Hawksley Workman rarely gets a day off. And when he does, he’s often in a van, talking to press. The Toronto-born singer-songwriter doesn’t mind, though. “I’m adjacent to the St. Lawrence River, barrelling down to Quebec,” he says on his cell phone. “It’s a stunning evening.”
Workman has been living up to his last name ever since he launched his career with 1999’s For Him and the Girls. In his 11-year career he’s released about 140 songs over 13 records and a DVD, has penned tunes for Idol franchises in Canada, Sweden and Finland, written theme-show songs, produced numerous albums and hammered out countless tunes that wound up on the cutting-room floor.
When I caught up with him, he was in the midst of a two-month cross-Canada tour, which came after a jaunt around Europe. It’s anyone’s guess how Workman finds time to sleep. “I’ve always taken a blue-collar approach to what I’m doing,” he says as an explanation of why he’s constantly on the go. “I’ve never kidded myself into believing that if I sit with my feet up, inspiration will come knocking at the door.”
He’s also well aware of the struggles artists have these days, and if he doesn’t keep playing and recording, he could wind up without a job. “As the record business spirals into its final moments of life, I have to believe that I have to continue to work if I’m going to pay the bills and remain vital to myself,” he says. That drive has forced Workman not only to write music whenever he can but also to try new things on every album. He’s gone from quirky indie sounds on his debut to more mainstream rock on 2008’s Los Manlicious to electro-pop on 2010’s Milk, an Internet-only release and the companion record to the more rock-oriented Meat.
Workman chalks up the different musical styles to his “drummer’s brain” — he played the skins before the guitar. “I have a broad rhythmic palette I draw from because my formative years were focused on becoming a great drummer,” says the singer. It also helps that he’s not afraid to collaborate. On Meat, Workman wrote the songs and hashed them out with a standard four-piece band. With Milk, he spent time working with a producer in Sweden. He had been trying to write music for Kylie Minogue and another European Idol artist but ended up making an infectious synth-pop album of his own.
In fact, he’ll tackle any genre. Workman points out that prior to his Sweden trip, he was in New York writing with Esthero producer Doc McKinney, and playing with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest. “That had an urban or hip-hop feel,” he says. But despite all the sounds the artist has delved into, there is one unifying theme in his songs: it’s all pop music. “These are just catchy songs,” he says. “They rarely exceed four minutes, it’s almost always chorus, verse, chorus, they almost never break any rules. The melodies may be on the brave side occasionally, but they tend towards being more catchy.”
Workman says he doesn’t have just one approach to writing. One day he’ll grab a guitar, the next he’ll sit in front of a piano, and when he’s working with rappers, as he did in New York, he’ll create a song as if he were a hip-hop musician, letting a producer build a track while he throws on the melody and lyrics. If he’s in the studio by himself, he’ll record a drum track and bass line and write over top of that. “Each approach produces different results,” he says. One thing he hasn’t done lately is sit at a kitchen table and write with his acoustic guitar. “That will be my next record.”
What really keeps Workman going, though, is what he describes as his relationship with songwriting. “It’s like a marriage,” he says. “In most marriages there comes a time when you have to renegotiate your passion for each other.” When he was 23 and writing For You and the Girls, he was just beginning to discover what it meant to make music. When he looks back on that record, he hears a “lusty kid discovering what would one day become his conventions and habits.” While those habits have been fine-tuned over the years, making him a more thoughtful songwriter with each album, his relationship with his craft has always stayed strong. “I’m as obsessed with songwriting today as I was when I started,” he says. “And obsessions don’t go away.”