It was the hottest ticket in town; a rare opportunity to see one of Canada’s biggest stars play one of St. John’s smallest pubs.
During January, Hawksley Workman performed four shows at the Ship Inn, to standing-room-only crowds of about 110 people per night.
If you missed it, I have good news: the shows were captured on high definition video, and will be released as a concert DVD later this year. I know this because I was in the front row on January 19, close enough to shake Workman’s hand if so inclined, and was flanked on each side by video shooters.
One of them was Phil Maloney, drummer with Hey Rosetta! and an emerging video producer with some excellent work already under his belt. Maloney and an assistant shot all four shows at the Ship Inn, plus some other takes out and around St. John’s.
“It was just one of those things,” Workman said, in a telephone interview. “When Phil got his Canon 7D camera, he started to post videos on YouTube and they just looked beautiful. He had done a video of live footage gathered, I think, when Hey Rosetta! was playing in Australia, and it just looked stunning. And that is what I wanted to capture – he has a knack. Obviously we worked intimately when we were doing the “Into Your Lungs” record (which Workman produced), and I’m a drummer so, my production style is very drum focused. Phil and I would have spent that extra bit of time together, working on the drum parts and stuff. Not only that, he is the sweetest guy you could ever meet. So I said, ‘I’ll be coming to St. John’s to play, and would you like to film me?’ He took it a step further by decorating the stage at the Ship, and then organizing all these other outside little plays that he filmed. What that footage is going to turn into or what it will ultimately be is, in some ways, more up to Phil than me.”
The exterior shots were taken in the Basilica, a downtown coffee shop, and the lobby of the Delta Hotel, where Workman jammed a little on the grand piano. “That was fun,” Workman said. “I spent months of my life in that hotel, so it felt like I was playing in my basement.”
But the tour de force really does take place on the small stage at the Ship Inn, where Workman’s performance style deviated from his normal concert hall routine. Yes, he introduced every song with an entertaining monologue, as he does so often, except in this case, he first told a story to set up the monologue. Workman frequently paused in the middle of a song, to apologize for a badly written lyric or complain, as he did on “We Will Still Need a Song”, about an “unnecessary major-minor” chord combination. Occasionally, he would improvise a piano or drum solo with his voice. He was witty, disarmingly funny and down-to-earth, playing well over two hours and ending the evening by inviting requests from the audience (a set that lasted 45 minutes in itself). There was no real separation between performer and audience; people spoke to him in a normal tone and he answered, drawing laughs or applause with every response.
The Thursday night show was nearly ruined by one drunken character, just two metres from the stage, who talked loudly during Workman’s performance and yelled like he was 100 feet away. At one point, he even asked Workman to stop playing while he went to the washroom, prompting a collective fit of eye-rolling from the rest of the audience.
Indeed, it seemed that Workman was vulnerable throughout this gig. There was no real security. The audience was right there, in his face. And there was no other way out – Workman’s only exit was through the crowd, and they were packed in pretty tight. It fell to his shoulders to work the audience and control the room, a feat he managed with practiced ease and natural charisma.
When I asked Workman if he felt exposed in such situations, he pointed out that his recent Australian tour was in similarly small venues, so he’d had some practice.
“I’ll preface this by saying that it wasn’t. I guess with enough years doing this job, in this business, you are subject to so many strange situations, on and off stage, you start shrugging more and more off. Because it just doesn’t pay to really care all that much. I guess what I’m saying is, I feel pretty human these days. It’s funny, I was talking to my piano player the other day, and he remembers the day I sort of decided to be more of a human than a rock star. And I remember those days too. Back in the early to mid 2000s, where I was believing my own hype, you sort of act a certain way and perceive your reality a certain way. I just haven’t been much of a rock star. I do well and I tour and do theatres, but I guess what I’m saying is I don’t need to feel separate from people. Nor am I really afraid. If people want to say hi, that’s fine. I used to kind of cordon myself off, and I just don’t anymore. No, I didn’t feel exposed. I didn’t feel under the microscope or nervous in any way.”
Workman said the Thursday night show was calm compared to Friday. “Really, the shows got good on Saturday and Sunday. Friday was a snow day, and I had the slow boil – I had the fact that folks had been drinking all day against me. But with close mics and all that, it’s not always an issue. But I know the Friday was definitely feeling pretty zoo-ey.”
It is this uninhibited yet respectful atmosphere that drew Workman to St. John’s, and an intimate venue like the Ship Inn.
