We’ve made many references in this blog to the Blue Rodeo concert at the Sanderson Centre in Brantford, ON, that we attended back in September 2016. For Team GDW, this was a turning point in our concert-going adventures, as we not only had great front row seats, but thanks to the generosity of the volunteers and management at this venue, we were able to meet both Jim Cuddy and Glenn Milchem from Blue Rodeo. The evening also introduced us to the amazing Ron Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins, who opened the show and set the tone for what would be a fantastic night of music. With an awesome set performed by Ron Hawkins, we also appreciated the opportunity to meet him during the intermission. After leaving the Sanderson Centre that evening, we wanted to do more to share our passion for this music than simply post a few pictures on social media, and shortly afterwards, “Great Dark Wonder” was born.
Team GDW recently reached out to Ron Hawkins, and are both thrilled and grateful to have an exclusive interview with this very talented singer-songwriter and musician. Fresh from his Western Canada tour in support of Blue Rodeo, Ron took the time to answer a few questions about his musical influences, his most recent album release, the tour and his plans for 2017.
As Canadian music fans living in the US, we only discovered your music and vast back catalogue recently. How would you describe your style and sound to new listeners?
My sound has certainly changed over 35 years of songwriting. I started out as a punk and new wave artist with a politically focused lyrical bent. And in the intervening years I’ve experimented with folk, punk infused blues and swing, roots and country stuff and wider sonic soundscapes that are almost like soundtracks to a movie that doesn’t exist. The through line seems to be that my lyrical conceit is always toward autobiographical or semi-autobiographical lyrics. People compel me and their stories are infinitely interesting
With 25+ years of professional music on your resume, from whom did you draw inspiration to be a musician? Who were your original influences, and who still inspires your creativity today?
I guess it would’ve started with some of the usual suspects – The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Queen, Led Zeppelin etc. I used to listen to the Beach Boys in the car on the way to the cottage when I was 7 and 8 years old. The whole family would sing and try to choose different harmonies etc. So I chalk my musical ear up to some of those early spontaneous music lessons. And of course the Beatles for song structure and hooks and vocal harmonies too. That stuff seeps into your brain and if you decide to go that route it’s like an impromptu college of music. Later, as I became a more sentient and political being, I became interested in the punk scene and especially politically motivated punk bands like The Clash. Those musical and lyrical early heroes formed me and are still present in everything I write.
2016 was a creative year for you with the release of “Spit Sputter and Sparkle,” and subsequent promotional tour. How fulfilling is it for you to share the hard work and new material on the road with your fans, both new and old?
Well it’s the ultimate artistic fulfillment really. It’s one thing to toil away in your basement studio, or write songs in a hotel room – and don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely my first biggest critic and probably my first fan – but you can’t make art in a vacuum. If there is no interaction, no critique and no feedback loop of energy from other humans, then it is just masturbation really. What’s the point of art if not to communicate with other people?
For me, the standout track on the album is “Chrome”. “You’re the ghost with a thousand lonely names” is a fascinating line. What was your inspiration for this particular track?
Well again it’s the story of a person and how they deal with the world and how their interaction with the world strikes them emotionally. This song was set off by a friend of mine who is going through some hard times. But then I brought in aspects of things that have happened to me and others I know. As I was saying autobiography is always a certain kind of fiction, and fiction always contains elements of autobiography so you come out the other end with a story based on a lot of components. If it’s good writing it will resonate because it’s universal somehow – everyone recognizes a bit of themselves or someone they know in it.
Both “Strum and Drag” and “Sweet simple life” have some unique and wonderfully crafted musical arrangements that are definitely outside of the proverbial box. Do you approach your songwriting with a particular sound in mind, or does the music follow your lyrics?
There is no rhyme or reason at all. Or at least there is no preconceived template I use. Sometimes lyrics come first, sometimes it’s just a title or phrase, but most often I mess around with chords and sing gibberish over it till I stumble on a melody or a phrase. As I said, my grounding is in melodic pop so that informs most of what I do but with so many years of songwriting I also like to add odd phrasings, or time signature changes or just things I think will be fun and interesting little puzzles or playful left turns. Maybe that’s where the outside the box arrangement aspects come from.
You’ve just completed your full Western Canada tour in support of Blue Rodeo. How did it feel to share your new material with the audiences out West?
That tour was a blast! First off as the opener we’re not really responsible for putting bums in seats and your set is usually much shorter than usual so we were able to just go in there every night, no hassles, and just BAM!, lay it on the crowd, with a 35 minute set of powerful stuff. Great to be out west again as well and see old friends and make some new ones.
Are there any tales or observations from these shows that stood out in particular for you and the Do Good Assassins?
When you tour across Canada in January there are nothing but “tales”! It involves a lot of serious weather situations, zero visibility driving, fishtailing, moose, and sub-zero temperatures. Our van died outside the hotel in Brandon, Manitoba (minus 43 degrees!), and we raced through the blizzard filled Rocky Mountains in our Sprinter van trying to keep up with the Blue Rodeo buses. To some bands that may seem like hardship but for the right group of people it becomes a challenge and a professional badge of honour to make it to every show on time and to kill it every night. Luckily for me the DGA are just such a band. The camaraderie has never been higher.
Ending your current tour at Massey Hall must have felt like the ultimate homecoming party for you. How special is it for you to play this historic venue again in front of your hometown fans?
Well any time I get to play for that many fans (hometown or not) I’m first off struck by how blessed I am to have had this childhood dream of mine realized. I mean this is my JOB! How cool is that? As for Massey Hall, though it’s an honour and a great old hall I still have enough punk rock teenager in me to not be too impressed by it all. It’s a “soft seater” and to be honest I still feel most suited to sweaty rock clubs. I like the energy and the pit and the vibe of a place like “Lee’s Palace” much more than the theatre circuit. “We’re a garage band… we come from garage land.”
I’m sure you are ready to unwind for a short while now. Any plans to headline a tour of your own later this year?
No unwinding for this guy. I come off the DGA tour to jump back into the studio and finish a “Lowest of the Low” record slated to be released in May or June. Then it’ll be back out on the road with the Low with what I promise will be an energetic show.
We’d love to see you south of the border, and your music would be well received down here. Any desire to spread your wings beyond Canada?
Well, over the years I have been able to get to the States on numerous tours. We have made Buffalo and environs a second home, and have toured down the west coast and shown up in NYC, Chicago, Cleveland etc. on occasion. A lot of bands in Canada are talking about not coming down what with the historically unprecedented sideshow that has accompanied the latest POTUS. But I feel like we owe it to each other to stick together – those of us who believe in people, community and a future that includes some compassion and commitment to raise each other up and bring out the best in ourselves. I feel like music is particularly well suited for that job.
Artist photo credit: Lisa MacIntosh