Photo by Ivan Otis.
While lots of people have attempted to characterize their frustration over our recent federal election, nobody sums things up quite as succinctly as singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman: “What a horrible waste of money on a poorly timed ego-wank.” Though the Huntsville native has achieved international fame over his decade-long music career, Workman is Canadian through and through. And a concerned Canadian at that. Workman spent the days leading up to the election touring around Ontario universities, appearing on campus radio stations in an effort to get more young voters out to the polls. After a whirlwind campaign which saw him visit eight institutions in four days, Workman is thankful to be back in Toronto with a moment to breathe as he gets ready to take the stage this Friday night at Massey Hall.
Whether he’s promoting voter turnout or Los Manlicious (his new album), Workman’s approach is much the same. Unlike the personas of so many rock stars, his honest, down-to-earth mentality ensures that he never elevates himself above his audience. Although he’s a little weary of being characterized as just another musician politician, his amicable nature makes him a good fit to connect with younger voters. Workman understands the irritation that can make people apathetic towards politics; it’s something he’s wrestled with himself: “Young people just see old white men bickering, and they’re immune. I was immune. I had never even voted until this election.”
While Workman characterizes past Canadian elections as the opportunity “to pick the least damaging devil,” to him there was something different at work in Stephen Harper’s recent campaign. “I saw such a bizarre and divisive approach. As a local Canadian touring the world, it’s terrifying that we’ve re-elected a prime minister who’s taking a page out of George Bush’s book. Harper does not represent the way the rest of the world sees Canadians.”
“It’s really confusing to me,” Workman admits. “Because the world is headed in the opposite direction.” Given Canada’s underwhelming electoral race and despondent voter turnout, the “Jealous of your Cigarette” singer freely admits that he is more than a little green with envy over the States’ changing political climate. As America’s international reputation seems ready to dust itself off from an eight-year trampling, Workman fears Canada’s identity may be set to lie down in its neighbour’s stead. He worries that “our country is being dragged back to a time when people were asking less questions.”
Workman’s recent voter turnout campaign may not have changed October’s results, but the tour (which included stops at the universities of Toronto, Guelph, and Waterloo), did give him the opportunity for an open dialogue with a wide cross-section of student voters. The top issues on students’ minds? “Definitely some of the more egregious social policies, especially the young offenders measures. People were also really miffed about the culture cuts.”
It’s this last policy which Workman finds particularly hard to swallow. While he’s certainly not the first performer to buck against Harper’s stance on the arts, it’s not even the artists that Workman is aghast for. Instead, he’s indignant on behalf of the “normal people,” the ones Harper sees as leading cultureless lives. “When that remarkable moment came when Harper decided he would separate artists from ‘real people,’ the artists went up in arms. But I’ve got to think that if I was an alleged ‘normal person,’ those would be fighting words too.”
While Workman feels some disillusionment about Canada’s current direction, he’s still much happier touring in his home country than anywhere else in the world. His voice electrifies when he talks about revisiting Toronto, a city he lived in for eleven years. “Even though when I’m here now I’m staying in hotels, I still feel at home.” He’s also thrilled to be playing his second show at Massey Hall, a stage he refers to as “the Carnegie Hall of Canada.” But even though Massey Hall is the venue he saw all of his idols play in growing up, Workman recognizes the fickleness of live performance: “You can have shitty shows in beautiful rooms, and beautiful shows in shitty rooms. There’s no predicting it.”
Perfect words to sum up Workman’s feelings on Canada’s current Conservative government: a shitty show in a beautiful room.
Lower photo by jbach from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.