Doing themselves a favour

Justin Brake
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Hawksley Workman gets Great Big Sea to go for it

There's a new drug circulating on the island that has the ability to reveal echelons of musical wherewithal users were previously unaware they possessed. It's street name is "Hawksley" and it's hard to come by. In fact, it finds you if it wants you.

Great Big Sea is the second St. John's band this month to release a record produced by award-winning musician Hawksley Workman - the first being Hey Rosetta! - and fans of the band are likely to be a little shocked, but most likely pleased.

Great Big Sea (clockwise from front) Sean McCann, Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett. The new disc is called "Fortune's Favour." - Submitted photo

There's a new drug circulating on the island that has the ability to reveal echelons of musical wherewithal users were previously unaware they possessed. It's street name is "Hawksley" and it's hard to come by. In fact, it finds you if it wants you.

Great Big Sea is the second St. John's band this month to release a record produced by award-winning musician Hawksley Workman - the first being Hey Rosetta! - and fans of the band are likely to be a little shocked, but most likely pleased.

Workman's ability to inspire bands to push their own musical boundaries is evident nowhere more than on "Fortune's Favour," a product of Alan Doyle, Sean McCann and Bob Hallett's vulnerability, and ability, after they were stripped of their familiar music-making consciousness.

"We've done so much on our own and we were totally ready to completely hand over the reins," says Doyle over the phone from his hotel room in Toronto, where the band promoted the June 24 launch of the new record with an appearance on CTV's "Canada AM."

"(Hawksley's) biggest contribution is fearlessness and a commitment to spontaneity," explains Doyle. "I think he views any kind of planning or second guessing or reconsidering to be the enemy of music. If I learned one thing from him, it's to trust your instincts and play in the moment, and everything will be good."

The record is a coalescence of the band's traditional roots influences, its uppity folk ballads and pop tendencies, injected with Workman's big-sound, big production propensity.

"Walk On The Moon," the album's first single that hit radio waves last month, is an orphan song from 2004's "Something Beautiful," evident with its keen optimism, but unique with its array of instruments borrowed from Memorial University's school of music, ones seldom or never used in the band's repertoire.

The song was co-written in Nashville with Grammy winner Gordie Sampson several years ago, says Doyle, but was given new musical nativity for inclusion on "Fortune's Favour."

"When I was in high school I played percussion in the high school band so I learned how to play bells ... and vibraphone and all that kind of stuff, and I'd never done it on a Great Big Sea record but we (thought) it might be kind of cool to have a semi-orchestral feel to 'Walk on The Moon.'"

The album opens with "Love Me Tonight," Doyle's favourite song and one he hopes will become an interactive part of the band's live show.

"In a little writer's session one night we just started writing about the 10 minutes before a concert starts and that sort of nervous energy that drives us to be good," explains Doyle. "And it's always been because I'm so shit-baked to suck," he adds jokingly.

The band also stretches its rock 'n' roll boundaries with "Oh Yeah," a song Doyle claims is "all my fault."

"We could have put a song like that on a record six years ago, but we just figured we couldn't because it wouldn't fit or whatever," he explains. "But Hawksley couldn't give a shit about that kind of thing. He's just like, 'Well, if you're doin' it, do it.' So it's basically my desire to be in an '80s hair-metal band, rearing it's head after years of suppression."

Fans of 2005's "The Hard and The Easy" or the band's earlier traditional recordings should pay particular attention to the re-make of the 19th century composition "Banks of Newfoundland" and the band's version of "Rocks of Merasheen," penned by late Newfoundland poet Al Pittman in the 1970s.

"England" is so good "a lot of people ... think it's a tradition song," says Doyle, branding McCann's traditional-sounding number as a masterpiece. "But Sean wrote that on the bus in North Carolina about 10 months ago."

The song addresses the circumstances of early settlers in New-foundland and how they must have felt not knowing if they would ever return to their families.

"Company of Fools," a song Doyle wrote with actor and friend Russell Crowe, showcases another of his hidden talents.

"I play piano on that track," he says, pausing, "and I'm the shittiest piano player alive," he laughs. "But we wanted to give it that circus feel and marching band of crazy people kind of (feeling). If you plan that, then it sucks.

"I think if we had had a real piano player play on (that song) it wouldn't have been as good, cause it wouldn't have been bad enough."

"Here and Now," with Doyle on lead vocals, is worthy of mention and may be a prospect for a future radio single.

McCann, with the help of tunesmith Chris Trapper, offers up the song perhaps most deserving of attention, "Dream to Live," a number, according to the album's press kit, he wrote about his great uncle John over several pints of beer on St. Patrick's day in Boston.

"Many immigration stories were told that day and this was my contribution," he explains.

