Hawksley Workman loves to talk—perhaps even more than he loves to play music. That’s how it seems, anyway, when the Georgia Straight reaches him at a Toronto rehearsal studio. In the background, his bandmates are trying out some keyboard sounds and setting up their amps, but he seems in no hurry to join them.
Over the course of 50 hilarious minutes, with the occasional descent into morbid depression, Workman discusses his love of Bruce Cockburn’s music; the coming end of the North American real-estate bubble; the brilliance of local hero Jesse Zubot, who’s playing violin and three-string “power-chord guitar” in his band; the surprising notion that Vancouver has more cool shows than Toronto; the possible end of the recording industry; and much, much more.
In fact, just about the only thing Workman doesn’t want to talk about is his new CD, Between the Beautifuls. You’d think he’d be quick to sing his own praises, given that the disc, with its mix of soulful falsetto singing and emotionally forthright dream-pop, is a lush and lovely undertaking. But once I finally steer him in that direction, this is what he has to say: “A record, it would appear, is really only meaningful when you’re in the middle of it. And then when it’s done, it’s really done. It’s for someone else after that. All of a sudden, the songs aren’t yours anymore. Not that they ever really were—you’re just a conduit or whatever for something that decides to grace you with its presence.”
I remind him that in a previous conversation, shortly after the release of 2006’s stripped-down Treeful of Starling, he had reluctantly described that disc as a breakup album. This time around, he’s been dropping hints about “my woman”, so I suggest that the underlying theme of Between the Beautifuls is his new domesticity, and in particular the small, daily compromises that one has to make to keep a marriage whole. This cracks him up, but after a minute or two, he agrees.
“Yeah!” he says, still chuckling. “This is what I’m really trying to live now. That’s the channel I’m trying to tune in more regularly—doing things the right way, the honest way, the truthful way. Not that I’ve been dishonest or rotten in the past, but now, at the age of 32, I understand that the things I’m living for are wildly different than the ones I lived for when I was 22.
“I used to go see my family doctor when I was a kid, just as somebody to voice my feelings of doom with,” he continues. “And he said something at the time that just went completely against my romantic notion of men and women together: he said, ”˜Marriage is about children and conflict.’ And now I have some understanding of that, and of the relevance of conflict as a way to grow trust. You’re the first person who’s said what you just said, and you’re absolutely right on the money.”
New love—and a chance to spend more time on his northern Ontario farm—have also put Workman in touch with the natural world in a deeper way than ever before. That’s reflected in the lovely photographs of unfurling buds and verdant lichens that grace the cover of Between the Beautifuls, and in songs that reference the invigorating blooms of spring.
“I guess I just hadn’t been still and feeling peaceful long enough to watch the snow melt away and then watch these things find their life and find their breath and all of a sudden become part of this splendour that starts to appear,” he says. “And all of a sudden it’s taking you over, and it’s overwhelming—just the loveliness of the deep stink of mud and all these things that are gone in the Ontario winter. They start to come back and remind you of the very deep and dirty sensuality of that new life.
“That’s what was happening, I guess. And rhubarb—it’s just such a beautiful thing when it starts to sprout. My God, it’s so sexy!”
Although the workaholic Workman—who claims to have two complete CDs already in the can, and has recently begun work on a third—probably wouldn’t trade his Universal Music contract for a fresh-baked rhubarb pie, he’d likely consider it. Musing on the vicissitudes of an industry that’s “running on fumes”, he expresses gratitude for the opportunities that he’s had, but contends that he’s not pinning his hopes on stardom.
“I could feel like I have this entitlement to make another record, write another song, have sex another time, and spend $65 on another pair of jeans from Winners,” he says, laughing again. “But if that’s what equals quality in my life and I take that away, saying, ”˜I’ve had great sex, I’ve played great shows, I’ve written great songs, and I’ve owned a great pair of jeans,’ then what’s there to say that I deserve that tomorrow or the next day? So if my life were to suddenly end, if tomorrow didn’t come for me and if me disappearing means that there’s going to be three more trees growing where there weren’t any, then really, that has to look pretty damn good.”
Hawksley Workman plays St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on Wednesday (March 19).