Interview: Hawksley Workman
The God That Comes is his one-man show, which he co-created with Christian Barry from the 2b theatre company. He also formed the Canadian rock supergroup, Mounties, with Steve Bays from Hot Hot Heat and Ryan Dahle from Limblifter. Workman also manages the Toronto rock-pop band, The Mohrs. He co-wrote and produced their soon-to-be released debut album.
All that and Workman still finds the time to maintain his land for his home in Huntsville, Ontario. He took a break from cutting the grass to reflect on the past and express his enthusiasm about the present. Workman shared in this chat the stories behind some of his oldest songs, the influence that improvisation has had on his songwriting, and how he made a career out of not following the rules.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): The idea for this rock and roll cabaret, The God That Comes, actually came from Christian Barry from the 2b theatre company. He approached you about doing a version of the Greek tragedy The Bacchae by Euripides. What was it about this story that resonated with you so much?
Hawksley Workman: Well, I had a lot of anger in me that couldn’t feasibly be focused at pop music. The world’s kind of gone mad in the last 10 or 15 years it feels to me. World leaders are in a game of constantly lying to their people, and I see the world a lot of times as very untruthful. The picture is very untruthful and I find that kind of hard to exist in. It’s tough to get across a protest song anymore mostly because people are:
A) Sick of protests
B) Don’t believe that it can be done better than Bob Dylan already did it.
So to me the story presented an interesting opportunity with this grumpy old King who doesn’t want anybody to have any fun, and who wants to impose social and religious austerity on a city. It resonated with me that that’s happening a lot in the world these days. I thought that it would be a great opportunity to try and instead of flat out indicting this poor King, to get under his surface. See why it is that he doesn’t play nice with others and to try and exercise a more Christian love toward him instead of a hate.
Songfacts: It’s a one-man show so you play every instrument from drums, guitar, keyboard, ukulele, and even the harmonica while you’re also singing and acting. Was that your idea or was it Christian’s idea? Because it’s fascinating to watch but it must be exhausting for you to do every night.
Hawksley: Yeah, it was Christian’s idea, actually. The play started to get built with just me, but I was always under the impression that there would eventually be a band backing me up. But as the show evolved, it evolved into something that I would largely be able to handle on my own with a competent musical sound man.
So that’s how that sort of started. To this day I still envision the show having an alternate version that is a little bit more of a rock and roll show. But it turned into a really interesting place for me to do all the things that I do well. So it’s been interesting to focus all of those things in one show. There are a lot of tricks, but I think Christian deep down, he knew all along that we were working on a one-man show.
I didn’t know how we would create big enough crescendos without a band. If you’re singing or playing solo, and I tour a lot like that, you really have to augment the way you perceive or that you deliver a dynamic performance. Oftentimes I find that with a rock band, what is loud on stage by yourself should go the opposite way to create the tension or create the drama.
Songfacts: In your concerts, you improvise a lot where you will stop in the middle of a song and tell a story that could last for five minutes. You can’t really do that with a play because you have marks to meet at certain times. Is it hard for you to be that restrained?
Hawksley: I’m not restrained and that’s the funny thing. When I set out to do this with Christian, there were a few caveats. One of them was that I’m not an actor so we needed a constructed show that I could feel as free as I do on stage with my own thing. Because, really, at the end of the day, the improv parts of my live show tend to be the thing that I get most excited about doing because it’s free. [Long pause] I like singing my songs but I tend to prefer to be doing new things all the time. So the improvisational element allows me the freedom to feel like I’m creating something new in front of an audience.
I think that that is part of what’s exciting for the audience to come to my shows. People who come with some regularity have grown into expecting a little bit of that, which is great by me, because, like I said, it’s the one thing that has kind of kept me interested when I’m playing live. So I do step out quite a bit in The God That Comes. I don’t go into five-minute stories like you’re saying, but I am able to step out and be playful in the kind of way that keeps it interesting for me.
Songfacts: You wrote The God That Comes over the course of a year, which is a long time for you. Usually you write quickly. So how was the process different from writing a regular Hawksley Workman album?
