Music Rags: ‘I’m pissing myself off sometimes’

Hawksley Workman is a musical renaissance man. He’s an accomplished multi-instrumentalist: drums, guitar, piano, bass. If it’s in a rock band, he can probably play it. He’s also a production wizard who has worked with some of Canada’s signature acts like Tegan and Sara, Great Big Sea and Sarah Slean. He recently put together a musical theatre piece called The God That Comes. These days, he is extending his never-ending curiosity into a more tactile, non-musical art form.

Speaking from his home in what he calls “the rurals” (about three hours north of Toronto), Workman discusses his newfound hobby. “I like woodworking now. That’s my new thing. You have to cut and measure. It’s very like pop music in that way.”

As with many things in life, it seems to come back to music for Workman. “I’m so design- and symmetry-obsessed with art, typically. I love things to balance. I like songs . . . I love pop music. I love the balance of pop music,” he says. “If you’re going to build a shelf, it’s just like building a song. It has to function structurally before you’re allowed to paint it and turn it into art.”

Since the release of his 2001 debut album, For Him and the Girls, Workman has proven to be one of pop music’s most consistently engaging and challenging performers, painting his music with an endless variation of colours and textures. He keeps fans on their toes, never letting his listeners get comfortable for too long. “Sometimes I just think I must be pissing everybody off,” he says. “I’m pissing myself off sometimes.”

His catalogue is so challenging and varied that Workman might not even be able to keep up with himself if he were one of the listening public. “I’m an awful music fan. I don’t want anyone I love to grow. I want U2 to make Achtung, Baby over and over again. I want Thomas Dolby to make The Golden Age of Wireless over and over again. I want The Smiths to make Hatful of Hollow over and over again. I hate when artists I love experiment.”

Even though Workman acknowledges the problems that come with constant experimentation, it’s something he believes he has no control over. “I don’t have much of a choice . . . because my body is what does the work. My brain is rarely engaged in music. Music is a sensual, bodily exercise more than it is something that I think too much about.”

The creative spirit that drives that sensuousness forward is an important and inescapable aspect of Workman’s art. “If I don’t feel like I’m being challenged creatively, I feel like there’s something missing. If you have a recipe for success, the smart money is ‘Yes, keep doing that.’ ”

Workman has never been one to go for the easy payoff or the smart money. “For me, it’s like a bad genetic malfunction that happens. If I’m not doing something that feels absolutely 100 per cent new, then I feel the very essence of myself, all my cells are going, ‘okay, but you’re not working yet. What are you going to do in this situation to make it exciting?’ ”

Workman believes this creative spirit is a liberating force in a world seemingly consumed by vapid, fast-paced media. “Lots of people are asleep, and that’s sad. But they were put to sleep on purpose. I think that there was a concerted effort in having people be very obedient citizens who were nice sleepy people, who just sort of watched this all go by.”

There’s a goal, a reason for all his art to exist in such a raw way. “I think my job, in a way — I hope I don’t sound righteous or uppity — at the end of the day, when people come to see me play, I think it reminds them, ‘Oh yeah! I feel something. I just felt that.’ I think reminding people to feel is a way of having people stay awake,” says Workman.

No matter how sleepy and unattached the world around us may seem, Workman’s belief in the power of the creative spirit remains. “I want to combat negative feelings with deep, eternal positivity or hope. I’m talking about the belief that music, art and the powers to wake people up are still relevant and real.”

Hawksley Workman
Nov. 8 @ the Cowichan Theatre in Duncan, 7:30 p.m. $25
Nov. 9 @ the Port Theatre in Nanaimo, 7:30 p.m. $15 (students) 

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