A Great Chat with Hawksley Workman Before His NL Tour This Week

Shannon Webb-Campbell in conversation with Hawksley Workman
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You can’t pin Hawksley Workman down. Based in Huntsville, Ontario, he’s a shape-shifter. Workman oscillates between a brassy showman and a tenderhearted poet.

He’s arguably one of the most prolific, and profound artists of our generation. While he writes, records, and produces his own records (and others, including: Hey Rosetta!’s Into Your Lungs), Workman also performs in indie-rock band Mounties, and toured an international one-man cabaret show, The God That Comes.

His discography spans genres, beginning with a small pressing of Before We Were Security Guards (1998), and his first full length, For Him and the Girls (1999), a classic insight into longing and desire.

In 2001, he released (And last night we were) The Delicious Wolves (2001), followed by the seasonally festive, Almost A Full Moon, and Puppy (A Boy’s Truly Rough) that same year.  By the time he unleashed Lover/Fighter (2003), a whiskey-soaked declaration, Workman established himself as a tour-de-force.

He inevitably simmered, and came back to his roots with Treeful of Starling (2006), a pensive offering of devotion and adoration.  After a brief hiatus, he balanced the scales of swagger and sweet with Between the Beautifuls (2008), Milk and Meat (2010), Full Moon Eleven (2011), Songs from the God That Comes (2013), and most recently, Workman roars with Old Cheetah (2015).

You’ve recently released Old Cheetah, a wild sonic journey of alchemy and abandon. What called forth this feral dance record? 

Oh, I reckon equal parts wine and late nights. A desire to stay feeling wild, the kind of wild I was nurturing with The God That Comes, and the reckless musical tangents of Mounties that have so informed my spirit these last few years.

Tell me about the recording of Old Cheetah. Did it come on hard and fast, or was this record a more difficult labour?

Ha! I’m not sure I’m so good at a difficult labour. Old Cheetah is a learned body being whipped at by a drunk.  Much of the record is improvised, including lyrics.  It’s an attempt to marry writing and recording as closely to each other as possible.

I’ve been listening to your records since my best friend put “Baby This Night,” from 1999’s For Him And The Girls, on a mix tape lifetimes ago. I used to wander around St. John’s listening on my walkman, rewinding the tape to hear it over again, gazing at the stars, imagining it was the last night on earth.  Years later, you are still writing love songs, as are musicians and poets alike. Why is love – the yearning for it, the loss of it, the experience of it – such a rich theme for you? 

It’s big.  It’s lovely.  It’s cumbersome.  It’s perfect.  It’s imperfect.  It’s found.  It’s lost.  It aches.  It exalts.  It burns.  It rests.  It lies dormant.  It growls.  It purrs.

Now that we’ve dipping into the vault, and going down memory lane, I’ve been thinking about your stunning poetry book, Hawksley Burns For Isadora (ECW, 2002), featuring beautiful paintings by your mother, artist Beverly Hawksley. It’s ripe with succulence, a cacophony of lust and longing. Would you ever consider publishing another book?

I have an illustrated picture book in the works.  It’s due in about a year.  I’m not doing the illustrations, that’d be horrible if I did.  I’ve thought about writing, but writing requires writing, not thought. So, I’m a ways away from binding up pages for sale on that front.

I’ve recently published a collection of poetry, Still No Word), and over the years found myself deeply inspired by you, both as a songwriter and a poet, as well as Sarah Slean, whose books Ravens (2004) and The Baroness (2008) share themes with Hawksley Burns For Isadora. Would you consider lyrics as a form of poetry? Or how do you separate the two? How does one line become for the page, and the other for the ear? 

I’m loathed to see words one way.  As erotic things to swish around the mouth, I don’t think songwriting and poetry are the same thing.  But I tend towards poets who write poems like songs.  Words should feel nice.  Sing nice. The tongue should enjoy the act of forming the words, it should be sexual and it should be chocolate.  I don’t understand cumbersome poems or songs, a jumble of sophisticated words in a row.  When the words are strung together just so it shouldn’t matter what they mean.

You’ve always been a showman. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you perform dozens of times, everywhere from Peterborough, Ontario, to the Marquee Club in Halifax. Last time I saw you it was in a very different incantation: your one-man cabaret-show The God That Comes, a sexy Greek tragedy of sorts. What inspired you to write for a theatrical show?

The idea for the play came from Christian Barry from 2B theatre in Halifax. We had been talking about doing a piece of theater together for 10 years or more, and this story finally gave us a starting place.  I think the play got made because making another record felt like an absurd gesture. A friend/mentor of mine said you need to do something, but don’t make another record. I have The God That Comes to thank for so much. It’s been an enormous gift.

In addition to The God That Comes, and your solo work, you got back behind the drums with Mounties, an indie rock super-group, including Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays and Limblifter’s Ryan Dahle, and took home Emerging Artist of the Year at 2014’s SiriusXM Indies. What’s it like to be back on the drums? How do all these projects feed, or nurture one another? 

Drums are my first instrument.  Everything is drums for me.  When I moved from my rural home to Toronto as a teenager, it was to pursue a career as a drummer for hire.

As a producer, I think drums, as a songwriter I hear the drums as the song is coming together.  My arms and hands are just DNA bursts from the sticks. In Mounties I’m the gas pedal, I get to flood the machine with fuel.  It’s pure and it’s animal.

Mounties has helped me with body image too. I’ve always been a little at odds with my burliness. I feel like my apelike proportions are part of my attack, part of my instinct, part of my war spirit when I play.  Mounties has given my insides much to rejoice over.

You’ve just released an incredible new video, “Teenage Cats,” featuring a cast of fabulous felines. I read on Twitter, your mother even painted your face like a cat for the awesome video shoot. What’s the intention behind this single? 

No intention.  Just delicious words and nice, sloppy feeling music.

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What can we expect from your upcoming show here in St. John’s at the Rockhouse on October 1? A mix of new and older material, a few slices of magic?  

Exactly that.

You’ve toured internationally for many years now. What are you looking forward to most returning to Newfoundland?  

A great musical audience, a thoughtful listening bunch.  Great restaurants.  Beef vegetable soup at Breen’s.  Bump into Alan Doyle, maybe the boys from Hey Rosetta! I also get to visit the west coast, which I’ve never seen, the whole band and I are geeked about that.

As an ever-evolving artist, what’s next?

I’ve got an improvised drum and guitar project in the works with the shockingly brilliant Kevin Breit.  A new Mounties record starting in December, and I’m starting work on the next Mohrs record. Much going on!

Catch Hawksley on his NL Tour:

JOHN’S, NL: The Rock House, Oct 1
CORNERBROOK, NL: The Palace, Oct 3
WOODY POINT, NL:  St. Patrick’s Church, Oct 4
With Newfoundland’s own Brad Kilpatrick on drums …

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