Hawksley: Well, it’s funny. I feel like part of this journey that I’m on as a creative person is that I’m realizing that I get bored of myself really quickly. It’s almost like I have this little Church where the music gets to live, but I have created a dozen or more doors in order to access that place. I feel with Mounties, it’s very improvisational. And my new record that I’m sort of just finishing up working on, a lot of the songs were improvised, and even the lyrics were improvised, just live off of the floor. The God That Comes was two, three, or four intense weeks over the span of a year, and in that time there was a lot of refining.
You go back to my earliest records, a lot of those records were populated by songs where I sat at a piano and worked out harmonies and I had a pad of paper. And then I’ve done other things the last three or four years. I started to go to London, England, Stockholm, Sweden, Los Angeles, and New York to do pop songwriting trips with producer, writer camp type of people who are busy trying to put songs on pop radio. So I was going into studios in Sweden with my laptop and required only to come up with a hooky melody and some cool lyrics.
I guess what I’m saying is that my process continues to change. Mounties and The God That Comes did a lot to rekindle my excitement about the old way of writing, which is sitting down at a piano. I have a space in my wall right now for a piano that I’m shopping for because I really want to feel that feeling again. I hated writing songs like that after awhile. It just started to drive me totally crazy. And, also, again, I get very bored of myself. My vocabularies on the guitar and on the piano are somewhat limited. My main instrument is drums so where I have pure musical freedom is on them, whereas, on guitar and piano I have some limitations. I feel harmonically speaking, I paint primary colors. So I would say the process is something that is exciting for me to engage in new ones as often as possible.
Songfacts: You mentioned your earlier work. The God That Comes musically seems to return to your earlier work because it has such a sexual theme. It’s reminiscent of songs like “Paper Shoes,” “Dirty and True,” “Jealous of Your Cigarette,” and “Striptease.” Was that a conscious decision or did that just end up happening?
Hawksley: Yeah, that just ended up happening. I would say there’s nothing that I’ve ever done that’s ever been a conscious decision. I’m not very good when it comes to conscious anything. My consciousness tends to be taken over by worry and anxiety. Music has always been a place that I can feel free so if there’s ever some sort of serendipity in things sounding alike, it’s almost never intentional. I could see that there was a return to those kinds of feelings and those kinds of themes, though.
I think my motivation for writing that stuff back in the late ’90s was very pure. I was a kid who’d never really been anywhere. I’d never really done anything. My experiences with sex and women were quite limited, so a lot of those early records and just the outwardly sexual stuff were in some ways kind of like a conjuring. Not a fantasy, but almost what I imagined the world to be in some ways. And then years went on and you get a little bit older, and I started to travel quite extensively with my job. Some of the shine of your early writing, which is more informed by fantasy than reality, starts to wear off because you see a lot and you experience a lot. And then all of a sudden, you’re carrying this cumbersome load of adulthood around, which is a bit of a strangulation because there are different varieties of worries that start to enter your consciousness that were never there before.
But in a way, I feel renewed. You know, I’m 39. I feel through The God That Comes, Mounties, and The Mohrs too, which is sort of the third side project that I started for myself when I really started to suffer a career malaise. I needed to do something to awaken myself back up.
Songfacts: I’m in Oshawa [Ontario] and I think The Mohrs just played here at The Moustache Club.
Hawksley: Yeah, they did! The Mohrs is a band that I helped develop and produce, and I co-wrote their record. That was another two-year writing process. So now I manage them with my wife and Jonathan Simkin out in Vancouver. It’s a really exciting thing because it’s extraordinary guitar rock music. It takes a little bit for this kind of thing to catch on because for whatever reason, apparently rock audiences are suspect of female singers. But their thing is every bit as good as Foo Fighters, and they’re having a good little run right now. It’s exciting to be around a young band that’s so good. It’s just nice to have that kind of a writing outlet, too. I realized at my core that I’ve always been a rock and roll guy, so drums and guitar riffs are something that I know a lot about. So it came like a natural fit and I’m excited. I feel like that’s going to be a part of my creative life for a long time, working with the two principle songwriters in that band, Marc and Jackie.
Songfacts: That’s great. One example from The God That Comes of a song that focuses on sexuality is “The Dress Makes the Man.” How did you come up with the idea for that song?