By and large, "Fortune's Favour" may be the record Great Big Sea didn't plan, but ironically the one most likely to unite followers of their traditional, folk and pop eras.

It's a collection of old sounds, and even more so, a new one.

The Workman-G.B.S. co-operative was one few might have ever predicted, but it worked and may have longer implications with the band's musical boundaries.

"(Spontaneity) is something, to be honest with you, I don't think Great Big Sea did very often. It served us very well that we're kind of warriors. We're planners. We consider and reconsider and second guess," explains Doyle. "And that attitude in the business of our career has served us very well, but it doesn't always serve you that well when you're in the studio making a record. Hawksley taught us that our instincts are really good and that we don't need to worry nearly as much as we normally do about the music we're making."

Organizations: Great Big Sea

Geographic location: St. John's, Toronto, Nashville Newfoundland Merasheen England North Carolina Boston

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Recent comments

  • Ed
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    These guys are so over rated. All polish and no substance. I would say Newfoundland music for mainlanders but that would be false as the Newfoundland part is negligible. They sold out long ago. Give me Ron Hynes and Colleen Power any day.

  • Not a fan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    GBS ranks up there as one of the worst banfs ever. The singer has the most grating voice ever - like fingernails on a chalkboard. But yet he thinks he is the next big thing.
    GBS needs to get over themselves and realize they are just a cover band. I am surprised they made it past the karaoke...

  • Ted
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    Ed,

    You are absolutely RIGHT. They did sell out. They sold out arenas and venues across country to they point that they are a household names across most of Canada. Not saying that they didn't change their sound to sell a few more records and to get more notoriety, but if you have been to a GBS concert in recent years, you would of realized they are as good or better entertainers now then they have ever been. Granted, they are not the best musicians or the best singers I've heard to come out of the rock. But they are GREAT entertainers, on par with any other musical group across they country.

    They have taken Newfoundland music, and have turned it into their own unique sound, that will likely influence many more Newfoundland musicians in years to come. Bands should evolve, and change their style from time to time. That doesn't make them sell outs, that makes them musicians and artists. Think of all the records that would never be if bands didn't experiment (no Pet Sounds, no Sgt Pepper, no American Idiot, the list goes on).

    There is a saying Go big or go home. Great Big Sea went BIG (Most overrated bands don't have 9 platinum and 4 gold records in their trophy case).

    To quote Stan Lee, Nuff said.

  • Mick
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    Success doesn't equal selling out Mr. Ed.

  • Not a fan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:16

    Ted - I don't agree with you but you said this... if you have been to a GBS concert in recent years, you would of realized they are as good or better entertainers now then they have ever been.

    Would 'of' realized? Really? Don't you mean would 'have' realized? And if you are comparing their entertainer status to what is was before then you would use the word 'than' not ' then'.

    Carry on.

  • Ed
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    These guys are so over rated. All polish and no substance. I would say Newfoundland music for mainlanders but that would be false as the Newfoundland part is negligible. They sold out long ago. Give me Ron Hynes and Colleen Power any day.

  • Not a fan
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    GBS ranks up there as one of the worst banfs ever. The singer has the most grating voice ever - like fingernails on a chalkboard. But yet he thinks he is the next big thing.
    GBS needs to get over themselves and realize they are just a cover band. I am surprised they made it past the karaoke...

  • Ted
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    Ed,

    You are absolutely RIGHT. They did sell out. They sold out arenas and venues across country to they point that they are a household names across most of Canada. Not saying that they didn't change their sound to sell a few more records and to get more notoriety, but if you have been to a GBS concert in recent years, you would of realized they are as good or better entertainers now then they have ever been. Granted, they are not the best musicians or the best singers I've heard to come out of the rock. But they are GREAT entertainers, on par with any other musical group across they country.

    They have taken Newfoundland music, and have turned it into their own unique sound, that will likely influence many more Newfoundland musicians in years to come. Bands should evolve, and change their style from time to time. That doesn't make them sell outs, that makes them musicians and artists. Think of all the records that would never be if bands didn't experiment (no Pet Sounds, no Sgt Pepper, no American Idiot, the list goes on).

    There is a saying Go big or go home. Great Big Sea went BIG (Most overrated bands don't have 9 platinum and 4 gold records in their trophy case).

    To quote Stan Lee, Nuff said.

  • Mick
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    Success doesn't equal selling out Mr. Ed.

  • Not a fan
    July 01, 2010 - 19:56

    Ted - I don't agree with you but you said this... if you have been to a GBS concert in recent years, you would of realized they are as good or better entertainers now then they have ever been.

    Would 'of' realized? Really? Don't you mean would 'have' realized? And if you are comparing their entertainer status to what is was before then you would use the word 'than' not ' then'.

    Carry on.