Hawksley Workman wants you to feel his music

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Singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman and director Christian Barry are billing their music-theatre collaboration The God That Comes as a work in progress—and to keep it moving in the right direction they’re holed up in a Toronto rehearsal space when the Georgia Straight calls.

“I have a little list of things that Hawk and I are still digging into,” says Barry, who’s just set his cell to speakerphone. “We’re introducing, bit by bit, more story elements into the body of the show. It’s my hope that the story never overwhelms what is essentially a very visceral, very sensual experience—a very rock ’n’ roll thing. So I don’t ever want it to become a play with songs in it. It wants to live and breathe and move like a rock concert, but tell a story really well.”

And what is the story that he and his multi-instrumentalist crony want to deliver? Nothing less than the tale of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine and misrule, whose legend was set down in writing by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides.

For Barry, Workman was a natural choice to embody the god. “We’ve been talking about the fact that we want people to listen to this show with their muscles more than with their minds,” he says. “And it’s always been a visceral experience when I go to hear a Hawksley Workman show. He always brings those elements out in an audience. It’s a sensual experience, one that’s going to be playful and sexy and a lot of fun.”

“We’re trained to see a concert as this idolatrous event where you go and you stand passively to witness somebody’s rock ’n’ roll explosion and then you leave and you buy the T-shirt,” Workman adds. “But this feels like a good match, in that I see the rock ’n’ roll show as something churchlike, or at least communal. And, like Christian, I’m a big believer in having your cells indicate truth rather than your mind. That’s the resonance of music, and always has been—when there’s a subtle rearrangement of your cells and you find the hairs on your arms standing on end. That’s your body saying, ‘Hey, this is the real shit.’ ”

The God That Comes is a stretch for both artists, in that each has had to cede a degree of control to the other. Barry, as interested in control as any director, has had to leave room for Workman to ride his spur-of-the moment on-stage whims; the singer, on the other hand, now has a structure to work with.

“I knew that I didn’t want to have my wings clipped,” Workman notes. “I’m most comfortable on-stage when I believe that I’m allowed to do whatever I want. That said, I’ve got jobs to do on-stage now: things to say and places to be. But there’s plenty of room for me to still be me.”

One senses that Barry, an admitted Hawksley Workman fan, wouldn’t have it any other way. The two are also in agreement about the best wine for toasting the god of release, abandon, and complexity.

“Red,” they chorus in unison. “Definitely red.”

Hawksley Workman performs The God That Comes as part of Club PuSh, at Performance Works through Friday (January 18).

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