You may not know it yet, but Canadian rock-pop singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman is hard at it making sure quality music is being made in Newfoundland.
Over the past year he’s produced two albums by two very significant local bands—Great Big Sea and hey rosetta! Somewhere in between there he found the time to put together a record of his own: Between the Beautifuls.
This March he will be making a stop here on a cross-country tour to support that album.
By Anshuman Iddamsetty
When I first had the chance to interview Hawksley Workman back in university, I had a young volunteer beg me to tag along because, she said, “he totally floods my basement.”
“My songs are infinitely sexier than I am, you know,” says the singer, producer, and Juno award winner as he chuckles over the prospect of being considered a sex symbol to his Newfoundland fans.
“I guess it is very flattering, though I sort of feel like I’m particularly sexy only through my work, you know? I can hide a bit behind my songs.”
He pauses on this for a second, repeating that sentiment: “I shield myself with this music.”
It’s a brief introspective lapse for the Muskoka, Ontario native who usually conducts himself with a carefree air that belies his ‘Striptease For Me’ rock-as-hell persona. He’s also pretty self-deprecating for a Canadian musician who’s bigger in some European states than in his own continent.
Workman is currently touring in support of his emotionally diverse new album, Between the Beautifuls. It’s a 12-song slice of pop which follows the sometime lover, sometime fighter through some of the bleakest and happiest moments of his life.
“When I was writing darker songs I was in a miserable mindset,” says Workman. On tracks like “Prettier Face” and “It’s Not Me” display distaste for some of his more straightforward rock anthems.
Songs about urban paranoia and distress (“The City Is A Drag”), are set against more cheerful roots rock. This echoes an upbeat, natural simplicity found in Workman’s previous album, A Treeful of Starling.
“The nature songs are actually the ones written towards the end of the entire process… the ones closest to actually writing the record,” he says. “They were done in Spring, so you can’t be too happy.”
The name—Between the Beautifuls—was chosen originally for how it sounded, but as he put it together, Hawksley felt it take on a greater significance as a theme. He says it describes an uncomfortable feeling with one’s surroundings.
“I have never felt like I have ‘arrived,’” he says. “As we start off, from childhood, and through the teens we are led to believe we go to school and then when you’re an adult, you arrive, you know? That you earn your cheque and you’ve made it. I realize now what a bizarre fallacy that is… You are always between something. You are never finding yourself in that place where you’re comfortable resting on that shore, sipping your drinks.”
(I’m a little hard-pressed to imagine Workman as a cubicle-hewn dreamer.)
His upcoming St. John’s show this March has fans on The Rock overjoyed. After all, the island is consistently overlooked when it comes to cross-country tours from any act.
“I love Newfoundland, are you kidding me?” he says. “Newfoundlanders are a very special bunch of people, you know, they have music in their blood… And to miss playing here, that would be a serious error. Yeah, it’s expensive, but it’s a great place to come to. It’s important to be there.”
“I was in St. John’s this past autumn. I lived at the Delta as I was producing Great Big Sea’s latest album for six weeks… I loved it there.”
Hawksley—who has produced records for Canadian acts like Sarah Slean and the folk-pop twins Tegan & Sara—has another connection to Newfoundland: he has produced the upcoming album for St. John’s’ other supergroup, hey rosetta! The record is due out early this Spring.
He’s pretty stoked about the province’s little band that could.
On the February 5 episode of CBC’s The Hour with George Strombolopolous, Workman, in his trademarked ska-hat-and-bandana combo, openly plugged the band, billing them as Canada’s next mainstream hit.
“The (hey rosetta! album) is done and they are fucking there, man—they are the Next Big Thing. They are everything you’d want in a hot band. They are proper, intense, intelligent, ferocious… nerdly, but above needing to be cool. I can’t say enough about them. They are right up there. They are the real deal.”
According to Workman, producing the band’s record was more hands-off than his previous work.
”Production’s always a tricky job,” he tells me. “When I worked with Great Big Sea I was playing instruments on their record… It’s important to stay out of the way, of course, but with hey rosetta! I mostly let them be brilliant on their own.”
For hey rosetta!’s Tim Baker, the chance to work alongside Workman was unreal.
“Working with Hawksley was kinda like working with a stand-up comedian,” he says, “but a stand-up comedian who knows lots about recording.”
“It was hilarious and I learned a lot. He was willing to trust a lot of my arrangement plans and just let us do our shit,” he says, “but making sure we laid down our best and that it sounded passionate and clear.”
Baker also learned about the more intangible qualities of making an album.
“Hawksley talked a lot about ‘vibes’—the vibe of a recording space, the vibe of a performance, the vibe of a session trumpet player,” he says. “Turns out that vibes really do translate onto a recording. I mean we were very ready and had done all our practicing and arranging and knew our parts, but the fun, confident, and positive vibes Hawksley brought were just as important as any technical or logistical knowledge.”
“In the midst of all the seriousness and focus… Good times matter.”
This last sentiment seems to dominate Workman’s body of work. Songs are written, jams are performed, and albums are mixed simply because they have to be.
His ‘52 Telecaster Reissue won’t pick itself up.
“I don’t see records as a cathartic, relaxing experience,” says Workman, “But in the midst of all the seriousness and focus… Good times matter.”
Hawksley Workman will be performing at Holy Heart Theatre on March 11. Show starts at 8pm. For tickets, go to the Mile One Centre box office, phone 576-7657, or buy them online at www.sonicconcerts.com