Published Mar 01, 2000It's hard not to fall in love with Hawksley Workman. When his debut album, 1999's For Him and the Girls started to infect the international pop underground through word of mouth, the Toronto singer/songwriter/producer had no problem drawing fans into his androgynous cabaret pop. Swoony piano ballads with titles like "Don't Be Crushed," "Beautiful and Natural" and "Safe and Sound" were rapturous melodies with hopelessly romantic lyrics. Dressed in dandy clothes and with an otherworldly air about him something those who don't want to be told what the poets are doing would classify as "flaky" Hawksley Workman embodied a musical valentine.
Now that he's won your heart and mind, he wants your crotch. On his new album (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves, Workman is ready to get down and dirty, unleashing his little Prince on the monstrous opening track, a head-banging fuzz-bass glam slam called "Striptease." It was always apparent that Workman was a highly sexual being, but he's ready to wave it around this time. If such material came from a cringe-inducing cock-rocker, it would inspire a considerably different reaction than it does from this playful performer.
"I was so happy to make this record," says the man who wrote the oft-quoted lyric, "singing is about sexual confidence." "It has more swagger and goo on it. I wouldn't have been ready to do that at any other time in my life, to make a song like Striptease,' Dirty and True,' Jealous of Your Cigarette' any of these overtly erotic or sexual songs, lustier, libidinous music. I clued in that you can live a whole life, at least I did, feeling that your family and the people you're around don't talk about sex in our society. As a boy, I spent a good deal of my earlier years feeling that my thoughts and animal intuition was something that I should put in the closet. Along with all those urges and desires and lusts comes a certain despair and distrust in your body and your skin. With this record, I thought if I was going to keep distrusting and disliking myself, that I'd eventually shrivel. So I figured hell, let's take the pants off!
"The new record in a lot of ways is a celebration of the body, or my body at least. But celebration sounds like there's going to be cake or champagne," laughs Workman, who has a habit of asking his interviewer if his answers sound too pompous or crass. "So to use the word celebration' in a less cake-and-champagne way, this [album] is about not feeling terrible about all your lusty feelings and being concerned about how you look all the time. Why not feel good about the fact that you're perpetually lusty? Feel good about the fact that you've been given this body that you've learned over the years to hate? It's a question of trusting your own skin."
The true skin underneath Hawksley Workman is a 25-year-old drummer from rural Huntsville, Ontario, whose birth name was outed recently in Toronto Life magazine. "I didn't choose for that to happen, but it didn't really matter," says Workman, who comprised his stage name from his maternal grandparents' surnames. "Not to sound too corny, but sometimes it's surprising to hear [my real] name. I haven't related to it for a while. It would have been nice to keep it to myself for a while longer. That part of me was mine alone. I don't have a split personality, and I don't think the creation of the character is really that far from who I am. They're just the parts of me that are the most fun to look at, so I can exaggerate them by creating a new file folder, and I can stuff it full of stuff that's fun to look at."
When For Him and the Girls was launched in Toronto in the summer of 1999, personal classifieds were taken out in local weeklies romantic poems addressed to "Isadora" from "Hawksley"; Workman insists Isadora is another fictional construct, a metaphor, not an alias, for his songwriting muse. An illustrated collection of these poems has just been published by Gutter Press. The persona of Hawksley Workman has captivated the British press, who have become enraptured with both his music and the entirely bogus bio he's propagated for himself, involving a fictional stint at a tap-dancing academy which every British review takes time to mention.
"I don't feel in any way that I've been trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes or do something that's tricky or peculiar," he says. "I feel honest and truthful about those things. When it comes to the marketing and business stuff, I can't help but approach it in a similar way. I love the business. I know lots of artists shy away from it, but if you can put the art back into the business, that's great. In some ways, there are more artistic possibilities in the business side of music. I just want to have as much fun with it as possible."
He does find it amusing that the British think he's an accomplished tap-dancer. "It's so funny because the cunning press here in Canada didn't buy that for two seconds. I didn't expect anybody to buy it for two seconds, really! The British fancy themselves to be so smug and clever, but they've certainly eaten that up. I'm considering that for the British release of the new record, I'll have one track of just tap, or overdub tap on 50 per cent of the material."
That would certainly distract from the glorious arrangements that already populate The Delicious Wolves. Aside from his newfound musical butchness, there's plenty more of the pretty piano playing, classic pop songwriting, and operatic vocals more of the same, but better. All of it is delivered with the same wide-eyed romanticism and optimism that elevates the everyday. "I think what I do best is exaggerate the ordinary," says Workman. "Sometimes you read poets or hear songwriters and their perception is that it's their job to exaggerate the obscure. But the ordinary, if you look at it acutely, is quite obscure. We're crazy little critters, we are. We brush our teeth and do all sorts of silly things. You don't have to have your eyes open very long to look at these bipedal creatures walking around before it's a real lark."
Likewise, you don't have to watch or listen to Hawksley Workman for very long before you realize that he's a 360-degree artist: the multi-instrumentalist and technician; the singing drummer, embodying melody and rhythm; the spontaneous perfectionist; the humble egomaniac; the equally sensitive and lusty lover; the secular spiritualist; the androgyne who knows that you can't be a real man unless you understand your femininity. As he sings on his new album, "Don't dive shallow in deep, dark waters."
"The best sex is the kind that's filled with possibilities," Workman muses, drawing parallels with his music. "If it's the same every time, you might as well water the garden or something."