moment has to be regarded as perfect because that’s what the moment called for, and that’s how my body responded.
In a similar interview back then you predicted that quality would one day rule pop music. Are you disappointed your prophecy hasn’t quite been realized?
That was probably a bit of wishful thinking – trying to put it out into the atmosphere and have that idea be floating out there in a real way. Pop music isn’t bad – lots of it’s good. I think that the music business and music creating have had an unfortunate set of circumstances.
“Prolific” is probably the word most associated with your name. How do you feel about that tag?
It’s funny because it sounds very fancy – being prolific. For me, I have a job that I think about constantly; I don’t get a holiday from the thing that exists in my mind that is constantly gathering. So I don’t see it as anything impressive, beyond the fact that it’s a job that I have to do.
You said back in the day you felt there was a lot of lazy songwriting out there. Is that still your sentiment today?
I think there’s quite a bit of it, yeah. To me, a song like “Pumped up Kicks” (Foster and the People) fascinates me on a number of different levels. I’m not really ticklish unless you’re tickling me in five different places at once. When I hear a song that doesn’t challenge me, I don’t have much time for it.
Did you really learn music working as a janitor at a tap dance studio or was that a biographical lark to attract publicity?
No, I was just fucking around.
CHARTattack wrote that Workman has “always managed to balance his strong lyrical themes with equally powerful musicianship.” What’s the secret to your sonic homeostasis?
I don’t know. They usually say nasty things about me. Music is this thing my body does so it’s so much about my instinct and so little about planning or using some kind of a road map. I sometimes am more successful than others but I am absorbed by recording as well. Words are textures to me – it’s why I like to cook without a recipe.
Are you pleased songs you penned over a decade ago remain as relevant now as they were then, and are still on rotation at radio stations worldwide?
I’m so grateful for that. My relationship with the songs starts when I’m writing it and finishes when it’s done being recorded. That’s when I tussle with a song and understand its power and try control it, or understand how it’s controlling me. But once that’s done, once it’s in the world, it’s not really mine anymore and I don’t have much of a relationship with it.
Is it true you rarely take more than one day to write and record a song?
I almost never take longer than that. I don’t have much patience.
Many musicians don’t enjoy the record making process because of its finality. Because you release records when you’re still in the honeymoon state, do you still love your productions after the lust fades?
Yeah, typically I am. It’s true, I don’t take long to do stuff, so I never fight with a record long enough to hate it; I am always entertained by it. And I don’t need it to go out the door with a stamp of perfection on it.
Do you regret the decision to release “Milk” track-by-track over a five-month period?
I think so. It was probably a better record than it was given a shot to be. I don’t think I’d do that again.
You recorded Milk in Sweden and Meat in Ontario. Because you produce so rapidly, does location ultimately affect the aesthetic of your albums?
Totally. I think that I’m a spoiled traveler and I’m ultimately consumed by the place that I am. I have a real aptitude for taking the temperature of cultural disposition and coming to a place of some understanding of it.
About Canada, you wrote “I am blessed to behold such a thing and to have my very essence be influenced by the grand architecture and sky of such a vast and wandering land.” Because you spend so much time on the Trans-Canada, do you see the country’s landscape as a muse of sorts?
We have such a sweeping, sprawling, uncontrolled sense of self in Canada. As humans, our environment and our geography create us, which is to say this vast geography and this vast climate… I think we’re always trying to embody the essence of it, despite it being this massive thing. I think that’s part of the Canadian experience – somehow understanding, and seeking to understand and have a connection with, other Canadians.
A fan recently posted on your MySpace page, “You have not yet reached the height of your creativity.” Do you share that viewpoint?
I think it’s quite possible. It’s probably why I’m looking to other avenues these days, like film, theatre and television. What I’m acquainting with now is that age plays funny tricks on your head and my confidence and my abilities are at an all-time high, but my naiveté is at an all-time low.
Interview by Rémi L. Roy; photos and video by Christian Roblin