A rock and roll tribute to a Greek god
It's only mid-morning, but in his home studio nestled in fir trees in rural Canada, Hawksley Workman has already written two songs.
The rock-and-roll singer-songwriter known for his prolific output and restless energy has a ritual when he's writing. Rising before the sun, when the expansive dark Canadian sky is still star-studded, he sips a cup of tea and writes two songs. "I've been trying to write gentle, loving songs. I have this loud singing voice and I studied opera for years, so at the moment, I'm trying to write a quiet record."
An hour out of Toronto, Burk's Falls, Canada, may seem like an unusual place to find a musician and performer known for his unusual blend of cabaret pop and glam rock, but it's where the 40-year-old grew up. It's also a sanctuary from the days and weeks he has spent on the road. In the past 16 years, he has toured to more than 15 countries and played nearly a thousand shows, including opening for heroes like David Bowie, Morrissey and The Cure. He has put out 16 albums in 15 years, and produced 30 albums for other musicians through his label, Isadora Records.
He's coming to New Zealand to perform his solo cabaret show, The God That Comes, at the New Zealand Festival, a production described by one reviewer as: "An outrageous theatrical adventure into the red-lit underbelly of sex, violence, Greek myth and regret".
"The show is a tonic for a society that has lost its sense of balance, and for a people that have lost touch with their animal instincts," writes the publicity blurb.
In it, the multi-talented musician who has been likened to Tom Waits, jumps between the guitar, drums, keyboards and bass, while also singing. The show is a Greek tragedy about the Greco-Roman god of wine Bacchus – or Dionysus – "a grumpy king who likes mostly to be out chopping heads", Workman says.
Described as blending the chaotic revelry of a rock concert with the intimacy of theatrical storytelling, The God That Comes was a protest recording about former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who reigned from 2004 to November last year. The longest-running Prime Minister in Canadian history, Harper's policies angered Canadian artists, says Workman. "Artists were afraid to speak out. We felt as though a dark cloud hung over Canada for 10 years. So we wrote this show at a time when Canadians were told to wish less and want less. I didn't want to funnel my grumpiness into a pop record."
In it, Workman dresses in parts as a woman, lips coated in red lipstick as he prances around with a feather boa strung over his shoulders. "This show is like an over-the-top performance. When I was younger, I was sexually ambiguous, and it's like a return to my roots. When the gods suggest to this King that maybe he should go into the mountains and dress up in a dress, I wanted to play on this idea of gender-bending."
But Workman is known for being unusual. He doesn't like to be considered ordinary and has no problem being called strange. At times, there's an anger and sadness in him that comes across in his lyrics. Last year, he released his 16th album, Old Cheetah, his first after a five-year hiatus. On the song, Winter Bird, he croons: "Speak to me of sadness, speak to me of pain..."
The 12-song effort was described as theatrical and ambitious. "Workman's signature eclecticism shines brightly on songs like 1000 Miles of Atmosphere, a nine-and-a-half-minute prog epic that's stuffed with syncopated rhythms, star-dazzled synth twinkles and unpredictable sonic shifts," wrote one reviewer.
Voice softening, Hawksley says: "I struggle with a constant nagging misanthropy. Humans are perplexing and I try to learn to love them. I try to pull my head in about current affairs and politics. For my own sanity and marriage, I try to be a better human."
Yes, he has battled his own sadness and lives with "a general low background hum of depression all the time". "I've gone through extreme darkness before, when I had a break down in a long-term relationship and career hick-ups."
That dark time was about eight years ago, when he went from a flurry of recordings and album releases with Universal Records – nine albums in five years – to being dropped. "I went from having all these people and all this money being spent on me. And then you're thinking you're supposed to be the next big thing and it isn't that way.
"I had a sense of being suicidal for a good three or four years. I thought my career was over. But I had to adjust my own sense of what success was, and I needed to define it in a new way."
Coming out from under that dark cloud, Workman has redefined himself. The musical was part of that, he wrote a children's book coming out this year, and formed an indie rock band, The Mounties (he's vocalist and lead guitarist). With Old Cheetah behind him, he's working on a new record, one that includes music that his generation likes to listen to. "I notice that people my age listen to music passively. But I'm not trying to write background music. No-one in rock and roll wants to feel like they're mellowing."
From his rural home, you get a sense that Workman is more at peace. "This morning, I squeezed lemon in my tea and I saw the beauty in that. When I was young, I was a rock-and-roll guy believing my own hype."
The God That Comes will be performed at the NZ Festival on March 16 and 17. For more information, see festival.co.nz