The Delicious World of Hawksley Workman
photo by Dustin Rabin from Hawsley Workman site
By Melissa Martin (January 2003)It seems inconceivable that as little as three years ago, almost nobody outside of Toronto had heard of Hawksley Workman. But in the almost three years since his sublime 2000 debut record, For Him and the Girls, Workman (born Ryan Corrigan; his stage name is taken from his mother's maiden name) has earned a name as one of Canada's most brilliant musical exports and he's done it with very little commercial airplay and even less large-scale promotion.
He gained a huge underground almost immediately following the release of his debut but it wasn't until the release of 2001's (Last Night We Were) the delicious wolves, powered by the curious rock-radio hits "Striptease" and "Jealous of Your Cigarette" that Workman's music found its way into the general consciousness. In a fascinatingly strange step, Workman then moved to France and released a loosely-themed Christmas record, Almost a Full Moon, in December of 2001 (re-releasing it in November of 2002). Between those times, he produced records for fellow Canadian artists Tegan and Sara and Sarah Slean.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Workman is well on his way to becoming an icon. The man's musical talent can be heard loud and clear on any of his records- besides producing all of them himself, he plays nearly every instrument on each record and does almost all of the countless vocal harmonies.
Workman's music, although frequently mislabeled as folk, pop, or even glam-rock, vigorously rejects simple categorization. While some tunes, like For Him's "Safe and Sound," find him wading into familiar acoustic-pop waters, songs like that album's "All of Us Kids" and "Paper Shoes" invoke a creepy, eccentric vibe that hardly fits into that genre, and "Striptease" does smack of glam-rock. Not all of his experimentations are successful though: while tremendously satisfying live, For Him's album opener "Maniacs" doesn't translate well to record.
But for a Workman fan, that doesn't matter a bit. What the Toronto-bred Workman offers is music that speaks to the deepest part of the heart and soul. He writes about the universals of life: beauty, lust, and joy, and infuses his melodies with an irrepressible energy that opens up a fascinating world.
"'Cause singing is about sexual confidence... so sing out your stuff
If you feel good enough to let the moment just hit you, if the music befits you..."
-"Paper Shoes," For Him and the Girls
The first time you find yourself in the audience of a Hawksley Workman concert, you don't know what to expect. He strides onstage, a small, moon-faced man with a halo of wispy curls, and strums a few chords. He greets the audience in his quiet, self-effacing, curiously accented drawl. "I thank you very much," he says. "Can you feel it?"
And then he begins to sing, and for everybody in the room, time stops.
Of course, when you read the word "sing," you are probably getting the wrong idea. Workman does not just sing: he unleashes what seems to be the entire range of the human voice. Onstage, he is unpredictable, singing each song differently every time around, and always different than the recorded versions. He begins a song, stops, tells a bizarre story involving his brother's good looks or the beauty of soup ("I couldn't look directly at the soup, I was afraid I might be blinded by it"); then he laughs to himself quietly and spends a moment studying the ceiling with a half-cocked smile on his face. His band, waiting, never misses a mysterious cue to jump back into the song where he left off. And then the show begins.
He growls and purrs with a trembling, quasi-sexual intensity, then croons into a delicate, perfectly controlled baritone, then suddenly swoops up into a wail so rich and powerful that the walls shake and you can feel the full-throttle vibrato deep in your bones. He howls and shrieks, he murmurs in a beautiful falsetto, he whispers... and even with four hundred people packed into the venue, there is a deathly silence. When Workman sings, his audience hangs on every note.
He is one of those rare singers who has a near-perfect control over his own voice. If it breaks mid-note, you can be sure he meant it that way because when he holds some operatically challenging note for thirty or forty seconds without skipping a single vibrato, he doesn't even break a sweat. He channels Tom Waits as easily as Pavarotti, and often seems to be both of them simultaneously. His octave range is truly daunting and he handles it with incredible fluidity.
But mostly, it is the sheer power of his vocal that is the most affecting. His voice will hang on a word for what seems like hours. When he finally drops into silence, you let out your breath. You never realized you were holding it.