Hawksley: Yes! The writing process for The God That Comes sort of went like this: it was written in two or three chunks. One chunk was in a theatre space in Calgary with a piano. We set up a stomp area and a lot of different creative areas where we could basically splash around. Both Christian and I read a lot, think a lot, see a lot, and feel a lot, so we would arrive in the morning with coffees and just sort of talk. It was like a miniature salon in the mornings. There was never a feeling of having to rush to get anything done.
And then the afternoons would roll around and we would have discussed different versions of Euripides. We would read modern versions. We would read older versions. We would read news items that sort of related to the characters in the play. The room was just so full of ideas and pregnant with inspiration that I don’t know. You just sit at the piano and the songs would pop out. Like I said, I don’t meditate on anything for any length of time. “The Dress Makes the Man” probably happened like any of those other songs where I sat at the piano and those were the first words that came out of my mouth [laughs.]
I tend to trust what my body does. The brain is a real pain in the ass when it comes to songwriting and pretty much any other artistic form. The brain seeks, like it does in life, to ruin things. So my skin, my cells, and my guts just seem to have a better handle on music than the rest of me. Typically, when I sit at the piano and come up with something, which is true for The God That Comes, it just sort of falls out. There was never really any plan. We’d written a number of songs that contained the messages that we wanted to convey. I said to Christian as well that I didn’t want to sing libretto. I wanted it to be songs. Songs that I could remove from the play and comfortably put into my own set, so the lyrics had to have that kind of quality.
So “The Dress Makes the Man” just came out. We wanted to paint the King as somebody who was sexually frustrated and confused. The King’s so curious about what’s going on up on the mountain and why his mother has gone up for copulation and booze drinking. And so the God, Bacchus, suggests to the King that he dress like a woman. We always thought in the text that was so funny how willing and ready he was to cross dress despite the fact that he was coming down so hard on homosexuals and women. With his view of the world, it was a funny thing to poke at so I think that’s probably the gist of where that came from.
Songfacts: You mentioned how you wanted to make sure that these were songs that you could include in your own concerts. “They Decided Not to Like Us” is the epilogue of the play and almost like a modern day version of the story. And it’s different from every other song and sounds like something that would be on your later albums like Meat or Milk. So just explain the evolution of that song.
Hawksley: Well, you’re spot-on because that was the one song that wasn’t written for the play. That was the song that I wrote with Steve Bays [from Hot Hot Heat and is also in Workman’s band, Mounties] the first time that I really sat with him when we were in the early stages of considering being in a band together. I was on tour with Stuart McLean. I sort of had a night of excessiveness and then the next day I had all the self-loathing and guilt that comes with those kinds of nights.
I just had an interesting feeling about the world, so we penned that song really quickly. And like you say, and I appreciate that you feel that way too, it is sort of a modern version of the story. There’s something sad about it. There’s something kind of strangely pathetic. I still feel that song is special. It’s interesting because there are some people that didn’t like it at the end of the play or thought that it was too much of a non-sequitur. But it’s obvious that you got what we were trying to do, and that it sort of brings the whole show into the present.
Songfacts: Just to delve into your other work –
Songfacts: “Fuck you, you’re drunk and acting tough” –
Songfacts: It’s such a memorable opening line of an album that begins Lover/Fighter. What inspired you to write it?
Hawksley: Well, around Lover/Fighter, I was drinking a lot of whiskey. It was the drink that I was drinking then, and I was sitting drunk, talking tough. I think I was addressing myself at that moment. But it’s so appropriate because everybody talks tough when they’re drunk. It feels like somewhat of a universal thought and it’s funny to have those be the first words on the record. There was a chair by the fire at the old studio that I used to sit at and drink, and so a lot of the Lover/Fighterlyrics got written in that headspace.
Songfacts: Can you share the story behind “Smoke Baby?” Because that song was just such a change in your sound.
Hawksley: Yeah. “Smoke Baby” was my first co-write with somebody who I would end up doing a lot of writing with over the years named Doc McKinney. Doc has become quite famous lately because he produced The Weeknd. People had always said that we should collaborate. We look quite a bit alike as well. We used to work in New York quite a bit together and people always thought that we were brothers.
