Evolution of the Art: Hawksley Workman

Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Kevin Young had plenty of leftover material from his extensive interviews for "The Evolution of the Art," his feature story on the past, present, and future of music and production technologies and workflows for our March/April 2019 40th Anniversary issue.

Here's more from his conversation with always-interesting Canadian arts staple Hawksley Workman.

CM: I’ve eased into the future of music and music technology with hour other interviewees, but with you, I’m going to jump right in. Have you ever thought, ‘I wish we could use ‘insert name of technological or scientific development here’ and use it in music?

HW: No, because I drag my feet, kicking and screaming moving into the future. You know that joke, ‘How many folk singers does it take to screw in a light bulb? It takes four; one to screw in the light bulb and three to sing in harmony about how they liked the old one better.’ I’m that guy… I have, somewhat reluctantly, adopted things. I’m not a purist anymore. I like a lot of the possibilities the digital recording universe offers, especially in terms of being able to press play and record an hour’s worth of music without the tape running out. It allows you to, obviously, very easily, take the part that you jammed on last night and the part that you jammed on this morning and marry those two things without getting out a razor blade. But for the most part, I’m mostly anti-technology.

When I moved to Toronto in the early '90s, I was an unpaid helper in the studio for a year before I found my way into being a musician. My duties we’re to demagnetize and align tape machines, get sessions ready. I remember when ADAT first started showing up and sessions that used to go swimmingly… all of a sudden became difficult.

This was a technology… we were sort of being forced to integrate into a technological universe that existed, sort of more naturally, in the early- to mid-'70s. I remember the early screens entering studios. I used to watch engineers who, all of a sudden, would start to fix takes, moving drums and generally tightening stuff. I mean digital platforms - it only felt like they had been around for minutes… And I remember feeling, like, the universe of recording is changing fast, and I don’t know if I like it.

CM: I do think emerging technology has, at times, gotten in the way, but there was always the idea that it would evolved to where it doesn’t inhibit the creative process. Has that come to fruition?

HW: Well, in the olden days, a demo was something everybody planned on re-recording eventually. Now, a songwriting session is supposed to produce a radio-ready backing track along with creating a song that day. I think a lot of sort of fashionable popular music almost relies more heavily on the production side, and the songwriting sometimes feels like an afterthought. I mean we’ve had some pretty cool production born out of the digital era, in urban music particularly. I’m trying not to sound like an old fart, but I am an old fart who tends to be more and more shocked and surprised when I hear great lyrics and/or a great bit of harmonic writing… something that’s an interesting lead into a verse or a chorus, or a bridge leading back to a final chorus. I’m more into songwriting than I have been in years.

We used to push back against, as a musician or a songwriter, being categorized and now I feel like… with Spotify and digital platforms, they absolutely require categorization. There’s a young woman who goes to my gym and found out I was a musician. She’s younger and the other day she said, "I saw your video. What kind of music is it? I don’t know. Songwriting music?"

CM: Although, when someone has to ask that, I think you’re doing something right.

HW: Well… Thanks.

CM: But you’re an artist who’s driven by change, it seems?

HW: Yeah, right. I’m not that guy that’s anti-pop. I’m not going to look down my nose at stuff. Kelly Clarkson‘s "Since U Been Gone" is one of the greatest songs ever written. There’s stuff I have obsessively listened to that’s been released in the last five or 10 years…

CM: I was reading through your post about working with Murray and the idea that you "kept your knives out for the whole process." I loved that.

HW: Yeah, two guys who like to be the one guy who makes the final decision. But I find that that whole committee thing is so much easier now that I’m older. I think of the credits of my first record. It was like, written-produced-played-thought of-built by… I had 50 job titles and wanted the whole world to know. As I get older, it’s like, nobody gives a shit; they like the song or they don’t. Now, if someone’s got a great idea that’s going to make my song better, I’m happy to take that idea and give them full credit because, when that song comes on, nobody’s going, "Geez I wonder if Workman came up with that cool countermelody? Because, if he didn’t, I hate that guy." Who wants to work like that?

CM: You say you’re kicking and screaming in adopting some technology, but I imagine that whatever your particular flavour of smart phone is makes things easier in terms of ‘I want to get this idea down now?’

HW: I use my phone for lyrics, but I’m not somebody who wakes up with a melody in my head and has to get it down. To me, melody is happening in a universe adjacent to ours, and when it comes time to write a song, you sort of plug into that universe. For lyrics, I don’t carry a diary like I used to for years. I have my phone notes with years of songwriting ideas, titles, hook bits, but almost never a musical idea.

