Hawksley Workman: Keeping calm and carrying on

Hawksley Workman and Sarah Slean. Photo: David Leyes

Hawksley Workman and Sarah Slean go back — to the 1990s and the Queen Street scene in Toronto.

They were both working on being The Next Big Thing at the time and would collaborate on each others’ projects.

“It’s a time we both like to remember in Toronto. Queen Street was crawling with singer-songwriter types like us. That was a very fashionable thing to be doing at that time. It doesn’t seem so fashionable anymore. Singer songwriters were important to the music business then and there were a lot of people watching,” Workman said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

He’s still a fan of music from the 1980s, he said.

“I’m fanatical about ’80s pop. It was last time when really courageous songwriting was more or less normal on the radio.

“Take A-Ha’s Take on Me for instance a melody so glorious and audacious. It is not what you will hear when you turn on the radio today. The amazing thing about the 1980s was even though it presented as very technological, it was still a handmade time.”

Slean and Workman have revived their collaboration with a short nine city tour together. They will be at the Shenkman Centre on March 13.

“We are on stage together the whole time playing each other’s songs. There’s a band with  us and we toggle back and forth between each other’s songs.”

The two friends have what Workman calls a sibling-like relationship.

“We can poke at each other.”

The two are “lifers” in music making, he added. “I know Sarah to be someone who is so glued to her convictions. I have enormous amount of respect for her.” Even if they can be prickly with each other.

“She is quick to call out all kinds of my maniacal behaviour, still the two of us have real fondness for one another and fondness to acknowledge that we both stayed the course in our careers. We both were given big ticket opportunities to do things at highest levels and it didn’t kill us, didn’t destroy us. We both came out the other end after some bruising, generally the same people that went in, just older, more mature, mellower and more balanced.” (On the day of this interview Slean was battling a bout of the flu).

The show features Slean on piano, Workman on drums, Marcus Paquin on bass (he’s worked with bands such as Arcade Fire as a producer) and Edmonton’s Colleen Brown.

The show is more thought out than performances from Workman’s early career, he said.

That’s part of the new maturity of the fortysomething rock and roller.

“You write a record, you record a record, you tour a record, I’ve done that. Now what. For whatever reason, in Canada when you are a music person with some recognition these doors all of a sudden open.

“I’ve guest hosted on the CBC for instance.” It also meant that other artists have sought him out including theatre people.

He’s done three theatre projects including The Neverending Story with the Stratford Festival. It was at the National Arts Centre in February.

“Heck why wouldn’t I do theatre?”

He was glad to have a break from the “delusion of lottery wealth coming your way” that is part of pop music.

“In theatre there is no such delusion. Nobody got into theatre because they wanted to get rich. It’s an amazing place to be. Working in theatre makes you feel like an artist. It may sound corny but that’s the truth.”

When he was offered The Neverending Story he did some research on the director Jillian Keiley (the artistic director of the NAC’s English theatre).

“She is a renowned director, but when we got thrown into the soup bowl in Stratford a year ago, I didn’t know that she would just let her design team run with their vision.”

He was also introduced to theatre’s process.

“I don’t think I have ever written a song that has taken longer than a half hour to put together in a way that you could call it done. I like to work quickly in the studio as well. I have a relationship with music which is fast and immediate.

“In the theatre, I have done three major projects now. Theatre people love process. I think if you offered a theatre person the opportunity to have a one year process with no performance at the end they would probably seize that opportunity.

“It was amazing to me to be in theatre and watch these people be absolutely content to take something and tear it down and do it over again.” The Neverending Story was torn down and rebuilt a half dozen times, he said.

“For a rock and roll guy that’s a massive pain in the ass. It rubs against my instincts. I’m impatient, absolutely.”

His first theatre project was a one man show called The God That Comes with him as the star. He worked with director Christian Barry of Halifax’s 2b Theatre.

“He tamed me. I was thoroughly uncomfortable through that whole thing. Actually I was drinking pretty heavily through that whole thing too. I know I was belligerent.

But Barry refused to let Workman rock and roll it.

It’s something he’s more accommodating about today.

“Maybe I’m the right age. I’ve got a bit of built-in patience in a new hormonal package that’s running the show now. I don’t have that rage-filled young man’s approach to everything.”

He did release a critically acclaimed album in 2019 called Median Age Wasteland and now he’s touring with Slean. With side projects, this is the mix now.

“I am lucky that my little music enterprise has opened doors. I’m good with whatever comes my way. I am open for business. I can be a grump, but I’m a grump with a real work ethic.

“A few years ago was talking about retirement with my wife and she is always perplexed. She thinks it’s absurd. I said ‘I’ll be able to do what I want’ and she said ‘What the F are you doing now?’ She’s right. I have been doing whatever I want for a long time.

I am in a process now of undoing that belief that work is something that happens to me, is something I want to get away from.”

He did run away to a self-sustaining farm to escape the pressure of the rock world and survive whatever apocalypse came his way.

Bit he’s given that up he says.

“Moving to Montreal was a statement that the world may be going to pot but I can’t be dwelling in that anymore. I can’t keep indulging this fear narrative that isn’t really changing anything.

“It was a realization that there are only a few things that I can control and those are in my immediate life: my work and my marriage of 10 years.”

A Musical Evening with Sarah Slean and Hawksley Workman
Shenkman Centre
March 13 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: shenkmanarts.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.