Is Hawksley Workman too good to be true? At 26, the Canadian singer-songwriter has already drawn comparisons to figures like David Bowie and Tom Waits—for two self-produced albums on which he wrote all the songs and played virtually every instrument. London's influential Time Out magazine has called him "quite possibly the coolest thing to come out of Canada." His performances—daring theatricality mixed with shameless romanticism—have elicited the sort of reviews usually reserved for rock royalty. Then there's his wildly improbable name. Is it something he lifted out of Dickens, or from an old travelling medicine show? Until recently, Workman wasn't saying. He first popped up in 1999 with his passionate love letters to a woman named Isadora, published in the personal ads of two Toronto weeklies. Details about his life were scarce and farfetched -- like the biography that had him performing for the tap dance academy where he had worked as a caretaker, a fiction that was reprinted as fact in the British press.
Not surprisingly, that teasing has prompted closer scrutiny. Recently, Now, one of the Toronto papers where his letters appeared, ran a cover story on Workman—whose real name is Ryan Corrigan -- billed as “the untold story of music's next big thing." Through interviews with his high-school guidance counsellor and others, the article attempted to strip away the façade—like Toto pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz—to reveal Workman's roots in Huntsville, Ont., 215 km north of Toronto. While the story dispelled some of the mythology, it did nothing to diminish the magic of music that Britain's Mojo magazine has called “staggeringly impressive.”
Workman's debut album, 1999's For Him and the Girls, won acclaim for its exotic blend of glam rock and country-tinged numbers. His latest (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves, is likely to earn even greater accolades. Full of soaring songs about love and lust, from the provocative rock of Striptease, the album's first single, to the dizzying chaos of “Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off” and the swaggering cabaret of “Jealous of Your Cigarette,” it is more eccentric yet oddly more accessible than its predecessor. As if that weren't enough, the hyperactive artist also produces other musicians (Tegan and Sara, The Cash Brothers, Sarah Slean) and is about to become an author. Before his current 11-city Canadian tour concludes on May 5, Toronto's Gutter Press will publish Workman's collection of love letters, Hawksley Burns for Isadora, complete with erotic paintings by his mother.
Isadora doesn't actually exist. Workman invented her as his fictional muse, much the same way he created his stage persona by adopting his maternal grandfather's surname (Hawksley) and his maternal grandmother's maiden name (Workman). “I spent a good chunk of my life being hung up about sex and the way I looked,” explains Workman in an east-end Toronto café. “I wasn't obese, but I was the heavy kid in the class. And I was afraid that everything I was thinking about was perverted or awful.” Does he mind that some journalists have blown his cover? “I find it funny that people think I sat in the tub and masterminded this cunning deception, when all I've done is come up with a vehicle for expression. It's as simple as that.”
Well, not quite. It could be that Workman—the first of two sons born to Jeff Corrigan, a Bell Canada technician, and artist and former hairdresser Beverley Hawksley—also worried that his humble Huntsville background was too mundane for the pop world. Yet his real biography is far from boring. After learning to play percussion from his father, a weekend drummer in local bands, Ryan excelled in music and theatre, performing in various groups and stage productions. His mother, who now does all the artwork for his T-shirt merchandise and designed the nude silhouette logo for his label, Isadora Records, recalls that Ryan always had a strong presence. “He gave off an energy that made people view him as slightly unusual,” she says. “But he knew from the age of 12 that he wanted to be a musician, and I've been amazed at his consistent focus and risk-taking. One of his Grade 6 teachers wrote on his report card: ‘Never lose the dare to be different.’ And he never has.”
Maclean's April 21, 2001