He’s an extraordinarily creative guy and an extraordinarily talented producer and songwriter. The beats that he would cook up always felt to me to be a little cooler. You just could always feel that Doc was onto something. “Smoke Baby” was the first song that we wrote together.
We wrote it in a studio – it was written to a beat. It was the first time that I did that kind of writing, which has now become sort of a standard form for me. When I’m writing in Stockholm or London, typically you’re walking into a studio where a producer has put a track together either with beats or with beats and harmony. So this was the first time that I sat and had somebody else create the chordal aspect of the song.
So that was Doc’s beat, those were Doc’s chords, and all I had to do was catch his vibe and come up with something cool. And that was kind of the beginning of when I realized that there were other ways of writing that seemed interesting. The early records, there was some improvised stuff but this was the first time that I’d ever had somebody basically carry half the load, and it was really exciting. And that again goes back to what I was saying earlier about me tiring easily of my own harmonic horizon because it’s so limited.
I think that I believed my own hype when I was writing that song, too. I was kind of this cult star in France and I was living an excessive lifestyle. The lyrics now serve me more as an embarrassment than they do as me proudly wearing my rock and roll badge of honor. Being some excessive living super traveled guy with no consequence, which that song at the time, I think I was mildly trying to celebrate that.
Songfacts: “Jealous of your Cigarette” depicts well the clever and wittiness of your lyrics. What was the process like writing that song and did you think it would be such a success?
Hawksley: I knew that “Striptease” was a hit almost as soon as it was happening. I was like, “Oh, yeah! This is really exciting.” “Jealous of your Cigarette” I couldn’t say, really. That one I wrote on the piano. When I was tracking the bed track of the piano, the click track started and I just improvised that intro. The intro you hear is being created as you hear it. That was the sound of me thinking as I was hearing the click, “Oh, yeah, I should probably put an intro on this thing so it feels right.” I even think the bridge was probably improvised as I was playing the bed track as well. Back in those days when I was writing a little bit more traditionally at a piano, I couldn’t oftentimes just be arsed to write a bridge so I would just write it as I was tracking the bed tracks. I think on the first four or five records that happened an awful lot that I left the bridge writing to the last second because it was just maybe a little too boring.
Songfacts: You wrote on your website that you wanted “Safe and Sound” to be “the quintessential driving song.” So how do you feel about it being such a popular wedding song choice?
Hawksley: I’m flattered. It’s funny because when my wife was in school, she went through that ’90s phase of when country hit the mainstream for a few years through Garth Brooks. She always said that the angle on that music was that every record had to have a wedding song on it. She thought that’s how they were able to make those records commercially viable. I think there’s something funny and quite true about that. It’s a big life event that you want to celebrate and it’s kind of exciting for me that that song has that life.
I wrote it on a girlfriend’s piano at the time. A long time ago now, like 16 or 17 years ago. She used to go to sleep early, so I would try to stay up a little bit late and stay as quiet as possible in our little apartment. I had imagined this song as travelling with her at the time and she was asleep, so I guess the images were all there waiting to be plucked. It’s interesting that it does come across as a wedding song because in my late teens, I was very pious. So I had a lot of biblical imagery floating around back then. My first few records are loaded with it.
Songfacts: Did you actually write “Paper Shoes” in the basement of a church in Toronto?
Hawksley: Yeah, I did. Back in those days, I was so desperately poor and all of my songwriting friends were desperately poor, so we would trade ideas on how to get access to pianos. Sometimes it would be sneaking into the U of T music campus and trying to find a piano that you could get a couple of minutes on. But because I grew up in the United Church, I knew that it was always receptive to liberal-minded kooks like me.
So I joined the church also because I like to sing those songs. After a few visits, I approached the minister and asked if I could come in in the mornings. Back then I was waking up at five or six. I mean, I still kind of wake up early. I was up at six today, I guess. And then I’d go to the church and just write in the mornings. Mornings were always my creative time. I sort of feel that’s changed now. Well, that’s not true. It has to be an extreme. It’s either extreme late night or extreme early morning.
Songfacts: I know that you said that you don’t really sit on your songs for too long but what was the hardest song for you to write or maybe took the longest if you can think of it?
