An Evening With Sarah Slean and Hawksley Workman
When you’ve spent an entire career establishing your reputation as a unique solo artist, the thought of collaboration might seem daunting and counter-productive. However, for friends Sarah Slean and Hawksley Workman, nothing seemed more natural. It was Workman, afterall, who Slean hand-picked to co-produce her breakthrough major label debut, Night Bugs, back in 2002. This despite the fact Workman was only three years into his own career, launched in 1999 with the album, For Him and The Girls.
Over the years, the pair have carved out their own individual paths: Slean making 11 albums and performing with 10 of Canada’s leading orchestras, Workman releasing over a dozen records and emerging as a masterful songwriter, drummer, guitarist and producer of artists from Tegan and Sara to Great Big Sea. Now, Slean and Workman have collaborated on a new EP, “These Two,” and released a brand new original 80s-flavoured composition, “Wound You,” both of which will be showcased on their current tour of Ontario. March 4th, “An Evening With Sarah Slean and Hawksley Workman” rolls into the FirstOntario PAC for a performance filled with music from both artist catalogues, plenty of storytelling and lots of heartfelt comradery. Both took time to chat with GoBeWeekly about their upcoming tour.
GoBe: I’m intrigued by the line in your press materials that said, “In some incarnation, these two shared a womb.” That’s a rather telling statement in regards to your creative symbiosis. Has it always been that way since the day you met?
HAWKSLEY: I feel like it kind of has. When I think of Sarah, I think of a time in the Toronto music scene in the late 80s/early 90s when songwriting was really burgeoning and there was a big community of songwriters. People were really pushing for each other back then and I think Sarah and I felt a kinship to each other’s bookish tendencies. We had a similar narrative we wanted to express.
GoBe: Did you know each other before you came together to co-produce Sarah’s first major release, Night Bugs?
Sarah: We met during that really special time when everyone was going to each other’s show and everyone bought everyone else’s record. We were all interested in the work everyone was doing. I remember getting Hawksley’s first record and thinking, ‘who is this creature,’ then going to see his show. I felt I finally found someone who had the same artistic lineage. He wasn’t like anyone else, a true original, and that really delighted me, because that’s how I viewed myself.
GoBe: How did he wind up in the producer role on that album given his own relatively short experience.
Sarah: It was crazy around my first record, because I was 19 and they gave me a lot of breathing room. They said, ‘think about who you want to work with.’ I said ‘it’s got to be Hawksley Workman.’ They were freaked out by that, because they wanted me to use someone from Los Angeles, someone established, someone older with a kind of big career behind them. I was like, ‘no no no.’ I said this is the guy. I remember so clearly. I went to his basement apartment and we recorded two songs in a matter of hours and I was like, this is how I want it to go. When Atlantic heard those demos their skepticism kind of vanished.
HAWKSLEY: Did it really vanish?
SARAH: I think Atlantic was worried because it was their investment and there was a lot of money involved. But my favourite story around that is, we recorded the single, one of the demos called “Sweet Ones.” We recorded it with all the big Atlantic money, all the equipment and the big studio and the engineer, all these top players. In the end, we put the demo version on the album, the one we did in the basement, and it became the radio single. I wasn’t imagining it. We had an interesting chemical reaction between us.
HAWSLEY: In some ways, we were in the infancy of our indie mindset back then. I remember talking to your A&R person and saying that if we did it in the basement we could cut costs, not even realizing the kind of money they were going to spend on the record. The experience of making Night Bugs was the greatest recording experience of my life. We were out in Todd Rundgren’s old studio in upstate New York. We spent a month in the A room. We mixed the record for two or three weeks in Los Angeles in the same studio Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys) was recorded in.
SARAH: With Rick Ocasek and Weezer down the hall!
HAWKSLEY: That’s a rarified moment that will never happen again. I’m glad we went and did it. It was sort of a delicious poetry when the demo version came out as the single and did so well.
GoBe: Well, hopefully lightning can strike again. You’ve got the new EP out this week. Has this project been on the back burner for a while, or was it a sudden epiphany that you two should be recording something?
