“If this isn’t fascinating, I’m not doing it right”

An interview with glam-pop rocker Hawksley Workman, appearing at Showplace in Peterborough on April 22

Juno award winner Hawksley Workman appears at Showplace Performance Centre in Peterborough on Friday, April 22
Juno award winner Hawksley Workman appears at Showplace Performance Centre in Peterborough on Friday, April 22

Hawksley Workman is a multi-talented musician whose genre-bending music has captured audiences for almost two decades now.

But he’s not only a singer, songwriter, and performer. He’s also a playwright, a drummer for dance/rock band The Mounties, and much more.

Hawksley returns to Peterborough on Friday, April 22nd at Showplace Performance Centre (290 George St. N., Peterborough, 705-742-7469).

I had a chance to chat with him by phone and here’s how it went. Hawksley talks about getting healthy, getting older, performing, Bruce Cockburn, and more.

How are things for you?

Things are very well. I just got back from the gym and the lady that runs the gym, well, she likes to destroy us. So I’m physically destroyed and feeling all the better for it.

Are you doing a bootcamp?

It is one of those. We have a very zealous lady who … well, I think she’s a sadist; she delights in our pain.

But over the last few years I’ve been trying to be a less angry person, and a less sad and loathing person. I find when I put a lot of effort into physical exercise, it’s really cleansing. I just feel like a better human. Know what I mean?

Does exercise fuel some of your creative power then?

For sure, yes. I’ve been a runner for years and I’ve always felt like it’s a great way to sweat out the booze from the night before.

When you’re on the road, it’s a nice way to achieve some sanity in a place where there’s so little sanity.

Did you exercise at all when you were in your heyday, the big rock shows in clubs and such?

Not quite as much. As I’ve got older it’s become more of a thing.

I was raised with body issues. I look in the mirror and I see a fat guy … I always have. I find that to quell that voice or to put that voice away, I’ve always tried to stay physical.

It’s a funny business. I’ve never felt like a particularly good-looking human but it’s like a beauty contest that we live in now. It’s not the same as when funny-looking people were writing great songs.

For sure.

You know they’re not putting funny-looking people on TV anymore.

Hawksley also performs in the band The Mounties with Ryan Dahle and Steve Bays (photo: Rebecca Blisset)
Hawksley also performs in the band The Mounties with Ryan Dahle and Steve Bays (photo: Rebecca Blisset)
Do you feel more pressure as you get older?

I was thinking about this last night to be completely honest. I think there’s been one of those creeping elements in our culture: we almost expect there to be an almost-tragic beauty to the people who write the songs, know what I mean?

Like if you’re not a beautiful fuck-up, then you’re not completely playing into the notion of that archetypal rock-and-roll singer. It’s almost like they’re required to have these strong jaws — but a strong jaw with a drug addiction.

Tell me about the theatrical part of your show. Does that connect to this?

I sometimes wonder about that theatricality. I think it sometimes turns people off. For others, I think there’s excitement with someone doing something that’s a bit more involved than showing up with a guitar and singing a song.

For myself, I’m not really interested in music that doesn’t sort of dazzle me somehow. If it’s not fascinating or if the performance isn’t fascinating, then I find it really hard to care.

When I’m on stage, I sort of apply the same set of rules to myself. If this isn’t fascinating, then I’m not doing it right.

Have you always been comfortable in front of people?

I think I have. I won my first public speaking contest when I was in grade one. I wrote a speech about dolphins with my mom.

In that same year, I told the lady that ran our Sunday school I was going to be able to play the drums for Little Drummer Boy, because I had drums at home and my dad was a drummer. But I didn’t really play them.

So I had told the lady, Mrs. What’s-Her-Name, that I was going to play Little Drummer Boy, and she said “You don’t play the drums.” I felt like that was a minor hiccup and I would play the drums when it came time. And I did.

Those are two times when I knew that I was comfortable, or at least drawn to performing for some reason.

Hawksley wrote and performs a one-man cabaret-style rock opera called "The God That Comes" (publicity photo)
Hawksley wrote and performs a one-man cabaret-style rock opera called The God That Comes (publicity photo)
So the break that you took in your own solo career was just linked to doing other stuff?

The God That Comes [Hawksley’s musical] sort of took off and The Mounties kind of took off and with those two projects I was almost hedging in a way. I think I started feeling really bored of myself, so I was throwing noodles at the wall. I don’t think I was expecting either one to do as well as they did.

What ended up happening was those two seeds got planted four or five years ago and all of sudden they were both flowering at the same time. So the time I took off was basically because those other two things were happening.

Time moves differently now that I’m 40. I don’t know how old you are …

I’m 33.

