Hawksley Workman on music critics, his origins, and the f-word

Canadian rocker sits down with The Runner to talk life … and the f-word.

By Max Hirtz
[culture editor]

Hawksley Workman, one of Canada’s most successful rock musicians active today, was nice enough to let The Runner pick his brain recently about a wide range of topics, including his recent electro-influences record Milk and his unique songwriting process. Workman has been releasing records since 1999’s For Him and the Girls, and had his mainstream breakthrough in 2003 with Lover/Fighter. He is beginning his next Canadian tour on Oct. 27 and will be playing at the Rio in Vancouver on Nov. 7.

The Runner: What kind of backing band are you using for your upcoming tour?

Hawksley Workman: The last time I went through Canada proper, it was a big, full band situation, so it’s been awhile since I had sort of stripped it down. It’ll be my piano player and I on the stage.

The Runner: Do you prefer this kind of setup?

HW: Being in front of a rock band, it’s a train that kind of… you get on and you try and direct it, but it’s got a lot of momentum, and I like to start start songs sometimes, and maybe if the mood strikes me, I want to change things in the middle. The freedom when I’m by myself or with Mr. Lonely, my piano player, is kind of nice. It’s a very steerable ship, I guess. With a rock band, it’s forced. You’re just kind of trying to conduct it.

The Runner: You’ve put out over a dozen albums since 1999. Do you find that there are one or two albums that you keep going back to, and are there albums that you’ve stopped playing?

HW: It’s funny. You know, I try to play one or two songs from every record. For people who’ve been following my music or following my career for a long time, I’m sure that everybody’s got a favourite record. Lover/ Fighter, my big major label record… it’s the record that sold the most copies, and it’s the one that people probably know the most music from, but the folks who are real hardcore… know a lot of the records. But, you know… I’m a huge Bruce Cockburn, and as much as I love Bruce Cockburn in a way to play obscure songs, I want to hear the hits, the same as everybody else. I want to hear “Rocket Launcher” and “Wondering Where the Lions Are”, and in a way, I think that if you come to see my show, then I’m not going to just bore you with [obscure] backcatalogue favourites. It’s going to be songs that have a [mainstream] presence.

The Runner: A lot of musicians who have been making music consistently for years see their early work as inferior to their latest work. Do you feel this way?

HW: I love my back catalogue. I know that sentiment. I know that there are people who feel that way. Like, “Oh, you know, that stuff’s all shit, and my new stuff is where it’s at.” I don’t really buy that. Part of it is that I can hear some of the naïveté in the older music, and I think it makes me kind of nostalgic, really, for what that felt like back in those days to be naïve. I listen to my first couple records, before anybody really knew who I was… [and] what I hear is a kid who didn’t know that there [were] any rules.

The Runner: The first word in your big major label album Lover/Fighter is “fuck”. Did this cause a lot of tension between you and Universal Music Canada?

HW: Yeah, man. I tell you, when I wrote “We Still Need a Song”, I thought, “Man, this is a hit. It’s a total hit.” And I played it for the label, and they’re like, “Oh, man, are you kidding?” Record companies at the time were thinking… their only hope for an artist is if you make a record that they can put at Starbucks because the understanding back then was, if you are the kind of artist who can have their CD at Starbucks, you’re still going to sell records. So, [the lyric] “Fuck you, you’re drunk” comes on the first song, and they’re like, “You gotta be kidding, right? We can’t put ‘Fuck you, you’re drunk’ on a record that we’re going to try to sell to Starbucks.” I made a radio version, but that song never went to radio in Canada, I don’t think.

The Runner: You seem like the type of musician who’s always working on something. Where do you think that drive comes from?

HW: I have always been like that. I did have encouraging parents, too. I was obsessive about music, which led me to drop out of high school, and my folks… I think they just trusted that I knew what I was doing. When I was a kid, when I first started playing music when I was seven or eight years old, I used to think I was going to die when I was very young. So I practised a lot because I didn’t want to die without having fully realized a certain level of competence or expertise on an instrument.

The Runner: You’ve been using more electronic drums and synthesizers on your latest albums. Are you going to continue in that direction?

HW: I met a cool producer in Stockholm when I was there working, and I was like, “Why don’t you come to Toronto, and we’ll make a record for a week.” Then it turned into Milk, which was one of my last records. Milk got so many horrible, scathing reviews. But I think all it was just, sometimes journalists or music reviewers, they don’t want you to change stuff. “Oh, Hawksley Workman shouldn’t do that.” For fuck’s sakes! But, I don’t know. I don’t think too much about it. I also make records really quickly. For me, most of my records take a week or two to make, and then they’re done.

The Runner: You mentioned that you record your albums quickly. Do you write quickly as well?

HW: I do write really quickly, and I often write in the studio, but not always. I sit down at the piano, usually, or the guitar. I’d be lying if I said most of my songs didn’t take less than a half an hour to write, or twenty minutes.To me, it’s another opportunity to chase inspiration wildly. You knock a song out in twenty minutes, and boom! Is it perfect? Probably not. Could it be better? Maybe. But I like it like that.

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