"There's nothing else as sweet as this. I waved so hard I broke my wrist...
Thank god you're timeless, 'cause my watch got stolen."
-"Crushed," For Him and the Girls
But even the greatest of voices does not make a good songwriter, and luckily Workman's lyrical talent is up to the challenge of providing that voice with material worth singing. Workman is something of a specialist in the contortion of the familiar. From his lyrics, to his melodies, to his wildly surreal anecdotes he tells onstage, he seems to revel in the ability to take romantic symbols and skew them into strangely poignant new shapes. All three of his records are rife with this kind of tongue-in-cheek idealism. Whether it be something as simple as the title of "You, Me and the Weather" off of delicious wolves or something as grand as composing a frisky love song to a certain French fine paper manufacturer on Full Moon's "Claire Fontaine," he breathes new life into cliches and in so, doing exposes a dry wit that lends a greater wisdom to his work.
He follows this pattern melodically as well: Almost a Full Moon's melodies and chord progressions are heartwarmingly reminiscent of traditional Christmas songs, and his other two records are chock full of melodies that are both timeless and uniquely modern.
"We were naked on the ground, beneath the moon, beneath the stars
We were beasts about to burst, and the newborn night was ours..."
-"Dirty and True," (last night we were) the delicious wolves
If there was one defining theme in Workman's world, it is sensuality. He is gifted with a truly poetic and omni-sensual command of the language, invoking scents, touches, tastes, and sounds to complement his rich, uniquely metaphorical visuals. Many of his songs are simple studies in the physical, poetic expressions of sexuality pure and raw. Don't go to Hawksley expecting the usual tormented poet fare: his lyrics are infrequently concerned with the entanglements of the mind. Instead, he paints lyrical pictures about passion and beauty with an elegant, frequently surreal, but always alluring brush.
This is perhaps his most defining lyrical characteristic. On the unrecorded live favorite "Naked Body on the Beach," he sings of "where the waves beg to move as gracefully / as your naked body on the beach." On delicious wolves' "Little Tragedies," he offers, "you took off your clothes / to remind me of the ocean / then set fire to your hair / and went dancing like a daisy."
"Hear the straight words woman. I've a thousand dripping candles, all alight and twinkling for you.
Let's dust our sweaty foreheads with fragrant ashes and toast to truest love, knowing, that when we light our pasts we see our futures."
-Hawksley Burns for Isadora
In 1999, while recording For Him, the all-but-unknown Workman began running a series of personals ads in the Toronto weekly Now Magazine, all addressed to a mysterious woman named Isadora. Enchanted by the yearning, grandly poetic prose of the ads, Now readers responded in kind, searching out the truth of the beautiful letters.
After Workman's success, he released the letters in a book, Hawksley Burns for Isadora. Gathered together sequentially and featuring sensual female nude portaits by his mother, Beverley Hawksley, the truth of Isadora becomes slowly evident. The object of his unrequited love, Isadora is Workman's personification of the music, his literal muse. The book follows their many passionate trysts and delves into Workman's pervading awe and respect of her; a character named only "the killer" seems to take on the role of a record company executive or other career advisor. Quotes from Workman's tunes appear liberally (written several years before the release of delicious wolves, the book actually contains the title in its pages, as well as snippets that would eventually surface in dozens of other songs).
The tone of the prose is both lustful and full of wonder. "My jaws ache to bite into you," he writes. "You peach. You delicious. How deep you tattoo your teeth in to my naked flesh." In another letter, he recalls a night of passion, writing "last night we were the delicious wolves. Thirsty tongues brought pleasure tides to wash our lusty centres. We rolled naked in hills of shag tobacco till our skin stained autumn yellow."
"So, quiet woman. Drench yourself. Undress slowly. Let this journey last. Arrival is surrender. Let us never arrive."
-Hawksley Burns for Isadora
With Workman still firmly entrenched in Europe, developing his profile there (both British and French audiences have been extremely receptive to him), North American audiences are going to have to wait a bit longer to see what Workman has up his sleeve. But if the past is any indication, wherever Isadora leads him to next, it is sure to be delicious.
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