SARAH: That’s a good question. I don’t really remember the genesis of it. Hawksley is such a road warrior, he tours relentlessly. I tour less relentlessly now I work with orchestras and string quartets and chamber music people doing the multi-disciplinary things. I said I probably won’t go on the road again unless it’s a labour of love, something I’m totally invested in, it’s a great hang and it’s music I care about. When we suggested we make a recording, I was like, ‘of course!’ It was a no brainer for me.
GoBe: When the two of you hit the stage, and share that organic back and forth banter during performance, are you discovering new things, are you learning more about each other? Is it cathartic in any way?
SARAH: It’s funny you say that. I always find when Hawk and I get together to work it feels like nothing has changed and no time has passed. When we get together we wind up talking a blue streak for hours and hours and hours. Right now I’ve kind of accepted that that’s part of the process. It’s what we do. We want to talk about art. We want to talk about the way the world is changing. We want to talk about what an artist’s role is. We go there immediately. We don’t spend much time in the small talk arena, we go into the big matters and I think that just speaks to exactly what we’re about. We come from a place where art making was really woven into those questions. I love that it’s 20 years later, and when we get together to work it’s kind of the same thing, big discussions
GoBe: Given that familiarity with each other, it would seem that you both might be better suited to asking the questions you want answered. Why don’t you play journalist and do my job for me.
SARAH: (Laughing) Hawksley?
HAWKSLEY: I’ve been listening almost exclusively to Sarah’s music the last month. I want to have it inside of me, because I’m going to be playing drums a lot on this tour, singing and playing drums, and I want to be a good and reliable side person for the gig. So what would I ask? When we are together we crack ourselves open immediately. Anything considered deep, we’re puking out to each other, so I don’t even know what to ask her.
SARAH: We’ve both kind of answered it all over and over again. I feel like Hawksley is not a mystery to me in any way as an artist. I feel like I know his catalogue so well. I feel like I know him.
GoBe: I can see that. Hawksley’s an open book on stage, having seen him many times at Jackson Triggs.
HAWKSLEY: Well, Jackson Triggs does a lot to help with that mood. They’ve got all that wine there.
GoBe: You’re coming to St. Catharines as part of the tour for the new EP. It features new material, including the great single, “Wound You.” But it also includes some very iconic covers, including Blue Rodeo’s “Lost Together.” Are there any fears or challenges in attempting to cover such classic and beloved tunes?
SARAH: That was a no brainer too. Blue Rodeo have become synonymous with Ontario summers for me, but they’re also one of the most helpful bands, always inviting young songwriters to open for them and giving so many artists a break, the break that made them has a career. We both know Jim Cuddy very well, he’s as nice as he seems.
HAWKSLEY: I think too, the corollary of it is, the better the song is, the easier it is to drape it with whatever you want to drape it in. The math and the symmetry of the song is so airtight, it makes it easy to cover it. I guess what you’re alluding to is if there is a risk of making such a terrible cover that’s it’s not even worthy of the original. We sent this to Jim and he thought it was pretty good. And we went with Canadian songs particularly for this.
GoBe: The EP is being released this week. For established artists like the two of you, what’s the mindset leading up to a release. Any anxiousness, any sigh of relief, a realization that now the real work begins as you tour, or is it just business as usual?
SARAH: I’m looking forward to being on stage. I’ve never been a side person ever, or been in a band per se. It’s always been me, working with other musicians on my music. It’s going to be so fun digging into someone else’s songs and fun to play that role on stage.
GoBe: So for the show March 4th, what can we expect to see on stage. You’re like siblings so there will be no arguing.
HAWKSLEY: We might argue.
SARAH: There will be some swiping, no doubt. It’s going to be exactly as he mentioned, a great feeling on community, the four of us on stage, sharing a lot of goodwill. I feel our audiences do overlap. Hopefully a lot of laughs, a lot of music, a lot of loyal fans who remember those early songs.
Listen to the new single: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS5cTRfBEtA
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