Hawksley Workman on music, aging and giving back
MUSIC by Craig Silliphant
Hawksley Workman is one prolific dude — he’s pumped out 15 albums in as many years, and toured like a man who doesn’t know the meaning of sleep. Like anyone with a résumé that long, there’ve been some career ups and downs, but Workman seems to have found some semblance of inner balance with his new record, Old Cheetah.
Speaking to Workman is highly engaging; he’s alive with energy, keen to discuss pretty much any topic you can throw at him, and (wonderfully, for a journalist) has no use for canned answers. While I have some obvious questions, we have an actual conversation, as opposed to your usual music journalism sound-bites. He’s amazingly open and honest — giving me insight into not only his work, but his life, career and the music business in general.
As part of the upcoming tour, you’re doing a sock drive, urging people to bring socks to the shows to donate. I know that socks are a major thing that people in homeless shelters can never have enough of. How did this become part of the tour?
We wanted to do… something. We wanted to do something, period. I get approached quite a bit by charities and groups involved in social movements and things like that, to be part of their charities and what have you. I think that these social movements are great, and I attach myself to things that I honestly feel I understand completely — [but] with some of the bigger interest-groups, I’ve never felt like I’m in complete ownership of these great entities. It’s because sometimes I just can’t get on board with the whole picture.
Here we are in this strange election, [for example]. Somehow, Canada and its divisiveness and its anger towards each other, and its anger towards certain social groups, certain religious groups, this bubbling up to the surface of an aggravated hate, I think the sock drive was an ecumenical charity that we could kind of contain in our own way. It’s something that’s human and gentle.
A sock is something tangible too, obviously. There are charities I give money or my time to, but being a cynical Gen-Xer, I have an inherent distrust of the business of charity. For example, the fun runs where they throw coloured powder at you. People sign on to have fun, which is great, but they think they’re giving their time and money to something meaningful and charitable, until you start to follow the money and find out that only like, three per cent goes to the charity. The rest is lining some asshole’s pocket. You can’t really subvert the idea of a sock.
(Laughing) I don’t remember what the actual age delineation is for Gen X, but you’re not being cynical. I remember being called a cynic by my grade three teacher, who said, “You’re too young to be a cynic.” I knew that I was more consumed by what was reality. I wasn’t being cynical at all. I mean, I’m just questioning, you know?
If you question anything or have a sense of realism, that makes you kind of an asshole cynic, versus keeping your mouth shut and watching Dancing with the Stars. Maybe I’m getting too Fight Club on you here?
No, no, no man, you’re preaching to the choir. On Twitter, I follow what you’d call certain conspiracy thinkers, and I saw somebody who put out a very funny and interesting quote on that… It was something about, “People who harbour conspiracy theories are really just people who question the words of people who have a history or tradition of lying.” We all know there’s a history of people in power lying to the people who aren’t in power. Why we harbour such reluctance to admit that is very bizarre to me.
So, let’s talk about the new album. What exactly is an Old Cheetah?
I’m thinking back to the grade one or two version of me, who, like every other kid in the class was like, totally beguiled when we were learning about this cat that is the fastest running beast on Earth, that is a ruthless killer. As design goes, it’s a near perfect machine, yanking down impalas. The miracle of the cheetah, much like the iconic and mythological species, takes up a bit of extra space in your psyche. There’s something beautiful and awesome about a cheetah, or a kangaroo, or a panther. I’m trying to think of all the animals I remember watching on Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness as a kid.
The post-lude to that was that I started out by really loving the sound of a non sequitur. Then it got me thinking about the entertainment industry as a beauty contest. Back when I was a kid in the ‘80s, Aretha Franklin had a hit, and I’m thinking of all these ‘60s characters that parlayed fame in the ‘80s, and we all seemed to be totally satisfied that videos had 40- and 50-year-olds dancing around.
We came from an innocent time, and then all of a sudden the beauty contest took a real stranglehold. Now, this is all just a set-up — which is to say that the entertainment business isn’t speaking to me anymore. Mainstream music just sort of feels like a tool of hyper-sexualization. It’s a tool of dumbing down. There are redeeming elements to all of it — I mean, I’m still a pop fan.
But as a cultural entity, it has no value to me… I guess for me, I look to the “old cheetahs” on the landscape; that’s why I’m still a huge Bruce Cockburn fan. I think it’s why we still respect Leonard Cohen. Even if it’s just a couple of iconic artists, it’s like, “Can I hear some words of wisdom from someone that isn’t 18 and exceedingly pretty or who came from a rich family?”
Funny you say that, because my next question was going to be about, after 15 albums, how do you find something new to say, or how do you find a new way to say it? I think you expressed that though: The world keeps changing.
Yeah, and I keep changing my relationship to it — I could never have anticipated certain hormonal shifts, the conversation my mind has with my body. I slid down a banister in Victoria BC earlier this year, after a really triumphant run with my play, and I hurt myself very badly… I can’t be as hard on my body as I once was.
I [also] can’t be as hard on aspects of my character. There’s a time when you have to accept parts of yourself, you know? The good spin-off for me is that I’m still somebody making music in a business that tends to chew up and spit out people like me.
So what’s your measure of success with this album? Obviously, it’s going to be different over time, with each album that comes out.
That’s such a lovely question, and I feel in some ways that this is an age thing, so I go back to 2002 when I put out Lover/Fighter. I signed a big record contract with Universal and I was well on my way to becoming a big star. I was on newspaper covers in different parts of the world. I was the right age too — the age where I really believed the hype, in what the machine was about to deliver to me.
When Lover/Fighter didn’t work in the way Universal had hoped it would work based on the kind of money for promotion they threw at that record, it was devastating to me and the whole process of becoming dirty laundry or baggage to the people you work with, becoming a liability, was devastating. I thought about killing myself all the time. And that went on for a good four years — that total, diminished self-value was a hard thing to feel.
One day it hit me that I had to renegotiate my relationship to what I perceive as success. The music business is an ugly place. An ugly, ugly place where you put your balls on the table and everybody gets to take a look. Some people will say, “Oh, that’s an ugly set of balls,” [and] some would say, “Man, those are pretty good-looking balls.” But at the end of the day, it’s your balls, you know?