North Country Fair has been given many titles: home, hippy paradise, Alberta’s Woodstock. It’s a rare festival that has been running for 40-odd years with no known intention of slowing down and it’s a place that Canada’s glam rock/cabaret troubadour Hawksley Workman has yet to visit.
“I keep hearing that North Country is totally magic,” Workman says. “I’m really getting excited. I pour my guts out into the live shows and I’m bringing my piano player and it’s going to be a little bit cabaret and a little theatrical, but really it’s songwriter music with a bit of extra something. Knowing that this is a very spiritual place, we’re really going to plug into that energy.”
It’s the perfect time for Workman to visit the fair. He released his 14th album Median Age Wasteland—a collection of songs ripe with nostalgia and singer songwriter ballads—this past February and it’s safe to say he’s still feeling sentimental for a simpler and perhaps more innocent time.
“I’ve had a pretty interesting career and I’m still the kind of person who likes to write from personal experience and the world has changed an awful lot,” Workman says. “In the 1980s, when I was a kid, I think we were under the impression that the future had arrived. Flash forward a few decades and that all seems kind of archaic now.”
It’s a thought that Workman—now 44—has been wrestling with, and it led him to create some of his most personal songs yet.
“There was a lovely innocence back in the ’80s but there was always a constant threat of nuclear war with Gorbachev and Reagan … You know, bombs being dropped at any moment. So looking back, I think I want to understand why that time felt so innocent compared to the times we’re living in right now,” he says.
That need for understanding allowed Workman to create “Battlefords,” an instant Canadian classic that has him reminiscing about his youth in rural Ontario while a jangly guitar line leads the lyrical flow.
“I think in my career I’ve had three or four songs that are airtight great and ‘Battlefords’ is one of them. I wanted that rambling storytelling feeling to be accompanied by a little bit of a risky melody. It’s very wandering and there’s a lot to observe as a listener,” Workman says. “At times it is a play-by-play of some of the most prominent memories I have from where I grew up in rural Ontario.”
Another gem is the song “Snowmobile,” a little tune that recounts when Workman was spellbound all winter by an antique snowmobile.
“Back when I was living on the 50-acre farm property in Ontario, I bought an antique Ski-Doo. I started to drive it—having never driven one before—and I realized that ‘This thing is going to kill me.’ So I decided I would only Ski-Doo very slowly and methodically through these backwoods by my house,” Workman laughs.
But something enchanting, almost right out of a fantasy novel, happened. Animals started to make their homes on the paths Workman and his steed ploughed through the snow.
“Like all of the animals—foxes, deer, partridges, the porcupines—they would all rather be on packed down snow instead of having to trudge through three feet of snow,” he says. “So I saw life and death on this snowmobile trail every day. I saw birds get killed by coyotes and that’s all in the song.”
It’s one story of many that Workman is excited to share during his performance at North Country this year on Friday, June 21.
Workman is the kind of guy that can get a crowd chanting and cheering random phrases of poetic verse. Just check out The God That Comes. He’s a musician that never does anything twice so expect an eclectic arrangement of music and theatrics.
“If you’re not going out to the field then you’re not getting fed,” Workman says. “With songwriting, you’re rewarded by your faith in repetition and practice and set up to be a special conduit. At least, that’s my freaky take on it.”
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