Hawksley: Hmmm. [Long pause] Nothing really stands out. I’d be lying if I said that anything took longer than a half an hour. I don’t toil over these things and I’ve only recently stopped loathing myself for my inability to have that kind of focus. Everybody wants to write like Leonard Cohen and take years to craft the perfect detail in your lyric, but it’s just not who I am.
It’s like when I tried to emulate Bruce Cockburn in my early songwriting in high school. He was my hero. It was a few years later that I wrote my first good song when I was about 22. It was because I had injected more of myself into it.
My angle was always humour. Bruce doesn’t have that humorous stream that’s always running through his lyrical content. I think on mine there’s always an absurdist thing. It’s because I was so influenced by comedy as a kid. I always see my musical influences, but there coming up in a very close second is David Letterman, Kids in the Hall, and Gary Larsen. These were people who were able to shine the light on absurdity, which for me life feels so much more absurd than it does feel practical. So I was always consumed by comedy for that reason. The first time I ever saw Jerry Seinfeld on Letterman, I memorized his skit because I just couldn’t believe how innovative of a comedian he was at the time, and this was many years before he had a TV show. And his absurdity was so fresh at the time, and, ultimately, afterward Seinfeld the TV show changed the way we talked and changed the way we saw things.
Songfacts: You’ve brought up Mounties a few times and you seem really excited about it. You already kind of talked about the songwriting process being that it’s improvised a lot. So it’s more like jam sessions?
Hawksley: Yeah, so the three of us all being producers and songwriters, we want to capture the energy of that performance thing. The thing that makes rock and roll what rock and roll is. And unlike what a Grateful Dead jam would be or a blues jam might be, we jam pop music. Our ears are so tuned to finding hooks and capturing energy that even a lot of the lyrics are improvised. Whether we’re improvising lyrics off of the floor as we record or whether we’re basically improvising lyrics to the track that we build in the studio.
The most pure thing I have in my life is Mounties. It’s the purest thing I do. I will forever be in debt to this whole experience. It’s almost ruined music in a way because I refuse to do music that’s any less exciting than this. It’s informed a lot of how my new record was made. It’s just reminded me of how important freeness is in music. If we don’t hear freeness, that music becomes disposable really quickly.
Songfacts: Are you able to tell stories about “Headphones” and “If This Dance Catches On?”
Hawksley: Yeah, I can, definitely! Well, “Headphones” started with that absolutely genius guitar line from Ryan Dahle – the [mimics guitar line – play the clip]. It’s so outlandish.
Steve likes to antique. So we were by one of his favorite antique spots where the antique dealer had said that Steve needed to buy an old hi-fi unit. And then Steve being Steve just threw on headphones and sang the lyric. It just came out of him. There was no mediating. Ryan and I were in the studio with him and he was like [mimics Steve singing – play the clip], “I got my headphones on like a seventies hi-fi,” and it was just like, “It’s done. This is done.”
“If This Dance Catches On” was much the same thing. Mounties is a lot about staying up really late. Arriving at the studio around 6 p.m. but having wine and actually getting started at around midnight. And then there’s that strange little time between midnight and four in the morning. You’re exhausted but there’s a euphoria because there’s a whole lot of psychic space available to you because so many people are asleep, so you can kind of splash around. I don’t remember how those lyrics got written [begins to hum tune, then long pause]. But typically what happens is if what we’ve improvised doesn’t quite add up to a structure, then we’ll sort of mess with it a little bit on the computer.
And once we’re comfortable with where the structure is then that’s when we all get so excited to yank out our laptops. There’s always a race. It’s such a competitive thing, a friendly competitive thing between the three of us to who will be the first one to come up with the guiding lyric. In the case of “Headphones,” it was Steve. In the case of “Hall & Oates,” it was me.
It was one of those things where as soon as I had the idea for “Hall & Oates,” I was like, “I know I’m going to kill this!” I ran out to the microphone and laid down the chorus for “Hall & Oates.” Looking through the window into the studio, you can see everybody is like, “Fuck! He’s killing it!” Mounties is very much like that. It’s really such a best friends of guys that are too old to truly have to take competition seriously, but we still take the competition of creating something exciting seriously. Like I said, it’s a very pure thing. It’s pure for me as a musician, as a drummer, and as a lyricist as well. It’s such a landscape to write against.