CM: I’ve woken up and get something down and I put it down and listen to it the next day and it’s like, "What a pile of crap." So I’ve gotten to the point where I think that if it’s good, I’m going to remember it in the morning.

HW: Right. And do you?

CM: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. But I’m willing to let it go because it’s not a finite resource.

HW: I’m with you there.

CM: You may not be into using the latest and greatest technology, or relying on it obsessively, but when you think about the possibilities out there, do you see the way music is performed changing substantially – through VR, AI, anything that would change the game in a positive manner?

HW: If the planet is headed for environmental collapse, if the bottom was to drop out of the American economy and all manner of end of times type stuff started happening... I do look at the future and go, "If humans are going to have to migrate to the poles to suffer who knows how many decades of, or centuries of, inclement weather in the centre of the planet, will these technologies enhance and help humans coexist? Do I think that’s a good thing? Yes. I do like technology. I rely on Logic in the studio. I’m doing my own videos now, with a DSLR camera and Final Cut Pro. So that is pretty interesting. But I think only bad can come of AI. I really do. It’s the same as drones for me. Are there positive, practical uses for these kinds of things? Sure. But I would say, in the positive/practical use category, it’s going to be outnumbered 100 to 1 in the negative "humans doing bad stuff" kind of way. There’s the doing things because we can and then there’s doing things when it’s right, and we tend to be the ‘just because we can, we will’ type, which means that things get built, technologies get developed, things enter the marketplace, we become accustomed to them or reliant on them, and then, all of a sudden, it’s like, this is making us weaker. This is making us sicker, less human, less resilient, less imaginative. I just don’t really see the good in it, but I’m in a band with Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat, called Mounties, and he’s a passionate futurist. His willingness to embrace everything that comes out is actually refreshing, because he doesn’t have the apocalyptic outlook on technology I have. And he always uses it for good.

CM: In the opening of one of the posts on your site, you talked about ‘creating an honest connection in a world that seeks to interrupt it.’ The need to be constantly connected often gets in the way. That’s not technology that’s creating music or recording, but, as you say, you now have the ability to create your own videos, to do things we would’ve spent scandalous amounts of money on, and did, back in the day, but can all that get in the way of creating an honest connection in the studio?

HW: Absolutely, that’s fair, but I will say – and this continues in the vein I was talking about with ADATs and the early days of ProTools… There was always this great promise of the digital recording platform being able to be super-flexible and near miraculous in ways that were always disappointing. But when Murray and I were working on my new record, Median Age Wasteland, it was a classic situation where we love the demo, but I didn’t do it to click. I can think back through the years where I sat for hours when an engineer claimed that they were going to be able to lock a non-click demo so that the drums could be put down to it. And I think I’ve sat for hours and watched frustrated engineers say, "I’m almost there." And it never worked well. Well, now it literally is here. So, for the first time, I’m seeing the 20 years of what digital promised to do in the late '90s when it started to come into the studios. It’s taken this long for that shit to actually work… all the stuff promised in the early 2000s, it’s here now. For that reason, I can’t be as disparaging as I used to be - the one luddite going, "Why don’t we just replay it? This is never gonna work." The fact is the technology is pretty sharp and, really, I think you have to look back to analogue recording technologies… We were just getting good at it in the mid-'70s. It was the greatest that recorded music had ever sounded. And you could say it took 40 or 50 years of tape recording technology to arrive in a place where we are making it sound great. Well, here we are in the digital landscape, we’ve been bitching about how bad it sounds, and it’s sounding better.

CM: Someone’s bound to create something to screw it up.

HW: Let’s hope. (Laughing) I mean I sold my Studer tape machine when I moved to Montreal and it was a 22-year-old who bought it. I think I was a 25-year-old when I bought it. You know it’s almost like young people are fascinated with these old technologies, and they’ve got the energy, and a little bit of that stupidity, to keep them running.

CM: I think, too, we need limitations to push against, to excel. Fair?

HW: I’m 100 per cent behind that. It’s something I’ve carried with me for a long time, believing strongly in limitations. I think one of the greatest pieces of popular art, just one situation of exceeding limitations, is Star Wars. You look at these nerds blowing up model Death Stars and X-Wing fighters in mall parking lots, creating outer space with absolutely nothing but imagination and the willingness to put the work in and get down and dirty and get crafty. My goal as a musician is to make handmade stuff that looks that beautiful when it’s all done.

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Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.
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