With her new album, “The Workingman’s Blues,” singer/songwriter Kat Goldman is stretching into deep and occasionally dark waters: the plight of the working class in the United States. For obvious reasons (Team GDW being based in the US), this is of particular interest to us and when I saw the topic of the project, I was eager to hear how she would tackle it, especially in the current political climate.
The result of her work is a beautiful, evocative portrait of the life of a workingman as seen through the eyes (and songs) of a female narrator. Even better from my perspective is the deep rooting of the music in 70s pop music – the influences of artists such as Carole King and Carly Simon are clearly evident.
When I initially listened to the album, I inadvertently set the player to shuffle mode, and so the album’s closer, “Don’t Know Where I’m Bound,” was the first I heard, and the first with which I fell in love. Its strong piano chords and Kat’s plaintive declaration that she’s returning to Canada, for parts and a future unknown, are an utter delight to hear. (And the desire to go to Canada is certainly one with which I can empathize.)
The actual opening song, “Take It Down the Line,” is a deceptively gentle ballad that places the listener firmly into the story of the narrator as she travels, carrying the burden of her past. And if the next song, “Release Me,” doesn’t carry you back to the late 1970s with its driving beat and “doot doot” background vocals, I don’t know what will!
Every song on the album could conceivably be considered a highlight; some of my favorites include “Put Your Toolbox Down,” a haunting song about the workingman’s frustration boiling over when it shouldn’t (and the narrator’s attempts to calm the storm), and the fabulous piano ballad “South Shore Man.”
Concept albums like this one can be tricky to pull off, but Kat Goldman does so beautifully here. The project succeeds not only musically but also as a story, and I challenge any listener not to come away from it moved and thoughtful.
We’re so pleased that Kat was able to talk with us about the album.
As someone whose musical tastes have remained rooted in 1970s pop/rock, I felt immediately at home from the first few bars of the first track. You’ve mentioned you were listening to a lot of 1970s music as you were working on this project – was there something specific that drew you to that decade, for this set of songs?
I guess I sort of feel “at home” with the decade of the seventies in general. The seventies was my childhood, and it made a deep impression on me- it was a relaxed, laid-back time, with my mother walking around in bell-bottom blue jeans and drinking coffee with her friends in the kitchen. She used to play “Tapestry” By Carole King, and lots of Simon and Garfunkel, so I’ve always gravitated to this music. When I was writing these songs, I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, and the Stones. I was sort of fulfilling a lifelong dream writing this album in that I‘ve always wanted to sing classic rock n’ roll, with a dirty seventies rock n’ roll feel. I tried to do things vocally to emanate these sounds, and write melodies that were fun for me to sing. I wanted to stretch myself more into a rock n’ roll sound and less of a folk coffee house sound. I wanted these songs to be BIG.
In the final track (“Don’t Know Where I’m Bound”), you sing about “saying goodbye to that American dream.” You lived in the US for several years – how did actually living here change your perception of the US, if at all?
I had the great pleasure of living in America for almost ten years of my adult life, and most of that time I lived in Cambridge. If you’ve been to Cambridge, you pick up that it’s its own little universe- there is nowhere like it. Such a cast of characters, so many interesting people- from the academics at places like Harvard, to the homeless on the corner of Central Square. It is a small city, with a small town feel, that is made up of extremes- white and black, rich and poor, the elite versus the Massachusetts working class. Living there I began to learn how deep are the problems they have in the U.S. I met a lot of different kinds of people in my own neighborhood, and heard many stories that revealed a very dark underbelly: addicts, the homeless, ex-veterans who had been abandoned, ex-convicts, and at the same time, academics who had been to Yale, Oxford, Harvard, MIT, professors, and students.
I think I went down there with my own kind of “American Dream”: that I would marry an American guy, get a job, and have the freedom to live anywhere I wanted in the country. But once I finished school, I could no longer keep my U.S. Visa, and so I had to come home to Toronto- also because my relationship with The Workingman didn’t work out. I left the U.S. right before Trump got elected. I had been through the Boston Marathon bombing, and was watching continued new stories about gun violence massacres, and also video footage of American cops shooting and killing innocent blacks. I watched The Black Lives Matter start to come up. There is a lot to take in there, and a lot of eye opening things that begin to make you question your own assumptions- it begins to re-create you in a way- it makes you tougher. It made me tougher, in the best way possible. But it was a kind of reality that was hard to face.
Cambridge will always hold a very dear place in my heart, and I hope to visit often. I feel like I still have some kind of unfinished business there, I just don’t know what that it just yet. I think that ultimately I realized I was not as safe there as I would be in Canada, that I would have more community in Toronto, especially around music, and of course my family is in Toronto. I feel like I have two sides- my American side and my Canadian self. I think this album reflects the person I changed into while living in the U.S. all those years.
Although the stated theme of the album is the story of a man trying to overcome a lot of obstacles, it also is the story of the narrator, who is left behind. So many relationships end not because one or the other partner wants it to end, but because too much life gets in the way. For people like your characters, how can they succeed in spite of such challenges?
I guess the “tragedy” of the characters in this album, is that their relationship is doomed from the beginning, all because they come from different worlds, different social classes. The narrator falls in love with a complicated young man from a tough working-class background. He has no faith in himself. Despite her love and support, he keeps reverting to that hard luck guy. Their struggles, set to music, is her pain at not being able to hold him up to what he can achieve – she is unable to convince him of what he can achieve. There is a sorrow over the loss of what they could have had as a couple.
There’s a line in “Put Your Toolbox Down” that really struck me – “don’t give me that frown / cause it feels like I’m walking on eggshells again / the company is coming and the neighbors can hear…” As I heard that, I was thinking about how the smallest things can set people off (usually at precisely the wrong time), but also about how it can be so hard to muster the energy to communicate after a long day of work. As a songwriter, how do you take small vignettes like this – fairly ordinary events – and turn them into songs?
I like the image of the toolbox. It came from real life. The workingman would come home at the end of the day and would carry his big heavy toolbox in from the car and place it down on the floor. The song is meant to shed light on domestic violence. It’s really about a woman who is living with a man with a bad temper. The littlest thing could make him go off. She is trying to calm him down, so as to avoid an argument. This is commonplace for them at the end of his hard day’s work, when he’d come tired and hungry. I heard the line “C’mon Baby, C’mon home and put your toolbox down,” as a phrase and liked it, because it also felt funny. It really is hellish to live with a man whose temper can erupt at any moment.
In the press materials, you said, “Through people I got to know, I learned a lot about the rage and resentment that exists in America.” What causes this rage and resentment, do you think? Is there a comparable level of resentment in Canada?
I personally have not come into a lot of people in Toronto that come from the level of poverty from which Harry came, and from where the workingman grew up.
I think the anger and resentment I experienced in the U.S. comes from layers upon layers and generation after generation of frustration in poor families that cannot reach the American dream, but instead are always struggling to make their bills. They feel resentment towards the wealthy elite. I feel this album captures the spirit of America right now. The workingman feels held down, and those who want to change that reality, are held back from doing so.
You have bosses who mistreat their workers, who cut back on their hours, and who don’t pay them for overtime. People are afraid to take a stand for themselves and form unions for fear of losing their jobs. Racism between blacks and whites is especially palpable in Boston, and I could always feel this tension.
What are your touring plans for the new album, if any?
My tour for “The Workingman’s Blues” is going to stay close to home in Toronto mainly. I was in an accident 13 years ago that left me with some chronic pain issues, so extensive touring/traveling is just not possible for me at this stage of my life. We’ve been working hard, making several music videos to present songs off the album online.