Songfacts: You already discussed working with The Mohrs. Are you producing anyone else right now that really excites you?
Hawksley: No, I’m really stepping back from producing. I think it’s in some ways because Mounties has spoiled me a little bit that I just need music at the moment to feel that exciting. I feel in a way that I don’t know how to do that on my own anymore. I understand now that when you work with extraordinarily gifted people just how big their contribution can be to the overall sound. I’m just sort of in a time of readjusting my thinking on that.
Songfacts: Okay, so last question. You said that when you listen to your first few records that they sound like someone who didn’t know that there were any rules. Do you think that you’ve learned how to follow the rules now? Because even your most recent albums like Los Manliciuos,Meat, Milk, The God That Comes, and now Mounties, you sound like someone who knows there are rules but you just choose not to follow them.
Hawksley: Yeah, and I appreciate you seeing that. I’m with you there. I think that is the way I feel quite a bit. I was just cutting the grass so I was actually thinking as I was cutting it that I’ve done something in the music business that you’re not usually allowed to do, which is doing whatever you want. Usually you have to trade in a good chunk of your soul in order to succeed. I feel part of what I have succeeded at is really doing whatever I like. I know that for fans sometimes it’s been a real piss off, too. Some of my records have been super-high quality and some have been just pretty good.
Sometimes my focus is really keen. I look at the 15 or 16 records that I’ve made, and I see four or five that are really something. And then the others contain a lot of great writing but maybe the record as a whole didn’t come off in the right way. But I feel there are always one or two real knockout songs.
It’s just a funny life being creative and having your creative output pay your bills, as well as define you, as well as torture you, as well as exalt you.
I don’t write the songs, I’m just a willing participant or I’m just a happy conduit for those songs. A faithful believer that the songs are there in the ether with all those angels who are looking for the people who trust and who are working hard. Mounties has really set that sentiment in stone. In music, rules are for the birds. I tend to loathe all human convention and convention in songwriting, too. I love the structure but within the structure there are still eons of space to travel and explore.
Songfacts: That’s great. Sorry, I lied about that being the last question because I just remembered that you mentioned that you just finished a new album, so can you reveal anything about that yet?
Hawksley: Well, the record is in the process of being finished. Again, like my new mode of thinking: To try to make music in ways you’ve never made it before.
I think the new record is extraordinary. I’ve been working on it with Steve Bays and he’s been sort of co-writing and producing it with me. He was very adamant that I didn’t listen to the rough mixes so the process of this record has been in a state of being written and/or recorded for the last couple years. I almost have no idea what’s on the record anymore. Although, I know that there are a handful of songs that I do have recent rough mixes for that are a real return to my early days again, just with a certain wildness and freedom.
The record’s called Old Cheetah. I’m so excited that it’s sitting in a state of near readiness. Steve is working on one of the singles right now in Vancouver and he just keeps sending me emails about how excited he is about it. And much like working with Doc [McKinney], working with Steve and Ryan [Dahle], there are not too many people who I’m so keen to impress as those people. Doc is somebody who I respect and admire so much that when we’re in the studio together, I play an elevated game because I don’t want to disappoint him. It’s the same thing with Steve and Ryan – I’m not fucking around with those guys when I’m in the studio. To me, if I’m not blowing their minds, then what am I doing?
And in many ways working with Steve on Old Cheetah was that very thing where I wanted his mind blown as often as possible. I wanted him to believe that I was as great as he thought I was, and I wanted that kind of excitement to carry through into the way the record sounds. It’s really important to work around people that are better than you. I know that’s an old cliché especially in sports, but it really is true.
I think back to my early days in Toronto, too. I was surrounded by brilliant, young songwriters trying to launch. Some launched and got successful like Leslie Feist and some the world really would do well to hear like John Southworth, Spookey Ruben, and Jack Breakfast. Sarah Slean was sort of a product of that era in Toronto as well. There were so many people writing this wonderful almost cabaret-type pop music. A few got noticed and then a few didn’t in that scene. I was really lucky to be in that community of people and to be surrounded constantly by writers who are much better than me.