33, okay. Well, I found around 35 you don’t recover from hangovers the same and time starts to feel like it’s moving very, very quickly.

That’s where I’m at right now. I’m like, holy shit, I used to put out two records a year and it felt like I had all the time in the world to do it in. Now, things are moving so quickly.

My new thing is I’m trying to savour as much as I can as it’s happening, even performing on stage. When you’re busy trying to get famous, like I was trying to do 10 years ago, you put your head down and you’re pulling the plow through the field, you know?

I remember turning 30 or 31 and was really kind of wondering what happened to my twenties. And I know what happened to them: they were spent bouncing around Europe and Canada and the U.S. and Australia trying to make a go.

About having your head down and everything, I was going to mention Serena Ryder. She’s a friend of mine from before high school and I remember right after high school she put her head down and went for it. It’s interesting that you also did that and speak that way about it.

I think if you were to ask people who had made their way successfully, or have created something in the music business, you’ll find they’re all kind of the same.

I think we are all deep feelers underneath. We’ve figured out how to galvanize ourselves against a certain amount of criticism, and also be able to just work against the odds and be comfortable with a flow of life that’s mostly uphill.

Hawksley covering Bruce Cockburn’s “Call It Democracy”

That brings me to another figure in music, Bruce Cockburn. I know that over two evenings in May you are performing tribute shows to him. I also saw that you had recently interviewed him as well. What has it been like meeting with him, getting to know his music, and how has it affected your approach to being a figure in music?
Royal Wood and Hawksley at the 2012 SOCAN Awards in Toronto with Bruce Cockburn, who won the lifetime achievement award (photo: SOCAN)
Royal Wood and Hawksley at the 2012 SOCAN Awards in Toronto with Bruce Cockburn, who won the lifetime achievement award (photo: SOCAN)
Bruce is one of my biggest heroes and you don’t often get to meet your heroes.

I feel like I’m careful with how I communicate with Bruce, because I’ve met famous people before and — even though I’m only a little, little, little bit famous — I notice how people act around people who were on TV or whatever.

So I’m very careful not to make Bruce feel uncomfortable. I could ask him a hundred questions from my 16-year-old self that would drive him crazy.

As I’ve gotten older, my career does have some resemblance to Bruce’s career in so far as Bruce was never easy to categorize. He never tried to sound fashionable and I think he was consumed by his own pursuits.

Not only that, but Bruce always had the hottest rhythm section. He was always finding the new big talent to have on stage, iconic guys like Hugh Marsh and his brother Fergus Marsh. He always had these great drummers through the ’70s and ’80s, guys like Bob Diselle, who I think is every bit as exciting and important as Steve Gadd.

Of course he has played a bunch with Gary Craig in more recent days.

For sure. Gary Craig through to now … and Michael Sloski through the ’80s. He was a motherfucker, you know? He was serious business. So I think, in that way, I try to tour with the best of the best.

And there’s little things, like screen grabs of Bruce’s career, that make sense to me as I get older too.

I saw Bruce play this past Friday. I think he’s in his early seventies. I know he doesn’t see what he does as a job or work; he sees what he does as who he is. To see him in his early seventies … that’s 30 years away from where I am right now.

"Old Cheetah" is Hawksley's 15th album and his first solo release in five years
Old Cheetah is Hawksley’s 15th album and his first solo release in five years
Does that give you a lot of energy seeing that?

It actually scares the shit out of me.

Does it?

Yah! As if there isn’t enough heartbreak in the business already. To think that there’s a guy who’s suffered through 50 some-odd years of it is unbelievable.

He has so much great material.

I think he’s one of the best. I know that culturally we’re inclined to talk about how great Neil Young is, but I think pound-for-pound Bruce Cockburn leaves him in the dust.

Fair enough! So speaking of a great band, what’s your lineup for the April 22nd show in Peterborough at Showplace?

I wish I knew. This is going to sound totally corny, but I’d have to look at my calendar. I can’t remember if it’s with my piano player or if it’s with a new trio I’m putting together.

I’ve been working on a new trio with some brilliant musicians, Kevin Breit and Matt Ouimet from Ottawa. And this spring we’re going to put together kind of a new show, but for Peterborough it might also be me with my piano player of 16 years [Todd Lumley]. I know that sounds awful that I don’t know, but I really don’t.

Ah, it’s nice to have a bit of mystery. People like that. You’ve always been a bit of a mysterious guy, so that’s good right?

I guess.

What else are you working on these days?

I’m off to New Zealand next week to do a week-long run with The God That Comes. I’m working on a record right now with The Mohrs, a young band from Toronto. The Mounties are busy and in the middle of recording their new record, and I have a children’s book coming up in September. So that’s keeping me busy.

Hawksley Workman at CBC Music’s Studio 211