“I think that’s what I really wanted to do. And St. John’s is the kind of city where you could do that. Sometimes I feel like I spend so much time in Newfoundland, and St. John’s, that sometimes I make statements about the culture there… but only because I feel somewhat informed about it. But I feel that music is a), extremely important to everyday life, and b), and I had a long talk with Alan Doyle about this, that, because people grew up with music, live music, around them – friends , folks, neighbours can all play an instrument – that in some ways the idea of a gig is demystified by the fact that everybody kind of has knowledge of how to play music there. Is that a fair assessment?”
Having attended a house party two nights previously, where a band was performing and people were lined up to take turns playing and singing, I allowed that was true.
“So you’re walking into a situation where you’re playing in front of people where that frothy foam that the world views superstars through, that’s already been removed. It’s a part of the everyday… I can sit and chat on stage with it being kind of an exchange on an equal level. People haven’t filed into this big room to engage in some idolatry of this guy who has just appeared from backstage and then the lights have just come up, and he can’t see you and only you can see him. I remember being at a Peter Gabriel show when I was a kid and thinking, this is weird. Really, we are all here to worship this guy, and he doesn’t have a f**ing clue at all. You go into the Ship for four nights, and one of those was a snow day where folks cracked their beers at 11:30 in the morning, came to the show and were pretty much in the bag. It was just kinda real life and for me those are disarming kinds of things. Like, what are you going to do? We’re in the city and we’re enjoying ourselves and when it comes to music, you’re dealing with an educated crowd in St. John’s, and you just have to approach it that way.”
The Ship Inn gig was not the start of a small club tour. It was a one-off show, Workman explained, prompted as much by his love of fine dining as it was by the video project.
“If I was to be totally truthful, my wife and I love St. John’s. We wanted to go to Raymond’s and a few other places that we like. So yeah, it seemed like a double opportunity. When we were supposed to come, it was originally going to be in October and we were going to drive out to St. Brides or someplace like that and take a look around. But then I had to move the dates so weren’t able to enjoy the Autumn like I was hoping, but we did get to a lot of great restaurants. St. John’s for food these days is pretty next level.”
Workman’s love for the city might never have blossomed at all, had he listened to the early advice of his promoters.
“In my early days, my agent recommended that maybe I should skip Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, because it can be very expensive to go to those places and not enough people come out, blah blah blah. But looking at Blue Rodeo and what those guys do, they’re a Canadian band and consequently they play absolutely everywhere, and nothing on the map is too far away or too much of a stretch. So, from the beginning I demanded that my tours take me to Newfoundland… it’s just been 10 or 12 years of returning to these places and they are great audiences. Because the populations are smaller, this doesn’t seem lucrative enough for some bands, but that always to me didn’t feel like a good enough argument to not go places.”
Workman has built a solid fan base in Canada, England and France, which might seem modest but, for Workman, is entirely adequate.
“Back in the days when I was touring a lot more, it hit me that, in order to break your career by living on the road, you never get to go home because the world is a big place and you need one day in each city at least. Man, it starts to feel pretty imposing. Yeah, I have a pretty lucky situation, to be honest.”
It’s especially gratifying, given that Workman has built career and commercial success on his own terms.
“Yes, it does feel that way. Not many people get to live like that, especially in the music business. It’s not a very kind business to be in, especially now. It seems to be getting harder and harder for young bands to break out… I’m a lucky guy, no doubt about it.”
Workman is a songwriter’s songwriter, with a sharp ear for melody and a knack for finding the hook. Perhaps more importantly, his lyrics are highly literate. Indeed, Workman writes poetry set to music. I asked if he writes lyrics first, then composes the music, or vice versa.
“They’re mostly written together because, for me, the melody inspires the lyrics so much. The lyric has to conform to the music, more than the other way around, I think, because the lyrics have to be innately simple. I just think there are more rules for lyrics than there are for music, and lyrics just have to taste good. They have to feel good. For me, I can’t separate the process of writing and music – they just seem to need to be born at the same time. That’s when I think I’m most successful anyways, as a writer.”
The DVD of his Ship Inn concert should be available later this year, though Workman is unsure about timing.
“I haven’t seen any of the footage, really. Part of it is, I hate looking at myself. I know Phil has sent me some stuff and I’ve done the wrong thing and just avoided it, so… not a clue (when it will be released) to be honest with you.”