Hawksley Workman

Pop star in waiting prepares for his closeup


HAWKSLEY WORKMAN at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Tuesday (March 6), two shows, 8:30 and 10 pm. $15/door only. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN


for a guy talented enough to draw lofty, if limiting, comparisons to Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley and David Bowie and still be singled out as an original, Hawksley Workman peddles his eccentricities like a guy in need of a gimmick.

Things like using an improbable stage name and convincing an entire nation of journalists that he was once a custodian at a tap dancing academy — as Workman did last fall in England — are the hallmarks of former Whitesnake tribute band singers, not genuine articles.

And don’t ask him specifics about growing up as one Ryan Corrigan in Huntsville with his hairdresser/fine artist mom, amateur drummer/Bell Canada worker dad and his younger brother, Aaron, even if his career trajectory was foreshadowed by his teenage pursuits in the Muskoka town.

Almost nothing about the unapologetically flamboyant Workman is quite as it seems, save maybe his distinctive talent and the fact that he appears to be on the cusp of enormous international stardom. Workman is, to use handy parlance, the it boy of the moment.

On both his electrifying debut, 99’s For Him And the Girls, and his swaggering follow-up, (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves — out Tuesday and feted with two Rivoli performances that night — the Toronto-based musician emerges as a kind of mad scientist.

He writes songs, self-produces, plays virtually everything, then sheds his studio skin to perform with the razzle-dazzle (and wardrobe) of a vaudevillian stoked on half a jug of hooch. And then there’s his singing.

Equal parts silk and rubber band, Workman’s voice might have given yodelling a good name were he not also so adept at howling, growling and shaking cobwebs out of ceiling corners like a soprano ripping through Aida.

Still, his music, for all its tics and right angles, is essentially pop. Theatrical, scribbly, byzantine pop, sure, but pop nonetheless, and therefore accessible.

OK, so maybe he’s not the foppish romantic his fictional love letters to his fictional muse, Isadora, suggested. They ran, infamously, as part of a teaser campaign prefacing his debut and will soon be released in book form — with illustrations by his mom, Beverley — by Gutter Press. But his music is a legitimate story on its own. Why all the red herrings?

Not surprisingly, Workman, who in person is slightly wiggy but sweet, counters with a simple, Why not?

Those who knew him as a kid confirm that Ryan Corrigan/Hawksley Workman was always determined to make music his life.

“I started playing drums at 10 or 11 and decided at that time that I wanted to be a really fantastic drummer and I wanted a studio. Those goals have never changed,” Workman says over Mexican just prior to a return visit to England, where critical reaction to his debut has been ecstatic.

“Usually there’s a reality check somewhere, but I’ve worked hard and I’m really good at it.”

There’s a queue of folks to back up his boast, among them Wayne Morris. The amateur musician based in Port Sydney, near Huntsville, frequently tapped the teenage Workman to play pickup in the Wayne Morris Band.

“Ryan was ideal because he could play anything,” he says. “I remember one night I was at a gig, ready to go, and the bass player didn’t show up. So I’m phoning around frantically and I got hold of Ryan, who was there in, like, 20 minutes. And he arrived with bass guitar in hand.

“Even then Ryan was very persistent about writing and performing his own music. You’ve got to give him his due.”

That sentiment is seconded by Casey Clarkson. The former Huntsville resident, now a biology student at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University, took a year of drum lessons from Workman at around age 13, in 94.

“The lessons happened at his house,” she recalls. “He was a pretty big personality in the community, and my mom set me up with him. Once a week I’d have to jump over the cats and weave my way around the laundry to get up to his attic for my lessons.

“It always felt like we spent more time talking than practising, because he was such a funny guy, so personable. Despite the age gap, he always treated me as an equal.”

Although Workman claims he didn’t truly find himself musically until his debut record, it wasn’t for lack of trying. In addition to playing gigs regionally and tutoring, he was writing in earnest as early as high school.

Tom Clark, head of student services and Workman’s former guidance counsellor, says, “We had a program here at that time called the Black Hole Cabaret.

“Every week we’d have lunchtime performances, and at month’s end we’d pick the best 20 and put them on the stage in the evening for public approval. We’d fill the gym. Ryan was one of our stars.”

In fact, several of Workman’s compositions from that time made it into rotation on community radio station 105.5 MORE FM, including one called — wait for it — Earth Mama.

Confirms Mike Mason, music director and morning man at the 5,000-watt station, “Ryan wrote the theme song that we use to this day on our weekly Huntsville High School Show,” a variety program that puts local students at the controls for a half-hour each week. According to Mason, “Ryan was a part of that show about six years ago for one semester,” and he describes the theme music as “wild.”

“The first song I recorded for my first record — which didn’t even make the cut — was monumental,” says Workman, who admits he grew up thinking he was “fat, ugly and stupid.” But he bloomed at 22. “All of a sudden I was exactly myself. I recognized my aesthetic.

“Now I find that washing the dishes and taking baths are the best times to write. I really took to dishwashing during a particularly cold winter. I loved having my hands submersed in hot water.

“I’d run the water as hot as I could and wear rubber gloves. That was phenomenal.” The best song he ever wrote while washing the dishes? “I don’t remember. I never remember writing songs.”

Workman may shine as a songwriter, singer and performer, but he’s an equally proficient producer. It’s reasonable to assume that those who enlist him do so not only because they instantly have access to a one-man band, but also because of his pitch-perfect ear and blooming industry cachet.

Notable credits so far include Calgary folk sisters Tegan & Sara and, most recently, Toronto singer/songwriter Sarah Slean, who cut her forthcoming major-label debut with Workman late last year at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York.

Slean admits her label, Atlantic — which had signed her to a development deal in 98 — wasn’t exactly giddy at the notion of a complete unknown shepherding their artist.

“They were, like, “Hawksley who? What crack are you smoking?'” But a compromise was reached when Slean agreed to work with a name engineer, Cliff Norrell (REM, Jayhawks, Replacements), in a name studio.

“Hawksley made me feel plugged- in,” Slean enthuses. “He speaks in metaphors that, in a strange way, are actually clearer than normal language.

“He’d say something like, “For this part I want you to think of a little girl in pigtails who’s about to encounter a drunk French guy with a Marlboro in his mouth.’ He’d illustrate it, I’d get it, and that’s the way I ended up playing it.”

“I feel very lucky that people are genuinely appreciative of what I’m doing,” Workman says. “It can be a frustrating thing trying to make a product that is unlike all the other products out there that are selling millions of copies. I’ve been able to play sold-out shows across this country, and people have written nice things about them afterward.

“I don’t need to sell a million records. I’ve already sold a million in my heart.” *

kimhu@nowtoronto.com

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