It's shaping up to be one of the busiest and most successful years in the now lengthy career of Ron Hawkins. Still primarily known as the chief songwriter in Canadian indie rock icons the Lowest of the Low, he's about to add another title to his extensive discography as a solo artist. Set for release on May 31, Straitjacket Love is Hawkins's fifth solo album, a figure that excludes the three acclaimed full-lengths he released in his post-LOTL band, the Rusty Nails.
Straitjacket Love comes out just after a sold-out national tour by a reunited Lowest of the Low, and his current work rate gives Hawkins real pleasure. In a recent interview, Hawkins tells Exclaim!, "I feel so blessed to step into the Low thing, do a great spring tour, have a new solo record coming out, and now I have a great new band. I just want to do as much of this as I can."
The new group is the Do Good Assassins, comprising fellow Toronto players Jesse Capon on drums, Alex McMaster on cello and keys, Derrick Brady on bass, and Steve Singh on guitar.
Hawkins explains that "the original plan for the Do Good Assassins was for a band to back me up for gigs, but I think we all feel confident now that this is a real band. Working with a great band really opens up the parameters of what you can do. They're so good off the floor that I'm thinking of making a record that way, vocals and everything. It's a blast to have that confidence in your band. I'd use the term country soul for the sound we're getting. It has a real groove. The songs from Straitjacket Love and [previous 2009 solo CD] 10 Kinds of Lonely are now changing shape. I've always been open to that idea. I totally respect these players. I always say, 'Whatever flight of fancy comes to you, let's follow it and see where it goes.'"
By comparison, the making of Straitjacket Love was a much more solitary endeavour. Hawkins wrote and produced all the songs, as well as playing almost all the instruments. Guest appearances were made by the horn section of Bryden Baird, Christian Overton and Jeremy Strachan; harmonica player Lawrence Nichols; violinist Sarah Shugarman; accordionist Squeezebox Wally (of Australian band Weddings Parties Anything); and backing vocalist Jill Riley (Hawkins's partner).
Virtually all the recording and mixing took place at 55 Below, Hawkins's home studio setup. "It's my little basement studio, a ten-by-ten room," he says.
Hawkins jokingly calls the place "a real dungeon. It's like making a record in Guantanamo Bay! My mom would say, 'I think you're just so happy to make records down there by yourself that you forgot to look around.' After finishing Straitjacket Love, I thought, 'Fuck this, I have to do something. Make it a livable place where it's cool to hang out for five hours,' so I'm putting up cedar now."
This was also the birthplace of 10 Kinds of Lonely, and he clearly loves the home recording experience. "It is so good inspirationally and artistically. It feels like play. I really am getting the most fun out of being a musician than I've ever had. Going into the studio with a band can be brutal and stressful. You're watching the clock. You're in with your buddies but you've been on the road and you've worked on these songs and you're super critical of each other. Now recording is total fun."
Hawkins has been on something of a songwriting roll with these two solo albums. "All the songs came fast and compact, and were all finished very quickly. That has not been usual in the past," he says. "The thing about Straitjacket Love is that I can envision where I was when I wrote each song."
Hawkins current priority will be gigging in support of the new record, but he will find time for some select the Lowest of the Low dates as well, including a major New Year's Eve show in Buffalo, NY, long a LOTL stronghold.
He acknowledges that the recent LOTL tour in support of the 20th anniversary reissue of their triumphant debut album, Shakespeare My Butt, "totally exceeded our expectations. People think I'm being disingenuous when every time we do something I think, 'this will be the time nobody cares,' but then seems to be the other way. We feel as if the Low is being canonized in some way, even more so than when we did our reunion tour in 2001. Back then, people were just shocked we'd ever do shows again, and now it seems like there is just a lot of love out there."
He acknowledges that "after January 1, 2012, it would be hard to sell a reason for us to be doing things, short of making another [LOTL] record... We might do something quirky so it would still make sense to do the Low thing, perhaps making a record with Mick Thomas and Wally [of Weddings Parties Anything and LOTL's recent opening act on tour]."
If such an album is to be made in the future, however, Thomas might insist on a different rehearsal locale. "I call the Lowest of the Low rehearsal space the Snakepit," says Hawkins. "I recorded some of the drums on Straitjacket Love there. I won't name him, but a local musician lives there with his boa constrictor. Mick has a deadly fear of snakes, and when we rehearsed there, he wanted us to cover the snake's cage up!"
Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins will be playing a Drake Hotel residency in Toronto every Wednesday from June 22 to July 13, while Hawkins will be playing solo dates in support of Straitjacket Love in Halifax and Ontario prior to that. The official Toronto launch for the album will come with two solo acoustic shows at Kensington Market haunt Graffiti's, tonight (May 26) and on Friday (May 27). You can see the complete schedule below.
5/26 Toronto, ON - Graffiti's
5/27 Toronto, ON - Graffiti's
5/28 Toronto, ON - Sonic Boom
5/31 Halifax, NS - The Carleton Music Hall
6/1 Halifax, NS - Delta Halifax Hotel (Habitat for Humanity benefit)
6/10 London, ON - London Music Club
6/22 Toronto, ON - The Drake Hotel *
6/25 Ottawa, ON - The Elmdale House Tavern
6/29 Toronto, ON - The Drake Hotel *
7/6 Toronto, ON - The Drake Hotel *
7/9 Oshawa, ON - The Thirsty Monk
7/13 Toronto, ON - The Drake Hotel *
* with Do Good Assassins